The world is a particularly unfriendly place to trans people right now. There’s been a wave of anti-trans legislation pushed forth in state legislatures across the country, Twitter is full of “TERF” rants by people in high places like J.K. Rowling, and violent crimes against trans women of color have reached a crisis level.
Given these circumstances, a community of quality, supportive friends has never been more important to trans women and men, said Az Franco, a trans nonbinary activist and writer.
“I would say having a supportive community around me is absolutely necessary, for my well-being and my mental health,” Franco said. “I would not be where I am today without the supportive friends in my life.”
His best cis friends do two things right in providing support: They care enough to pay attention to what’s happening to trans people right now in the news and they love him for who he is as a person ― not as some token trans friend.
“The most supportive friends don’t focus on the things I don’t have, or the things that make me different, but focus on the things that make me special and amazing,” Franco told HuffPost. “They celebrate my testosterone birthdays with me, they celebrate the changes I’ve seen ― when invited ― and affirm me and make me feel loved and like I belong.”
How can you follow suit if you’re friends with trans people? Below, trans advocates and mental health experts share seven things that make a difference.
Make a point to be generous and inclusive in your dealings with all people.
Trans people don’t often come out as trans to someone until they know they can trust that person, so if you’re cis, you might already be friends or work with a trans person and not even know it, said Rae White, the author of “Milk Teeth” and founding editor of #EnbyLife Journal. (According to a Gallup poll released just last month, LGBT identification rose to 5.6%, up from 4.5% in Gallup’s previous update, which looked at 2017 data.)
To that end ― and just because you value being a decent human being ― be the kind of cis person who makes space for all the trans, gender-diverse and gender-questioning people in your life.
“You can do this by using gender-neutral language (‘good morning, everyone’) and trans-inclusive statements (‘people of all genders’),” they said. “When you do this, trans folks can feel more comfortable around you, and you’re also challenging your own assumptions and those of the cis people around you.”
Be a better listener.
Your trans friends are dealing with a lot right now. Imagine there being a Big Conversation going on around the world about your very existence that you weren’t invited to participate in, said Emily Maitland, an associate data scientist who works in ensuring social inclusivity in data-driven technologies.
“It often feels like we are alone and outside, shouting at the walls whilst a conversation that decides our fate happens inside,” she said.
Knowing that, make sure your friendship is a space where your trans friends can feel safe sharing whatever they’re comfortable sharing.
“We are, in many ways, systematically denied a voice, and so sometimes, we just want to talk about our experiences, our feelings, our hopes and worries, and be listened to,” Maitland said.
Not just listened to, but really heard, she said. “That means not contradicting us, trying to minimize or dismiss our feelings, or talking over us, or recentering cis people’s feelings.”
From her own experience, Maitland said cis friends are often too quick to say “it’ll get better” or offer other reassurances when she brings up concerns and worries. It comes from a place of caring, but it makes her wonder if her friends are taking her very valid concerns seriously.
“I mean, they don’t know that things will get better!” she said. “And what comfort is that to me, suffering or anxious in the here and now? What I want in those moments is ― again ― to be listened to and heard. To have somebody say, ‘That really, really sucks and I’m sorry. I’m here for you.’”
Listening to your trans friends is a much better way to support them than through platitudes, she said.
If your friend is just coming out, make every effort to support them.
Culturally, we’re far more adept at understanding and respecting the coming-out process than we were years ago; just look at the media’s handling of “The Umbrella Academy” actor Elliot Page ― it was so rare to see deadnaming! Still, coming out is far from easy.
Family rejection and discrimination is still commonplace. Homeless rates among young trans people suggest as much. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that while 10% of the youth population in the U.S. are LGBTQ (and this is only the reported figure), 20% of homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBTQ. And The Trevor Project puts that figure closer to 40%.
“If you’re the cis friend, you might even be able to help the other people understand where the trans person is coming from,” he said. “Besides that, be there for us through the process. One of my friends was there with me when I got top surgery, because surgery can be pretty scary.”
Even going to a name-change appointment at a government office can make a difference, Collins said. Bottom line, show your support where you can.
Pay attention to trans issues in the news and advocate as much possible.
We’re only three short months into the new year, but already, multiple states have pushed forth more than a dozen bills that discriminate against LGBTQ people, including some that restrict health care access for trans youth and several that restrict the rights of transgender children (primarily girls) to play sports.
“These assaults on trans kids are cloaked in pseudoscientific ideas about sex and gender, but they’re enabled by cis people who are willing to give those nonsensical arguments a hearing in the public discourse,” novelist Alina Boyden told HuffPost.
As these stories make headlines and legislators debate, one the most meaningful things you can do for your trans friends is simply to accept that their lives aren’t up for negotiation, she said.
“The truth is, the dignity of your trans friends requires that you believe them when they tell you who they are, and that you act accordingly,” she said. “That means standing up and protesting for us just as strongly as you would for yourself.”
Boyden gave incarceration as an example of where support is deeply needed. Nearly all transgender prisoners across the U.S. are housed according to their sex at birth, not their gender identity, resulting in threats, violence and in some cases, death.
“The fact that in this country, all but a handful of the transgender women incarcerated in our nation’s prisons are in men’s facilities ought to shock and horrify every cis person who hears it, and yet no major action has been taken to remove from us the fear of being treated as men by a criminal justice system which disproportionately preys on Black and brown trans women,” she said.
If a majority of cis people decided to stand up on that issue, Boyden thinks the practice would end.
Use the correct pronouns.
Sticking to the right pronouns sounds easy, but you’re bound to slip up. When you do, notice your mistake, apologize quickly and correct yourself. It’s quick, easy and painless for you, while also being incredibly meaningful to your trans friend.
“We don’t want to hear how difficult it is for you, or just how sorry you are, or that we need to be more patient,” said Ren Lee, a psychotherapist and social worker at Kip Therapy in New York. “Just correct yourself and do better next time.”
Don’t put the onus on your trans friends to educate you on everything.
Gender identity, expression and constructs vary across cultures and throughout history. Make an honest effort to learn on your own. When trans creators have put out so many resources already, there’s no need to put the onus on the nonbinary people in your life to educate you. Google is your friend, reminded Max Schneider, a therapist and researcher at Kip Therapy.
“There are so many things going on that impacts us, that worries us, that scares us ― we didn’t get to where we are now out of nowhere,” they told HuffPost. “There is a history of marginalization and oppression that affects all of us. Critically think about how colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy impacts your and our understanding of gender. We don’t have the luxury of not thinking about them.”
Just be a good friend.
It should go without saying, but don’t tokenize your trans friends. At the end of the day, they’re a friend with a unique lived experience, but then, all of your friends have unique lived experiences. Appreciate them for who they are, not how they identify, Maitland said.
“I’ve had groups of friends where I’m the ‘queer friend’ or ‘Emily (she’s trans btw),’ but the friendships I’ve really felt were the most meaningful have been the ones where I’m just ‘Emily,’” she said.
“I think a lot of my friends thought they were going to lose me as a friend when I came out, that I wouldn’t hang out with them anymore or that I would be so different that we couldn’t be friends, and so several drifted away without ever asking me if that were true,” she said.
The ones who stuck around didn’t lose their friend, they just gained a better, more authentic version of her.
“They have me as a friend more truly than ever before because now they know the real me, and not the performed version of me that existed before,” she said.