By Jerusha Gray
“I have something to tell you.” Those words are rarely followed up with anything good. My pulse pounded in my ears. My best friend was holding my hand and sweating profusely. Was he moving back to Cambodia? Cancer? Oh, please, not cancer. His paused stretched between us.
Our friendship is now old enough to drink. It is hard to believe that it has been 21 years as the dynamic duo. He and I rode the waves of confusing pre- and post-pubescent female rites of passage together. He bought me my first box of tampons because I was too embarrassed to make eye contact with the checker in our tiny rural hometown. He did my make-up for dances. He high-fived me when I bought my first pair of camo cargo pants. We got our first brush cuts together and bemoaned anything pink and girly. We didn’t fit in with the rest, but we had each other.
“I am a trans man.” He went silent. I exhaled through my teeth. Thank the Lord it isn’t cancer. I squeezed his knee and replied, “Dude, I know.” I went on to tell him that I was proud and honored that he shared this with me. He was scared about telling his folks and our friends. We played the “what if” game and strategized responses. I had no idea how it was going to play out – but he wouldn’t be alone.
I wish I could take back the words, “I know.” It is arrogant. It implies that I have some super-secret trans-radar. I don’t. I checked. I knew that he carried tremendous pain about the body he was born into. I knew that he struggled to fit in. I knew he was unhappy. I didn’t know he was transgender.
Our best-friend handbook has plenty of notes on how to hide at family gatherings and the importance of cheesecake and Diet Coke. We know how to respond when the other is sad or stressed. Shockingly enough, it didn’t have any advice on how I could support him as a trans-man. I panicked. It wasn’t that he was transgender. I was anxious that I would say or do something (in my ignorance) that would hurt him. Thankfully, I have a very patient friend and access to some fantastic resources. Here is a list of some things I learned along the way.
Caveat: I am not an expert on gender issues or the trans-community. I am not transgender. I am also not speaking for all allies. This list is based on my own experiences and observations.
Be a safe space.
It is hard to go anywhere without encountering negative messages or outright bullying. Sadly, this often happens at home, too. You can create a place where others can be truly themselves without fear of rejection emotionally or physically. Everyone needs someone. You can be that someone.
This is not your story to tell.
DO NOT disclose that someone is transgender without their permission. This includes telling your friends, coworkers, even your own family. Someone’s history as a transgender person is theirs and theirs alone. Revealing this information is dangerous. It can even be deadly. The best response to the question, “Can I tell this person?” is to ask permission first. It can also be helpful to discuss with your friend or family member how they would like you to respond if someone refers to them as an incorrect gender (called mis-gendering) in public. Would they like you to step in? Would they prefer you to ignore it? Having a game plan can ease anxiety and make sure that you are responding in a way that is loving and respectful to their wishes.
Be quiet and listen.
It is important to remember that you are not the expert here. The transgender experience is varied. Having a trans loved one does not give you authority to make blanket statements about all trans people. One of the greatest ways we can support our loved ones is by amplifying trans- voices rather than proclaiming our own.
Pronouns are important.
Pronouns are one of the easiest and most important ways that we can show respect to others. It is perfectly acceptable to ask someone their name and what pronouns are appropriate for them. Asking for someone’s pronouns may feel strange the first couple times that you do it, though, as with most things, practice will make it easier. What if I screw up? Mistakes are normal at first. You will get there. A quiet and simple apology is all that is needed. Keep going with renewed energy to get it right. Be patient with yourself. This is a transition for you too. Shifting perspective takes time.
Recognize that gender isn’t binary.
Gender goes way beyond male and female. It just isn’t that simple. Like many things, gender is a spectrum. The website www.genderspectrum.org has some really great illustrations and explanations regarding questions of gender. I encourage you to check it out.
Their genitals–none of your business.
Unless there is a consensual desire to be naked with someone or you are their physician, asking about someone’s genitalia is rude and inappropriate. DO NOT ASK. It makes you a creeper. My 8 year old gets it. Privates are private.
Surgery or not–none of your business.
Gender-related surgeries, hormones, and things like electrolysis are not mandatory elements of someone’s transition. Many people choose not to medically transition. It is also important to note that for many these things are desperately needed but are out of reach due to access to services, lack of trans-competent providers, and biggest of all, money. You may be tempted to ask what someone’s plans are. They may even offer the information. The thing to remember that it is their story to tell. Asking is inappropriate.
Unsolicited advice on how to ‘properly’ express gender makes you a big jerk.
Comments about what a “real man” or “real woman” does or doesn’t do are transphobic. It discounts the fact that there is a man or woman in front of you. The way gender is expressed is distinctly personal. The way that I express my femininity will be greatly different than the way someone else does.
It is not a trans-person’s job to educate you.
You alone are responsible for you education on trans and other human rights issues. Regardless of intent, questions regarding someone’s experience as a trans person can be intrusive and triggering. Thank the dear Lord for the internets. Answers are just a click away. A great place to start is www.pflag.org. They have a treasure trove of resources for people who are trans, their families, and allies. I especially encourage you to download their free booklet “Guide to be a trans ally.” It is easy to read and incredibly helpful. You can snag your copy here: http://community.pflag.org/document.doc?id=904. People may offer up information on their own. That is their prerogative. Reach out and get the facts yourself.
Silence is not golden.
“Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.” – Ginetta Sagan.
Transphobic remarks and shaming language are dangerous. It is absolutely okay to say, “Hey, that thing you just said–it is rude and unacceptable. Please stop.” If you see something, please speak up. The trans community is not a punchline.
Transphobia is alive and well in our country. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (www.ncavp.org) released their 2014 National Report on Hate Violence against LGBTQ and HIV affected communities. 2014 saw an 11 percent increase in anti-LGBTQ homicides over the previous year. Let that sink in for a minute. Some 11 percent more lives were ended by murder because they were LGBTQ. The report goes on to say that majority of these lives were trans-women of color. This statistic only takes into account the documented homicides. It is impossible to say how many more lives were lost to hate that went unnoted.
It would be easy enough to dismiss the statistics of violence against people of trans experience (especially trans people of color). I am white. I also identify as the gender I was assigned at birth. These numbers don’t concern me. Right?
The answer is not just yes, but hell, yes. This does concern me. As a resident of the planet Earth and a human with a pulse, it concerns me very much. We are all connected. My friend honored me by trusting me with a piece of himself. Through all the crap that hit the fan in our lives, he knows that I will be standing by him ready to throw down. Everyone needs someone in their corner backing them up. I know I do.
We all need to be seen and acknowledged as fellow humans. One of the most important thing I can do is to be awake and recognize that there are people who are experiencing this life from a different perspective than my own.
Being scared and overwhelmed is natural. I don’t have to be an expert with answers at the ready. I do need to keep learning and listening. I am just a student here; winging it as I go.