Whether it be a friend, co-worker, or family member, when someone transitions it can be difficult to know how to approach their new identity.
There may be some trepidation as to how to address trans people correctly, coupled with the fear of some slight or insult.
As someone who is trans, I can tell you we are often just as nervous.
This hesitation, despite its well-meaning, can isolate trans people from social groups and even potential employers. This silent ostracization can contribute to loneliness and
So, if you ever feel stressed or uncomfortable around someone because you’re afraid of making a social faux pas, know that you’re feeling the same discomfort we often do in social interactions with unfamiliar people.
Living in a new identity is referred to as “transitioning socially,” when someone lives and presents as their new, authentic self. This may involve a change of name and pronouns, though this varies from person to person.
Social transitioning may also be coupled with medical transition, but one isn’t a requirement for the other.
There are a plethora of reasons why someone may not transition medically. None of which are a basis to deny a person their new identity.
In my experience, when I’m in a social group that’s accepting and affirming of my identity, that stress described earlier just melts away.
In places like school or work, there may be an expectation to share your pronouns upon introduction.
To me, this feels quite formal, and it doesn’t really happen in a more casual or social environment. So, how do you introduce yourself and make sure people gender you correctly?
I’m a big fan of the third-person quip.
An offhand joke about yourself whilst gendering yourself correctly can usually set the record straight. Often people pick up on this without issue.
There’s definitely been some nonverbal communication thanking me for establishing pronouns where there could have been confusion!
Just to clarify, it’s perfectly fine to ask someone what pronouns they use. I would much prefer someone ask than guess and get them entirely wrong.
Some people immediately get it. New pronouns? Done. New name? Sorted. It’s like flicking a switch. A small conversation, and you’ll never hear another peep about your pre-transition self.
For others, it may take a little longer.
While transitioning may have been something you thought about for a long time — the choice certainly isn’t made on a whim — the idea may be brand-new and come as a complete surprise to someone else.
I’ve found that the further back you and a friend or acquaintance go, the harder it can be.
This can be especially true if you’re transitioning at a later age.
Generally speaking, a person you’ve known for a few months or years hasn’t had the same opportunity as a person you’ve known all your life to build up a strong, individual sense of your identity.
When I first lived full-time in my new identity, for instance, I was constantly told by friends and co-workers that they might slip up and accidentally deadname or misgender me.
For me, it’s fine if people make the occasional name or pronoun slip-up, especially during the early stages of transitioning.
It’s all about intention. Humans are creatures of habit, and I can certainly empathize that change takes time.
When we write down the date in January, for example, I think it takes everyone a few weeks to stop writing the wrong year.
Still, there’s a right way to make a mistake and a wrong way to make a mistake.
An all-too-common phrase that I hear is “correct me if I’m wrong.” It may be well-meaning, but calling people out and correcting them can be awkward.
It can create tension between people and, in my experience, gets tiring fast. I don’t want to be the “pronoun police.”
A better approach is to acknowledge your mistake, correct yourself, and move on.
Being trans offers an extraordinary perspective of the world, and people will want to hear from you about what that’s like.
It’s important to set boundaries around what you are and aren’t OK with talking about.
Personally, when someone asks permission to talk about transitioning, I always lay out what I’m happy to talk about and what I’m not.
It’s never acceptable to ask questions about transitioning to someone who does not openly disclose their past to you. It’s humiliating and downright rude.
Meeting new people
There’s a difference between those who knew you pre-transition and those who only know you post-transition.
If I’m in that mixed company and someone accidentally misgenders or deadnames me, I am far less likely to speak up so as not to out myself.
Take extra care around mixed company not to “out” someone. This is when a person’s identity or history is revealed without their express permission.
Doing so can lead to a person fielding unsolicited personal questions or even having to defend or justify their identity in response.
Having a group of people that will stick up for your identity no matter what can be incredibly helpful. As social animals, we quickly pick up on group behaviors in order to fit in.
When a person’s identity becomes the norm, people will quickly get it correct. And when those around you make the effort to address you correctly, make it known that you appreciate it.
Transitioning isn’t always easy. The people in your life may want to help in any way they can and be involved in your transition in a positive and supportive way. If you’re comfortable with it, allow them to do so.
In order to understand my relationship with gender, I had to do a fair amount of research on all of its complexities and nuances among different LGBTQ+ communities.
But that’s just me. Many folks are blissfully unaware, and as such, will not get everything correct even when trying to be open and supportive. Patience is key here.
I clearly remember one evening having a heart-to-heart in the lady’s bathroom with a complete stranger. I was sharing how nervous I was about being out and about and how people might perceive me.
She was very complimentary and supportive despite having some preconceptions about trans people that, while well-meaning, were technically incorrect.
I decided against bringing it up. In that instance, it was better to make a friend than a point.
There may be people in your life that, no matter how much they’re reminded, just get it wrong.
For me, it can be difficult to meet up with family because of this. For others, it may be a particular friend group, loved one, or co-worker.
As mentioned earlier, having a group of people that will affirm your identity in front of others helps tremendously.
When my mother was struggling to get my identity correct early on in my transition, I found having one of her or my friends present changed the dynamic so much.
Even just having a third person there noticeably reduced instances of misgendering and deadnaming. It also meant I wasn’t always doing the correcting.
I’ve also found that taking someone out to lunch, dinner, or even just a cup of coffee, can prompt people to take extra care when talking about your identity. Monetary value doesn’t matter — it’s the gesture that counts.
People seem to take more effort to address you correctly when they’re socially in your debt. It can also help stop the infantilization of your identity by people that are senior to you, such as older adult family members or your bosses.
Ultimately, how you assert your identity is up to you. You should never have to compromise on who you truly are.
Your identity isn’t up for debate, and neither should your dignity be. Sometimes a gentle nudge in the right direction is all that’s needed for others to treat you how you deserve.
This isn’t an exhaustive guide, and it comes from one person’s lived experience. But I can say for certain that standing up for myself and my identity has been core to my transition.
Being trans can be difficult enough, so it’s good to make life easier for each other.
Sophie Litherland is a writer and scientist based in Bristol, UK. She works with subjects involving gender and identity, as well as science and science fiction. She’s also a gaming presenter and is involved in stand-up comedy and science communication. You can follow her on Twitter.