My Child is Trans, Now What? Chapter Preview
Thank you for being here. Before we begin, I want to answer a few questions.
1. What is this? At original time of posting, this was a sneak peek of the first two chapters of a book I began writing in the summer of 2020 called My (Blank) is Trans, Now What?. The full book goes through all the different relationships folks can have with trans people (my student, my patient, my child, etc.) and how to be supportive in those specific dynamics. Though I wanted to have it fully published by this time so that people could send it home to their families before the holidays, 2020 laughed at my plans. Ultimately, I decided I still wanted to try to use part of what I had created so far to help anyone living in, traveling to, or zooming into a situation where they had not yet come out or they weren’t on the exact same page as their family. Hopefully, the full book will be released sometime next year!
2. Who is this for? This is for anyone. No matter what you know already, how you feel, whom you know (or don’t know) that’s trans, this is meant for you. If this material is brand new to you, I want to applaud you for taking this first step and reading this, and I’m honored to be your guide through the beginning of your educational journey. For all the allies who are reading this, know that educating yourself is one of the most powerful acts of kindness you can do.
3. Who am I? That’s a great question. My name is Ben Greene, I use he/him/his pronouns, and I’m your guide through what I hope is a friendly, approachable introduction to LBGTQ+ identities and impactful allyship. I am an openly transgender man, which means that I spent 16 years of my life living somewhat uncomfortably as a girl and then began transitioning to male just over 5 years ago. I’ve been the “designated educator” for my whole transition, and lucky for me I ended up loving it. I graduated from Brandeis University a year early after I gave a TEDx talk and realized that I wanted to make a career out of public speaking and transgender education and advocacy. Since graduating, I have been running my own business working as an independent consultant speaking at companies, webinars, and conferences internationally about how to be an impactful ally.
4. Anything else I should know? My goal is to help as many people as I can, so if you know someone else who could benefit from reading this guide, I encourage you to send it their way! If you feel like you could use some more support or have a few questions you’d like answered more in-depth, you can set up a time to go “out to lunch” with me here! Also, I am currently doing all of this education for free in my spare time (usually late nights) after work. If you find value in this guide and have the means to do so, you can donate to my virtual tip jar via Venmo @Ben-Greene-92095, or donate to a local organization that supports trans youth in your area.
As an update, this book has shifted in scope and timeline! I am now represented by an agent and working hard to prepare this book to submit to publishers. Though these chapters will no longer appear exactly as they are in the actual book, this serves as a great introduction to understanding and supporting the transgender community, and I encourage you to use it as a resource!
Chapter 1: An Introduction to LGBTQ+ Identities
The conversation about LGBTQ+ identities can be a daunting one to enter. The number of vocabulary words alone can seem overwhelming, and it doesn’t help that these words, and acronyms, seem like they’re constantly changing. This book is meant for anyone with any level of previous knowledge or understanding of LGBTQ+ identities. Whether you yourself are trans or this is the very first time you’re hearing these words, this book is meant for you. Before we go any further, I want to take a look at a mini-dictionary of the vocabulary words that we’re going to be seeing quite a bit of over the next two chapters. These are short explanations, but I promise we will go much further into each term throughout this first chapter.
LGBTQ+: An acronym that includes all sexualities and gender identities that fall outside of what society deems as “normal”. To refer to everyone who identifies as LGBTQ+, you would say “the LGBTQ+ community”.
Sexuality: Someone’s identity based on the gender or gender identities to which they experience attraction.
Sex: the biological categories (male or female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.
Gender: Someone’s internal sense of being male, female, or another identity.
Gender Expression: How someone manifests their gender identity, whether it is through clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms, etc. Often classified as masculine or feminine.
Let’s begin with the broadest term in our dictionary: The acronym!
Each of the letters stands for a different identity, and we’re going to go through and talk about each letter individually. The easiest way to approach this conversation is to begin by breaking it down into two categories: identities that are related to your sexuality, for example, gay or bisexual, and identities that are related to your gender, such as transgender or nonbinary. Maybe these are new words too, and that’s okay! We’re going to take it one step at a time.
What is sexuality? In short, it’s the way we describe our attraction to others, both romantically and physically. Most people identify as heterosexual, or “straight” colloquially, which refers to someone who is exclusively attracted to members of the “opposite sex” (insofar as “opposite” is a fair word to use). Outside of straight, there are many ways people choose to label themselves. Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual are the most commonly known sexualities from the acronym, LGBTQ+. Lesbian refers to a woman who is only attracted to other women. Gay refers to a man who is only attracted to other men. These are the two most straightforward identities, but even here there is nuance. We’ll get to that.
Bisexual, Bi for short, is an identity that takes on different meanings for different people. The prefix bi- means two or both, which helps us understand that bisexuality was originally defined as being attracted to both men and women. For many people, what it meant to them in practice was that they were attracted to people of all genders or regardless of their gender. The concept of attraction to all genders versus regardless of gender is somewhat complicated, but in the simplest terms, it means that some people are attracted to people of different genders in different ways, while for others gender identity has no bearing on their attractions. As time passed and it became more common to identify as a gender other than male or female, people expanded their definition of bisexuality. Folks felt like the label fit well for them, and now define it as being attracted to those that have the same or different gender identities. This is a point we will continue to return to, different labels mean different things to different folks. To give you a more familiar example of this, someone from New York and someone from Chicago will have very different interpretations of the word “pizza”, but they use the same label because it fits right for them. I identify as bisexual, which to me means that I am attracted to those that identify as male and those who do not.
Some people identify as Pansexual, Pan for short, which is a person attracted to people regardless of their gender identity. No, it does not mean an attraction to pans, and no, you are not the first one to come up with that joke. You may be thinking that bisexuality and pansexuality seem quite similar, which would be an excellent observation. The biggest difference between these two identities comes down to how people who use these labels feel about them. For some, saying “I’m bisexual!” feels just right. For others, it leaves something to be desired, while “I’m pansexual!” feels natural. If you take away one thing from reading this, it should be that everyone’s identity is up to them, and the most important thing in life is that everyone feels comfortable, happy, and authentic. There is no right or wrong way to identify as long as it feels right to you.
Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of stigma that exists around bisexual and pansexual identities. Some view bi and pan identities as an in-between for people who are afraid to come out as lesbian or gay. These ideas are propagated both by those who identify as straight and those who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Bi and pan folks are stereotyped as being unfaithful, greedy, or promiscuous. These are harmful misconceptions, brought about by scant and inaccurate media representation. What few bi and pan characters exist in TV or movies all adhere to and strengthen this stereotype. As an example, one of the most popular plotlines around bisexual characters occurs in shows that are about a straight woman with a gay male best friend (stereotype bingo!) who both find themselves crushing on a cute boy. 15 minutes into the episode, it’s revealed that they’re both dating the same person, and he’s bi! Plotlines like these, though they add to the drama or comedy of a show, confirm the subconscious notion that you can’t trust a bisexual person to be loyal because dating someone of one gender isn’t enough for them. Though recently there has been an effort to move away from this type of directly negative trope, subtler messages still remain as nearly all bisexual tv characters are still shown as being hypersexual in some way. This stereotype also contributes to statistically higher rates of intimate partner violence for people who identify as bi or pan. Their partners are more likely to become untrusting or jealous because of their perceptions of inevitable bisexual infidelity.
