Be an A+ Ally

So someone you care about has just come out to you as trans. You have been trusted with a great honor and responsibility. As a trans ally you can be the support that helps your loved one navigate their own path to living authentically.

Maybe you want to help, but don’t know how. Here are a few suggestions.

Validate immediately

Repeat after me:

Thank you for telling me. I’m proud of you.
I love you, and that won’t change.
Are there pronouns you want me to use?
Is there anything I can do to help?

Those are the first words out of your mouth when someone comes out to you. Coming out is an exhausting, tedious, and terrifying time for many people. Most trans people have had at least one painful experience while coming out. Many are afraid of being yelled at, dismissed, or even abandoned. They are making themselves supremely vulnerable. You hold so much of them in your hands. Your first goal is to make them feel safe again.

Put your lovely person at ease. Help them celebrate what is likely a huge step forward. Let them know how much their trust means to you. Then reassure them that you still love and care about them. That you will not leave them. Those words will remove a massive burden from their shoulders. They may let some of their defenses down, and that opens the door for honest conversation.

Next ask if/how they would like to be identified differently. It’s a practical question, and it shows you care enough to get involved. They may not have anything off the top of their head that you can do (we don’t always have a script for this stuff). Just remind them that if they ever need anything, you will be there.

Educate yourself and others

Many trans people are sick of the expectation to be a walking encyclopedia of trans knowledge. Nobody can speak for the entire community, either. If you have questions about trans people at large, you should direct your questions to the internet.

Let me spam you with some links. GLAAD is an excellent resource for anyone. PFLAG has resources specifically for family and friends of trans and queer folks. I would also recommend reading through the suggestions here and here. I also recommend reading trans web comics to see what the life of a trans person is like (check out Rooster Tails, Trans Girl Next Door, and this primer).

Also, feel free to post questions to forums like r/asktransgender. Some trans people are quite excited to answer questions, as long as they’re asked in the right context and you’re open to learning. (This includes me! Send me questions at howtotranshelp@gmail.com.)

The layered systems that impact the lives of trans people are complicated (especially those who are otherwise disadvantaged). Learn and share them with those around you. Use your knowledge to defend your loved one in concrete ways. Advocate on their behalf. Have the courage to correct others who say problematic and hurtful things. You hold power as an ally with other allies, and we need you to help us make our situation better.

Practice your language

A webcomic where two good allies offer helpful feedback such as 'I'm not familiar with those pronouns. Could you go over them with me so I know I'm using them right?' and 'Oh, of course. I'll do my best!' Next is the advice 'When you accidentally misgender someone, your mistake should not turn into a weird self-flagellation 'make me feel better' moment. It's really not about you.'

A continuation of the webcomic. An ally says 'She-sorry, I mean he- he and I used to...' then later apologizes in private with 'Hey man, I know I keep messing up this pronoun thing, I promise I'm doing my best. Thanks for your patience so far.' Then the comic suggests practicing your pronouns by telling a story like 'Greg is my friend, I've known him for 7 years. He works in landscaping and he has three dogs.'

Praise be to Robot Hugs.

Pronouns can be difficult to switch or learn. It’s easy to fall into old habits. Sometimes I even misgender myself. Those are natural mistakes, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up too badly for making a mistake. Correct yourself, apologize afterward, and try to catch yourself next time. It often helps to practice by telling a story out loud about that person to yourself, making sure to use the correct pronouns.

Notice that I’m not saying “preferred pronouns.” That implies that it’s a choice to use someone’s pronouns, which is simply not true. That is never okay to do on purpose, and even mistakes should be followed up with an apology at an appropriate time.

This is one of many distinctions in trans terminology. There are a lot of outdated and problematic phrases floating around that should be avoided. I’ve provided some tips of my own in a separate article, and I highly recommend reading GLAAD’s article on more inclusive and trans-friendly language. In the end, the goal isn’t necessarily to use the “official” terms. It’s to talk in a way that shows respect to all involved.

Listen

First frame of a webcomic where a girl is floating into the air as she rants and vents her worries and stress to her male friend next to her.Second frame where only the shoes of the girl are visible and the boy reaches up to grab her ankle, keeping her from floating away.

Final frame where the girl has stopped stressing and the boy smiles up at her.

This cuteness made by Colleen Butters.

This is the most important thing you can do as an ally. Trans folks are constantly silenced and marginalized. Let them have a voice with you. Take in what they’re saying and validate their emotions. That means reassuring them that their feelings are real and understandable, not outrageous or unreasonable.

There are certain things that nobody can know until they’ve experienced them. It’s important not to pretend that we can or to equate different experiences. You also can’t fix everything happening in someone’s life. You are not their savior. You are the support standing beside them and keeping them grounded. Practice these phrases because you will need to use them a lot.

