How to Support a Transgender Friend or Family Member

holding hands wearing braceletsWhen a friend or family member tells you they are transgender, or trans, it can be hard to figure out the best way to show support. Trans issues have recently become part of the mainstream conversation in the United States, from  Caitlyn Jenner’s widely publicized transition to Laverne Cox’s appearance on the cover of Time. As more trans people feel comfortable sharing their stories, their friends and families are growing and changing with them.

The word “transgender” describes a gender identity that is different than the one someone is born into. Gender identity is the internal experience that we all have of our maleness or femaleness (or both, or neither). For most people, this experience is aligned with their biological sex. People who identify as trans have a different experience.

Many allies feel confused about how they can best support a friend or family member who tells them they are trans. Such conflict can come about for any number of reasons, including feelings of embarrassment talking about trans issues, not knowing what language or terminology to use, or not wanting to offend. With that in mind, here are five ways to support someone you love who identifies as trans:

1. Listen Closely and Trust Their Experience

Every trans person has a different experience of gender and their transition. When a trans person shares their story with you, it’s a gift. It means they trust you enough to share something so fundamentally important to them. And their experience might not be what you expect.

There is no “right way” to be trans and no “right way” to transition. Each story is unique.

2. Use Their Language

Language is personal, and the only way to know how someone identifies is to listen to how they talk about themselves. You don’t necessarily need to know all the terms related to transgender to be supportive; you just need to respect and try to use the ones your friend or loved one prefers. Some people have a word they closely identify with. For example, they might feel like the umbrella term trans describes them best. Other terms they might use include transgender, transsexual, trans man, trans woman, female-to-male (FTM), male-to-female (MTF), or genderqueer, among others.

There is no “right way” to be trans and no “right way” to transition. Each story is unique.

Trans people may also have a preferred pronoun. Possible pronoun choices may include he/him, she/her, ze/hir, and they/them. Ze/hir and they/them (used to refer to an individual, not a group) are gender-neutral pronouns and are being used by more and more people who don’t feel like he/him or she/her adequately describe them.

Your friend or family member might also choose a new name. They might even change it two or three times as they attempt to find a name that feels like a good fit. Using a trans person’s chosen name shows love and respect and is important, even when change feels hard.

3. Do Some Research

If you want to know more about trans identities in general, the best way is to learn is to do some simple research. Just like it’s not your job to tell others what it’s like to be ______ (fill in your own gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, race, etc.), your friend might not want to educate others about their experience.

Unless specifically invited to do so, it’s never appropriate to ask anyone (including a trans person) personal questions about their body or sexuality. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to be curious or want to know more. Fortunately, we have a lot of great resources available at our fingertips. Many trans activists post video blogs on YouTube both about their personal experiences and to answer questions for people who just want to know more.

4. Get the Support You Need

Learning that someone you know is transgender can bring up a lot of feelings, especially if it’s a close family member such as a child or parent. It’s OK to have all of those feelings, and it’s important that you find the supports you need to sort through them and understand your own experience. Your family member or friend may not be able to be this support person for you.

Many family members I’ve worked with have found support through working with their own therapist or connecting with groups such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and TransYouth Family Allies (TYFA). Connecting with a therapist is a great place to start.

5. Practice Active Allyship

Trans family members and friends are counting on you to help them make this a safe and friendly world for people of all gender identities. Trans people often face oppression and discrimination from their medical providers, schools, employers, housing, places of worship, and families.

Being an ally means consistently noticing and challenging transphobia and ignorance both in yourself and the world around you. This can mean telling someone that a joke isn’t funny, asking a trans friend what they need when someone uses the wrong name or pronoun, or participating in events and rallies in support of the rights of trans people.

What it looks like to support a trans family member or friend can vary greatly from person to person. In many ways, it looks exactly the same as being a good friend or support to anyone who is going through a significant life change. What are some ways you can support transgender people in your own life and community? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • 19 comments
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  • Colton

    Colton

    June 5th, 2015 at 1:46 PM

    I don’t think that first of all they should be known as your trans friend. Either they are your friend or they aren’t.

  • Sara

    Sara

    June 6th, 2015 at 8:52 AM

    You don’t have to avoid your feelings about this but you should at least acknowledge if there is something about it that you don’t understand about it so that you can enlist some help. Ask questions in a way that is s till caring and supportive. Don’t be judgmental. This is still the same person that you have known and loved, just in a slightly different outer package.

  • cooper

    cooper

    June 8th, 2015 at 8:07 AM

    We can preach all day long about not judging others, and in so many ways I can accept this. But I know that it would be very hard to go from having this one person in your life and then finding out that in reality they are someone completely than what you may have always thought. This is of course your own thing that you will have to deal with, not really their problem,. but I think that we have to at least try to be sympathetic by anyone who is touched by it, and understand that most people will come to their own acceptance of it in their own way and on their own time.

  • Olivia

    Olivia

    June 8th, 2015 at 3:16 PM

    It might be hard, but no matter what YOU feel, it is never as challenging as what this person is going through.

    Think about that and be sympathetic.

