My friend is trans: how can I be a good ally?

July 7, 2021

Dogs for trans rights. Photograph by Rosemary Ketchum at Pexels

Jamie Aldridge explains how allies can show their support for trans family and friends

An ally is defined as ‘a person that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle’. It’s often now used specifically to describe a person who’s not a member of a marginalised or mistreated group, but who expresses or gives support to that group.

A trans ally is someone who isn’t trans themselves, but who supports the fight for equality and acceptance of their community. They may be a part of the LGB community (for example a lesbian woman or a bisexual man).

In focus groups with young people from Barnet and Southgate College, we discussed what cisgender (non-trans) people can do to be good allies for trans loved ones:

#1: DO educate yourself
It’s understandable that you might not know exactly what it means to be transgender. Even if you do, everyone’s concept of gender identity will be different, depending on their upbringing, culture or background. It’s okay to want to ask questions if someone you know comes out to you as trans.

But it’s important to consider whether you’re asking someone about their identity in order to adapt to their needs (asking their preferred name and pronouns) or just out of curiosity (asking what surgeries they’ve had).

These are some questions to ask yourself before asking a trans person about their gender identity:

  • Would I ask such an intimate question to a cisgender (non-trans) person?
  • If someone asked me about such a personal topic, would I feel comfortable telling them?
  • Do I really need to know the private details of this person’s life?

If the answer to any of these is no, consider whether it’s sensitive to ask a trans person about it.

Some topics are clearly not appropriate in casual conversation – such as people’s sex lives or their medical needs – and this applies when talking to trans people as well.

#2: DO show your trans loved ones you support them
It may seem simple, but it means a lot to a trans person if you just talk to them, listen to how they feel, and take the time to understand them and their gender identity.

The person who’s come out to you was probably really nervous beforehand. They might have kept their thoughts to themselves for some time, feeling lonely and isolated, out of fear of your reaction.

They probably rehearsed what they were going to say to you and tried to wait for the right moment. If they came out to you in a letter or text message, they probably wrote and rewrote it over and over before finally giving it to you or pressing send.

They might even have prepared for all possible reactions (positive and negative), and planned how they would cope if you hadn’t been accepting of them.

Just knowing you are there to accept and support them will mean a great deal to your loved one.

#3: DO use their preferred name and pronouns
For lots of trans people, changing their name or using different pronouns is a big part of their transition. It demonstrates to everyone around them that they’re making changes to align more closely with their identity.

If other people use a trans person’s correct name and pronouns, it shows that they’re supportive of the person’s journey and willing to accept them no matter how they identify.

#4: DON’T out your loved one to anyone else
Even though you may be accepting of your loved one when they come out, not everybody will be.

Some trans people need to be careful about who they tell about their gender identity. Although discriminating against someone’s gender identity is illegal, people still risk facing harassment, bullying, isolation or even violence when coming out.

In schools, trans pupils are twice as likely to experience physical bullying than lesbian, gay and bi pupils (13 per cent compared to 6 per cent). Nine per cent of trans pupils receive death threats at school, and four per cent are threatened with weapons at school.

If someone comes out to you, it’s helpful to ask who knows that they’re trans. Otherwise, you risk accidentally telling someone else about their trans status, which might put them at risk.

Young people are especially at risk if their parents aren’t supportive; they could be kicked out of their home because of their gender identity.

Students also discussed the support they’d give to a loved one who told them they were trans or questioning their gender identity, with some really positive, encouraging words:

  • Take your time in exploring your identity; it will all fall into place eventually
  • Remember to be yourself; you don’t have to fit with other people’s stereotypes
  • It’s okay to be unsure of what you want or who you are. It could take a while to figure out your identity, and that’s okay
  • Be confident in what you believe and how you feel about your identity (not how other people feel about you)
  • Don’t worry about others’ opinions or any hostility you might face – there is no right and wrong when it comes to gender

Further support:

Organisations such as akt and Stonewall Housing offer support to LGBT people affected by homelessness. Galop is an anti-violence charity that supports LGBT people affected by hate crime, sexual violence and domestic abuse.

Educate and Celebrate can provide workshops, training and resources to create a more inclusive school or work environment.

Stonewall has written guidance for young people about coming out – explaining why someone might come out, and how they could come out to different people in their life. They’ve also written some guidance for parents who think their child may be LGBT.

Switchboard is an LGBT helpline, whose volunteers all self-identify as LGBT+. They provide an information, support and referral service for LGBT people, and anyone questioning their sexuality and/or gender identity.

Funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, distributed by CommUNITY Barnet Giving has helped us with this work. Thanks to National Lottery players for making this possible.