How to help a transsexual friend
February 4, 2006 10:23 PM   Subscribe

My friend recently came out to me as a transsexual. This doesn't creep me out at all or make me uncomfortable, but maybe a little awkward: how do you try to help and support someone who just realized that she's really a he?

While not a long-time friend he is definately one of my closest current associates. We've previously talked about our sexualities and he'd been rather confused about it all but seems to have it sorted out now. He hasn't asked me to help him find information (he's proabbly just as net-capable as I) but I have been brushing up on for my own benefit. There's tips for families and loved ones of transsexuals, but I've yet to find any tips for friends. Any feedback from transsexuals, friends, family, counselors, whatever would be greatly appreciated, doubly so if it pertains specifically to FTMs.
(anonymous to protect the innocent and closeted)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
He's female-to-male, judging from the tags.
posted by malpractice at 11:24 PM on February 4, 2006

I dated a FTM transsexual for a year and a half. One thing I can tell you is that she very definitely has a sense of humor about gender issues, homosexuality and bisexuality, and sex in general. Don't feel that you have to treat the subject with the kind of kid gloves usually reserved for religion or child hood traumas.

I can tell you that she sometimes became very concerned about clothing issues. For example, when she was invited to a wedding, there was no way in hell she was going to wear a dress; she'd wear a man's suit or she wouldn't go. But her wardrobe was basically all jeans and t-shirts. She'd have to go to a store, explain what she wanted, get fitted, etc. Rather than deal with that, she ended up not going to the wedding. Now, I should point out that she's bipolar and has some pretty severe anxiety problems; hopefully your friend's situation won't be as severe.

Basically, I just had to respect her choices, even if they seemed inconsistent or perplexing. She wanted to be treated like a guy in a lot of situations, but she also wanted flowers and candy on Valentine's day. She likes Dar Williams but hates reading feminist books.

You should certainly be willing to go places with her that you might not otherwise find yourself: GLBT book stores, support group meetings, certain bars and clubs, drag shows (they have drag kings as well as drag queens, these days), and so forth. Be willing to watch movies, read articles and books, etc. that deal with gender issues.

If you're curious about something, ask her questions. Even if you're not curious, questions are sometimes a good way to show that you care what's happening to her, what she thinks, etc.

My guess is that you will end up discussing with her all sorts of things - from sexual techniques to sex reassignment - of a very intimate nature. You sound like a pretty laid back sort of person, but sooner or later, you're likely to hit something that makes you uncomfortable. When you do, be as honest as you can about your discomfort and the reasons for it. Ideally, you'll be able to adapt, to become more comfortable in these areas over time. And also ideally, she'll be very patient and understanding as you progress.

I'm sure there are a hundred other things you'll learn along the way.
posted by Clay201 at 11:24 PM on February 4, 2006

TimeFactor - it's Female to Male, so "he's really a he" would be more accurate.

And I second CrayDrygu's advice on just doing what you've always done. Don't let this be a barrier to your friendship.

I'd think the advice for families and loved ones could apply to you too.
posted by divabat at 11:25 PM on February 4, 2006

Oh, I shoulda mentioned...

I refer to my ex-gf as "her," "she," etc. even though she's transgendered and there are specific reasons for that that we needn't go into here. It may be important to your friend that you, at some point, begin using male pronouns to refer to him/her. If so, try your best to accomdate.
posted by Clay201 at 11:28 PM on February 4, 2006

Related AskMe thread from last June, and good recommendations in this recent thread from the newsgroup. There's also a FAQ.

someone who just realized that she's really a he

So this is early in the process for your friend, right? You've been friends with a woman who's just revealed plans to transition to a male? I think it's great you're planning to be there for your friend, and using the male pronoun is a nice sign of respect for who they are. I'd make sure he has good professional support (not just web pages), and help find it if he doesn't.
posted by mediareport at 11:52 PM on February 4, 2006

i third CrayDrygu- all you need to do is stay yr regular awesome self. yr friend will appreciate you not making a big deal out of this. :)

now for my personal area of expertise:

an important part of many transpeople's transition processes is the change of name. i know it will be hard for you to get used to using a new name and new pronouns, but i cannot stress enough how important it is that you try yr best.

the following is from a zine called Lion + Lamb- i'm quoting it here because it's so well-said. (but the emphasis is mine.)

