By Joe Borders,
Marriage and Family Therapist
October 9, 2019
How to Be Supportive When Someone You Love Is Trans or Non Binary
As a gender therapist, I see a lot of trans and non-binary people in my counseling work. One thing that often comes up in therapy is confusion/misunderstanding among family members. I often get parents calling me for counseling, saying that their teen has come out as trans or non-binary and they don’t know what that means or what to do to support their child.
This blog post offers tips that I often cover in therapy, on how to be supportive of your loved one. It is part of a series of posts intended to offer help and guidance to anybody who loves someone who is trans or non-binary.
In the last post I talked about some general terms you should know. If you haven’t read it yet, or are unfamiliar with trans/non binary terminology, then you should check it out before reading this post. You can find it here:
*Click on any of the following tips to travel down the page to where you can read more*
How to Be Supportive
- Offer unconditional positive regard
- Be respectful of pronouns and terminology
- Offer support and talk about it
- Be empathetic
- Be open to talking about insults and accidents
- Be educated
- Make mistakes
- Help to connect with community and resources
- Help them transition if that is their goal
- Be patient
- Get your own help
- Be an Ally
Things to Avoid
- Forcing deadname
- Disrespecting pronouns
- “Re-boxing” them
- Asserting it’s a phase
- Making them reexplain things a lot
- Looking for contrary evidence
- Assuming sexual orientation
- “Outing” them to others
How to Be Supportive
Offer unconditional positive regard
Everybody needs to have a felt sense of what we call “unconditional positive regard” from their parents and partners. Having unconditional positive regard for someone means that you love and care for them no matter what. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with or approve of all the things they do, but rather that you respect their autonomy and see them as doing their best to figure out their own lives. You may not understand everything they’re doing or even approve of all of it, but you can give them your love. This is important above all else. If your loved one feels that your love for them is conditional, then they will pull away from you.
Be respectful of pronouns and terminology
Everybody has difficulty with this at first, but you should do your best to acknowledge and use your loved one’s pronouns and terminology. If you are new to this, don’t be afraid to ask them their pronouns. If they are new to this too, they may not know. Sometimes when people are non-binary their pronouns and terminology change over time. This is a reflection of them discovering themselves and more fully coming into being their authentic selves. This should be embraced and encouraged.
You will often see people saying “preferred” pronouns. Avoid saying this. Pronouns are not “preferred”, they are how the person identifies. Using the word “preferred” makes it sound like using their pronouns is an option or a secondary choice.
You will make mistakes at first. You may actually find yourself making mistakes for a year or more, but generally if your loved one knows that you care and your mistakes are not malicious, then they will be patient with you.
Offer support and talk about it
Don’t be afraid to talk with your loved one about their gender identity. Avoiding talking makes the subject taboo and communicates that it makes you uncomfortable or you disapprove. One of the most important things is for your loved one to feel that you support them. Talking about it acknowledges their struggles, makes you more able to support them, and makes them more open to receiving your support.
Do your best to talk with your loved one and truly hear them so that you can empathize with what they might be feeling and any struggles that come up for them. There are many situations that are unique to trans and non-binary people. For example, many trans and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth struggle with heat because binders are restricting and can make them heat up quicker. Being aware of things like this and being empathetic shows that you truly care. Talk with you loved one about what their gender identity means for them, and be mindful of any struggles you become aware of.
Be open to talking about insults and accidents
You are going to make mistakes. As long as they are actually mistakes and not intentional insults, that is ok. You will get better at this. When you make mistakes it is best to acknowledge them and be open to talking about them. After a while your loved one will develop trust in you as an ally and you’ll likely be able to stop pointing out mistakes and mutually understand them as slip ups, but in the beginning you really should acknowledge them.
Your loved one is going to run into people who intentionally or unknowingly insult them. When you witness this or become aware of it, invite them to talk with you about it. This might be as simple as “Hey, I noticed that person was saying some pretty trans-phobic stuff. Do you want to talk about it?”