To go one level deeper into the nuance of human sexuality, we’re going to explore the identities that come from the spectrum of asexuality. Some folks identify as Asexual or Aromantic (Ace or Aro, respectively). What this means, broadly, is that they don’t experience sexual and/or romantic attraction. More specifically, ace and aro are umbrella terms, meaning that a lot of things fall into that category. There are lots of different ways people can experience asexuality. Some are repulsed by the idea of sex, while others feel neutral about it. Some are only interested if they have a deep, trusting relationship with their partner. Asexuality isn’t a defect, it isn’t something you should cross your fingers and hope someone grows out of, and it doesn’t mean someone is going to live an unfulfilling life. It just means that sex or romance (depending on their identity) isn’t a top priority or a requirement for life to feel fulfilling.
The Q in LGBTQ+ stands for Queer, which has different meanings to different people. For many, especially a large proportion of the youngest members of the community, the word queer is used as an umbrella term to mean any identity that is outside of what larger society views as the norm. People who feel their identities are too complex or fluid to describe to others or even understand themselves find queer a comfortable “catch-all” label. The origins of this word, however, are less open and friendly. Before the ’80s, queer was used as a hateful slur against LGBTQ+ people, but as time passed and visibility and resilience increased, some members of the LGBTQ+ community began to reclaim it. The concept of reclaiming slurs is not unique to the LGBTQ+ community. Many marginalized groups have taken the words used to harm them and claimed them as their own with a new, empowering meaning. By casually and lovingly using words like queer, members of the LGBTQ+ community take away the power they have over us as messages of hate. This doesn’t make words with hateful origins harmless-- with a cruel enough tone, any word can be weaponized. Some people may never be able to move past the hurtful memories “queer” brings up for them. To stay on the safe side, if you want to use this word to refer to someone else, it’s best to check in with them about how they feel about it.
Recently, many young people have been using the word gay in a similar way. Many people of all gender identities and sexualities refer to themselves, their partners, their relationships, or their friends as gay. It’s hard to pin down exactly why this caught on as much as it did; it might be because people like having a label that’s broad and nonspecific, or as a way to reclaim the negatively-connoted phrase “that’s so gay”--or it might just be that gen-z humor is a bit weird. Whatever the reason, it’s a use of the label that has been rapidly growing in popularity, so it’s important to note that if you hear someone referring to someone as gay it isn’t necessarily about a man who only likes men. For the purposes of this book and your understanding, when I use the word gay, unless I specify otherwise, I am referring to a man who is attracted to men.
We’ve explored most of the letters in the acronym (LGBTQ+) and the next part we’re going to look at is the plus sign. The plus sign at the end of the acronym is inclusive of all identities that society doesn’t view as “normal”. It’s important to note that people don’t actually identify as “plus”, think of it more like an “and more!” statement that includes other identities. If you’re thinking “isn’t it a little exclusive to have a community that includes everyone except straight people?” at face value, that’s a reasonable concern. In the end, what holds the LGBTQ+ community together is the shared experience of facing discrimination and persecution becasue of our identities. There are intentional systems in place to try to block all non-straight marriages or prohibit access to transition related care (among many other things) and our resilience and battle against these systems is what binds us together.This is in no way saying that those who identify as straight are completely immune to discrimination, this is just to say that they are immune to discrimination based specifically on who they love or how they identify.
I know this might be a lot. 7 identities have already been introduced to you, and based on how many pages you’ve got left, there’s probably going to be quite a few more. As time passes, there are more and more labels people use to identify themselves, which some view as excessive. Some people, either in an effort to be funny or in attempts to be intentionally unkind say things like “LGBTQABC123” or refer to the community as “the alphabet people.” Yes, there are a lot of identities, but they all exist for a reason. Everyone experiences attraction in a way that’s unique to them, so it makes sense that there are a lot of different words to describe these attractions. People like to have specific labels because it allows them to find specific communities, connect with people who are experiencing similar thoughts and feelings, and communicate their experiences to the world. The thing is, no one is trying to get you to change your label, or asking you to learn every identity. The overarching goal of the push for greater inclusivity is simply that you respect every identity. The best thing you can do is be open to the possibility that you will meet someone who has an identity you have not yet heard of, and if someone does come out to you with an identity that’s new to you, asking them for more information or typing it into google will likely yield some very helpful results and will show them that you respect them and are open to learning more.
This brings us to our last important point regarding sexuality, which is a reminder that with so many identities people can have, the odds of a random person assuming someone’s sexuality correctly are pretty small. Generally, people like to assume that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, which can be a harmful attitude that makes all those who are different feel like an “other” or like they are defective and not normal. The societal focus on straight identities as the norm, or even the goal, is referred to as “heteronormativity”. The reality is, there are tens of millions of people worldwide who don’t identify as straight, and as more people see doors open they feel comfortable coming out too. It’s perfectly normal and acceptable for people to need to take time to understand their own identities, and their labels may evolve or change as they learn more about themselves. Some people live whole lives before they realize and accept their identities, while others know right away. You’re never too young, or too old, to live your truth.
Now that we’ve covered all the other letters in the acronym (LGBTQ+), let’s dig in to the T. Transgender. That’s what brought you here, after all. How is transgender defined? The simplest and broadest definition is someone whose gender identity is different than what they were assigned at birth.
Before getting into trans identities, let’s first take a moment to look again at the mini-dictionary of terms that will help us here:
Sex: the biological categories (male or female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.
Gender: Someone’s internal sense of being male, female, or another identity.
Gender Expression: How someone manifests their gender identity, whether it is through clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms, etc. Often classified as masculine or feminine.
The concepts of gender and sex, and the differences between them, can sometimes be hard to understand, especially if this is your first time learning about these terms. So let’s break it down and start at the beginning. When a baby is born, the medical professional overseeing the birth will take a look at what reproductive organs the baby is born with and will declare “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” and write M or F on the baby’s birth certificate. What they are identifying is the baby’s sex. Their gender identity, which is their internal sense of feeling male, female, or another identity, is assumed to be the same as their gender. As an aside, the idea that someone identifies as either male or female is referred to as the gender binary, binary being a word that broadly means two distinct and all-encompassing categories. This is a concept we’ll explore further in depth later on. The act of declaring someone’s sex and gender when they’re born is where we get the phrase “sex/gender assigned at birth.” When I was born, I was assigned female at birth, as I was born with female reproductive organs.
I want to take a minute here to highlight something really important. As much as some of us would like to believe that there are still some things in the world that are black and white, the reality is that very little in this world is truly binary. As an example, let’s revisit biological sex, about which we have been taught that human beings are exclusively born male or female. In actuality, some folks are born as what’s called Intersex, which is something that is minimally discussed and even less understood. The Intersex Society of North America defines Intersex as “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” This, like most of the other things we’ve discussed, is a broad category that extends to a lot of people. The ISNA points out that “Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.” There is also a tragic history worldwide of doctors attempting to “fix” intersex babies and suggesting or even forcing “gender normalization” surgeries on otherwise healthy intersex babies to make them more “clearly male or female.” Several studies found that many of the babies that have these surgeries chosen for them grow up to identify as transgender or to feel very negatively towards their parents for making this life-altering decision for them. Fortunately, thanks to the work of tireless and powerful intersex advocates, many hospitals are beginning to ban these surgeries. Though this may be a group you haven’t heard of before, it isn’t a small group by any means. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 1 in every 2,000 people is born with some form of atypical genitalia, which is the exact cutoff for something to be classified as “rare”. Though this may seem small, it amounts to around 4 million people, which is more than the individual populations of 50% of the states in the US!
