Originally published on Everyday Feminism.
When I first came out as transgender, I was surprised to find that many people in my life wanted to support me. I received a lot of encouraging words, often from the folks I least expected.
It meant the world to me to be surrounded by people who just wanted me to be myself and be happy! In a society that can often be so hostile towards transgender people, having loved ones in our corner can make all the difference.
But I quickly realized that there’s a distinction between stating your support and actually respecting my identity. A lot of people talked the talk – but that didn’t always translate when it came to actions.
I wanted to be patient with my loved one because I knew it was a learning process for everyone. But as time went on, some problematic behaviors never seemed to go away.
These behaviors – some of which were so subtle I’m not even sure they realized it – told me they may know that I’m transgender, but they didn’t really validate, believe, or respect me.
Maybe they didn’t know how. Maybe they were still caught up in their own feelings about it. Or maybe they really believed that they weren’t being hurtful.
But as I so often write, someone’s intentions aren’t as important as the impact that they ultimately have. You may not have meant to step on someone’s toes – but that doesn’t make it hurt any less!
Oftentimes, as we try to support the people we love, we can make mistakes – and that’s a normal and expected part of the process. And the best way to make it right is to learn a little more, do some self-reflection, and not just apologize, but commit to changing our behaviors.
Because supporting the people we love isn’t just about saying that we support them – it’s about doing the work to be supportive!
If you aren’t sure how, that’s what I’m here for.
Let’s talk about six signs that you might be disrespecting a transgender person in your life – and some ideas for how to do better next time.
1. You Still Misgender Them Behind Their Back
Maybe this scene is familiar to you: You’re talking to someone about your loved one, and when it’s time to use a pronoun, you stumble for a moment. He? She? They? How do I gender them?
In a panic, you resort to the wrong pronouns, with just the slightest pang of guilt in the pit of your stomach.
Why We Do It: You might be thinking that you aren’t really ready to educate this person about your loved one, and about what it means to be transgender. It would be easier, you decide, if I just misgender them – so I don’t have to get “into it,” or answer any uncomfortable questions.
But misgendering someone after they’ve asked that their pronouns be respected – unless they say otherwise – is never okay (I’ve written a whole article on why, which is worth the read).
It’s like saying: “I’d rather harm my loved one – and teach someone else to harm them – than deal with the temporary discomfort of navigating this situation.”
Instead: There are so many great resources (you can start with this guide) that can help you better understand and educate others. Nothing says “I love you” quite like taking the time to be informed and help inform others, so that your loved one doesn’t have to shoulder that burden alone.
And if nothing else, remember you don’t have to answer questions – just affirm your loved one by saying, “These are the pronouns [Insert person’s name] uses now. I hope you’ll respect that.”
Your discomfort in that moment doesn’t compare to the real harm that misgendering can do!
2. You Don’t Respect the Boundaries They Set
I knew a transgender person who asked her parents to take down a photo from her childhood because it was painful to look at photos of herself prior to her transition and because every guest in their home would gawk at the picture of her “looking like a boy.”
Time and time again, they argued about it.
Her parents loved that photo so much they didn’t want to take it off the wall – it reminded them of happy times together, and they couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t be happy when she looked at it, too.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about the families of transgender people not really respecting the needs of trans people.
Why We Do It: There can be a lot of reasons for this. Most often, I see this in loved ones who are having a difficult time letting go of the past. This is a normal part of coming to terms with someone’s transition – which is understandable, but still not acceptable.
Here’s the thing: When a transgender person says that something is triggering, we should respect those boundaries. If something is hurtful, the “why” isn’t what’s most important – what matters is we’re harming someone, whether it was purposeful or not, and now we have the chance to make it right.
In the case of my friend, she started to feel like her parents thought their happiness was the only thing that mattered – and that her pain wasn’t important or real.
Transgender people set boundaries because they’re trying to navigate very painful situations. They may ask to not talk about certain topics, not be called by certain names, or try not to revisit certain parts of the past.
This isn’t to offend you.
