He, She, and We: How to Support Trans* Individuals

In a society that stigmatizes people who cross over the supposedly rigid line between “male” and “female,” we can support our transgender friends. We can help them shape lives that are easier, safer, and happier—all by listening to their needs and using their preferred pronouns.

Transgender, adj. “Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.”

When I was probably sixteen, one of my friends quietly came out to me as transgender. To be honest, they were just as confused as I was about the whole label and what it could mean for them. This friend, who we’ll call B, had been assigned female at birth. She had come out as lesbian to me already, and I’d accepted that.

But when B confessed that she didn’t feel comfortable in her own skin, and was thinking about transitioning to using male pronouns (being called “he,” rather than “she,” for instance), I didn’t know what to think. Here was my friend, revealing her deep unhappiness with her assigned gender. I knew she wasn’t talking about cross-dressing, even though that was my first instinct. (We’ve all seen Ru Paul’s Drag Race, right? Eddie Izzard, anyone?) But not all cross-dressers are necessarily transgender, like B.

British comedian Eddie Izzard became famous for his unique brand of humor as well as his love of crossdressing. He still identifies as a heterosexual man, however.

I was honored that my friend trusted me enough to disclose such sensitive information, but at the same time bewildered by the idea of fluid gender identity and the existence of a spectrum of gender identity rather than a binary. To top it all off, how was a teenager like me with a tendency for foot-in-mouth blunders supposed to use the right pronouns all the time, after years of knowing B as a girl?

When B confided in me, I failed to understand that she wasn’t asking me to be a perfect ally. “Just try, for me—please,” she was asking. At a southern high school where “f*g” was a common slur, B just needed a close friend she could trust to understand her situation. He wanted one person who would at least try using his preferred pronouns and not keep shoving him into the cramped box of society’s gender expectations. So when B confided that he was searching for ways to bind his chest, I listened. Yes, sometimes I lapsed and used female pronouns, but I did my best to ease B’s already difficult journey to explore his gender identity in a safe environment.

Even if the idea of people being trans* perplexes us, we should endeavor to understand them and help them feel comfortable. For my friend B, the existence of a support system made up of family and friends was and is vital. If someone you know presents as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, you can make a difference in their lives just by using their preferred pronouns. In a Williams Institute survey of more than 6,000 trans* individuals, 41% reported suicide attempts (compared to 1.6% of the general population). By using their preferred pronouns and helping alleviate the gender dysphoria (manifesting in depression, anxiety, self-hatred, etc.) our trans* friends experience through simple gestures of respect and kindness, we can help them not only survive—we can help them live.

Confusion about transgender people is understandable. There’s no established set of manners for how to politely treat someone as their preferred gender, particularly as someone’s gender identity can be a delicate topic depending on where they are emotionally in their transition. They could even be confident in their gender identity but still hesitant to come out as trans*—after all, 226 trans people all over the world were murdered because of their identity from October 2013-September 2014. (November 20th recently marked the Transgender Day of Remembrance for the hundreds of trans* people lost to transphobic violence.) For some trans* people, living as their true gender identity could mean risking their lives, their relationships, their jobs, and even their housing. So should we really expect every person who lives outside the gender binary to shout their minority status from the rooftops?

Is it any wonder that determining exactly how many transgender people live in the U.S. is so difficult? The latest estimate is 700,000, or 0.3% of the U.S. population—but because few nationwide surveys have ever asked about gender identity (partially because respondents might not answer truthfully about a sensitive subject), no one has a clear, statistically sound number.

Regardless of the size of the transgender population, however, they should no longer languish as an invisible minority even among the LGBT community. We should allow their voices to be heard, their complex experiences to be shared and exalted or mourned, and their beauty to shine. It all starts with accepting and affirming their gender identities. When a friend shares their transgender identity with you, try to understand. Don’t betray their trust—exceed their expectations by accepting and loving them. Use their preferred pronouns, and allow them to live happily as they truly are.

As Brynn Tannehill explained in her keynote address at Transgender Day of Remembrance Louisville:

“Being loved requires friends, partners and family to embrace a belief that runs against our cultural dogma, to speak up and act despite the stigma of being seen with ‘those people’ and embrace a marginalized people who are not their own. This is why loving a transgender person is a truly revolutionary act.”

We should all strive to be those allies.

Want to learn more about transgender identities and how to support trans* individuals?

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