What we’ve talked about so far is what happens in the four walls of whatever room a baby is born in, so we’re going to move on to explore how these concepts impact the majority of our lives. Once folks know the sex of their baby, there are certain things that are expected or planned for based on that sex. Nurseries are painted pink or blue, closets are stocked full of “future princess” or “little ladies man” onesies, and assumptions are made about what they’ll like to do and who they’ll grow up to be. These are known as their gender roles; expectations that are placed on that child based solely on whether they have XX or XY chromosomes. Here’s the thing. As a general rule, the concept of fitting people into any type of box isn’t very beneficial to anyone, and gender is one of the most well known and influential binary-box-divides. The good news is, there has been an incredible amount of progress towards moving away from these norms and creating a more open society.
Though in the full version of this book there will be a whole chapter specifically for parents, I want to highlight something really important now. I am not suggesting that you raise your children entirely absent of gender. What I’m advising is that you raise your children with openness to things outside of what’s typically expected of their gender. This note applies to the whole movement to get rid of gender norms. We’re trying to get rid of the idea of what people have to do, not what people can do. Focus on what makes you feel happy and empowered, regardless of what gendered label is attached to it. Here I offer you a simple challenge— try to think about your own life, your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions. Are there things that you feel you have to do because of your gender identity? Are there things you’re afraid to do because they’re outside of the norm for your gender? How does your gender identity color your perspectives and experiences? By looking at ourselves with intention and thoughtful questions, you’d be surprised at what you might learn.
This idea of a relationship existing between your gender and the way you live your life leads us into our next definition: gender expression. Your expression is the way that you choose to present yourself. How you dress, how you wear your hair, or how you interact with others. Your expression can change based on things like how you’re feeling that day or how comfortable you are with the people you’re around. For me, I identify as male and when I’m around people that I don’t feel very safe with, I try extra hard to present very masculinely so they don’t doubt my identity or make incorrect assumptions about me. When I’m with my close friends or family, I feel comfortable putting less effort into being “intentionally masculine.” Though my gender expression and identity line up, they don’t have to for everyone. Many people identify as female but present more masculinely, or identify as male but present more androgynously (without a gender). Just as there are many ways someone can identify, there are many ways people can express those identities!
Now that we’ve got a grasp of what gender is and how we show it, let’s talk about what it means to be transgender. There are many different ways that people define or identify as transgender, so we’ll start with the simplest. The two identities that everyone has heard of are male and female, and the definition of transgender that most people have heard of is transitioning from one of those to the other. I’m an example of this, I was born female and began my transition to male just over 5 years ago. Others are born male and transition to female. There are a couple of different words people may use to describe people who transition in this way. Here’s a quick dictionary of the most common related acronyms and phrases:
AMAB: assigned male at birth
AFAB: assigned female at birth
Trans man: someone who is transitioning to male
Trans woman: someone who is transitioning to female
Additionally, here is a dictionary of words that people often use but are NOT appropriate or correct and should not be used:
You may have also heard the term cisgender, which we can break down with our prefix knowledge. The prefix “cis-” means “on the same side as”, which essentially means someone whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth are the same. Whether they know it or not, most people identify as cisgender. Most broadly, cisgender is the opposite of transgender. If we look at the definition of transgender in these terms, it’s someone whose gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. This is where we get into the idea of trans as an umbrella term that encapsulates many identities. Though some people are trans and identify as male or female, there are many other ways people can identify.
Gender is not just a one-or-the-other identity. It’s a broad spectrum that has many variations of identities where people can be creative and authentic and identify as whatever feels right to them. There are a lot of different labels here, so here’s a short list of the most common ones.
Nonbinary: someone who does not identify as male or female. Some folks just identify as nonbinary while others use it as an umbrella term and have other labels they use as well.
Genderqueer: To understand what it means to be Genderqueer, let’s look back on the definition of queer that we talked about earlier. Queer, as it relates to sexuality, is an umbrella term for those who have attractions that are outside of what society views as “normal”, so to apply that here, genderqueer is an umbrella term for a gender identity that is outside of what’s viewed as “normal”. In this case, “normal” is male or female.
Genderfluid: someone whose identity fluctuates over time. It may change by the week, by the month, by the day, or even by the hour.
Agender: Someone who does not identify as any gender.
Pangender: someone who identifies as many gender identities at once.
Just as we discussed in the sexualities section, this may feel like a lot. People love to joke about the “200 genders” and say things like “if you can identify as x, I can identify as an attack helicopter”. In the end, does it make a difference in your life how other people identify their own gender? Nope! But does it make a difference in someone’s life to be able to find an identity that feels just right for them? You bet it does! Just like all the different sexualities, you don’t need to have every identity memorized. You just need to have your mind open to the idea of people having identities you haven’t heard of before, and feel comfortable doing some independent research to learn more.
We’ve talked a bit about the labels, but what does this look like in real life? How does someone know that they’re trans? It’s a little different for everyone. Because everyone experiences their gender differently, it makes sense that not everyone knows in the exact same way or at the exact same time that they’re transgender. Some young kids know right away that they’re trans. There are people like me who come out around puberty as they start to develop secondary sex characteristics that they feel uncomfortable with.
Some trans and nonbinary people, but not all, experience something called gender dysphoria, which is a feeling of discomfort that stems from feeling a mismatch between your sex and your gender identity. This feeling can be distressing and difficult to deal with. Some people transition as a way to mitigate that gender dysphoria. For others, transitioning is a way to seek out gender euphoria, a feeling of joy that comes from feeling at home in your identity and in your body.
Though I can’t tell you about the “universal trans experience”, because there isn’t one, I can tell you about my experience. Trans topics weren’t something I was exposed to at any point in my life, so when I started to feel a sense of discomfort and disconnection from my body I was confused because I didn’t even have the vocabulary to try to look it up online. I was 15 when I started to become aware of the discomfort I was experiencing, and I really struggled with the feelings themselves and the confusion that went along with them. All I knew was that if I stared into a mirror and looked into my eyes, I felt like I was looking into the eyes of an entirely different person. Someone who was trapped.
With a lot of time and a lot of research, I figured out that I was trans, and I started to go by the name Ben with my 3 closest friends. I began quietly purchasing more masculine clothes from the women’s section—for a while I was too afraid to even enter the men’s section—and wearing them in my room or when I went out with one of these 3 friends. Even after I first came out, I continued to struggle with my identity; I thought that if I was going to be a man I had to “commit” to it and become a hyper-masculine teenage boy, but I realized pretty quickly that this version of myself was just as much of a performance as being a girl was. If the point of coming out as trans was to live more authentically, why did I still feel so fake? With more time and more research, I came to understand that I could be a man who still had the same hobbies, same friends, and the same personality as I did before I came out.
Once I settled in to the idea of myself as a more feminine man, I started to experience gender euphoria in many new ways. Though I struggled at times, especially as I learned to navigate the world as a trans person, I have become happier with each day that passes. When I had top surgery a year ago, my life was changed in more ways than I could have imagined and the euphoria I experience day-to-day is something I didn’t think was possible for myself 5 years ago.
What I’ve shared with you is just one story out of over a million in the US alone. I will reiterate here that if there’s one thing you take away from this book, it’s that there is no right or wrong way for anyone to identify as anything. There is no set schedule, no set of steps, and no process that’s required for someone to officially be trans, nonbinary, or any other identity.
I will make a quick note here that later versions of the book will include, among many other things, a comprehensive review of all the different ways someone may choose to transition medically, an in depth review of the intersectionality of trans identities with other marginalized identities, and a deep dive into the long standing historical and cultural existence of gender variance. Though these resources aren't here in this document yet, they do exist on the internet, and if you’re feeling curious and open to learning about these topics, I implore you to do some of your own research. Researching on your own is one of the many ways that you can create meaningful change and be an active, impactful ally to the trans people in your life, and in the latter half of this document, we’ll go on to review many more tips for how to help.