It’s because we’re trying to heal after struggling to accept who we are, and we need the space to be ourselves without being constantly reminded of that struggle.
Instead: When your loved one sets a boundary, respect it. It’s really as simple as that.
And a helpful hint: If you’re struggling with your feelings around their transition, that’s totally okay! But it’s important to process that on your own time – maybe with a therapist, in your journal, or in conversation with someone you trust – without burdening your trans loved one in the process.
3. You Try to ‘Bargain’ with Them
I see this all the time with loved ones who are having a tough time dealing with their transgender loved one’s transition. I’ve personally experienced it, too:
- “You can start hormones, but please don’t get surgery.”
- “I’ll call you by that name, but only at home.”
- “You can wear a dress, but you can’t wear it to school.”
Why We Do It: Sometimes, this comes from a place of wanting to protect someone. Other times, it’s because you feel emotionally unprepared for the steps ahead. These are very understandable emotions – but that doesn’t mean acting on those feelings is okay.
Asking your loved one to accommodate you, rather than encouraging them to be the most authentic and happiest version of themselves, is harmful.
It’s a gesture that can be easily misunderstood – as if to say “My comfort matters more than yours” or “I’m not actually okay with this after all.”
And it’s a big red flag.
It tells me that rather than working on that discomfort and processing your fears, you’re asking your loved one to change for you and ultimately endure more suffering on your behalf.
It unfairly places the burden on them, instead of challenging you to work through your feelings about their transition.
Instead: When you feel the urge to bargain, ask yourself: “Is this about what my loved one needs to be well, or is this about what I need to feel comfortable or safe?”
At the end of the day, their transition isn’t about you.
Transitioning isn’t a negotiation between the two of you – it’s the sole decision of a transgender person and their right to their own body and autonomy.
4. You Make Excuses Instead of Apologizing
If you have a transgender loved one, “sorry” will become a very familiar part of your vocabulary.
I say this because the learning curve can be very steep and because every trans person is uniquely different in what they need and expect.
Even as trans myself, I’ve stumbled many times over what to say or do for the other transgender people in my life, especially when they first came out to me.
Why We Do It: It can be really difficult to admit when you’ve messed up. It can make you feel like a bad person – and feeling guilty about this can be uncomfortable to sit with. This is why many people with transgender loved ones can wind up very defensive.
But being defensive about your mistakes serves no one.
It doesn’t push you to learn or do better, and it can lead your loved one to believe you don’t feel remorse or regret – which is often quite the opposite of what you’re actually feeling! This is what defensiveness can sound like:
- “I can’t help that – I’m still learning! You should be more patient!”
- “You expect way too much of me. You need to lower your expectations.”
- “If you’d just teach me instead of getting angry, we wouldn’t have these problems.”
Have you ever said something like this before?
Notice how your mistake is suddenly the fault of your loved one – and how deflecting responsibility means you never actually take ownership of the harm you’ve caused.
Instead: Realize that making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad person. The real issue is when you’re unwilling to make it right. Take a deep breath, acknowledge the issue, and commit to doing better. It’s simple!
It helps to learn how to give a proper apology, and to know when a situation just calls for a quick correction (like misgendering in conversation), or when a situation requires deeper reflection (like the examples in this article!).
5. You Center Your Feelings and Disregard Theirs
This is far and away one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen loved ones make. If this sounds like you, trust me – you aren’t alone!
- “This isn’t easy for me, either!”
- “Hard on you? I feel like I’ve lost my daughter/son.”
- “You aren’t the only one feeling hurt.”
Why We Do It: I think it’s a very human thing to want our pain to be acknowledged, and a gender transition can definitely come with a lot of grief and confusion for loved ones. The difference here is whether or not it’s an appropriate time to ask for our pain to be seen.
A lot of the time, we’re trying so hard to keep that pain to ourselves that it comes out at the wrong time. We wind up blurting it out at the most inopportune moment, most often when our loved one is trying to have their suffering acknowledged.
