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Understanding Transition: What NOT to say


 

In the early days of overwhelming emotion, it can feel like you’re walking through a conversational minefield. Remember: it’s normal and okay to feel whatever feelings you’re feeling. But it’s not okay to let all that emotion fly out of your mouth without modulation. This is particularly true when your trans loved one is a child. It’s not a kid’s job to solve your struggles; it’s the other way around, and the burden could very well be too much for them to bear.


Regardless of the age of the trans person in your life, the list of statements and questions below are likely to trigger conflict and are best avoided. We’ll talk more about the issues they contain in the days to come.


Why are you choosing to do this?


Gender identity isn’t a choice trans people make. Did you choose your sex and gender?


Maybe it’s just a phase.


Gender is a key part of identity. It’s not something people move through like a growth spurt or a design aesthetic.


Have you thought this through?


They have thought about this more than you can imagine.


Are you sure?


They’re sure.


Could you just be gay?


Gender identity and sexual orientation are completely different things. Trans people can be attracted to people of the same gender or other genders. Just like cisgender people.


Why would you want to be a boy?/Why would you want to be a girl?


People don’t want to be transgender. Most fervently wish that the sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender, but unfortunately, it doesn’t.


When transgender people come out to a loved one, it’s not to announce that they want to change their identity. It’s to say that they no longer want to pretend to be something they’re not. They don’t need to become a new gender, they already are that gender.


But you’re so pretty!/But you’re so handsome!


Trans people are exhausted from years spent playing the part of another gender and working to fit societal expectations for their appearance. Reminding them of how closely society has aligned them with the wrong gender is painful.


Does it bother you that you’ll never be a real man?/Does it bother you that you’ll never be a real woman?


Understandings of gender are fluid and change across time, geography, and culture. The idea that there are “real” men and “real” women is a false understanding of what gender actually is. It’s hurtful to suggest that transgender people aren’t “real.”


Why didn’t you tell me sooner?


It takes a tremendous amount of courage to push back against the force of expectations a trans person has to manage throughout their lives. Some of those expectations were probably delivered by you. Your loved one examined the countless facets of life which would be impacted by transitioning before deciding the time was right. The fact that they feel safe and brave enough to speak their truth is a testament of their courage and their hope in you.


Questions about genitals.


When learning that a friend or family member is transgender, it’s common for people to wonder whether they’ll have surgery. It should go without saying that discussions about genitalia should be limited to people in close relationships. A good rule of thumb is that if you talk about intimate body parts normally, it’s likely to be okay. If these topics aren’t something you talk about, then there’s a risk it will be offensive.


It’s safest to not ask unless they open the conversation.


I feel like my loved one died.


You might need to speak these words somewhere as part of processing your grief, but please don’t say them to your loved one. Coming out is intensely vulnerable, and they desperately need acknowledgment that their essential self is worthy of love. Using this phrase makes them feel like you loved a costume and a pretense rather than an actual person.


▪  ▪  ▪  ▪


Language issues will get easier as time passes. The more you learn about transgender experience, the less likely you’ll be to unintentionally inflict pain.


Being transgender, like being gay, tall, short, white, black, male, or female, is another part of the human condition that makes each individual unique and something over which we have no control. We are who we are in the deepest recesses of our minds, hearts, and identities.

Linda Thompson


 

 

Suzanne DeWitt Hall (she/they) is the author of the Where True Love Is devotional series, the Living in Hope series of books supporting the loved ones of transgender people, The Language of Bodies (Woodhall Press, 2022), and the Rumplepimple adventures.

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