When Your Friend Is Transgender
When you find out that a friend is transgender, there are usually two versions of this “coming out.” Either your friend is pre-transition and they themselves just realized that they’re trans, or your friend is post-transition and you didn’t know that they were trans the whole time you’ve been friends with them. (Which can come as quite a shock.)
Believe it or not, many trans people are not “obvious,” and you may be friends with someone right now who is trans and you may not even realize it!
Having said that, this article will focus more on the first situation: one where your friend just figured out that he or she is trans, and they are letting you know that they’re about to transition. Usually, this is a scary time for a trans person, so you might be worried about how you should treat them to make them feel more comfortable.
The good news is that being sensitive to a trans person during this critical time is not rocket science. It’s the same as anybody else going through a difficult phase in life. No matter how many offended trans people you’ve seen marching around on the news and protesting this or that, the truth is that most trans people have very simple expectations.
All you have to do is treat the person with basic human respect and compassion; the rest is really just technicalities. However, if you’re still confused about the specifics, here are some tips to help you out:
1. Use the Correct Pronouns
Mind the common pronouns that you use to refer to your friend, e.g., “he,” “she,” “him,” “her.” (Obviously, this applies mostly if you speak English or some other language with gendered pronouns.)
If you find the switch in pronouns confusing, just keep this rule of thumb in mind: usually, people expect to be called by the gender of their brain, not the gender of their body necessarily. So if your friend is transitioning from male to female (MTF), then you would call her “she,” and if your friend is transitioning from female to male (FTM), then you would call him “he.”
The same rule applies to people who are not trans as well, actually! Address a person’s brain, not his or her toilet parts, if you know what I mean. After all, you never know what someone was born with “downstairs” for sure unless you’ve looked. Quite a few trans people are also intersex to some degree or another, so it’s not for anyone to judge “what they are” based on this.
As an aside, if someone is genderqueer instead (neither male nor female), then they will probably let you know what pronouns they like.
Some people resent having to switch pronouns when their friend transitions. This is perfectly fine; you are free to call someone something that they don’t want to be called—just don’t expect them to stay friends with you!
For example, you may think that calling an MTF trans woman “he” like you used to do when you were best buddies is no big deal, but it can actually cause problems in the person’s life for a couple of reasons:
- They are only just getting used to the switch themselves, and others respecting their wishes helps to make the journey less stressful.
- If you misgender someone (or call them by the wrong pronoun), you could accidentally “out” them to other people, which can put your friend in danger. You may be cool with trans people, but a lot of people are not, and you can never be too sure who that might be, so advertising the fact that someone is trans is usually NOT a good idea.
You’re only human, so sometimes you will mess up. No big deal, just apologize and move on to the right pronoun. If you’re in public, brush it off as quickly as you can and don’t bring too much attention to it, or you might be putting your friend in an awkward situation.
One trick that you might use if you call your friend by the wrong pronoun in public is to just quickly change the subject and pretend that you’re talking about someone else! Your trans friend might not even notice. For example, say that your friend is a trans woman (MTF): “Yeah, Alexa is great at math. He . . . is a great professor. Alexa’s math teacher, I mean. He’s great at what he does; no wonder she knows how to do long division so well.”
I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve used this tactic before.
2. Use the Correct (New) Name
Just as with pronouns, most trans people will change their name when they transition, since most names are not unisex. Help your friend out by switching to the new name.
Again, if you mess up sometimes, that’s perfectly understandable, but if you’re too lazy to make even the least bit of effort, or you’re resisting it because you don’t think you “should have to,” then you’re being kind of a jerk.
Imagine if you had a really embarrassing nickname growing up, and everyone called you by that name all the damn time. You thought the nickname never fit who you really are and it makes you wince every time you hear someone say it. Finally, you get fed up with it and tell people to just call you by a normal name from now on, and yet they refuse. Wouldn’t that suck?
Well, that’s the situation that your friend is in right now, basically. Almost certainly, there are people in their life who refuse to even try calling them by the correct name and pronouns. Don’t be one of these people if you intend on staying friends with them. Friends respect each other’s boundaries.
I would even go so far as to suggest that when you’re talking about the past, still call them by their new name. There’s really no reason not to, and while some trans people don’t mind, others find it extremely embarrassing when you switch back to their old name.
3. Get a Handle on the Terms
If you want to go the extra mile and really make an impression, get a handle on a few of the terms that surround transgender people; they will appreciate it, and it’s really not that complicated.
For instance, one of the common terms for a Male-to-Female (MTF) transgender person is “trans woman.” The opposite is true for a Female-to-Male (FTM) trans person: you can call them a “trans man.” Lots of people confuse these with each other for some reason. Just remember that you call someone by the gender of their brain, and that makes it simple enough.
Of course, most trans people just call themselves “man” or “woman.” The distinction that they’re trans isn’t always necessary, and “trans” itself is not a gender.