This also stems from a place of resentment – that if only they had stayed the same, we wouldn’t have to deal with all of the emotions coming up in this transition.
But remember: This isn’t about you. They aren’t transitioning to upset you – they’re transitioning because this is what they need to be a happy, whole person.
Instead: Get a therapist. Write in a journal. Find a friend or loved one to process with. Join a support group. Whatever you do, don’t blame your loved one for your struggle to come to terms with their transition.
When you decenter their needs and prioritize yours, you’re putting a wedge between you that’ll only hurt you both.
6. You Say That You Don’t ‘Get It’ – But You Also Don’t Try To
I hear so many loved ones talking about how they don’t “understand” the whole “transgender thing” – but when I’ve asked if they’ve done any reading or watched any videos, they tell me they haven’t.
On the surface, this seems like a funny little contradiction. They say they don’t understand, but they’re also not trying to.
Why We Do It: Most often, when loved ones don’t take the time to educate themselves, it’s because they’re avoiding reality. They don’t know how to deal with the feelings that come up when they think about their loved one’s transition – so they pretend, as often as possible, that this transition isn’t happening.
But that doesn’t help anyone. It means that loved ones remain in the dark, and transgender folks remain misunderstood.
That’s a divide that ultimately strains the relationship – and makes trans people feel unloved, uncared for, and unimportant.
Instead: Here’s the good news: You’re already doing the “instead” part (go you!).
You’re reading this article. That means you’ve decided it’s time to start processing your feelings, and you’re making an effort to connect with your loved one as they are – and not how you wish they could be.
Remaining grounded in the here and now – accepting and affirming them for who they really are – is how you can build a more respectful and healthy relationship based in unconditional love and trust.
The fact that you’re taking the time to reflect on the ways in which you might be doing harm tells me that you care – and is the first of many steps I know you’ll take to do right by your loved one.
And that, my friend, is not something to feel bad about. That’s something to celebrate.
Thank you – this is extremely helpful. I especially second your suggestion about finding a trustworthy person with whom to process feelings and issues.
I had difficulty remembering the correct pronouns for a friend who is transgender. I was very embarrassed when I made a mistake; I was very confused as to why I seemed so slow to learn. A good therapist was able to help me process the issue, which allowed me to be a better friend.
My trans friend did not need to deal with my issues. *I* needed to deal with the issues. Sometimes skillful professional help is what we need.
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Reblogged this on cabbagesandkings524 and commented:
Sam explores some of the, sometimes subtle, difficulties and mistakes of family members and others in relation to transgendered people.
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Excellent discussion and presentation, as always, Sam. Thanks.
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Hey, I loved this list! I’m very happy you included #2! I’m glad I’m not the only one uncomfortable with photos being displayed. I told my step mother I was uncomfortable with a photo being up of me and she assaulted me and threw me out of the house Christmas Day for asking that it be taken down. I haven’t seen my family since! It’s terrible how something as simple as respecting boundaries becomes such a battleground for trans people.
Can I just send you a virtual hug? ❤
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Here’s the thing though. You also have to respect that with the people in your life who have always known you as male or female prior to your transformation, and by another name, have it ingrained. Therefore, it’s all too easy to revert back to “he” or “she” if that is how you were born and raised. These same people, especially your parents or siblings, are probably also mourning the identity that you had. Even if you know that you were always the same person, or are, and that’s entirely understandable (unless acting out for attention which seems to be the new reality for some transgender youth–some, not all as I personally know several), your shell is new and you’ve morphed in a way that takes some adjustment for those around you.
As if that isn’t enough for anyone else, it’s also difficult when some transgender individuals expect those around them to refer to you as the gender-less, but plural, “them” or “they” in the third person. As anyone who has been brought up to speak proper English, this is so against how we’ve been taught to speak, and therefore contrary to every day speech patterning. It is also tremendously difficult to do without forgetting the request to do so. And it is literally talking about someone in the third person in front of that same person, which is also rude (even if that is what you expect from others), or if they aren’t present it is confusing to others.
