A Basic Etiquette Guide for Non-Transgender People Who Want To Help
He, she, they. Ze, zir! Finally, transgender people are becoming more accepted and included. However, there is still a lot of change that needs to happen — and it starts at the personal level. Although some of the accommodations we use for trans people may seem inconvenient to non-transgender people, they make a big difference for everyone. You don’t have to have a PhD in gender studies to understand or use these tools. All you need is a willingness to listen and some basic empathy.
Talking to transgender people isn’t that different than talking to cisgender people. Yet, many people who have never met a transgender person before, or who are just learning that a friend or loved one is trans, might be worried about what to say or how to say it. Transgender people are people and deserve as much love and respect as anyone else. What can you do to help others feel comfortable, safe, and included?
When you meet someone who might be trans:
- Don’t ask them about their gender. Questions like “Are you a girl or a boy?” are rude.
- Don’t make their moment about you. For example, if your child comes out to you, they are taking a huge step in their personal development and showing you that they trust you to love and support them through their journey of self-discovery. You aren’t “losing your daughter,” you are learning something new about your child. Grieving the loss of that “daughter” will damage the relationship you have with your child and compromise their trust in you.
- When you introduce yourself, include your pronouns. For example, you might say, “My name is Sean and my pronouns are he/him.” That lets the other person know that you are open to hearing what their pronouns are, too. Even if the other person uses the pronouns you might expect, this is a polite way of introducing yourself. Once you’ve introduced yourself, don’t ask the other person what their pronouns are. Let them tell you when they’re ready.
- Don’t ask, “What’s your real name?” or “How long have you been a girl?”
- Don’t ask any questions that you wouldn’t want to answer yourself, especially about surgical procedures, family problems, sexual preferences, or other personal matters. It’s none of your business.
- Don’t offer us a makeover. Trans people have their own, unique gender expression. We don’t necessarily want to look like you, pass as cisgender, or assimilate into your culture.
- Don’t tease us for being less-than-proficient at expressing ourselves. Many transgender people haven’t had years to learn how to do gendered activities like putting on makeup, fishing, tying a necktie, and other things non-transgender people grew up taking for granted. Your trans friend might want to figure this stuff out on their own, or they may want to learn from you. Either way, be kind and don’t put others down. Everyone’s gender expression is different, whether they are cisgender or transgender. Nobody is born knowing how to run a chainsaw or iron a blouse; that doesn’t make them “less of a man” or “less of a woman.”
- Do cut yourself some slack. It’s very common to slip up and accidentally use the wrong pronoun or name. If you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself immediately, and move on. You don’t need to grovel or anything like that. Just try to do better next time. Calling attention to your mistake or putting the other person in a position where they need to “forgive” you isn’t necessary.
When a friend, coworker, or loved one tells you that they’re transgender:
- Ask them if they’d like to be called by a different name or if you should use different pronouns. You can be supportive by offering help, showing the person that you care, and telling them that you are happy for them. Coming out is a big deal and takes a lot of courage. The person is sharing this personal discovery with you because they trust you.
- Be patient. You might be tempted to ask a million questions, but sometimes the other person doesn’t know the answers yet. (And they don’t have to.) Let your friend open up to you at their own pace.
- Don’t say things like “We always knew something was wrong with you” or “I hear that’s common with your people” or “It’s a phase.” That is very rude and tells the other person that they can’t trust you to be supportive. Trans people come from all cultures and come out at many ages, from early childhood to the senior years.
- It’s OK to ask your trans friend who else knows, and whether they’re “out” to everyone. People may sometimes come out to only trusted friends and family members before they’re ready to tell the whole world. Let the person be the one to break the news. You can support them by letting them grow on their own schedule.
- Use the person’s name and pronouns to their face and behind their back. It’s hurtful to find out that a friend or family member calls you your correct name in person but still calls you by your old name (commonly called a “deadname”) to mutual friends and family members. The Golden Rule applies: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- Be an advocate and an accomplice. If you see a trans person in danger, stand up for them. If another non-trans friend says negative or hurtful things about your trans friend, call them out. Be quick to identify transphobia and nip it in the bud. Letting hate grow has real-life consequences for trans people and actually kills us: Black trans women, in particular, are at high risk for being murdered due to transphobia.
- Try to see the places where trans people are not welcome, and ask why they are excluded. Where are the all-gender bathrooms? Dressing rooms? Homeless shelters? Treatment centers? Sober living homes? Recovery meetings? Clinics? Any time we have binary groupings, nonbinary people or people who are non gender conforming fall through the gaps. You can be a voice in helping create more spaces where trans people are wanted and welcome.
- Find a support group online or in your neighborhood where you can meet other family members and allies of transgender people. This might be an LGBTQ group or a support group. Talking to other people who have trans loved ones and family members will help you feel less alone and will probably answer a lot of questions you have.
- Donate to transgender organizations, hire trans people, and include trans people in your social and professional activities. Your movement is not complete unless it includes the most marginalized people — and our voices matter.
When we educate ourselves and learn more, we can honor our differences and be kind to each other. Although many people get stuck on “pronouns,” that is just the beginning of supporting trans people. Approaching gender with sensitivity and kindness helps create a more just, inclusive world for all of us.