Your First Trans Friend: A Beginner’s Guide

Transphobia and trans misogyny are deeply embedded in our culture. You might think you’re immune, but you’re probably not.
05/25/2017 02:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2017
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So, your friend is trans! That’s pretty cool. I’m sure you’re happy for them, and I know you probably have so many questions you want to ask. Your friend is being re-defined in front of your eyes, and you must know more. I get it.

Being someone’s only trans friend is a big responsibility. We often become people’s de-facto Trans Ambassador, we are bombarded with questions upon coming out, and we have to clear up misconceptions spread by pop culture and the media, all while also navigating our own new public identity and the feelings that come with it. We know you mean well, but it can be a lot.

There’s a do/don’t list a mile long when engaging with your newly-out trans friend, and I wanted to talk a bit about some common ones that I’ve noticed in my first few months as a wee baby trans lady.

Ask us questions about ourselves
It’s completely understandable to want to know more about your friend after they come out. Questions like “how did you choose your new name?”, “how long have you been struggling with this?” or “how did your parents react?” are innocent and come from a good place. Please be patient with your friend as well. They may be being bombarded with these types of questions in the weeks following their coming out, and sometimes it’s nice to just have a break from it all. Don’t take offense if they don’t feel like talking about it when it comes up.

Don’t ask about genitals
I know what you’re thinking: “Well, obviously.” You’d be shocked. Maybe you wouldn’t. Anyway, in short: do not ask about our genitals. Do not ask if we are going to “get the surgery.” You wouldn’t ask a cis friend about what’s in their pants, so don’t ask it of your trans friend.

Correct yourself if you accidentally misgender us
Look, I get it. Force of habit is a thing, and if you have known this person for a long time, switching pronouns on a dime is not always easy. Most trans people are willing to be patient while you do a little mental re-sorting, and if you slip up and use the wrong pronouns, all we ask is that you correct yourself. You might feel bad for doing it and think it would be awkward drawing attention to it, but bite the bullet. Your friend noticed. Even if they didn’t say anything, they noticed. They catalog that shit. The more you misgender them and don’t make an attempt to correct yourself, the more they question whether you consider their identity valid.

Listen and learn if you are called out
Transphobia and trans misogyny are deeply embedded in our culture. You might think you’re immune, but you’re probably not. This means you’re going to slip up and say anything that might be considered transphobic or shitty. It happens. Intent counts for a lot, though, and if you’re being honest in your goals as a friend and ally, you’ll listen, absorb, and learn from your mistakes, instead of doubling down, dismissing, or trying to pull “it’s just a joke.” Whether it’s a big mistake or a small one, your friend will remember how you handled being confronted.

Separate gender and sexuality
It’s weird that so many people conflate these two, but with some exceptions where the person comes out sexually in addition to their trans identity, someone who likes guys is still into guys, and someone who is into guys and ladies probably still is. A friend once said to me that they thought “a lot of trans people were gay.” While there is certainly a decent queer population within the trans community, that’s not what they meant. They assumed I, a person they perceived previously as male, would be attracted to men now that I’ve come out. This thinking erases our gender from the equation. As a woman, being attracted to men would make me straight. As a woman, I am engaged to a wonderful lady, and have no interest in dudes. Therefore: super gay. Our sexuality is no more complicated than that of cis people.

Remember who we are
We tend to be more than happy to discuss trans issues and matters of importance to trans people, but please remember that we are still the same people we were before we came out, and while some things have changed, we still have a wide range of interests, and we exist beyond our gender identity. Trans issues are totally relevant to our interests, but we also still want to geek out over how fucking awesome Ian McShane is in American Gods, ok?

Deadnaming
This is a big one, because mileage will vary drastically from person to person, but it is always pretty important. Similarly to misgendering, if you find you’ve accidentally referred to your friend by their deadname (the name they had when you met them, but no longer use), simply apologize and correct yourself. Where deadnaming can be a bigger offender is when you share this information with people who either don’t know your friend, or are just meeting them. Many trans people have very complicated, often negative, associations with their deadname, and tend to want as few people as possible to know it. There is no reason for that information to be shared with others, so please respect your friend’s need for privacy and don’t bring it up unless they do first.
 
 Avoid turning us into spokespeople
Like any minority group, trans people, especially when they’re the only one in their social circle, will find themselves, from time to time, being asked to make a blanket statement that reflects all trans people. You see this happen all the time in POC communities: “Well, celebrity X said this, but friend Y said that. Which is it?” For some reason, the concept of individuality goes out the window for members of minority groups, and we must be a monolith, lest we be accused of ‘infighting.’ The fact of the matter is there are few universal truths that are undisputed, and your friends, for the most part, can only speak to their own feelings and experiences. Even this list is based on my own experiences and the experiences of other trans people I’ve spoken to or are friends with. Someone you know may disagree with it, and that’s totally cool.

Invite us into gendered spaces
Guys enjoy having boys-only nights. Women enjoy hanging out with their ladyfriends. Sometimes you just want to chill with people who can relate to your experiences on a fundamental level, and oftentimes the easiest way to do that is to make a point of specifically spending time with other people of your gender. If you’re friends with a trans man, invite him to your pub night with the boys. If you’re friends with a trans woman, invite her out dancing with your girlfriends. Nothing makes us feel more accepted than being included.

“Welcome to womanhood”
This one is specific to trans women, but it demands a bit of attention. When I was newly-out, I would hear this statement constantly. It was never said in a way intended to hurt me, but it always did. When I make a comment about how I couldn’t get my makeup right this morning, or that I feel like someone is not taking me seriously, reminding me that I have spent my entire life socialized in the wrong gender is not going to improve my mood. I know what you’re trying to say is “I can relate”, but framing it in this context just makes it worse. Try to find another way to say the same thing.

This is by no means a definitive list. Friendships are complex things, and just as there are no two friendships that are exactly alike, there is no complete set of rules that will work for everyone. This list is merely meant to be a starting guide to illustrate some of the ways you can respectfully engage with your friend who, if they just came out, is probably super fucking overwhelmed and just wants a little love and understanding.

Transition is a learning experience for everyone involved. Listen, learn from your mistakes, try not to be an asshole, and things should be fine. However, it’s worth repeating the word learn. No one expects you to be perfect from day one, but there’s a statute of limitations on how long something like misgendering is perceived as an innocent mistake before it becomes a sign that you’re not trying. Don’t be that person.

In closing, keep bein’ rad, and thanks for being our friend.

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