It is a whole new vocabulary and paradigm for everyone and rather than being entirely self-absorbed about it and demanding of others, I think transgender people need to cut everyone some slack. This is a new cultural reality that takes some adaptation, even with the most open-minded of individuals. Whether cultural, biological, or hormonal it is still happening and that’s an entirely different discussion (why more transgenders now than before, etc.). So if you push the envelope too far and make too many demands of those who love you, or have impossible-to-meet expectations of them, you will only further alienate those who love you or are trying very hard to understand and come to terms with your new reality, which is also theirs, too, just by knowing you. And now even more lines are being blurred with the many definitions of sexuality.
Yes, a biological sex change (or not) is someone’s personal business but if you are young I think it is a parent’s right to question your decisions and want you to make certain decisions slowly. If you have femme hair, and a beard, for example it further confuses those around you and the general public who has a hard enough time with all of these realities. Most people, by nature of their dress and appearance, have an inherent sign that says “male” or “female” (and sometimes even “gay” or “straight” or “butch” or “femme” or whatever). When the lines are further blurred by more complicated examples of self-gender expression or sexuality, or just gender blurring all around, you have to understand that there is going to be confusion from the cis world. All I’m saying is you have to cut people some slack. It’s a two way reality. Maybe we should just approach each other as human beings and not labels of sexuality or gender and revert to the Golden Rule of conduct. We can only wish.
I am very sympathetic and do not walk in your shoes. I’m just trying to explain the other side of the fence in a hopefully empathetic way.
I find it difficult to believe that you actually read this article. Because the tone of the article itself is actually VERY compassionate, patient, and understanding, which is why the format is a “why we do it / instead” approach. The “why we do it” is where the empathy comes in, and the “instead” is how we can move through those feelings.
I created this resource specifically to humanize folks like my parents, my grandparents, who have very valid emotions and pain as they navigate this. This is an article to help them process that pain.
Please, for the sake of writers like me who put SO much effort into creating these resources — hours upon hours, digging deep into our own pain to humanize folks who hurt us — actually read before dismissing the work. The point you’re making in this comment was acknowledged countless times in this piece. Please read it before wasting your time saying something that was already considered when this resource was written.
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Apologies to your efforts but I did read the article and I was probably speaking more to those individuals who get extremely hostile about those people in their lives who are not so understanding or compliant to their wishes. I know one person in particular and they’ve caused a great deal of pain to those who love them. I was just sharing how difficult it can be for those who love transgender people in the sense of dialogue/another perspective. I have experienced that it can be a very self-centered transformation and therefore further fraught with land mines for everyone else. This is a reality for them just as the transgender person’s journey is their reality. Thank you for posting my comment.
Also, I will ban you in a heartbeat if you EVER come into a trans space again and tell me that transgender youth are acting out for attention. That is deeply offensive and it’s not welcome here. Trans youth are reading this blog, looking for validation and support. Your transphobia is not permitted in this space.
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Did I say all? I said some. I know some. I also know some individuals who clearly exhibited alternative gender behaviors from a young age and were raised as their prefered, inherent sex. I am not transphobic but there has to be dialogue around these topics in general in our society or there will be further isolation of trans youth and adults just by a complete lack of understanding on either side.
You are being transphobic. Everything you’ve just said is harmful to trans people.
1. You claim to understand the genders of trans youth better than they know their own.
2. You believe it’s okay to not believe trans youth when they come out.
3. You’re misusing terminology and opting for offensive phrasing like “inherent sex.”
4. You’re implying that you are better qualified to dialogue about the genders of trans youth than folks within my community.
5. You are placing equal weight on “each side” when in reality, there are no sides. These dialogues must be driven by trans folks because we are the ones that should be telling our stories.
6. You are suggesting that trans people are responsible for educating cis people, while never acknowledging that cis people must do the work to undo transphobia.
You can tell me you’re not transphobic. But I promise you, having worked in these spaces for years and having lived experience of transphobic hostility and violence, you are playing into attitudes that puts my community at risk. You have learning to do.