  • ann

    ann

    November 10th, 2018 at 8:25 AM

    I am an 86 yr grandmother with a 23 year grandchild. He was my grandson and is preparing to change to a woman. My daughter I’m sure is finding it difficult but has accept it. Me, not so much. He was my grandson for 23 years And will now be my granddaughter. I am having a hard time since I haven’t seen her yet. I am nervous but I’m sure that is normal. How should I behave when I see her

  • Louise W.

    Louise W.

    November 10th, 2018 at 1:06 PM

    Dear 86 year old grandmother,
    My child is transitioning to a woman.
    At first I was worried she wasn’t doing it for her own reasons but I am now certain she has thought about it for years and has finally actioned her true feelings of being of feminine gender. She will feel nervous when she sees you next but ask yourself: do I love my grandchild unconditionally? If you do, what does it matter if they wear a dress or jeans. Thank your lucky stars they are happy to stay on this earth rather than be overwhelmed and leave this earth early.
    Find out their new name, if they have one, and say:
    Hello ‘Imogen’ I love you. Nice to see you.
    Lots of love A proud mother of my daughter

  • Reed

    Reed

    June 9th, 2015 at 10:25 AM

    Well you could always look at this as a great educational opportunity! This is a person who is going to have such a dramatically different life experience form you,. so there is no better person to help you learn more about those who are diverse and also help you come to terms with thinking a little outside of the box!

  • Bill

    Bill

    June 10th, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    Not sure that this should include doing some kind of tv docuseries for the event but ok, different strokes for different folks I guess

  • Katy

    Katy

    June 11th, 2015 at 1:26 PM

    I am not too certain that I feel okay with everyone just being okay with this. Please do not think that I am narrow minded for saying that but I was raised that girls are girls and boys are boys and there are some very definitive gender lines. How do I go against what I have always been taught and have thought and now be expected to think something different?

    I do want people to be happy in their lives, but what happened to the idea that God made me and He doesn’t make mistakes? Are there those of you who think that this is an antiquated way of thinking?

    I want to love and respect everyone and I would never exclude based on this decision but it is still hard for me to wrap my head around it sometimes.

  • 2Intense

    2Intense

    August 16th, 2017 at 8:33 AM

    Katy, The short answer to how you get around the teachings we’ve had since we were first born. is–you really don’t. That is, until it is someone that you personally LOVE and know your whole life. It is then that the test and measure of your unconditional love come to play. How quickly those stern feelings evaporate when you are now a part of the support group for a family member. Funny…I too had the same thought when I learned of a beloved male member of our family making this difficult decision, i.e., “God doesn’t make mistakes.” He really doesn’t. So then, your whole mindset changes. Until then, you will never know what real love means, only when you are faced with this will you know.

  • Louise

    Louise

    April 26th, 2018 at 9:48 PM

    Hi Katy, a few hundred years ago, we thought the world was flat and then we learnt we were wrong it’s round. I think it’s the same with trans, new information has come to light by the brave people who are telling us their experience. I hope you’ve been able to learn in the time since you first wrote your comment. I love my children, trans, hetro, tall or short.

  • Will

    Will

    April 27th, 2018 at 7:37 PM

    Short? Well now you’ve gone too far!

  • judith

    judith

    June 12th, 2015 at 1:34 PM

    I would suggest that you follow their lead. They will talk about the things that they need to talk about and will reference themselves how they choose to be referenced. That’s all I can really say- I think that you watch and listen and they will show you what they need at each step along the way.

  • Will

    Will

    June 17th, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    Katy: If you believe that God didn’t make mistakes, then please think about it this way: he intended for people to transition.

  • Gethin J

    Gethin J

    November 26th, 2017 at 4:04 AM

    While I accept that my nephew is still a member of our family(& my friend)following gender transition, I think it’s very important that no-one comes under any pressure to conform if acceptance is not immediate but takes some time to achieve.

  • Jennifer F

    Jennifer F

    October 30th, 2018 at 10:49 PM

    My nephew didn’t decide over night to become a man, family members need more than one night to adjust also…to grieve the niece who is now non-existent and re-learn the person as a nephew.

  • Wendy

    Wendy

    December 11th, 2018 at 4:31 AM

    I am going thru this now and I am deeply grieving the daughter I had. I am trying to adjust my mindset. I will have a hard time calling my once daughter by her male name. I will have trouble when people ask about my children. I am going to try my best

  • Denise

    Denise

    February 18th, 2019 at 12:43 PM

    Hi Wendy,
    I completely understand how you are feeling. I also am deeply grieving my daughter as she transitions. It is the hardest thing I have ever done and yet I find that I feel like I can not talk about my feelings because I so deeply want to support her and I don’t ever want her to think otherwise so I keep my emotions in check when she is around. I am struggling with pronouns, how and when to use them and often sound like a bumbling idiot as I try to reference her.
    I feel lost and confused and angry but I don’t tell her that because the bottom line it that no matter what, I love her and I will love her even as I learn to say him.
    Please know you are not alone.
    Denise

  • Wendy

    Wendy

    February 18th, 2019 at 7:51 PM

    Denise
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. My child is just thankful I am accepting and trying. It’s so hard. Thank you for understanding
    Wendy

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