Post submitted by Jay Brown, former HRC Communications Director
The other day I was talking to a group of middle school students about transgender people when one piped up.
“What if I think my friend is transgender but they haven’t told me yet? How can I support them?”
What great -- and timely -- questions. While visibility for transgender people seems to be at all an all-time high, so too does speculation about who is or isn’t transitioning. But too often those questioning seem to lack the concern and sensitivity posed by the middle-school student -- exposing the wide gap between salacious storytelling and substantial support.
So, I offer up this post as a way to help bridge that gap and provide a few ideas for those looking to give their friends and family -- or their favorite media personalities -- the support they might need in the process of transitioning.
Let them lead. When the student asked about her friend -- who I learned she thought would begin socially transitioning soon -- I asked her classmates for their ideas. And one young woman gave some strong advice, “Let them signal first.” Gender identity is an essential part of who we all are -- and you’ll never know more about someone’s identity than they do.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. In fact, that friend may be looking for a sign that you’re someone who won’t walk away or be hostile when they share their news. When there’s a media story about a transgender person, you might mention it positively in casual conversation. Let them know that you’re an ally. But don’t push them before they’re ready. (Also note, while many of these tips may work for youth, check out www.hrc.org/trans-youth for resources specific to supporting transgender youth.)
Transitioning isn’t the same as coming out. First, not every transgender person transitions. For example, they may identify as genderqueer -- meaning they identify as neither male nor female, but somewhere else on the spectrum of gender identity. Second, while transitioning can be a very public time for many transgender people -- marking a coming out of sorts -- transitioning and coming out as transgender are two separate things.
Take me as an example. I came out as transgender to a small group of close friends and family first. When I was ready, I socially transitioned -- coming out to a broader group of folks, including co-workers, and asking them to use a different name and pronouns. About a year later, I transitioned medically (which is not something all transgender people can do or even want to do). I shared particulars about that only with a small group of close friends and family, and my doctors. While that was obviously visible (it involved hormones and, thus, a second puberty after all), my co-workers and supervisor got a lot less detail. And then I transitioned legally, which for me meant hiring a lawyer and petitioning for a legal name change (which can be impossible to do depending on the laws of your state, not to mention the financial barriers to hiring a lawyer).
After all that transitioning was said and done, I was still an advocate. And many folks who meet me have no idea I transitioned, which means I come out again and again. By now, I’ve come out more times than I can count. Long story short, while transitioning is often very public, it’s hardly ever the first time or last time a transgender person shares their experience.
Remember, this isn’t neighborhood gossip. A year or two after I’d transitioned, my spouse and I got jobs in a new city. At dinner one night, we ended up sharing our story with several colleagues. In doing so, we fully expected the gossiping to start and the entire office to know the next day. They didn’t. In fact, five years into working there, we were still telling colleagues. I’ve always been very public about my experience -- at the same time, it meant a lot that we were able to share our story on our own terms.
And remember, while I’m lucky to be supported in my workplace, by my family and in my community, not everybody is. In fact, I’m one of the privileged few. Discrimination, harassment and violence are very real for transgender people, especially for women, people of color and those who are unemployed. Nor does everybody who transitions want to share their experience. For them, the whole point of transitioning was to be the person they know themselves to be. Period. Done. So, be careful what you pass on. This isn’t neighborhood gossip -- it’s someone’s life.
Be respectful but don’t be silent. I got an email from a close family member about a year ago. She’d been called into a meeting led by HR where the staff was told one of their colleagues was transitioning -- and that HR was working with the colleague on a transition plan. (The staff member knew and approved of the meeting in question.) My family member didn’t know this individual well, so she worried that reaching out to them might be disrespectful. Should she approach them?
In our work here looking at corporate climates for LGBT people, we find many making the assumption that silence is best. But most transgender people understand that we’re going through something that’s not exactly an everyday occurrence. We often appreciate having folks say, “Hey, that takes courage. I respect you. Let me know if I can help in any way.” We may not want to ever talk about it, but having someone say a few kind words can go a heck of a long way toward avoiding the feeling of being shunned.
That family member has now made a point to talk to her colleague just about every day. Sometimes they have lunch. She's been the kind of ally many transgender people never have -- and she's made a huge difference in someone's life.
Not everybody likes to share or answer every question. You may be the person who posts all about their gastro-intestinal issues on Facebook. And that’s OK. That’s totally your choice. But not everybody wants to share at that level. And not everybody really wants to answer every question you might have. So, if you’ve got a question you’re burning to ask and they haven’t signaled that they’re willing to share all the personal details, try asking Google first. Check out Janet Mock’s best-selling book. Or Jenny Boylan’s three books. Or Jamison Green’s. There’s a lot out there. And if you’re looking for something shorter, our friends at PFLAG just issued an amazing guide on being an ally to transgender people. We also have a short resource on better understanding the transgender community. All will address some of the first questions on your mind.
And remember, this isn’t about you. This may indeed be the first time anybody tells you they are transgender -- or may be the first time you’re part of someone’s transition. Remember, this isn’t about you. Avoid telling them how hard it’s going to be for you or that you’ll always think of them as your best ‘guy’ friend, your first ‘girlfriend,’ your favorite ‘niece’ or any gendered description that doesn’t match who they’re telling you they are. If you need help, there are others you can turn to. But the person who is transitioning needs your support.
These are just some starters. Use your best judgment -- these rules aren’t always hard and fast. And if you’ve been through this and want to share your experience of the good, the bad and the ugly, leave a comment below.