Chapter 2: How to Support Anyone That's Trans
Now that we know what it means to be trans, we’ll start learning what it means to be an ally, and how to do so in a way that is impactful and respectful. A quick clarifier, though it is grammatically smoother to talk about “trans people” as a unit, like any other group, trans people can’t be broadly generalized, and when I say trans people, what I mean is some trans people. I am also using trans in its form as an umbrella term, which also includes those who are nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, or any other identities. The bottom line that I want to drive home throughout this entire book is that if you want to know what you can do to support one specific trans person, you should ask them what you can do to support them. That being said, there are several general things that are good to know and are good things to default to if you aren’t asked or told otherwise.
What is Coming Out?
At this point, you’ve probably heard the expression “coming out.” If not from someone else, I know I’ve said it at least once before this page. The act of coming out, to put it simply, is when any LGBT person tells another person about their identity. As simple as it sounds, it’s one of the hardest, scariest things for an LGBT person to do. Even if you aren’t a member of the community, you have probably experienced some kind of a coming out moment yourself. Imagine a time where you had some big announcement that you needed to deliver. If you’ve ever needed to share a deep dark secret or be the bearer of bad news, try to remember how that felt. Even though coming out as LGBT isn’t bearing bad news, the fear of a negative reaction is very similar. There’s a terror that someone will change how they see you, how they treat you, or even how much they want you in their life. Historically a massive proportion of LGBT people have been kicked out of their homes after coming out. Even if someone’s family hasn’t expressed that they would kick them out if they came out, this is the type of queer story that is most dominant in mainstream media. Even if the actual proportion isn’t that high, seeing it everywhere makes us feel like it’s a lot more common, which explains much of the fear around coming out. We’ll come back to this concept of anticipated negative responses later.
One of the most universal things I heard during interviews I conducted with various trans folks is that coming out is a process. Because our society is structured with straight as the assumed default sexuality, and cisgender as the assumed default gender identity, many LGBT people feel like they spend their whole lives coming out to others. For trans people, this happens in two “directions” so to speak. The first direction is when someone comes out to a friend or family member who knew them as the gender they were assigned at birth. The easiest way to explain this concept is with an anecdote. When I came out in the first direction, I told my parents, family members, and close friends that I identified as transgender. I asked them to start calling me Ben and to refer to me using he/him pronouns, and I let them know that I would be changing the way I was living and presenting my gender from then on. It’s important to note that my specific story isn’t the only way to come out. Not everyone chooses to change their name, their pronouns, or their presentation, but most people will have some type of coming out in this first direction, whatever form that may take. This is how someone comes out to their family, to their childhood friends, to the people at their high school reunion, anyone who knew them before they transitioned. The second direction is coming out to people who previously had no idea someone transitioned, people they meet later in life who just assume they are cisgender. This includes people like new romantic partners or new places of employment. As an example, when I got to college many of my peers assumed I had been assigned male at birth and was cisgender, and when I came out to them it took the form of my sharing the story of my transition.
Though in theory, you’d think it would be easier to come out in this second “direction” because you aren’t asking anyone to change anything about the way they refer to or think about you, the reality is that people often lose friendships, relationships, and jobs after sharing this part of their identity. One of the most common reactions--stated explicitly or otherwise--is that some people feel like they’ve been tricked or deceived, or that the person coming out to them has been dishonest for not disclosing their identity immediately. Though it may not seem like it, these feelings can be extremely dangerous and contribute directly to the disproportionately high rates of violence against trans folks, especially trans women of color, who are tragically murdered at unacceptably high rates. These murders are often at the hands of straight, cisgender men who see a trans woman, feel attracted to her, find out that she is trans and assume that then makes them gay, feel insecure, and need to lash out physically at the source of that insecurity.
Both types of coming out are terrifying, especially when you have no idea how the people you are telling are going to react. The TV we watch, the books we read, and the news we hear are all full of stories of people coming out and not receiving the best reactions. Because of how little representation or education there is for trans people, we don’t always have opportunities to see ourselves reflected in positive ways and therefore can struggle to conceptualize a coming out conversation going well. Why wouldn’t we be terrified?
You may also hear the phrase “coming out to myself.” This is in reference to when someone realizes their own identity and accepts it for the first time. I came out to myself as transgender in October of my junior year of high school. It took me a long time to fully understand and accept my transgender identity, and even longer to be able to say the words out loud. I first started questioning my gender months before coming out, but I tried finding other ways to explain the feeling and avoid what I deep down knew was true. Maybe I was just having weird, late puberty. Maybe I was just a really butch lesbian. These by the way, though they weren’t true for me, are true for others. It is possible and common to be a butch lesbian and not be trans. As we discussed earlier, expression is not the same as identity.
Some people choose to stop coming out. This is referred to as being “stealth”. When you’re stealth, people only know you as the gender you identify as and present. They have no idea that you ever identified or were perceived as anything else. There are a lot of reasons that people may choose to be stealth. Some do it because they don’t want to be treated any differently because of their past. Some do it because they fear for their safety or job/housing security. Others do it because coming out can be draining and they just don’t want to. This is a completely valid choice!
How Should You Respond When Someone Comes Out to You?
If someone is coming out to you, take a moment to think about how incredible that is. We’ve gone over how scary it can be to come out, and in spite of all that fear someone has decided that they want to come out to you. This person has decided that you are important enough and trustworthy enough that they can share this vulnerable piece of themselves with you and there are a couple of crucial things that you can do to help show this person that they were right to trust you.
The first and most important thing is to acknowledge that it’s okay if you don’t have a perfect understanding of what their identity means right away. Many people go into coming out prepared with answers to common questions or resources to share. They likely don’t need your immediate understanding, but they do need your immediate support. The nervousness of coming out doesn’t end after saying “I’m trans.” The nervousness ends when you say “great! I support you. I’m here for you.” You don’t need to understand anything to be able to say that however it is they identify, you don’t hate them for it.
From here, it’s going to be much more specific to the person you’re talking to, but I want to go over some of the general things you should keep in your head. The first is addressing any questions you have about the new information you’ve gotten. I can understand having a lot of questions you may want to talk about right away. Whether or not you should ask them is a perfect time to practice “reading the room.” How has the conversation gone so far? Is either of you seeming/feeling overwhelmed? Has it been particularly emotional? If you rush to bring up every question and concern you have, it may end up adding more stress to both parties. To the person coming out, it may feel to them like you are doubting them or their identity. To you, especially during the very first conversation about it, the questions could keep building off each other and end up causing you to spiral down into a hole of nervous hypotheticals.
Some people go into a coming out conversation with a rehearsed speech and a list of resources prepared to answer all your questions. Others may not feel the need or desire to prepare as much, operating under the assumption that if you have questions you’ll do your own private research. Sometimes people get thrown into situations where they have to come out—ready or not—and have to come up with what to say on the spot. All of these are valid ways to come out, and for different people, different strategies make them feel the most comfortable. If someone has prepared resources, they’ll offer them up to you. If they don’t, you can ask them if they have any resources they could send you for you to do more learning on your own. If you want to ask them questions, just check in with them and make sure that they have the emotional energy to be teaching you.