Name Etiquette for Aspiring Trans Allies

1. While there are different levels of comfort with this for different transpeople, it is generally considered extremely rude to ask a trans person what their given name was, especially if you refer to it as their "real" name. If your trans friend wants you to know, they will tell you. Until then, it is none of your business.

2. On the other side of number one, if you know a transperson's given name, don't tell other people what it is, no matter how bad they want to know. Don't call them by their original name unless you have specific instructions to do so (i.e. you are calling their family's house and they are not out as trans to their family yet).

3. If you are mailing something to a transperson, you might want to double check before you address their mail a certain way. Sometimes post office employees get confused when names don't match, and if the person lives with a family who is hostile about their being trans, they may not necessarily receive mail addressed to their correct name. If someone tells you to address their mail a certain way, be sure to respect that if you want to insure that they will get what you're sending them.

4. When a trans friend of yours chooses a new name and tells you what it is, make sure you are clear on when and around whom you can use this name, and stick to those rules. If you're ever in doubt, avoid using a name if possible and ask your friend when it is safe to do so.

5. Mistakes are bound to happen when you're getting used to calling a friend by a new name, but we are good at telling the difference between an honest mistake and someone who doesn't have enough respect for us to make the effort. If you mess up repeatedly, then try harder. If you feel that you really cannot use a different name for your trans pal and blatantly tell them that or show them by repeatedly messing up, don't be surprised when they stop calling you.

6. Names are a highly personal thing, and many transpeople go through long involved processes of choosing one. When someone tells you their new name, be respectful. This is not the time to make fun of their name, say that is sucks, or tell them that it is otherwise ill-suited to them ("Oh, you're not butch enough to be a Bruce!"). When you call them by this name, don't say it in a mocking or sarcastic tone. If you don't like their name at first or don't think it fits them very well, then keep your mouth shut and call them by it anyway. Eventually, you'll get used to it, and if you're respectful and vigilant about not making mistakes, before long you will wonder how you ever saw them as their given name.
posted by hyperfascinated at 12:00 AM on February 5, 2006

I keep starting a reply.

I have a few trans friends, mostly MTF. But, I think you've already got it. Just validate him. And you're already doing that. If you want to ask about personal experiences (I've been both friend, acquaintance, and intimate) or anything else do feel free to email.
posted by birdie birdington at 12:28 AM on February 5, 2006

I have little to add to the above answers, except this:


It's a crying shame that JDR's website is the top search result for "transsexual" because, really, she's an idiot. I can go into massively more detail if you wish, but really, just about anywhere else is better as a source of information.

Unfortunately I don't have any real links for you (mainly because MTFs are everywhere in Google; people seem to find us a lot more exciting/fascinating/disturbing than FTMs) but if you want information that isn't coloured by a particular person's world-view, you could do worse than to lurk in a few FTM Livejournal communities. Maybe make a post saying what you did here, and you're bound to get some helpful replies from people who've been there, done it, and ironed the T-shirt.

I also second what hyperfascinated said. I took a long time to find my name, and it's very special to me. His will likely be just as special to him. Treat it with lots of respect.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 12:30 AM on February 5, 2006

I know only one transgendered person (mtf). I first met her when she had just started transitioning, but she was still using her birth name and presenting as male in most social situations. I did not recognize her at all when I was introduced to her again several months later. It wasn't until we had met several times and she mentioned some small detail of her life that the penny dropped and I realized that she was the person I formerly knew as ----. I got rather flustered at that point and apologized for not recognizing her after that single meeting months before. She then told me that she didn't remember meeting me at all the previous year until I reminded her of it that day. So that made me feel a little less guilty about not making the connection.

