How to support someone who is trans

If you have no or very little knowledge about transgender identity, that’s ok. The fact that you are reading this is a wonderful start. If someone you know has just told you that they are trans, they have probably thought long and hard about how to tell you and really feared how you would respond. We welcome you to have an open mind. Here are some common questions that family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances often ask:

What does being transgender mean?

If you are a visual person, have a look at the best overview we have seen in 7 minutes!

Gender is a person’s inner sense of being male, female, or somewhere inbetween. We know that gender is programmed from birth. It is not a choice and is biologically determined like any other human trait such as eye colour. Only an individual knows their gender, and most know inside whether they are a girl, a boy, someone inbetween or neither. it has been stated that cisgender individuals (people who aren’t trans) don’t usually question their gender. For transgender and gender diverse individuals, their inner sense of gender (known as gender identity) is different to their birth-assigned sex. Many trans individuals have always known since their first memories of childhood that their gender identity is different. Others know something is different, but may not realise or be able to express their gender identity until puberty or later in life after years of searching and experimentation. The gender unicorn (designed by Landyn Pan and Anna Moore from TSER) is an excellent pictorial description of gender as a spectrum and describes the differences between gender, sex and sexual orientation.

Regardless of birth-assigned sex, someone may identify towards the feminine side, towards the masculine side, or anywhere along the gender spectrum between male and female.

Common feelings expressed by transgender or gender diverse individuals are that they feel that they have been born in the wrong body; their brain is one gender and their body is another. They may not feel right in their body, feel disconnected, some wish that they were the opposite gender, some wish that they were both genders, and many have dysphoria, a severe discomfort for their body or severe discomfort when not perceived as their gender identity (i.e. when called ‘he’ instead of ‘she’). This severe discomfort can cause depression and anxiety, and puberty can be particularly a particularly distressing time. These feelings are often persistent and felt everyday. Often transgender people will feel more comfortable, more confident, or be able to be their true self when they are able to express themselves in their desired gender (see social transitioning section).

If you think you may be trans, visit our I AM TRANS page for where to get support and understanding gender transition.

“Looking in the mirror, on the days I’m brave enough to do it, can shatter my exquisitely constructed sense of myself.”

“Gender dysphoria is sadness. It’s paranoia, depression, anxiety, envy, disgust, anger; it’s all of the emotions no one likes to feel. Gender dysphoria is changing 10 times before leaving the house and still not feeling comfortable in your own skin…it is the ugliest and saddest I’ve ever felt and I would never wish these feelings upon even my most hated enemies.”

Jonny Caius Rose

Quotes compiled by Sarah Karlan, BuzzFeed news reporter

What do all these gender terms mean?

There are many different terms under the trans or transgender umbrella. Some individuals are born male, and identify fully as female or vice versa. Some identify as partly male, and partly female, gender fluid or somewhere inbetween the two binary genders. There are many genders and in fact facebook has over 50 options for gender! Here are some common terms and definitions which fall under the trans umbrella.

Just a note that transvestite/crossdresser/drag refers to people (usually men) who dress in clothes associated with the opposite sex and generally identify as straight men rather than transgender. These terms generally do not fall under the trans umbrella. As with all labels, nothing is black and white and there is plenty of gray area.

Names and Pronouns: what’s all the fuss about?

Names and pronouns are the words that we use to refer to people. Names and pronouns are used in every day speech, and in all forms of communication to reflect a person’s gender. Most trans people when they decide to transition will choose a new name and often identify with different pronouns. Mistaking a person’s name or pronouns, mistakes someone’s gender (misgendering) and it can make a trans person feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed or dysphoric causing severe discomfort and distress. Asking a person’s name and pronouns shows respect for a person’s gender identity. Who doesn’t want to be respected? Using names and pronouns creates a safe and inclusive environment for someone to feel respected and be themselves. Sometimes it can take time to get someone’s name or pronouns and this is understandable. If you make a mistake, apologise, correct it, try not to be awkward and move on.

What can I do?

Transgender individuals just want to be accepted, validated and live life as their true self like everyone else. Acceptance and respect are generally all that is desired from their friends, family, colleagues and the general community.

  1. Communicate Respect.

    Essential ways of communicating respect are to use their name, and their pronoun (i.e. she/he/they – see above). Put yourself in their shoes and don’t ask about sex or body parts as this can be extremely confronting and just plain rude. ABC iview also has an excellent program “You can’t ask that: Transgender”

  2. Listen.

    The coming out journey is challenging and has probably caused a lot of angst.
    Listen to how they feel, don’t argue and be supportive. If you don’t know much about gender, it’s ok. Just be open-minded and be willing to listen and learn.
    Google is also a great start (and so is this webpage – read above!).

  3. Create an inclusive environment.

    Trans individuals are often marginalised, invalidated, discriminated against and face many health and social inequities. By being respectful, you can create inclusive environments (school, workplaces, home etc) where transgender and gender diverse individuals feel safe and accepted. Speak to your family members, co-workers, friends and get everyone onside. If you find others who are not being respectful, speak out. You may save someone’s life by doing so.

