Illustrations by Leo Mateus.
Maybe someone you love or care about has recently come out. Maybe you have just learned that a coworker of yours is transgender, and you want to understand how you can better support them. Maybe you’ve noticed that your kid’s gender expression has recently changed. Or maybe you’re just a good person who realizes that all people deserve human rights—regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity—and should be treated with respect, dignity, and care. Either way, there are practical and emotional ways to support the LGBT people in your life beyond Pride month.
There aren’t a whole lot of resources out there for people on how to be an ally, especially when it comes to supporting transgender and nonbinary people. Being an ally can be a great form of advocacy and personal activism to practice in your daily life. Fox DeNova, FOLX Member Advocate, worked with us to identify five tips for how to be a better LGBTQ ally. Note that every tip will apply to each queer, transgender, or nonbinary person in your life. The LGBT community is a diverse community of people with different wants and needs so make sure to get a feel for what your loved one wants, needs, and expects from you.
1. Make sure you come from a place of respect and love
If you are a cisgender ally—meaning your gender matches the sex assigned to you at birth—you may be unfamiliar with the idea of what it really means to be transgender and/or nonbinary. If you are a straight ally who has never questioned your sexuality, you might also have difficulty understanding the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer people. Maybe the only representation you’ve seen is from the media and, oftentimes, those portrayals can be illegitimate or harmful to the community. There is also a lot of terminology within the LGBTQ+ community that you might be unfamiliar with or have difficulty getting the hang of.
That being said, having an open mind and a loving heart can make all the difference. Using communication techniques such as active listening and “I” statements can make a world of difference when it comes to difficult conversations. Come to any discussions about a person’s sexuality or gender identity understanding that you are being entrusted with something incredibly personal. While this can be an emotional process for everyone involved, it’s important to center the LGBTQ+ person’s experience and the information they are disclosing to you.
2. Keep your loved one’s information close, unless otherwise stated.
Queer and transgender people will come out to the people in their lives at their own pace. If a transgender, nonbinary or queer person has confided in you about their identity, know that this personal information is not yours to share, unless otherwise stated. Some LGBTQ people intentionally only come out to only a few people at a time and don’t want or need you to spread this information, while other LGBTQ people may appreciate the support and want you to share this information with other people so they don’t have to. Know that it is always up to the person who is sharing their identity on how they want this information to be shared or not.
It all depends on the comfort level of the person, so make sure that you ask what someone’s preference is before disclosing their identity to other people. Remember to never share information about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their consent, as it is incredibly personal and could put them in jeopardy or pose a risk to their well-being. Someone is trusting you enough to disclose to you who they really are, and your top priority should be to protect this person’s safety and comfort. When in doubt, ask. This is one step you can take to be an ally and a friend to the LGBTQ people in your life.
3. Know and use their name and pronouns
Some transgender and/or non-binary people are comfortable with the name they were given, while others might prefer to choose a new name or a variation of their old name. Either way, respecting what name a person wants to be called is a key part of allyship. Know that choosing a name that fits one's identity can be difficult but empowering. Many transgender and/or non-binary people don’t feel comfortable being called the name they were given at birth, as it may not be reflective of who they are.
For cisgender people, this may be a difficult concept to understand or relate to. But remember to come from a place of love and support, even if you yourself don’t understand. The process of finding a name may take a bit of practice. Some people might pick a new name and stick with it while others might run through a handful of names before making a more permanent decision. Regardless of the process, let the person know that you respect them by asking what name they would like to be called and using it whenever you can. This can include simple steps like updating their contact information in your phone, sending a text using their new name, or writing their name in a birthday card. These simple initiatives can reduce gender dysphoria and help to improve trans people’s mental health. If your trans or non-binary colleague wants others to know their name and feels comfortable with you sharing it, using someone’s correct name in the workplace can help alleviate the stress of them having to disclose that information.
Also, make sure you know what pronouns the trans or nonbinary person in your life uses. Some common gender pronouns are he/him, she/her, or they/them. Some people may also use pronouns that are not yet as widely known like ze/zir or want to be referred to by name only. Other people may be comfortable using multiple sets of pronouns. Ultimately, never assume what pronouns a person does or doesn’t use.
A great way to be an ally is to introduce your own pronouns when you meet someone new as well as normalize correct pronoun usage in that setting. An easy way to do this is to correct other people when they misgender someone, especially if that person is not around. But remember to always make sure to check in with the personal preferences of transgender people before you advocate for them on their behalf.
4. Remember that your loved one is not “dead”
This is a common concept that many transgender and non-binary people have heard from family members after coming out. Sometimes friends or family feel as if they have “lost” someone and express the fact that they are mourning. In reality, you are not losing anyone and no one has died. You are actually gaining a healthier, happier, and more authentic version of the person you already know. Referring to coming out or transitioning as “death” or thinking about it in the framework of loss can be painful to the person on the other end. Never grieve, always celebrate.
5. Respect boundaries and consider the nature of the questions you ask
LGBTQ people are unfortunately accustomed to being asked invasive and uncomfortable questions about their sex lives or bodies. This can be especially true when it comes to transitioning. Asking a person invasive questions about their body, genitals, surgeries or medical procedures, and/or sexuality can be humiliating and degrading. Ask yourself if this is a question that you’ve ever had to answer or if you would feel comfortable answering if someone asked you the same.
Instead, let people disclose the information they choose to freely. Some people might open up to you about their personal experiences and choices while others may not. Normalize respecting boundaries always, regardless of a person’s identity. If you’re ever unsure about how to start this conversation, the best question to ask is, “How can I best support you?”
6. Find gender and sexuality resources beyond your loved one.
Is it okay to ask a loved one questions about their identity? Honestly, that answer is up to the queer or transgender person in question. The LGBT person in your life should not be treated as “an expert” for all your burning questions about gender and/or sexual orientation.
Just because a person has opened up to you about your identity, doesn’t mean that they are now responsible for educating you. Consider this when your feelings of curiosity come up, and seek out other resources to educate yourself. The FOLX Library, social media accounts, & the internet all have useful resources on gender or sexuality. Empower yourself with information so that burden isn’t on the person you care about.
If you’re new to FOLX and interested in gender-affirming healthcare, learn more about our estrogen and testosterone offerings. If you have additional questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. FOLX members with questions about swimming are encouraged to reach out to their clinician. For those looking for more healthcare support, you can schedule a virtual care visit with a FOLX clinician today.