So your friend, son, daughter, partner, employee, etc just told you that s/he’s transgender and suddenly a million questions rush into your head. “Is she serious?” “Did I fail as a parent?” “How do I talk to him without offending him?” “Does that make me a lesbian?” “Is this just a phase?” “What if she changes her mind?” (If you are a parent of a transgender person, you may want to look at the submissions from parents in our writing section.)
This section of the website is devoted to helping friends and family of transfolks. If you have things to add from your own experience, please email us; we want this to be a place for SOFFAs (Significant Others, Friends, Families, and Allies) to support each other in supporting our trans loved ones.
“But no one understands!”
While it may feel at first as though no one else understands or has experience with what you and your loved one are going through, you should know the truth that you are not alone. While many media sources cite rates of transexualism as very low (1 in 30,000 to 1 in 100,000) a look at the source of these estimates tells us that these figures are outdated and inaccurate. Some researchers have estimated that 1 in 500 people in the U.S. today have "intense transgender feelings." 1 in 500! That means there are enough trans people in the U.S to fill the Georgia Dome in Atlanta 8 times, more trans people than people who live in the entire state of Wyoming, and 30% more trans people than McDonald’s restaurant employees in the U.S. Chances are good there are people out there who have experienced some of things you are right now. (For more information on trans prevalence in the U.S. and around the world, we recommend checking out Lynn Conway’s website.
Contents of this Section:
One thing that can be confusing if your trans friend or family member is transitioning is knowing what pronouns to use when referring to her or him. The rule of thumb here is,
That’s right. If you’re unsure whether to use male or female pronouns, ask. They will let you know, and probably be glad you cared enough to ask. You might slip up once in a while and use their old pronoun, it’s okay. Just keep practicing and you’ll get used to it.
While there are no set rules for responding to someone who is coming out to you about their gender identity, we do think there are certain responses that tend to make a transperson feel judged instead of letting them know they are cared about. Here are some tips for supportive communication.
What not to do:
Avoid trying to give your loved one “helpful hints” about how to better conform to their biological sex. Many transfolks have spent years trying to fit in, years that confirm for them that their gender does not match their birth sex. Instead, assure them that you care about them as a person, regardless of their gender identity.
Do not ask them “Why are you doing this to me?” While the news of this person’s transition may affect you and feel personal to you, remember that it’s not about you. This is about your loved one being him- or herself. Finally.
Respect the transperson’s confidentiality. This is big news, for sure, and it would feel a lot better to talk to someone about it. But please remember that just because your loved one told you, it does not mean that they are ready for anyone else to know. Remember that the fact that they told you is a sign of trust. If you need to talk about it, find a professional who can help you out while maintaining confidentiality.
Do not tell your loved one that they need counseling. Certainly counseling may be a very helpful experience for the transperson during transition but keep in mind: being trans does not make your loved one mentally ill; it does mean that they could really use support from family and friends.
Do not tell a transperson that “S/He will never be a real Woman/Man.” They always have been one – the world just never knew.
Don’t say nothing! Catch the double negative there. Even if you are sure that what you are going to say is stupid, say something. Ask questions, remind the person you love them, and even if your mind is blank, let them know you are interested but just don’t know what to say right now. Then give it some thought and follow up with them when you’ve pulled it together. Asking thoughtful questions and letting the transperson tell you about her or his experience are sometimes the most supportive and caring things you can do.
Ok, so you have some ideas about what not to say. So what do you say? Although every relationship is unique and there's no script for "Talking To Your Trans Friend/Coworker/Child/Partner/etc.," (that I know of, anyway), there are some principles of communication that will almost certainly influence any communication with the trans person in your life in a positive way.
(c)Maine Transgender Network, Inc., 2009