I think one of the best things you can do is honestly admit that this is a new situation for you, that you are feeling awkward, and you may say some dumb things sometimes out of habit or ignorance rather than malice. Invite your friend to literally or figuratively slap you (playfully!) when you do so

I wouldn't advise pleading ignorance and awkwardness indefinitely. As you ask around and read more about transgenderism in general, and as conversations naturally arise with your ftm friend over the next few months, that awkwardness will probably fade quite a bit. Who knows, you may yet get comfortable enough with each other that his transgendered state may be fodder for some wry humour between you. But don't assume this too fast, and let your friend take the lead when it comes to discussing this topic. You'll probably find you spend much more time talking about any number of things besides his gender and getting closer that way. It seems to be how guys bond, anyway.

Good luck to both of you!
posted by rosemere at 12:30 AM on February 5, 2006

How would you support any friend who was making a major life change?

By doing exactly what you're doing: learning a bit about the subject, and otherwise doing nothing any different than the day before he told you. Your friend is still himself; it's just some plumbing that's going to change. Yes, I know it's not 'just some plumbing'; it's a major life-altering event. But in practical terms, when it comes to how you interact with your friend on a daily basis, nothing should really change.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:48 AM on February 5, 2006

I'm FTM so I guess I'm somewhat qualified to comment... I'm slightly biased due to my geographic location, but I think one of the better sites for friends/family is Men's TS Resources in Australia. There are also a couple of books I'd recommend if you're the reading type - Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, even though written by someone who now lives as genderqueer rather than male, is probably one of the most accurate and touching accounts I've read. A Self Made Man by Paul Hewitt (not the one that's recently been getting a lot of publicity, this is an English guy's autobio) is a good memoir of transition, honest and straightforward.

I have to say though, I really wouldn't worry too much about how much you do or don't know about transsexualism. You already appear to understand why he has made this decision about his gender identity, and you don't have any negative responses to it, and that's already a fantastic start which puts you ahead of most people. Just being someone who will listen to his problems (trans-related or othewise) without making judgements or wanting him to change to your ideals will be great support for him.
posted by hgws at 3:27 AM on February 5, 2006

Speaking from experience as a [now reformed] gossip:

Don't, under any circumstances, discuss your friend's transsexualism with others, even if they are friendly to the situation, know him, or are trans themselves, unless you have specific permission from your friend to do so.

You must be vigilant about respecting his privacy. It is NEVER your decision to reveal his status to ANYONE.

I learned this lesson the hard way, and lost a friend due to my rudeness.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:17 AM on February 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

I see you're referring to your friend using male pronouns, so that's an excellent start. Just be a good friend and treat him however he wants to be treated.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:17 AM on February 5, 2006

I am also FTM. And I second many of the things said in this thread including, (but not limited to) being really vigilant about name/pronoun changes, checking out some livejournal community pages, and staying a good friend. I would also like to say that you should respect the choices and feelings of your friend whether or not you understand them right away-- BUT also don't be AFRAID of asking questions.

For me, when my good friends ask me questions, it feels nice. Talking with friends is a loving space where I can formulate explanations without worrying too much about being misunderstood. Also, when my friends ask me questions about my transition, it makes me feel very much like they care about me and my well-being.

Take Care!
Enjoy this exciting time in your friendship!
posted by fireflies to stars at 10:17 AM on February 5, 2006

A good friend of mine started an F2M transition a year ago or so. It has seemed to me like mostly he just wants to be accepted as a man, and for people to get their pronouns and his new name right (that much is important to him.) Nothing more complicated than that.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:22 AM on February 5, 2006

There is lots of good advice here, and I'd like to agree with everyone else that respecting and validating your friend by using the pronoun he prefers is one of the biggest, clearest signs of support you can provide. Addressing him with the name he identifies himself with shows acceptance for his actual identity - hyperfascinated covers this very well above. One thing you may need to adapt to is being able to respond to him as the gender he presents himself as (since it may remain female in places he is closested) and, as others have said, vigilantly respecting his right to privacy and coming out on his own.

When I was younger, I had a FTM transgendered friend for whom the biggest support I could give him was simply seeing him as he saw himself. For my friend (who was further along in the coming out process than I think your friend is right now) being socially/publicly accepted as male was his biggest struggle and desire. My clearly calling him by his name, and responding to him as male in public when he was ready to present as such helped others around also address and perceive him as male (Most people are glad to take the cues to plunk someone into one box or the other, rather than accepting some as in transition). However, your friend may not be at this stage for a long, long time, until then try to take your cues from how he behaves both publicly and privately, and don't be afraid to ask questions!