You may have also heard the term “cisgender,” which has been thrown around a lot lately. All it means is a fancy term for “not trans,” that your brain’s gender is the same as the gender of your lower anatomy. (So most people are cisgender.) Since most people are not trans, you probably won’t need to use this unless you’re in a situation where the majority of the people at some event or activity are trans.
4. Never Tell Anyone That Your Friend Is Trans
“Oh, but Joe Shmoe is cool. He doesn’t care. I’ll just tell him and I’m sure he’ll keep it a secret.” No, he won’t. Moreover, you have no idea how someone might react, either. Many people who are "gay-friendly" can still be extremely transphobic.
Never tell others that your friend is trans. The more “passable” your friend becomes as their transition progresses, the more people will tend to spread it around if they know (because it then becomes hot gossip with a shock factor), and this can cause huge issues in the trans person’s life. Treat even telling one person as if you are telling all of that person’s friends, and all of their friends, and so on.
It’s sad, but people very rarely honor the secrets of others whom they don’t know (and sometimes even the secrets of their friends). By the time word gets around, your trans friend may be subject to discrimination. Personally, I have known trans people who have lost their jobs because of an indiscretion from someone who knew about the trans person's past and then spread it around, where it eventually reached their discriminatory employer.
Never “out” your trans friend for any reason without their explicit permission. (And rarely is there ever any good reason to do this, anyway.) Don't tell your other friends; don't tell your mom; don't tell your dog. It is not safe to tell people that your friend is trans.
5. Avoid Giving Your Trans Friend “Tips” on How to Behave
Believe it or not, trans people aren’t too different from non-trans people. Trans people don’t have to “try” much to be the gender that they’re transitioning to; it mostly comes naturally, just like anyone else. After all, they wouldn’t be transitioning physically unless they already understood that their true gender is different from what they were assigned at birth.
And just like anyone else, it is up to them what kind of man or woman they want to be. This means that they probably don’t need any tips on how they should act, what mannerisms they should adopt, and so on—unless they ask you, of course.
There’s a difference between being a woman (which is just the way someone’s brain is), for example, and taking on a stereotypical woman’s role (which is molded by society) in a certain culture. Same as with a man. But you probably knew that already, didn’t you? After all, not everything you do in life is in order to conform with your gender role. You probably do things outside the norm yourself.
Everyone is different. Honor your friend’s uniqueness and let them figure it out through their own unique perspective.
6. Remember That Your Friend Is Changing Rapidly
Deep on the inside, of course, your friend is still the same person, as they have been all along. However, if your friend is truly about to embark on this transition, their life will be changing radically in ways that they themselves may not have anticipated—especially if they will be taking hormones.
This means that external aspects of their personality may change, their likes and dislikes, sometimes even their sexuality.
For example, maybe your friend is an FTM transgender person (a trans man) who exclusively dated women prior to transition. It’s very possible that he may actually begin dating men after transition. Some trans men don’t like women at all and are exclusively gay. The same is true for trans women (MTF): sometimes after they transition, they discover that they are actually lesbians.
This may come as a surprise to some people, but sexuality is something completely different from a person’s gender, and just as there are gay and straight non-trans people, there are gay and straight trans people as well. (As well as bisexual, pansexual, etc—you get the picture.)
Other things about the person’s life might change, too. Most romantic relationships don’t hold up through a transition of this kind, and people often change their circle of friends, too. There’s a definite temptation there to hold onto what your friend once was (or seemed to be) because that’s what you’re familiar with, but try to remind yourself that the changes you are seeing are mostly because your friend is moving closer to who they truly are.
No matter how hard we try to see someone’s true self, we will always have built up images of them in our mind. Sometimes it can be upsetting to see these images shattered, so be mindful of your reaction. This transition can actually help deepen your friendship, by allowing you to let go of what you thought your friend was and see your friend for who they truly are on the inside.
Some of the changes may not even seem to have anything to do with their gender transition on the surface. The fact of the matter is that a lot of people are too nervous to be themselves in a lot of different ways—not just when it comes to their gender—and having the courage to finally transition can snowball into making other positive changes.
7. It’s a Bumpy Ride, So Try to Be Forgiving
Having said that, not all changes will seem positive at first. Your friend may seem moody as they get their hormones adjusted or they might grow antisocial as they go through an awkward period. This is pretty normal. Remember that your friend is basically going through a second puberty, and puberty isn’t fun for anyone!
Try to be there for them as best you can. Offer them a listening ear. If they turn into a jerk, this doesn’t mean you have to stick around, of course. Give them space and let them sulk in their little corner if need be.
The most important thing—as with all friendships—is that both of you are willing to forgive each other for the little mistakes. It will be a time of adjustment for everyone involved, after all.
Having a support network is important for a trans person in a world that still largely misunderstands them. Even having one compassionate ally can make a world of difference in that person’s life. So remember that just being there and giving someone space to be their true self is enough!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Jorge Vamos