People in the trans community face many obstacles as a result of their gender identity, including social hurdles, such as bullying, and personal distress, such as that caused by gender dysphoria. Transgender individuals might experience diverse drawbacks when it comes to integrating in society, including discrimination, stigma, and injustice. As a result, people in the trans community seem to experience more mental health conditions than cisgender individuals (Weinhardt et al., 2019). Social support is a key factor in coping with psychological distress and severe mental health problems (Falak, Safdar and Nuzhat‐ul‐Ain, 2020). However, sometimes we want to be appropriate allies of the trans community but we still end up being offensive due to lack of understanding. So, how can you be of support?
- Recognise the difference between acceptance and support
Accepting that your friend is trans and communicating that acceptance is extremely important. Acceptance enables one to feel validated and loved. However, acceptance can sometimes border on tolerance and that will surely not make your friend feel loved and appreciated. If you want to reassure your friend that you are genuinely there for them and that they still have their place in your life, then you need to follow up that acceptance with support (Weinhardt et al., 2019). This includes using the correct pronouns when referring to them, and simply asking how you can help them.
- Do not tell your friend how difficult it is for you
This does not mean that it’s not difficult, however, avoid expressing this struggle to your transgender friend because it only makes them feel guilty. It is possible that this friend that you want to support is also that friend to whom you used to open up about everything. Acknowledge that it is going to be difficult for you to adjust and seek your own support system to cope with this change. If you really want to be of support, don’t turn this on you. Your priority should be to focus on your friend and their journey. If this change/event/experience or whatever you would like to call it, were to happen to you, you would want your friend to focus on your feelings. Of course, this applies to the conversation about their transgender identity and it does not mean that you cannot talk about yourself with that person any longer.
- Research about it but listen to your friend’s language and experience
It’s good to conduct further research about what it means to be transgender as this helps you understand better. That being said, it’s okay if you can’t understand it. It might be a foreign concept to you or something you simply cannot picture. You can still respect your friend even if you don’t know what they are really going through. The best way to show that you are supporting them and their unique experience is by listening to the terms they use to describe their experience surrounding their gender identity (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016). Being trans does not mean the same thing to every person and there is a lot of variation in the trans community itself. Sometimes, we can get carried away with our research, or perhaps we research what we want to read/hear. It’s important that you refer to your friend the way they refer to themselves, and appreciate their identity the way they embody it.
It’s okay to feel lost and hurt. Throughout all this, you could be mourning the woman you have lost and getting accustomed to your new male best friend. Perhaps your friend always felt like a girl best friend to you, therefore, you’re not feeling much of a difference now that your friend is transitioning into female. Or, maybe you still have to deal with the fact that your previously female friend is no longer a ‘she’ but neither a ‘he’. You have to give yourself time to understand what this means to you but this does not mean that you cannot be there for your friend while you’re still processing. Therapy can serve as a consistent and reliable space where you can reflect and grow to accept the situation, all the time continuing to be a consistent and reliable friend.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Falak, S., Safdar, F. and Nuzhat‐ul‐Ain, 2020. Perceived discrimination, social support, and psychological distress in transgender individuals. PsyCh Journal, [online] 9(5), pp.682-690. Available at: <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pchj.373?casa_token=GDZ0gJJrpAsAAAAA%3AyKBsLQ0teLTHrLwr8wbXtfv6ANKDrkNOkYt21mNn6DlIqv_kdQpJBZVEACS__5LocQIBoXl2Ai4SiVY>.
National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016. Supporting the Transgender People in Your Life: A Guide to Being a Good Ally. Available at: <https://transequality.org/issues/resources/supporting-the-transgender-people-in-your-life-a-guide-to-being-a-good-ally>.
Weinhardt, L., Xie, H., Wesp, L., Murray, J., Apchemengich, I., Kioko, D., Weinhardt, C. and Cook-Daniels, L., 2019. The role of family, friend, and significant other support in well-being among transgender and non-binary youth. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 15(4), pp.311-325. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/1550428X.2018.1522606?needAccess=true>.
Luanne Grima is a psychology graduate who is part of the psycho-sexual education team at Sex Clinic Malta. Sex Clinic Malta is the multidisciplinary team providing 360° care for your sexual health.