Another aspect that may or may not come up in time would be that although transgendered/transexual people tend to find their greatest support and allies in the LGBTQ community, gender identity does not indicate anything about sexual orientation. Or necessarily anything else. For instance, simply my telling you I identify as female doesn't give to any indication to whom I might fall in love with or find sexy, any more than it tells you what kind of job I have or whether I like hockey. Hence, your friend may or may not identify himself as gay. He may very well identify as a heterosexual male as my friend did. He could just as easily identify as gay, bi, or asexual (in relation to his own gender or whatever). Just remember what they say about assuming!

Really, in the end, the biggest way to show support is to continue to be friends. This person is still themselves, the same person you've always been friends with, they've simply figured out some of the less clear aspects of themselves. Just listening, and being able to respect your friend for himself and being proud of who he is, is enormous. Also realizing you may make mistakes is important. I have another friend who generally presents as one gender, but occasionally as genderqueer, so I have been trying to adapt to the gender neutral name they prefer, although I have known them for a long time with their very gendered name and still mess up and use that name. This is a learning process for you too, I found the talks I had about sexuality with each of these friends have helped me figure out some things about myself as well!

If you're looking for more support, I would also recommend spending some time with PFLAG, whether that means just reading their web material or visiting a chapter. It's a very upbeat and friendly organization. Also, if you are feeling comfortable with being identified as a straight ally (see, here I am assuming!) the Human Rights Campaign has some good info, even for just being supportive on a friend-to-friend level.
Finally, my email is in my profile should you want it. Good luck, and know you are a good friend!
posted by nelleish at 10:36 AM on February 5, 2006

Pronouns are a bitch. My brother get's really pissed when I use the name I grew up calling him by, or call him "she," or make most any type of joke. As a biological male I find it amusing that this matters so much to him (I have long hair so the elderly and the unobservant/busy often assume I'm female on first glance, it doesn't bother me at all -- usually they are very apologetic when they realize their mistake, so I guess it is supposed to bother me (?)) since I've been mistaken for a woman and not bothered by it, but I guess choosing to create an identity based largely on a gender that differs from your biological sex can make one a tad touchy. Short version: be careful with pronouns.
posted by Grod at 8:42 PM on February 5, 2006

Came across this site years ago and found it intelligent.
posted by nickyskye at 9:06 AM on February 7, 2006

I like what pretty much everyone said here. Yes, continuing being supportive, all that. But I especially like what rosemere and Clay201 said--no matter how supportive you are, this is going to be a little odd for you. While you don't need to obsess about it or anything, you shouldn't feel the need to act like everything is just as before.

I am (or have been) fairly closely acquainted with three transsexuals, at various stages of transition. The one FtM I know I met as a man, and had no idea about his history until he told me. Nothing changed at that point, since it was, well, just part of his history, not part of our relationship.

The two MtFs I know I met as men. One is still going through transition, and one has had the full run of surgery. Yes, things did change after they "outed" themselves. Not just names, but behaviors, the way we were regarded walking down the street, their romantic relationships, their own senses of self, all that.

While their need to be supported far, far outweighed mine, I needed some time to adjust, too. It's not every day that someone you know changes identity. Yes, I'm still every bit as supportive of them as I was before, moreso, even, since I see more and more how very important it is to be so. But I needed, and still need, to be cut some slack every now and then, you know, whether it's when headed for the bathroom or when being told of the surgery.

There are a few things to anticipate. Even if the person has wanted to transition for a very long time, the actual process will be dramatic for him. Lots of people, family, friends, and strangers, will give him shit for it. His personality may change a bit, whether from taking the shit, from having a new, fufilled sense of self, or even from the hormones that are often involved. If you see these changes coming, you'll have a better chance of staying friends throughout the process.

in the end, all the transgendered folks I know have been much, much happier and well adjusted after transition. But the process can be (understandably) tumultuous for all involved.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:11 AM on February 7, 2006

« Older Arg!!!   |   Here's a challenge: Obscure BookFilter Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.