Do your best to research and read information relevant to your loved one and their gender identity. You can start by reading my blog post about terminology :-p. I occasionally encourage families to watch documentaries together if they are open to it. A recent one that has been making headline is National Geographic’s Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric.
You are going to make mistakes. Do your best to acknowledge them, how they affect your loved one, and how you can do better in the future. I list this as a tip because I think its important to be open to making mistakes. Much like when learning a foreign language, if you’re too afraid to mess things up then you aren’t going to try and you wont get better. You really don’t want to be in a place of worrying about saying the wrong thing all the time. Both you and your loved one will eventually come to an acceptance that mistakes will be made and making them will feel less tense/stressful.
Help to connect with community and resources
Help your loved one get connected with their community and resources that are available to them. Help them find a gender therapist if they need it. Many trans and non-binary people experience feelings of isolation, misunderstanding, and rejection. Getting them connected with their community can really help with this and help them to feel involved and supported.
There are several good organizations in the Sacramento area that offer support, resources, and community events.
Some people may be reluctant or shy to connect with these groups. Encourage them and help them get there when they are ready.
Help them transition if that is their goal
When a person takes steps to bring their body and physical appearance into alignment with their gender identity it is called transitioning. There are many different things a person might choose to do in their transition. This can include changing the way they dress, hormone therapy, and surgery. When they come to a place of deciding they would like to transition and what that looks like for them, do your best to be supportive and help them on their way.
In therapy I frequently get trans and non-binary people talking about feeling like their family and/or friends are pressuring them to “make up their minds” or “decide what they are”. Discovering your own gender identity is a process that can take some time and your loved one may try on a few different gender identities before they find what truly fits them.
Part of what leads families to being impatient is frustration with wanting things to be settled and have a trajectory to follow. Being impatient in these types of situations is akin to being frustrated with your 9 year old for not knowing for sure what they want to be when they grow up. This takes some time, exploration, and experience to sort out. Be patient with yourself and your loved one.
Get your own help
It is important to get your own help! No matter how open and accepting you are, you’re likely to have some difficult thoughts, feelings, and confusion that you will need help with. If you don’t have a place to talk about these things and process them, you may inadvertently hurt your loved one. Many people feel an odd mix of grief/loss when their loved one transitions. Some parents experience this as being like a semi death of the child they raised as another sex and/or gender. It is important for you to have someone you can talk to about these complicated emotions. If you don’t, they could leak out as built up frustration, resentment, and passive aggressive remarks.
It is ok to struggle with this and have your own difficult emotions, but you don’t want to unload them on your loved one unfiltered and unprocessed. Seeing a gender therapist can help you to process your emotions, better understand where they’re coming from, and be more supportive to your loved one.
Check out PFLAG Sacramento. PFLAG is a supportive community for parents and family members of LGBTQ people. If you are having trouble, you can connect with them to get resources and attend a group with other parents or family members going through similar experiences. This can also be a good place to work on becoming a better ally
Be an Ally
In the LGBTQ community, a person who is supportive of LGBTQ individuals and their rights, and who advocates for and defends them is called an ally. Being an ally means standing up for LGBTQ people and their rights, fighting for equality, and speaking up against discrimination and hate. How can you be a better ally?
If you’re interested in reading more about being an ally and/or finding ways to help, you should check out PFLAG’s site for allies
Things to Avoid
In the trans and non-binary community, when a person chooses to take on a new name, the name they were given at birth is often referred to as their “deadname”. If your loved one has chosen to go by a new name, do your best to be respectful and use it. I say do your best because you will mess up and accidentally use their deadname…a lot. But you will get used to it over time. Making mistakes is ok. Forcing them to go by their deadname is not. Doing so communicates that you are not respectful of or against their new emerging identity.
Don’t intentionally disrespect/disregard a person’s pronouns. This will likely make you seem untrustworthy and unsupportive.