The good news is that you’re reading this, which means you’re doing something really powerful: you’re finding resources outside of the person who you may have had in mind when you bought this book. Why is this so important? For some people, educating others about LGBTQ identities is enjoyable. It’s even some people’s jobs (like me!) to teach others to be more supportive. For others, educating people is exhausting, especially when there are so many easily accessible resources that answer many of these questions. The message that sometimes comes across when a trans person is asked something like “what does trans mean?” is “This doesn’t matter enough for me to put time into researching and reading about this, but I would like you to do that work for me and summarize it with no preparation.” This is very likely not what people mean when they ask these questions, of course, they mean well. But, by doing independent research first and then asking questions about this research, the message changes to “I care, and I’m still curious and would love to hear about your experiences.”
As time goes on, you can have more conversations asking questions or talking about what this person’s transition is going to look like, but you don’t need to pack it all into one lunch meeting, or one car ride, or one text conversation. When I came out, my parents didn’t quite get it at first, which of course I don’t blame them for-- I was their first real exposure to the transgender community. They processed in different ways. My mom spent hours doing research privately, working through her thoughts in her way, and coming to me periodically to ask about the things I was thinking about for my transition. My dad would ask me questions frequently. Every weekend we went for a drive to get breakfast or to get our hair cut, and while we were in the car he would ask me about whatever had been on his mind that week. As time went on they both grew in their knowledge and their support, even though they were getting the information in very different ways they both ended up in the same place where they understood me and they supported me in all the ways I needed.
After the initial conversation, depending on your relationship with this person, consider doing something a little special to celebrate or show this person that you support them and you’re there for them. Little things like baking a cake with pride flag icing, or taking your wife for her first manicure, or buying your friend a trans flag for their bedroom. Find some way to do something fun or kind that shows the person they made the right choice coming out to you.
How Can You Help Someone Come Out to Others?
In one of the interviews I conducted while writing this, someone said to me: “If I was doing it alone I don’t think I would have done it at all. I think I would have just kept it in.”
There are several ways you can help someone come out. It depends on who this person is and what their relationship to you is. The most crucial thing is to ASK what you can do to support them. Every person has different needs, and every relationship that that person has is different, too. You wouldn’t help them come out to a teacher the same way you’d help them come out to their mother. Another important note, which I will continue to drive home, is that you should never, ever disclose someone’s identity without their explicit permission. Even if it feels like it would probably be helpful, it is always better and easier to just ask first. There are several things you can do to help that are more field-specific, and we’ll get into those in the full version of the book, but here are some general tips that are helpful for many trans people. Notice too that these tips aren’t trans-specific, they’re just ways to help someone prepare for an important and sometimes scary conversation. You can apply these skills anywhere.
1. Be a sounding board and help them practice their “speech”
2. Be “on-call” for them, even if you know they won’t need it.
3. Be in the room with them.
4. Offer to speak to the parties afterward to help answer their questions.
5. Tell the relevant parties for the person.
The first way you can help is by acting as a sounding board. Many coming out conversations start a bit like speeches, and you can help this person write or practice the words they’re going to say. Even just the words “I’m trans” can be so hard to say for the first time, so let them say it to you. Say it with them. Chant it. Dance around the room singing it. (Of course, keeping in mind whatever original level of professionalism you have with this person.) The point is, help them become comfortable with whatever they’re planning to say. Maybe prompt them with some practice questions that they might need to answer and help them come up with good responses.
The second thing you can do is offer to be “on-call” for them to have space or a backup plan if the conversation doesn’t go well. You can do this at different levels once again based on your relationship with the person, as well as how you anticipate the conversation going. It’s important to leave room for people to surprise us, but it’s equally important to be realistic in your planning. I would like to live in a world where I don’t need to write even a single sentence about how to prepare for someone to get thrown out of their home, but that still happens, or it’s still happening at the time I’m writing this, so I should talk about it. If you’re genuinely worried about something like this happening, help them come up with a plan for what to do, where to go, whom to call, etc. If it’s appropriate, and you feel comfortable doing so, you can offer them a couch to crash on if they need it. Some people may need to come up with these plans even if you know things aren’t going to go that badly. When my good friend came out, I made sure he knew there was a bed for him at my house if he needed it, knowing full well he wouldn’t; having a safety net makes that huge leap feel much less scary though, so there’s never any harm in having that plan. A much less extreme version of this plan is to just stay by your phone so you’re ready to help them talk about and decompress however the conversation did go. Even if it went great, there’s a lot of processing that needs to happen that you as a friend can help walk them through (if they want/need).
The third thing you can do is physically be there in the room with them (or on the Zoom call, to give some context for when this book was written). This helps in several ways. Primarily, you can be there prepared to answer questions that may come up so that the person doesn’t need to worry about having all the answers prepared right away. Now that you’re reading this book, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert ally and being able to help answer many questions that can and do come up in coming out conversations! In situations where you’re more concerned about how people are going to react, your presence will serve as a preventative buffer. People are afraid to say unkind or offensive things in front of others for fear of being judged, and you can use this to your advantage. If someone would have otherwise reacted negatively, they may take more time to think about their words and though their opinion may not change, the way they deliver it will, which can help lessen the blow and prevent anything from being said that can’t be taken back.
The fourth thing you can do is offer to follow up and answer questions after the conversation. This is another simple thing that removes some of the burdens from the person who’s coming out. It can be helpful in many different dynamics, whether you’re a parent helping your child come out to their grandparents or an HR leader helping an employee talk to their team members. There’s a feeling that many trans people experience that when they come out, the “designated educator” hat gets permanently attached to their head. Everyone who feels confused by their transition, no matter how well (or not) they know them, comes to ask every question and expects perfect answers and infinite patience. I am someone who likes to answer these questions (ergo this book, my career, etc.) but that is because I am an educator and an extrovert, not because my coming out naturally made me into a perfect orator. This isn’t to say that you have to become a perfect orator or someone with answers to 100% of questions. What you can be is someone who has resources ready, such as documentaries, articles, or books. There are some great books out there to give to people when someone comes out as trans and now they’re thinking “now what?”. Not only do you take away the stress of someone feeling like they need to go into coming out prepared to have answers to every question that might come up, but you’ve created a controlled environment where people can express their thoughts, feelings, and reactions that’s separate from the trans person. Because so many people are still meeting trans people for the first time, even if they’re going to end up superstar allies their first response may be less than stellar. People need time to react, process, and learn. Even if they are kind, well-intentioned people, their initial reactions, especially their doubts and fears, can leave the trans person feeling even more stressed than they were before.
The fifth way to help is to simply deliver the news on behalf of the person. This is helpful in the same way as the above strategy is helpful, it gives people an environment to react and respond and ask questions that aren’t at the expense of the mental health of the trans person. The most important thing to continue to remember is that you should never do this without asking, and you shouldn’t assume that being asked to do it for one person means you should do it for everyone. (i.e. if your child asks you to talk to their grandparents for them, this doesn’t necessarily mean they want you to tell the entire extended family without them.) Again, you don’t have to be an expert to have these conversations. You don’t need an answer to every question. Just have some resources ready, or explain to them how to do their own work to find resources and answer questions. Coming out is extremely emotionally exhausting, and sometimes trans people, certainly myself included, get to a point where we run out of steam and stop feeling willing or able to have the same conversation, baring our souls over and over again and dealing with the same questions and scrutiny.
Like all the other suggestions I give in this book, please remember that these are a handful of common strategies that can be really helpful for some people in some situations. If you want to be helpful and supportive to a specific person in a specific situation, ask what you can do and do that if you’re able.
