Graphic by Rainer Lee/OutWrite
Has someone in your life recently come out as transgender? Are you wondering how to support them but don’t know where to start? While there’s a plethora of resources about transness available online, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming.
Transness is vast, complicated, and oftentimes messy, because that’s how people are. Every trans person will have different preferences in the words they use for themselves, the way they navigate the world, and their relationships with others. Thanks to the unavoidable and beautiful complexity of the trans community, this guide is by no means perfect or comprehensive. So, while I absolutely don’t speak for all trans people, I hope I can answer some of your questions.
We’ll begin by defining a few key terms. Sex is biological. It’s what appears on your birth certificate. Notably, sex isn’t binary; an estimated 1.7% of people don’t fall neatly into common notions of male or female bodies. Meanwhile, gender is how a person self-identifies. Although a person’s sex can affect their gender, their gender doesn’t have to match their assigned sex at birth. It’s also culturally determined. Many Indigenous cultures recognize three or more genders. One such third gender is the hijra identity that has existed for centuries in South Asia.
Transgender or trans is “a broad term that can be used to describe people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be when they were born.” A cisgender or cis person is “a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person was identified as having at birth.” Generally, a trans woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth, and a trans man is a man who was assigned female at birth. People deemed intersex by medical professionals can also be any gender, including but not limited to trans woman or trans man. A nonbinary person is someone who doesn’t identify as solely a binary man or a binary woman. They may identify as a combination of a man and a woman, neither, or something else entirely. Some trans people are genderfluid, which means they identify as multiple genders over time. Others might identify as multiple genders all the time such as people who are bigender, pangender, or polygender.
The above terms don’t cover the endless words and phrases trans people use to describe their gender(s). There’s no way you can learn or understand all of them, and that’s okay! It’s alright to politely ask a trans person for clarification if you’ve never heard of the terms they use to describe themself, but keep in mind that trans people don’t owe you answers or explanations about their identity or others’. Whether or not they choose to educate you, you do owe them respect.
It’s important to remember that a trans person’s gender and sexuality can be completely separate aspects of their identity. Simply because a man is a trans man doesn’t mean he must be attracted to women. He could be gay, asexual, or anything else. Trans people can be any sexuality!
Now, let’s unpack pronouns. To begin with, people’s pronouns don’t have to “match” their name, their gender, or their gender expression (what they look and act like). Actually, none of these aspects of their identities have to match any of the others, but we’ll get back to this later.
When you, as a cis person, meet someone, it’s best to introduce yourself with your pronouns. While most strangers might assume your pronouns correctly, this isn’t true for many gender nonconforming people — people who don’t fit society’s ideas about what a man or woman should look and act like — and some trans people. For many trans people, we have to share our pronouns. Otherwise, we’ll be misgendered repeatedly to the detriment of our wellbeing. Unfortunately, sharing our pronouns could also single us out as the only trans person in a hostile space, which is an anxiety-inducing experience. When you share your pronouns first, it takes the pressure off the trans people who have to share their pronouns in order to be gendered correctly. It also reinforces that you shouldn’t assume anyone’s pronouns.
Because you shouldn’t assume anyone’s pronouns, it’s a good practice to ask people what their pronouns are. Always offer your pronouns first, so the person you’re asking understands your good intentions.
There are a few exceptions. Not every trans person will be comfortable sharing their pronouns in every situation. For example, if you’re in a transphobic space, don’t ask the only visibly trans person in the room what their pronouns are. Highly gendered, politically conservative, or hyper-religious spaces are all ones, which could potentially be transphobic. One simple way to gauge a room is: if you ask people to share their pronouns, will most of the cis people present do so? If not, you’re likely in a transphobic space.
Keep in mind that some trans people aren’t out to everyone. Consult the trans people in your life privately and use whatever pronouns they ask you to use; this may differ depending on the context. For instance, a trans woman who normally goes by she/her might ask you to use he/him around her family. You’re not a bad ally for listening to her request; you’re helping keep her safe.
You’ve likely heard of pronouns like he/him, she/her, they/them, and it/its. Beyond these are neopronouns like ze/zir or xey/xem. Respect and use neopronouns like you would any other set of pronouns. If you’d like an example of how to use or pronounce someone’s neopronouns, feel free to ask them. One example of ze/zir pronoun usage could be: “Ze is going to the grocery store. Are you going with zir?”
If you meet someone who uses multiple pronouns, such as she/they, it’s usually expected that you use all of their pronouns. You might say, “She has math class tomorrow, so I let them borrow my calculator.” Sometimes, the order in which a person lists their pronouns indicates their preferred pronoun, with the ones listed first being higher preference than the ones after, but not always. While the convention is to alternate pronouns for people who use multiple, some won’t mind if you only use one. Just use whatever language the person asks you to use. When in doubt, ask them for clarification.
