The process of transitioning one’s gender identity can bring up a whole host of physical and emotional experiences for the person engaging in the transition, as well as for those around them. Everyone’s experience is different, but often some of the most challenging and rewarding parts of a transition can be the reactions from one’s family, friends, and larger community. Receiving social support is so important when one goes through any big life change, but particularly when someone comes out as transgender, in part because of the many systemic challenges a person can face when attempting to transition. Whether they’re your friend, family member, or partner, here are 5 ways you can support your loved one as they transition. (For the purpose of inclusivity, I will use the pronouns they/them in this article).
1. Use the language they have asked you to use
When someone is first coming out as transgender, it’s not uncommon for them to request that others begin using a different name and pronoun to refer to them going forward. It can be challenging for some to make this change at first, but do your best to use the pronouns and name they have requested, even when your loved one is not around. This is an important part of validating your loved one’s identity and respecting their experience. It might feel like a small thing, but it can feel incredibly hurtful and invalidating to the person when they hear the wrong pronouns used, especially if this is the first part of their transition. Remember that it may have taken a lot of courage to make this request of you.
At the same time, be mindful of who you talk to about your loved one’s transition; the process of coming out can be an arduous one, and it is ultimately up to them how and with whom to share news of their transition. Do NOT out your loved one without their consent. This significantly disempowers them, and can have severe consequences, like harming a relationship or putting someone’s job in jeopardy. Coming out can be difficult and terrifying enough; support your loved one’s choices in how to do so.
2. Respect their process
There is no “right way” to transition, and everyone transitions at their own speed, and in their own way. Be aware of your own assumptions and expectations you may have of them. For example, your loved may or may not choose to make medical/physical changes, like starting hormones or getting gender re-assignment surgery. Recognize that you don’t always have to understand the process of their transition in order to support them.
While some may have known for years, even decades, what they want and need as they transition, the process may be more exploratory for others. Be patient. Transitioning doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process, one that can take longer for some, and still others may not even have an endpoint of their transition at all. In fact, a transition doesn’t always have to mean transitioning from one gender to the other; it can also mean exploring different parts of the gender spectrum over time, or staying somewhere in the middle. Allow your loved one to make the transition their own.
3. Offer to help
Many aspects of transitioning can be intimidating - from medical changes, like starting hormones, to legal identity changes, like changing the gender marker and name on a driver’s license, to aspects of gender expression, like picking out new clothes – there is often a lot of that goes into the transition process, and it can be overwhelming. There can also a lot of vulnerability in seeking these services, and finding a doctor who is trans-affirmative, for example, can be challenging. Ask what you can do to help them navigate this process and help your loved one connect with the larger transgender community for more support.
4. Take care of yourself
While it’s necessary to recognize that this transition is theirs, and not yours, it’s also important to acknowledge your own reactions to your loved one’s transition, and to give yourself the space to process your own experience of the transition, ideally with a therapist. It’s not uncommon to experience what can feel like a grieving process, especially if you’ve known this person for a long time. For your loved one, the process of transitioning can feel like they are finally able to express themselves authentically, and they may feel detached and even dislike for their old way of presenting, or their old “self.” At the same time, you may feel that you’re losing someone, and may experience symptoms of sadness, grief; you may feel betrayed or angry or distrustful, and that’s okay. Recognize that what you’re going through is valid, while also recognizing that you’re responsible for those feelings. Seek support from friends and family, and find a trans-affirmative therapist who can help you take care of yourself throughout this process. Giving yourself the space to process your emotional reactions to your loved one’s transition will also help you be a better support to them, and will ultimately likely strengthen your relationship.
5. Advocate for the transgender community
Transgender people, while thankfully gaining in visibility and political support, also continue to experience immense amounts of systemic and interpersonal violence and oppression. Your loved one may now have less legal protections, and are more likely to experience discrimination, harassment, and barriers to adequate health care, employment, housing, and more. It is immensely important that that we fight for the rights of transgender people. But if you haven’t already been a part of this fight for equality, now is a good time to start. Show your loved one that you care about the systemic inequalities they may now face by educating yourself on policies and other challenges affecting trans people. Show up at rallies, write your legislators, speak out, and stand up in support of the transgender community.
Gender Spectrum, which provides resources and support for transgender children, teens, and their families
Gender Unicorn, the much beloved unicorn that helps us understand the spectrum and fluidity of gender and sexuality