That really sucks.
That must be really frustrating. You deserve better.
I’ve never been through that, but you must feel <emotion>.
You’re not crazy. What you’re saying makes sense.
You’re allowed to be angry. I’m angry at them, too.
People suck. I’m sorry they were jerks.
I know it won’t fix everything, but I love you.

It’s not always easy, and you’ll probably hear a lot of upsetting things. You aren’t expected to make it all better. Usually it’s enough to help them feel like someone gets them and will hear them out. When in doubt, keep quiet and let them speak.

Take care of yourself

It’s easy to get swept up in the rush of changes. However, your first priority is always making sure that you’re healthy and safe. Allies tend to be more helpful while they’re still alive. Try to carve out pieces of your life to focus on yourself and make sure your needs are met.

This includes finding someone to talk to about your friend, family member, or partner. There are a few criteria for this confidant:

  1. Your trans friend has given you permission to tell the confidant that they’re trans.
  2. This confidant is someone besides the person you’re talking about.

These are important because you should not under any circumstances tell anyone that your friend is trans without their permission. That’s called “outing,” and it could cause serious damage if there’s a reason somebody shouldn’t know yet. You need to be sure that your trans buddy is okay with you talking to this other person.

I can not stress enough that allies need to be able to vent to someone besides the person coming out. Keep in mind that you have had a dramatic change in one of your relationships. Your pal is facing those same challenges with everyone they know. Plus they’re a little busy trying to find themselves. The last thing they need is for someone they love to make them feel guilty for something they have no control over.

Communicate openly and specifically

All good relationships are built on communication. There may be times that you need to confront your friend about something (gender-related or not). That can be tricky when someone is in a stressful and vulnerable period of their life. However, bottling things up is rarely helpful. If there’s something that talking to your confidant can’t resolve, then you may need to bring it up with the person themselves.

Try to approach them in a safe and private setting while you’re both in a mood open to discussion. Stay calm and breathe. Try to balance speaking and listening. Avoid using words like always or overgeneralizing (as in “you always put yourself first”). Use specific I-statements like “I’m afraid of upsetting you sometimes” instead of “you’re always upset.” Discuss things that are realistic and actionable, setting goals that you can follow through on and accomplish. Fixing the underlying problem is more helpful than quibbling about little things.

Now, I’m normally a nice person. However, if you make someone feel guilty about being trans as a way to win an argument, I will hunt you down and shake you until your insides pop out. Gender isn’t negotiated. Making someone feel bad for being trans taps into the shame that society forces on us for being ourselves. Into a fear that there is something inherently wrong with us deep down. It eats away at us from the inside out. Hearing it from the mouth of someone we love is soul-crushing. Never ever let your loved ones think that the hateful bigotry towards them is true.

Be flexible

When someone comes out as trans, they may not have a clear idea of their identity. Many people identify as questioning, experimenting to see what works best for them. That may mean juggling multiple sets of pronouns, names, or gender expressions. That state of flux or being in-between may even be their final form, in the case of genderfluid and genderqueer folks.

It’s easy for trans folks to feel guilty or greedy asking people to change identities more than once. In fact, a lot of people go back into the closet after coming out. They might be afraid people will think since the last identity didn’t stick, this one must also be a phase. Many people also oversimplify their gender while explaining it to others, just to save time and energy.

A trans-questioning person may need or want people they can test things out with. My best friend went as far as to say, “We can try out new pronouns every day if that’s what you want.” That level of flexibility is extremely helpful if you’re comfortable giving it. At the very least accommodate whatever they are publicly out as and expressing. Be attentive to what they ask for and follow through.

Rebuild even stronger

Two people sit on a bench beside the river. One puts his arm around the other while she leans her head on his shoulder.

There’s a reason you two are close. Hold on to those things that form a bond between you. The person you have known may change in many ways, even ones having nothing to do with gender. Coming out is often a chance to start over and liberate all the things that had been hidden inside. Learn to embrace what makes your friend feel happy and authentic.

Those things may surprise you. They may even seem like things the person you knew would never have liked. Then again, the person you knew was also a different gender than you thought. It’s understandable to feel uneasy about this. To feel that you may have lost a person that you once knew. Sometimes there’s a grieving process involved, and it’s good to speak about that to your confidant or even a professional counselor if necessary. You may even need to talk to the person using the tips above, being sure to focus on specific things you can both do without making each other feel guilty.

You may even want to court this person all over again, whether as a friend, family member, or partner. You may want to literally (and out loud) introduce yourselves and make a date to get to know each other again. Breathe, laugh, and return to what you both love about each other.

Being an ally is about being a companion. If they trust you with their identity and you are reading this article right now, then I’d say you’re already mostly there.

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