If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, try using only their name. Alternatively, using they/them pronouns until you can ask is okay.
What if you’ve misgendered a trans person in your life — what do you do? If it’s only happened once or twice, don’t sweat it. Everyone (even other trans people!) makes mistakes. Instead of apologizing profusely or deflecting embarrassment by complaining that it’s too difficult to get their pronouns right, try saying “sorry” and repeating the sentence with the correct pronoun, or just repeating the sentence with the correct pronoun. Afterwards, you can continue the conversation as usual. It’s really as simple as that!
The vast majority of trans people won’t be upset if you slip up once or twice. However, if you’re consistently misgendering a trans person you know, it’s time to take a step back and reflect. You may need to give a meaningful apology, and you must take concrete steps towards improvement. Changing your language for someone you’ve known for a long time might seem like an insurmountable task, but if you want to be a safe person in your trans loved one’s life, you need to get this right.
Before anything else, consider whether you’ve shifted to thinking about them as the gender they are. It’s going to be a million times easier to use they/them pronouns for your nonbinary loved one once you let go of your misconception that they are a man, for example. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to practice.
Try recruiting another cis person to practice talking about your trans loved one with their correct pronouns. If you can’t find someone to practice with, here’s a website for pronoun practice. Read the sentences out loud or make up your own sentences using your loved one’s pronouns. Don’t involve them in your practice. Just think of how pleasantly surprised they’ll be when the next time you see them, you’re using their pronouns with ease.
Maybe you don’t have much trouble with using people’s pronouns, but you have no idea what to do when someone else misgenders a trans person in front of you. It’s safest to ask said trans person what they’d like you to do in that scenario. Trans identity is not a monolith and each person has different preferences. Still, it’s usually okay to correct the other person casually. You could say, “Oh, actually, [Name] uses [Pronoun/Pronoun] pronouns,” repeat the sentence with the correct pronouns, or use the person’s pronouns in your next sentence. Once again, try to ask trans people what to do before this situation comes up. The last thing you want to do is out someone.
Outing is when you reveal a person’s queer identity, often without their permission. It can include verbally stating someone is trans, talking about knowing them “back when they were a girl/boy,” and more. Meeting mutual friends or a trans person’s family are both situations where unintentional outing can occur. Not only is outing disrespectful to the person being outed, but it can endanger them as well. Trans people are often targets of transphobic violence and revealing their trans identity can increase their risk of harm. So, please don’t out trans people! As a general rule of thumb, we’ll ask if we want your help with coming out.
Gender dysphoria, not to be confused with body dysmorphia, is the “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.” Most likely, when you think of dysphoria, you think of body dysphoria, or the distress a trans person feels when their physical body doesn’t align with their gender. But actually, multiple types of dysphoria exist, including body, social, and mind dysphorias.
A trans person might experience social dysphoria if other people treat them as a gender they aren’t. Someone using the wrong pronouns for them or assuming they fit a gendered role they don’t identify with can cause social dysphoria. In a similar way, mind dysphoria refers to having emotions or internal experiences that don’t align with your gender. Experiencing PMS symptoms as a man might cause mind dysphoria.
In order to alleviate dysphoria, trans people often transition. For instance, a trans man might feel dysphoric about his high voice. Taking testosterone, one type of medical transition, to deepen his voice can remove his voice dysphoria.
There are three major kinds of transition: social, medical, and legal. Social transition changes a trans person’s social role and perception. It includes things like changing their name and pronouns, wearing different clothes, and growing out or cutting their hair. Medical transition changes a trans person’s physical body and is what most people think of when transition comes up. It involves procedures like hormone replacement therapy (HRT), top surgery, or facial feminization surgery. Gender-affirming healthcare saves lives. Starting HRT between the ages of 14 and 17 reduces trans teens’ risk of attempting suicide by 14.4%. Lastly, legal transition changes a trans person’s legal identity. It can look like updating their gender marker on their driver’s license, changing their name on their passport, and more.
Transition looks different for everyone. Some trans people will never medically transition but will socially transition. Some trans people will get top surgery but never start HRT. Some trans people don’t have dysphoria at all, although many others do. As a result, some trans people transition not to escape discomfort, but to experience gender euphoria, or the joy of their gender feeling “right.”
Because transition can mean so many different things, the scary things you hear about children transitioning on the news are grossly misleading. Children who transition do not undergo surgery or permanently alter their bodies. A five-year-old trans boy might cut his hair and change his name. A twelve-year-old trans girl might go on puberty blockers, a decision which can be reversed and has few to no negative consequences, and buy a new dress for a school dance.