Names and Pronouns
Oftentimes when people come out as trans, they’ll change their name and their pronouns. Historically people referred to the updated pronouns of trans people as “preferred” pronouns, but the general community is looking to eliminate the use of the unnecessary adjective. Why? Because it implies that my pronouns are a preference, something that would be nice if people used when they felt like it, rather than a fact. If it seems a little much, let’s look at its use in another context. Suppose you’re ordering a pizza, and when you go to set up the delivery, it asks for your “preferred address”. I know for me this would feel rather unnerving. Even though it probably means the same thing as just asking for your address, it leaves room for you to wonder if that pizza is going to actually show up at your house and not the house around the corner. It’s such a simple change that will make no difference to you to say, but it may make a substantial difference in the comfort of the person you’re talking to.
Sometimes people will use pronouns other than he or she. The most common pronoun after he and she is the singular they, which has garnered a fair amount of controversy recently. To eliminate the confusion right off the bat, here are my responses to the most common concerns people bring up about the use of they/them. The first is “but it’s not grammatically correct!” To these people, I ask “according to whom?” Any search will find the singular they in all of the major dictionaries. Any subsequent protests about how “you can’t just change grammar!” I respond to by asking “starting when?” The first dictionary was written in 1604 and has 3000 words in it. The 2019 Oxford English Dictionary had 171,476 words in it, so clearly you can just change language. Historically speaking, language and grammar are far more flexible than we think. The next concern I hear from people is “but it’s so awkward/clunky/weird/I haven’t used it like that before!” Once again, this is not quite true. Consider a situation where you’re in a café and you see a notebook on a table. Would you pick it up and announce “Hey, someone left his or her notebook on the table! If you recognize this and know him or her, please let him or her know I’ve got it!” No, you wouldn’t, because you would certainly sound awkward/clunky/weird. You’d probably say “hey, someone left their notebook on a table! If you recognize this and know them, please let them know I’ve got it!” Why do you say they in this situation? Because you haven’t seen the person. You don’t know what they look like or how they identify because you have no idea who it is. There's no reason this needs to be any more difficult just because you've seen what the person looks like. You’re already a pro!
What about pronouns other than he, she, or they? In addition to these three dominant pronouns, people also use pronouns such as ze/zem, xe/xir, or many others. These are referred to as neopronouns and they are becoming increasingly common. Just like it can sometimes feel like there’s a seemingly endless list of gender identities, it can feel like there’s an endless list of pronouns people may use. I’m not telling you to go home and bust out your flashcards so you can start preparing. I don’t know every identity in the world or the pronunciation of every neopronoun. What I do know is the identity and pronunciation of the pronouns of the people that I meet and talk to. When I meet someone who uses pronouns that are new to me, I do whatever I need to at that moment to learn and remember those pronouns, and if I’ll be seeing that person again, I practice the pronouns when I’m alone because I want to show respect for my new friend. Learn the pronouns of people in your life, and be respectful and open when new people come into your life with new names, pronouns, and stories to share. It’s okay if you feel like you have to ask a couple of times to make sure you get it right, the person you’re talking to will see it as a sign that learning is important to you and you care.
As more people are finding freedom in their expression of their gender in ways that are outside of the norm, it’s becoming less appropriate and accurate to look at someone and try to guess their gender and their pronouns. If someone tried to guess your name, you’d feel uncomfortable and perhaps a bit confused, so why are pronouns any different? Both your name and your pronouns are simple, central elements of your identity. Having them used correctly feels validating and welcoming, and having them used incorrectly is at best odd and at worst quite upsetting. So then where does this leave you? What pronouns do you use to refer to the stranger in front of you in line at Starbucks, or the person who just cut you off on I-95? For the latter, I’d recommend the gender-neutral “asshole”. For the former, this is a great time to practice your use of they/them pronouns. Because they are neutral, you don’t run the risk of calling someone a specifically gendered pronoun that they don’t identify with and are upset by.
This is a good time to double down on another important fact: pronouns and expression don’t need to “line up.” Someone who uses she/her pronouns doesn’t need to wear traditionally feminine clothes or act a certain way to “deserve” those pronouns. Someone who uses they/them doesn’t need to present as a genderless blank being to “deserve” those pronouns. Some nonbinary people use he/him, some trans men use they/them, there are no rules about who can or can’t be called what.
But Ben! How will I know how to refer to people if I’m not allowed to make any assumptions! How do you know anything about anyone?
You just ask! In general, asking people their pronouns when you meet them is a great, inclusive practice. I don’t just ask, either. I take every opportunity I can to share my own pronouns, and I advise others to do the same. Why is it so important to share your own pronouns if it feels like they’re obvious from looking at you? The easiest answer is what we just talked about, the notion that it isn’t appropriate to assume anyone’s gender. That includes you! Avoiding making assumptions doesn’t just apply to people who “look trans”, because there is no way to do that! Not only does it help build a more respectful environment, but it also helps build a safe one!
Sharing your own pronouns lets the person you’re talking to know that you are an educated, forward-thinking person who understands the importance of pronouns and respects trans identities. Whenever I meet someone and they share their pronouns or have them in their email signature or LinkedIn page, I imagine that they’re waving a teeny-tiny pride flag and saying “I support you!”. In a larger group setting, if no one else shares their pronouns, someone sharing their pronouns identifies them as an “other” in the group. They have to choose between sharing their pronouns and identifying themselves as someone different from everyone else or skipping that conversation and risk being misgendered. Cisgender allies sharing their pronouns eliminates this internal debate and establishes a space where sharing your pronouns is perfectly normal. Share them when you meet someone, share them in your email signature, share them around a room when you hang out in a new group, make sharing them as common, and small a deal as sharing your name!
It’s also common for people to change their names when transitioning. Yes, this also means you might have to think of a new nickname for them if it was a nickname based on their name. Figuring out a new name is one of the most exciting—and most challenging—parts of the journey of coming out. Many people go through quite a few ideas before settling on one name. Some people, like me, will ask their parents “what would you have named me if I were born a boy?” Others will go for a derivation of their birth name, while many will look to favorite fictional characters or will scour the internet for baby name registries to find something new that feels just right. Trans people often refer to their original name as their birth name or their deadname. For many people, but not all, hearing their birth name can be really upsetting, it can feel like a punch to the gut, a reminder that some people may never see us as we truly are. For others, it’s no big deal. Some people get curious and ask trans people what their birth name was. This is a general no-no, especially if you’ve just met the person. If it’s information they’re comfortable sharing with you, they’ll either bring it up or there will be an appropriate time to ask about it later. As curious as you may be, remind yourself that knowing someone’s birth name isn’t usually relevant to your conversation or relationship with them.
This brings up a question that I’ve heard many times. If I want to tell a story about a trans person from before their transition, do I use the name and pronouns that they used back then? Generally, I’m going to advise you to talk to the person you’re wondering about with this question. Some people have no issue with you using their birth name. Others are really uncomfortable with it. Some are fine if you use it around family (in storytelling contexts), but don’t want anyone new to learn what it was. Ask the person you know how they feel about this. Perhaps you’re wondering about this concept more broadly, or aren’t easily able to ask the person. Maybe you’re wondering on behalf of someone like Caitlyn Jenner. In these cases, I would recommend that you default to using the name and pronouns that they use now. Using someone’s old name or pronouns probably doesn’t change the meaning of the story significantly, and intentionally misgendering someone is something you should try to avoid. Additionally, if you’re talking to people who are still very early in their learning and support journey, they may misunderstand you and take your storytelling as a sign that you only need to use someone’s correct name and pronouns when you feel like it. If you’re feeling lost and wondering what to say instead to introduce a story like this, consider language like “before Chris transitioned…”
So what should you do if you call someone the wrong name or the wrong pronouns by accident? The most common reaction when people realize they’ve referred to someone by an incorrect name is to panic. Let’s imagine that Margaret’s friend Britney recently came out as trans and now goes by Chris. Imagine now that Margaret has just referred to him as Britney in a casual conversation. She then says “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have called you that, I’m a terrible ally! It’s been so hard for me to remember, you know I’ve just known you for so long, but I’m getting there! I’m trying! I’m so sorry!” At first glance, of course Margaret’s words seem kind. They’re apologetic and explanatory and make an effort to correct the mistake, and she likely genuinely does feel bad about calling him the wrong name. Unfortunately, intention doesn’t always line up with impact. Let’s look at this situation from Chris’s perspective. What are the things Margaret may make him feel? What messages is she sending him? She’s telling him that his name change is difficult and stressful for her and that he should feel bad for putting her through this. Maybe she also needs to be comforted because of how upset she is that she considers herself a “bad ally”, and Chris will help comfort her instead of getting the comfort that perhaps he needs right now. This situation has been blown up so it’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and the blame for the problem has been put on Chris for changing his name in the first place.