I will not be replying to you any further. You have work to do. I’m not here to do it for you.
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For example, the words “genderqueer” and “binary” are fairly new in our lexicon. I consider myself to be a savvy feminist woman who attended a woman’s college, has many gay friends on all sides, and yet these words still baffle me, as are the many other sexual identity terms on certain websites which are also new. I only just learned what “cis” was last year. So if I get confused, which could be perceived as not understanding or compassionate, imagine the common person out there who is just barely acknowledging the phenomenon that is happening now as to gender and its many deviations? That you self-identify (is that the right term?) as an “genderqueer alien boy” who is also transgender and “an unapologetic feminist,” I say bravo, but there is bound to be confusion out in the world and on your blog. This is the place that much of our society finds themselves in and I’m not sure how to bridge that gap culturally without some feelings getting hurt all around.
Well, I’m sorry that you are so offended by my comments. It shows that you have maturing to do of your own. Everything you say about my sensibilities is entirely wrong. If you wish to live in a world that understands you entirely without any question or concern or issues of their own as someone who knows you well or has raised you, you are asking a great deal of it. I don’t even know you as a person but am speaking out about the flip side of the expectations put upon the families and friends of many transgender individuals and younger people in particular. I won’t reply again and again, I’m sorry you took offense. As you have a comment section I was responding to your post in a respectful way based on my own experiences — which yes, are as valid as yours.
If your response to someone calling on you to reflect about the harm you are doing is to suggest they’re immature, you’ve fully proven my point. I genuinely hope that trans folks don’t cross paths with you, because they will only be hurt.
You called me “transphobic,” so forgive my questioning of your maturity. You are wrong about me. If you really read what I wrote in my first comment you would find that I am writing from the perspective of someone who seeks to understand and has experienced certain demands, for lack of a better word, from certain trans individuals, as to how to navigate through their changes. I have also experienced this in observing other people who have transgender children or siblings. There is often a great deal of hurt and missteps and sensitivity all around. How should those experiencing someone transitioning while not knowing the terms, the language, the nuances behave other than to ask those questions or to try to let you know how they are perceiving their experiences? I was doing no harm. We all have to be open-minded, especially when new gender definitions are being defined by one person or group, and then put in in the world towards others who may be more reticent or confused about what is happening — whether individually or collectively. Maturity or a sense of objectivity is essential in that journey for everyone. Thank you.
Your tweets in the past ten minutes are only proving my point. It’s not all about they/them (and I say that in the third person collective). The transgender people I know who are older understand this reality: the confusion and the issues from those who love them and that, no, it’s not everyone else’s problem. They are more sensitive to these nuances and don’t demand others to fall in line without knowing the rules. There is much less sensitivity. Perhaps it is a generational thing. You are obviously speaking to transgender youth as was I. Two-way street. But if they are going to upset the apple cart in the street you have to expect a bit of chaos and misunderstandings. It’s all about mutual compassion.
Cathazat, it’s time that you have a seat. You do not have to understand or like the struggle that trans people experience and how they choose to express their identity. It doesn’t matter if it is “confusing” for someone to exhibit both masculine and feminine qualities, it’s their life and their choice. Language evolves and the singular they/them is part of that evolution. I will always make room for transfolks and their needs and experiences. Why do you find it so taxing?
Also, it’s obvious that the point of the article raced past you like a bullet train. Stop. Re-read it. Take stock of your biases before you do any more damage to transfolks in your life. Confusion is fine, but you resolve that by asking questions, not making definitive statements to redefine things at your comfort level. That’s pushing your ideals and expectations onto a struggle and experience that just isn’t yours.
Step back and just quietly learn for a little while longer before you try to engage again. You may mean well, but your impact in this space has had the opposite effect.