Typically, it’s best not to bring up aspects of a trans person’s behavior or appearance they might be dysphoric about. Many trans people experience dysphoria surrounding their appearance or their voice but lack the financial resources to address these issues. You never know how someone feels about their body, so avoid commenting on it and embrace the breadth of human diversity.
There’s no right way to transition, and there’s no right way for a trans person to express their gender. There are trans men who love their curves and wear sparkly makeup. There are trans women who enjoy their beards and don ballcaps. There are nonbinary people with long hair, perfect nails, and flouncy dresses. There are also nonbinary people who look like burly lumberjacks. And they all love the way they look! Trans men don’t owe anyone masculinity, trans women don’t owe anyone femininity, and nonbinary people don’t owe anyone androgyny, especially since our ideas about what any given gender looks and behaves like are so culturally specific.
Detransitioning is when a person stops or reverses their transition, whether socially, medically, or legally. Contrary to popular opinion, most people who detransition do so because of transphobic backlash to their transition; only 1 to 1.5% of detransitioners detransition because of regret. By comparison, a UK research poll found that 60% of people who undergo plastic surgery regret it.
There are a few things you should avoid asking a trans person unless they say otherwise.
Don’t ask a trans person about what medical procedures they’ve had. It’s very strange to ask people about their medical history unprompted.
Don’t ask a trans person about their genitals. It’s also very weird to ask a stranger about their genitalia. Please don’t do it, no matter how curious you might be.
Don’t ask someone if they’re a boy or a girl. They might not be a boy or a girl. Instead, try asking people what pronouns they use, regardless of whether or not you think they look visibly trans. You can’t determine someone’s gender by appearance alone!
Don’t ask a trans person what gender they were assigned at birth, especially if they’re nonbinary. This is another unprompted genitalia question, whether or not you mean it that way. They are who they are now, and it’s up to them if and when they want to disclose anything more.
Along a similar vein, don’t ask a trans person to show you what they looked like pre-transition or what their deadname is. A deadname is a name a trans person no longer uses. Asking these kinds of questions is invalidating and reductive. Obsessing over trans people’s before-and-after transformation turns trans people into a spectacle rather than acknowledging their complexity as full human beings. Not to mention, it’s painful for some trans people to recall their pre-transition self. Instead of getting hung up on the past, get to know trans people as they are now.
So, you’ve learned a little more about how to be a trans ally, but you aren’t sure where to look next. Check out the list of actionable items and resources below.
Donate to trans people. In particular, donate to Black and Brown trans women’s mutual aid funds and the nonprofits which financially support them. Black and Brown trans women represent one of the most vulnerable U.S. populations, so it can make a difference to financially contribute to safeguarding and promoting their wellbeing. The trans and Black-led collective, For the Gworls, raises funds for Black trans people’s “rent, gender-affirming surgeries, smaller co-pays for medicines/doctor’s visits, and travel assistance.”
Stand up for trans people. Speak up next time you hear someone make a transphobic comment. If you’re a cisgender woman with a transgender woman, accompany her to the bathroom as long as she’s comfortable with it. The simple act of you as a cis woman validating her presence in the women’s bathroom can make her experience safer.
Listen to trans voices. You’ve read this article by me, a trans person, but I’m just one trans person with one set of experiences. Below, I’ve linked more trans-centered media which can broaden your knowledge pool.
Watch trans documentaries. “Disclosure,” directed by Sam Feder, explores the history of trans representation in American media. J. Mitchel Reed and Lucah Rosenberg-Lee’s “Passing” profiles the experiences of young trans men of color. “Shinjuku Boys” by Jano Williams and Kim Longinotto follows three Japanese transmasculine people in the 1990s.
Read trans books. Leslie Feinberg’s novel “Stone Butch Blues” recounts a trans butch lesbian’s life during the second half of the twentieth century and illuminates transmasculine history in the United States. “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender is a young adult romance featuring a trans main character.
Watch trans movies and shows. “Cowboys” directed by Anna Kerrigan follows a young trans boy and his bipolar father’s journey into the Montana wilderness. Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” depicts queer Ballroom culture in the 1980s and centers Black and Brown trans women. Other shows with major trans characters include “Sex Education” on Netflix and “Our Flag Means Death” on HBO Max.
Learning how to be a trans ally is a lifelong process. Try to explore on your own because the impetus is never on the trans people in your life to educate you. Unlearning your own biases and relearning how complex and gorgeous gender can be requires conscious effort, but the more you learn, the richer your world will become. Through constant improvement, you’ll become a safe, trusted person for the trans people in your life.
Author: Rainer Lee (He/Him)
Artist: Rainer Lee (He/Him)
Copy Editors: JQ Shearin (She/Her), Emma Blakely (They/She/He)