Though people have different things they need, it’s a pretty common consensus that the best thing to do is correct yourself, apologize briefly, and move on in the conversation as fast as possible. If they need it, comfort the person, but the smaller of a deal you make it to the other person, the less it will impact them. That being said, it will likely still have some kind of impact (it’s never fun getting misgendered) and if the person needs some space, let them have it. In short, Margaret could have just said “Sorry, Chris.” And kept talking.
If you notice you’ve been calling someone the wrong name or pronouns a lot, it’s likely time for you to do some introspection. Have you put in the mental work to adjust how you see and think about this person? Do you use the correct pronouns and name in your head or in conversations when they aren’t there? Repeated misgendering from a trusted friend or family member feels much more intentional, even if it isn’t, and can be much more hurtful than a one-time slip-up. Try to spend some time on your own practicing referring to them correctly (emphasis here on on your own—if you practice by yourself, no one gets hurt when you mess up), or just make sure you’re using the correct pronouns in your head. It’s easiest for you to treat them the way they want to be treated if you see them the way they want to be seen. If you’re still struggling to get them right, consider trying this trick: every time you use the wrong name or pronouns, use the right ones in a sentence three times. This will help you adjust the way that you think about them
What about if you aren’t the one making the mistake? What should you do if you hear someone else refer to a trans person with the wrong name or pronouns? Whether or not the trans person is there, it’s a good idea to correct the person, because if they’ll say the wrong thing behind their back, there’s a good chance they’ll say it to their face too. If the person is there, why you? Unfortunately, not everyone is making as wonderful of an effort as you, reader, and may not take being corrected very kindly. As such, the combination of the distress caused by misgendering and the amount of emotional energy required to correct people, many trans people just stop trying. Personally, if I don’t correct someone it’s not because I don’t care or it doesn’t upset me. I am upset, but I’m also exhausted. In high school, I had a friend who would correct everyone for me. Most often it was in gym class and I was terrified to correct the other kids, specifically the typical high school boys who you couldn’t pay to respect each other, let alone a trans person, but she would get right up in their faces and say “nope. He.” Every time. It took me a few years to fully understand how much of a difference that made for me. She made me feel safer and more like a man than the rest of the school combined did, especially when I first came out. When I reached out to others in the community to ask what advice they would share, the most common answer was to stand up for trans people whenever and however you can, and standing up when someone uses the wrong name or pronouns is one of the easiest and most impactful ways to do that.
Now, to answer a question that might be on your mind. Why does this matter, Ben? Why do I have to be so careful with my language just so I don’t offend someone? The short answer is that technically speaking, you don’t have to. At the end of the day this is an issue of respect and kindness. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
One of the most common things that seems to hold people back from fully supporting trans people is concerns about the use of public bathrooms. The claims that people make tend to be very harmful and based on fear and transphobia (both implicit and explicit) rather than facts. A groundbreaking study at the Williams Institute at UCLA looked at communities that had trans positive bathroom bills, allowing people to use any bathroom they wanted, and communities that didn’t have these bills. They then traced the police records to see if there were any increased incidences of bathroom-related crimes and found no correlation between the low or nonexistent number of bathroom crimes and laws allowing trans people to use their correct restrooms.
The bottom line is that it’s significantly more likely that a trans person is assaulted in a bathroom than the other way around, and most trans people I know, including myself, are acutely aware of this danger. When I go to the bathroom, no matter where I am, I watch to see if anyone is watching me go in, and I take stock of how many other people are in the bathroom to determine if it’s safe for me. If I feel like there’s even a chance someone might take issue with me being there I’ll grab a paper towel, blow my nose, and walk out. When I travel to visit family in North Carolina, the home of the most infamous of the “bathroom bills”, I do anything it takes to avoid needing to go to the bathroom. That usually entails not drinking any water on days I know we’re planning to leave the house, which more than once has resulted in me nearly fainting from dehydration. Even that I viewed as a better alternative than risking going into a bathroom and having someone decide that I was a threat that needed to be taught a lesson. I’m fortunate enough to say that nothing like that has ever happened to me, but knowing the number of stories I’ve heard about it happening to others I can’t help but carry that anticipation with me everywhere I go.
As time has gone on, I’ve found ways to feel safer and more comfortable in bathrooms. The thing that helped the most at first was talking to my dad about it. When he found out I had been going days without water because of how scared I was, we came up with a signal that I could send to him if I was going to the bathroom and felt nervous or unsafe. He’d come with me and just wash his hands and make sure that I knew nothing was going to happen to me. If you have a trans friend who’s just come out and seems nervous, especially if you live in an area that still has a ways to go in its acceptance and understanding, it could be constructive to offer to have a similar signal with them. As I’ve gotten more confident in my ability to pass, I’ve sent that signal less and less. The biggest thing that’s helped me feel safer is my personal data collection — I’ve been going into bathrooms for over 4 years and haven’t had anything happen to me yet — statistically, that makes me feel more confident. Every once in a while someone will give me a weird look, but the existence of people who don’t do or say anything when I go to the bathroom helps me generalize that most people who I’m going to share a bathroom with aren’t going to do or say anything.
Most broadly, I would suggest that you put to use any active bystander training you’ve learned any time between 2nd grade and 2 weeks ago in that required HR training. Being an active bystander essentially means that if you see something happening, you don’t just stand by. If there is a situation where it appears someone is harassing a person because of their gender or sexuality, find a way to intervene. Spill water on the offending party, find an authority to come and help or step in directly if there are no direct safety concerns. People on the internet love to share “hilarious” videos of trans people trying to stand up for themselves when people use the wrong pronouns for them. In those situations, the bystanders are watching, laughing, or filming, and in many of them, the people involved seem to be getting extremely upset. I can only imagine how differently those videos would have gone if someone had put down their phone and helped those people stand up for themselves.
Humans are naturally curious, and the more different something appears to be, the more questions we may have. There aren’t many trans stories being told in most forms of media, so oftentimes when people meet trans people their curiosity explodes, and they have a lot of questions. Many trans people feel like when they come out they become a walking dictionary whether they like it or not, people want to get educated and of course why not go to the source! There are two main problems with this.
One is that for each trans person that comes out, there could be a hundred people who decided to get educated and go to the source. It can be exhausting giving vocabulary lessons and answering questions over and over again, especially when there are more and more resources becoming available that aim to answer those specific questions. By reading this book, you’re doing the exact right thing to help reduce that burden; you’re seeking out those resources! There are thousands of trans people who run YouTube channels, write books, run blogs, post on Instagram, and find other ways to share stories and information that you can use to get a basic understanding of what the trans community is. Of course, it’s a great thing to ask your specific friend about what their experience is, what their needs are, how they identify, etc. In general, there’s no harm in prefacing a question with “hey, do you mind if I ask a question about _____?” That way they can let you know if they have the energy to be in teacher mode, and if they aren’t up for it it’s significantly less awkward than if you just ask them the question and they don’t want to answer it.
