How To Support Your Transitioning Partners and Friends

feature image photo by Patricio Nahuelhual via Getty Images

First of all, thanks for reading this. I’m guessing you’re here because you care, and that’s a lot of the work already done.

Okay, so someone close to you has begun a gender transition. Well, transitioning seems like a monumental event, but the end goal is often just comfortable normalcy. As a supportive part of that journey, you’ll witness the surprise and mundanity in transition. So here’s one trans woman’s take on making our lives a bit better while we give our birth gender the finger.

Some basics about gender transition

So, what is a transition? I (and my academic work) characterize being transgender as having a sense of gender that is different from the one assigned at birth. That definition is purposefully broad. It leaves space for people who know they’re trans but can’t live as they want to (ability). It leaves space for recognising there is no wrong way to be your gender (flexibility). Lastly, it leaves space for people to remake themselves after birth (agency).

That paradigm is also valuable to non-binary gender transition. It doesn’t enforce conventional masculinity or femininity as a transition goal. People can become more than one gender, or none. I once met someone who described themselves as gender non-compliant, and I try to honor their energy every day I live.

It can be helpful to see a transition as smaller, interlocked transitions. Social transition involves changing one’s gender as it relates to daily social interactions: names, titles, presentation, and gendered behavior. Medical transition covers the part we can’t resolve through force of will. Hormone replacement and surgery come to mind, but medical transition can also include speech therapy, psychotherapy, and a host of allied healthcare professionals. There’s also the bureaucratic transition where legal documentation is settled. I’m still procrastinating on that one.

a friend applying makeup to a transfemme person

Your part is easier than it sounds

That may sound like a terrifying amount of stuff to deal with. But rest assured, if it’s a bit overwhelming for you, it’s probably intense to the one doing it. As someone supporting the process, you won’t be exposed to every step. Transition is an act of personal agency–a trans person has to start and carry every decision themselves.

There are a few things you can help with, though.

1. Uphold their autonomy

The best thing you can do for the trans person in your life is to respect their autonomy. Gender transition is an intensely personal effort, and nobody’s choices receive universal approval. But what matters is that the choice was theirs. I don’t approve of the transition choices made by every trans person I’ve ever known, but I recognize that it came from their deeply thoughtful place.

If a person makes their choice in a reasonable frame of mind and is aware of the possible outcomes, then it’s theirs to bear. This applies to their medical decisions (surgery or not? Hormones: no, maybe, yes, or big yes?). This applies to the name they did or didn’t choose. It applies to their aesthetic choices.

I’m just going to quote from a clinician’s care manual, because it’s my article and I want to. One of my favorite manuals of transition care simply says: “Autonomy in the context of transgender healthcare involves transgender people being able to make informed choices for themselves regarding gender affirming care and being free from experiencing harmful pathologisation and other barriers to accessing this care.”

The thing that eased my transition most was knowing my loved ones trusted me. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes to be trusted.

2. Be prepared to answer questions and chat

I often compare gender transition to a second adolescence. Adolescence is more than biological puberty. It’s also learning one’s gender role and how it relates to the world. Same for transitioning out of one gender into another — it takes a lot of learning to learn an entire gender.

My girlfriend was my main source of info during transition. She fielded the countless How To Girl questions I had. We discussed how to style myself, react to sexual violence, and do basic skincare. Then, because skincare is an obsession of hers, she told me way more than the basics. I cherish her time and knowledge, even though I’ve never wanted anything to do with topical Vitamin C.

The trans person in your life will be filled with questions. They might approach you because you have relevant expertise. Maybe your expertise is that you are their gender. You might even be the only option.

An earnest offer to be there and answer questions about ‘being’ a gender goes a long way. It assures us you’re present on our team. It lets us know that we can confide in you.

3. Make space for yourself and know your limits

If you’re close enough for someone’s transition to be relevant to you, then it’ll impact your life. You’ll have to adjust the mental image of who they are and what terms you use to refer to them. If your lives are tied, you’ll see deeply sensitive parts of the process. It’s imperative to work through your feelings and find support for yourself when you feel overwhelmed.

That’s not to suggest that being near someone in transition is inherently traumatic or difficult. A well-supported transition can become a source of joy despite the challenges. But transition fundamentally changes a person, and you’ll have to process a lot of related feelings.

There are also times when you don’t have to be the only resource. These include:

  • When being transgender interacts with severe mental distress like anxiety, depression, suicidality, eating disorders, and problematic substance use.
  • Situations where they suffer verbal, physical, or sexual violence.
  • When their support needs exceed your expertise.
  • When support needs outstrip your capacity to provide it.

If situations like those arise, you should handle them like any other interpersonal challenge: with the help of relevant and reliable support. This could mean joining support communities or consulting trans rights organizations for info. You may need to start therapy to discuss your experiences in confidence. Maybe you need to re-assert your boundaries to ensure your well-being.

Many of us tumble into a mentality of wanting to be the best ally ever, lest we be seen as discriminatory or unsupportive. It happens to me. It happens to every queer person I’ve discussed this with. The reality is that we all have a right to take reasonable steps to uphold our well-being. We’re no use to each other if we’re breaking down.

Easier…and harder than it sounds

Like being transgender, supporting a trans person is both simpler and more challenging than it seems. Nobody is a perfect ally, and perfection is not a reasonable standard anyway. What is reasonable is asking people to respect our agency, speak with us, and look after each other.

As I have done here.

Now go forth, and try your best.

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Summer Tao

Summer Tao is a South Africa based writer. She has a fondness for queer relationships, sexuality and news. Her love for plush cats, and video games is only exceeded by the joy of being her bright, transgender self

Summer has written 39 articles for us.


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