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“Neutrois” is BS. Seriously. When you (again, the collective ‘you’) complicate the litany you further confuse the paradigm. Keep it clean and simple. There will be less head-scratching and confusion from those individuals with whom you interact in person or those who seek to understand. The perception is that “you” want everyone to just fall in line and know this stuff but it keeps changing. Yes, language evolves but sexuality doesn’t go from straight/gay/bi to about fifty different nuances within a matter of years. THAT is the real rebellion and the lack of objective understanding about the primarily cis world that you live in.
Just know I’m only approving your comments because you’re digging yourself into a deeper and deeper hole.
Taking a seat now. Thanks for reading. I am one of the most objective, tolerant people who would ever meet but if the language/definitions/pronouns are perplexing to me, and to older gay or transgender people that are in my life, what about to those people who are NOT tolerant!? I’ve just been throwing this out there based on a recent interaction and a complete bafflement about the response from a trans person to their family about not using proper terminology. It’s like someone has entirely redefined their external universe and then expects everyone to just understand without really knowing how to navigate, despite their love and best interests for that person.
Objectivity doesn’t exist. We all have biases and subjective experience — and your bias is one in which you believe that you are somehow above transgender people.
Above, as in, “I can speak to their experiences better than they can.” Above, as in, “When a trans person says I’m harming them, I won’t slow my roll for a second to consider it.” Above, as in, “I don’t need to listen because I already know everything there is to know.”
I wrote a resource to bridge this gap that you keep talking about — a piece read by thousands upon thousands of people, and utilized effectively by loved ones all over. What have you done to bridge this gap, other than reinforce intolerance and refuse to listen to the very people whose lives are most impacted by this conversation?
If you were objective, you’d know that you aren’t an authority of the lives of trans people and you’d know not to speak over us. You’d know that because you don’t have access to this experience, you need to listen more than you talk.
But you’ve chosen not to.
From here on out, your comments will not be approved. You’ve made your point. You’ve hurt folks. You’ve hurt me. And I’m not giving you a platform to do that anymore.
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They are only perplexing to you because you’re ignorant both of the English Language and anything outside your personal, narrow, experience.
*shrugs* Literally, take your ignorance privilege and stuff it up your arse sideways because NONE of this is new. It’s you who are uneducated.
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ALSO WANTED TO POINT THIS OUT, BECAUSE IT IRKS ME BEYOND BELIEF:
The use of singular “they” is already a part of everyday speech. It’s also a practice that is old as fuck. See here: https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/12/the-atlantics-case-for-the-singular-gender-neutral-theyin-1879/419433/ and also see: every time your mom says “So-and-so-called to talk to you” and you go “What did they want?” in response.
And even if neither of those things were the case, language changes with culture. They are inextricably linked. If you are holding onto the precipice of some tired, old, (frankly) classist idea of “proper English” please kindly fuck off into the night and leave transgender people who are just TRYING TO BE THEIR AUTHENTIC SELVES out of your messy and contrived grammar police bullshit. I hope you’re also showing up in the comments of everyone who uses the words “googled” and “vlogger” to pontificate the joys of traditional English, followed by reciting Beowulf untranslated in its entirety. In conclusion: ur not enlightened or tolerant or anything even remotely kind of close to objective. You are, in fact, a fallible human being. Welcome to the club. Sit the fuck down and listen for a little while before you decide to stand on a virtual soap box again.
Sam Dylan Finch, I’ve been reading your writings. You are an extraordinary writer. I’m sorry if I offended you (them?) but I truly seek to understand. I, too, struggle with depression. It can be crippling. Zoloft did not work for me. Wellbutrin (300mg) has done the trick. As if life isn’t hard enough one has to experience depression. I wouldn’t wish it on, well, our current POTUS. Same with perimenopause and menopause. It can be a living hell. I hope you continue the good fight and sharing with the world.
There is a lot of overt discrimination and misunderstanding right now around the proposed inclusion of gender expression and identity in Canada’s Human Rights Code. While a lot of it is really overt stuff, some of the points you mention above echo a lot of the subtler ways in which some just refuse to see transgender people as human beings, let their own fears and ego get in the way, and just don’t seem aware of what they are doing.
Let’s hope this changes sooner than later. Thanks.
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