This isn’t an actual term…I don’t think. “re-boxing” is a word I use to describe when a person forces their trans or non-binary loved one(s) to temporarily “go back in the closet” for personal or social convenience. If you are going to an event and are concerned about how people might receive your loved one, talk with them about it and come up with a plan together. Be sensitive to your loved one and allow them to sit this one out if possible. Help them introduce themselves if they need it. Let them decide how they would like to present themselves and work together to figure out any potential social implications.
Asserting it’s a phase
Even if you truly believe that its a phase, don’t say it. Doing so will push them away from you and make them feel like they can’t come to you for support. Gender at its very core is a personal thing that all people should explore and challenge the social norms of. Asserting that someone’s exploration of their gender is a phase amounts to belittling or devaluing their struggle to discover their authentic selves. Talk about this in therapy or with supportive friends, but not with your loved one.
Making them reexplain things a lot
There will be things you don’t understand and terms you don’t know. It’s ok to ask questions. Just do your best to listen when you ask them. At first you might have to re ask things a couple of times, but if it becomes a frequent occurrence, your loved one will start to feel like you’re not listening or don’t care.
Looking for contrary evidence
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents say something to the effect of “He can’t be trans, he likes (insert boy thing)” or “She was wearing a dress last week. This doesn’t make sense”. A person’s gender identity is a very personal thing; they may have been struggling with this internally for a long time, and they might not fit neatly into a box of male or female. When you look for evidence to contradict your loved one’s gender identity you are communicating that you’re unsupportive and/or aren’t listening to them.
Assuming sexual orientation
This idea takes some people a while to get used to, but sex, gender, and sexual orientation are three different things. A person’s gender identity has little to nothing to do with what types of bodies they are sexually attracted to. If your loved one is trans, don’t assume that this automatically means that they are attracted to the sex opposite to the one they identify with. Avoid using terms like lesbian, bi, and gay until you feel like you’re familiar with your loved one’s sexual orientation and the terms they choose to use to describe themselves. Also, your loved one being trans or non-binary does not give you a license to go directly to talking about their sex lives. Some people will be open to talking with you about their gender identity, but will not want to talk about their sexual orientation. This is normal. Imagine if you were 14 and your parent basically asked you “hey, what kind of people would you like to have sex with?”. Depending on the person and your relationship, some people will go there with you, but (especially in teenagers), not all will be open to immediately sharing these things.
“Outing” them to others
Lastly, Don’t “out” them to others. In other words, don’t reveal to others that they are trans or anything but the gender they choose to present as unless they ask you to. Don’t introduce them by leading with something like “This is Steve, he’s trans”. Even if the people you’re talking to are trans friendly, doing this may make your loved one feel caught off guard, disrespected, or put on the spot. Many trans and non-binary people talk about experiences like this feeling like their gender is being used as a conversation starter or immediately being called into question and pointed out as unusual or strange. Most trans and non-binary people want to just be acknowledged and accepted for who they are; outing them makes them feel unwelcome and scrutinized.
These are just a few tips to help you be supportive of your trans or non-binary loved one. The most important things are to be open, curious, and have unconditional positive regard. You will make mistakes, but with empathy, openness, and understanding, these mistakes will come to feel like minor bumps in the road rather than big screw ups. Do your best to learn about things you don’t understand and be mindful of your loved one’s terms and pronouns.
If you need help or someone to talk to, give me a call for a free brief phone consultation. I am a gender therapist with offices in Sacramento and Roseville. You can also click the following link to read more about LGBT counseling with me.
About the Author
Joe Borders is a marriage and family therapist located in Roseville and Sacramento. He is primarily a sex positive gender therapist, but also specializes in working with couples, teens, addiction, and the LGBTQ community. Joe is also the owner and founder of SacWellness. You can find out more about him by visiting his sacwellness listing or by visiting his website: therapy and counseling in Roseville and Sacramento