What does "gender transition" mean?

When someone decides that they want to live as their true self (their affirmed inner gender) rather than their birth-assigned gender, they will undergo a change of genders, or “gender transition”. This is very much individualized and different for each individual. Some individuals will want to only change the way they dress or appear without any medical or surgical therapies (known as social transitioning), others may want to socially transition and have medical therapy to help their physical appearance be more aligned with their gender identity (undergo masculinizing or feminizing hormone therapy) and others may want to socially, medically and surgically transition.

What are some of the issues that trans people face?

Discrimination from society is one of the biggest issue that trans people face. Most individuals already struggle with body and gender dysphoria, and added to this is discrimination at many levels which is the major contributor to poor mental health.

Lack of family support and peer rejection or lack of social support are also major issues. Trans people have alarming rates of poor mental health with over 50% being diagnosed with depression and over 40% having previously attempted suicide. Acceptance, speaking out when you hear bullying and having an open mind can make an enormous difference to a trans person and can save lives.

In addition to high levels of abuse reported by trans indivudals (verbal, sexual, physical), discrimination and stigma results in difficulty finding medical care, employment and housing.

Why don’t transgender people get counseling to accept the gender they were assigned at birth?

The short answer is, it doesn’t work. Many decades ago, ‘conversion or reparative therapy’ was used to try to get people to change their sexual orientation or their gender identity. There is no reliable scientific evidence that gender can be controlled or changed and international medical bodies warn that such conversion therapy is not only ineffective, but potentially seriously harmful, leading to suicide, depression and substance-abuse. Today, advocates of conversion therapy tend to be fundamentalist religious groups.

Whilst we don’t know the cause of gender dysphoria, there is considerable scientific evidence that gender is biological, inate and different from sex chromosomes or external genitalia. You can read more about the biological basis of gender here.

Imagine….. think about your own gender

“It can be difficult for people who are not transgender to imagine what being transgender feels like. Imagine what it would be like if everyone told you that the gender that you’ve always known yourself to be was wrong. What would you feel like if you woke up one day with a body that’s associated with a different gender? What would you do if everyone else—your doctors, your friends, your family—believed you’re a man and expected you to act like a man when you’re actually a woman, or believed you’re a woman even though you’ve always known you’re a man?”

What does non-binary mean?

Like many things in life, gender is not just male or female and a spectrum.

Binary gender refers to 2 genders; male and female. Non-binary reflects that someone identifies as not trans male and not trans female, but somewhere along the gender spectrum. Some people feel partly male and partly female, some feel neither and some feel more towards one end than the other.

We also found this excellent article published by Minus18 “I just came out as non-binary! Here’s what that means”

Why do trans people need equity?

Because all people deserve to live a life without barriers; to be true to themselves without fear of discrimination or violence and be able to be active, ordinary citizens who can contribute to the community.

Mental health equity is the crucial goal; to decrease the alarming rates of depression, social disadvantage and suicidality. Acceptance of diversity and promotion of health equity are important steps. We live in a world characterised by diversity; there are different planets, different stars, different animal species, different plants, difference religions, languages, races, and gender. Imagine a world without diversity; it would be dull, colourless and lifeless. Biological diversity is what makes our environment vibrant and flourish.

We are made to exist in a life that should be marked by cooperation, interdependence, sharing, caring, compassion and complementarity. We should celebrate our diversity; we should exult in our differences as making not for separation and alienation and hostility but for their glorious opposites. “

Desmond Tutu

Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good. Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background. It is only by celebrating diversity and tolerance, as well as common interests that unit, educate and allow for personal, community and societal growth.

Australian Values Statement, Australian Government

We need to promote equity for trans individuals not just equality.

Image credit: Advancing Equity and Inclusion, City for All Women Initiative (CAWI), Canada.

I am a family member or partner of a trans person. Where can I get support?

We encourage you to seek professional support from a counsellor, psychologist and doctor. There are also support groups available including:

Transcend – Transcend provides parent/carer support, community connection, information, advocacy & fundraising.

Transfamily – A group offers a warm and supportive environment for the parents, siblings, friends and family of transgender people.

Gender Help for Parents Australia – created by Australian parents who have struggled to find information about services and support for issues around their children’s gender identity.

Transgender and Partners Support Facebook Group:

I am an employer, how can I support my employee?

Have a read of these great resources:

Coming out in the workplace published by the Anti Discrimination Commission Queensland. A comprehensive guide for employees, employers and co-workers. Under federal legislation in Australia, employers have a legal responsbility to prevent discrimination and harrassment in the workplace. Read more

Transgender: a new frontier in workplace diversity by Michael Starkey.

The Ally Project

We also love the ‘What makes an ally?’ Youth Project conducted by Ygender and Transgender Victoria.