A second and more substantial problem is that many of people’s curiosities tend to cross boundaries of what is and isn’t appropriate in normal conversations. Almost every trans person I know has at least one story of being asked by a complete stranger something along the lines of “so… what genitals do you have?” Or “What surgeries have you gotten?” As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s pretty horrifying to have a complete stranger asking about one of the most private parts of you (so private that society has given them the name “private parts”). Though it would feel ridiculous to ask any cisgender stranger such specific questions about their genitals, many people feel that because trans people are so different, many of the rules about appropriate social conduct don’t apply to them. In reality, it just makes us feel like misfits to be ogled at by the world around us. One of the most common questions I get when I run trainings is “what can I say? I have questions I want to ask but I’m worried I’m going to offend someone!” A good litmus test I like to suggest is to imagine that the situation was reversed. Think about how close you are to the person (are they a close friend? A coworker? A stranger?) and the place you currently are (are you by yourselves? In the workplace? With a group of friends?) and think about how you would feel if that person asked you the question you want to ask them. If you feel like you’d be uncomfortable with them asking you that, it’s probably best to skip it. If you’re still not 100% sure, again, ask a lead-in. “Hey, do you mind if I ask a question about ____?” And avoid both of you the embarrassment of potentially asking an invasive or uncomfortable question.
What is Casual Transphobia, and What Can You Do About it?
Casual transphobia is the way transphobia permeates our day to day lives. It doesn’t seem harmful on its face, but when it’s people’s first (and often only) exposure to the trans community, it builds up harmful narratives that translate to harmful actions. In the spirit of not dancing around what I mean when I say things, “harmful actions” translates to passing anti-trans legislation, kicking out or refusing to support transgender children, or harassing and attacking trans people.
The main way that this shows up is through jokes or offhand comments. Internet memes about “sensitive snowflake” trans people getting upset about being misgendered, jokes about putting on a dress and going into a women’s bathroom, or just generally making fun of trans people. Even if it doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of hate, it lets everyone around know that it’s okay to make fun of trans people. It creates the mentality of “we don’t need to respect them all the time”. These jokes very often target trans women or people who don’t pass as well. What this then means is that someone like me, who has the privilege of access to medical resources to transition is seen as an “acceptable” trans person who deserves respect, while someone who doesn’t want to transition medically or wants to but can’t afford it is one of the less “acceptable” trans people who doesn’t deserve respect and is significantly more likely to face legitimate hate or discrimination.
Let’s talk about first the biggest propagator of casual transphobia: sitcoms. We know them, we love them, sitcoms put a reliable cast of characters into zany situations, many times revolving around romance or dating. The typical story goes that a man goes on a date with a woman, it’s going great, one thing leads to another and… oh my god! She’s a HE! (*cue raucous laugh track while the main character despairs on-screen*) Our main character has been tricked! They chat awkwardly, the main character hits the road, roll credits, end episode. Another recurring plotline is that a trans character shows up at a women’s sporting event and after saying “I identify as a female! Starting right now!”, wins every single competition at the event, to the dismay of our main character. Worse still are episodes where main characters end up having to dress as a gender they don’t identify as to sneak in somewhere and someone ends up flirting with them or trying to get their number. “But Ben! What’s wrong with all that? It’s representation and no one said anything bad! Any you’ve got to admit, it was a little funny.”
The problem with jokes like these is that they reinforce what people feel deep down about trans people. Any subtle biases they may bring into conversations with or about trans people come from what little knowledge they have about the community. If all they know about trans athletes is that they transition so they can beat all the women in sporting events, you can bet those will be people on the side of the multiple states trying to ban trans athletes from competing in sports. The reality of this situation is that there isn’t one perfect easy answer to this, but many sports have regulations in place that determine how long someone has to have hormone replacement therapy before they don’t have a significant advantage. Another possible solution is separating athletes in sports like track and field by the percent of testosterone they have rather than by gender, similar to how wrestling separates people into weight classes. This would also prevent discrimination against cisgender women with naturally high testosterone levels who are currently being blocked from participating in sports as well. The other situations presented above will lead people to carry other, even more dangerous biases, like the idea that trans people are inherently funny, and that a trans woman is just a man in a dress trying to trick you. People then feel deceived when they find out someone is trans, they feel like they’ve been tricked or that they look stupid, and especially men then tend to lash out in violent ways against whoever made them feel this way.
So, now that you know how to spot it, what should you do? The best thing you can do is call it out. If it’s a friend making a joke, explain to them why that isn’t cool and that if they want to be proud of being “funny” they should be more original. If you’re a part of a creative team making a show or a movie and you notice it, do whatever you have the power to do to prevent that from making the final draft or the final cut. If you’re just a viewer, don’t give your viewership, support, or ad revenue to a show that continues to create these dangerous stigmas. If it feels like too much to stop watching cold turkey, have a conversation with the people you’re watching with to make sure they understand the harmful effects of these messages, and make sure you try to find something trans positive to watch next to cancel it out and prevent any negative biases from being formed. The main point of all of this is just do something. Don’t sit by and watch it happen and let it sit in your brain. If you notice that you have a thought about someone who’s trans that you think might be offensive or tainted by bias, take some time to examine that thought and figure out what’s causing you to have these thoughts or feelings. If you feel nervous when a visibly trans person comes into a bathroom with you, or you keep referring to your nonbinary friend as “she” instead of “they” ask yourself why you think that and hold yourself accountable for your own learning and growth. Take an active role in the education of yourself and others if you know they don’t have the ability or resources to do it for themselves.
Thank you, reader, for making it here and putting in the time and effort to learn how to be an impactful ally. The full version of this book will contain even more information, tips, and personal stories! Make no mistake, without the incredible support of my family, friends, school teachers, religious clergy, therapist, and others, I’m not sure that I would be here today. I can say for certain that without them I wouldn’t be half the man I am. With the state of the world as it is today, living authentically and joyously is a revolutionary act, and loving and supporting those who break barriers in this way and others has an impact that cannot be understated. This may be the first step on your journey towards allyship. It may be the 30th. Whatever step it is, it is never the last. As humans we owe it to ourselves and others to be continuously learning about those who are different than us and how to show them love and respect. Be open to teaching and be open to being taught, and we will be able to move to a place where everyone is able to feel they are living a truly authentic life.
As a reminder, My goal is to help as many people as I can, so if you know someone else who could benefit from reading this guide, I encourage you to send it their way or share it via social media! If you have any thoughts, feelings, or reflections that you'd like to let me know about, feel free to fill out the google form linked below! Even if it's something as small as a typo I may have missed, I would love to know what you thought.
If you feel like you could use some more support or have a few questions you’d like answered more in-depth, you can set up a time to go “out to lunch” with me!
If you'd like to partner to create a training, workshop, or speech for your organization, feel free to reach out to me through my speeches and consulting page.
Also, I am currently doing writing and education projects like this book for free in my spare time (usually late nights) after working, speaking, and consulting all day. If you find value in this guide and have the means to do so, you can donate to my virtual tip jar via Venmo @Ben-Greene-92095, or donate to a local organization that supports trans youth in your area. Lastly, if you would like to sign up for updates to be the first one to know when the full book is released,