This was originally posted as a gist and linked on Twitter. For posterity I’m re-posting it here. Thanks to Sennah Yee for her help proof-reading and suggesting improvements!

This post is for people who have transgender friends, loved ones or coworkers and want to understand what it means to be transgender, and how to talk about gender and identity. Be aware that this is written from the privileged perspective of a white trans woman in a supportive environment - racialized people, gender non-conforming people and other marginalized groups face additional own challenges beyond what I talk about here. The most important thing is to respect people and listen to their experiences and what they want. This will hopefully provide a starting point for readers to have respectful discussions and engage in effective allyship.

Overview

Gender identity can be an unfamiliar concept for cis-gendered people - people who identify with and feel comfortable with their sex assigned at birth. Someone’s gender identity is dependent on their deeply-held convictions, and not how they express themselves or their physical anatomy. Some people have a stable gender identity over their whole lives, but people’s identity may change, or they may discover their identity is not what they assumed in the past. Gender identity exists on a spectrum from male to female, and some people identify as non-binary - people who do not identify with either end of the spectrum. People’s pronouns (he/she/they/ze) are typically related to their gender identity.

Transgender is a broad term that refers to people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Preferred terminology in 2018 is that someone is a transgender person, or someone is trans for short. Terms like “transgenders,” “transgendereds,” and “transsexuals” are not used. When talking about trans identities you can say trans man or trans woman, two words, as opposed to “transman”, “transwoman”. Some people may have specific language they like to use for their identity - in that case, use the language people tell you.

Gender roles are the different cultural ideas people have about what is stereotypically “masculine” or “feminine”. These roles can negatively affect both cis and trans people.

Gender expression is distinct from gender identity. Everybody, cis and trans, has their own gender expression: how they express who they are through clothing, speech, makeup, body language, etc. Different cultures may have social expectations about gender roles, but ultimately this is a personal choice for every person. It’s important to accept everyone’s gender expression, regardless of pre-conceived expectations and gender roles, because these are very intimate and personal.

Transition is the process by which someone chooses to change their gender identity and/or their gender expression. The goal of transition is to reduce gender dysphoria, the feeling of discomfort related to gender expression, gender roles or anatomy. The nature of dysphoria and the steps involved in transition are very personal, but ultimately transition is the only effective treatment for dysphoria and the only healthy way for transgender people to treat their dysphoria.

Transition

Transition can happen in a lot of different steps, which might include:

  • using a new name or pronouns
  • changing their clothes, hair or makeup
  • changing their voice or mannerisms
  • hormone treatments to change secondary sex characteristics
  • surgery to change primary or secondary sex characteristics

Transition can take different amounts of time - hormones can take multiple years to take full effect, while changing clothes can happen overnight. People may choose to do some things or not do them because of cost, access to medical care, legal concerns or their personal safety. One person may choose to privately make changes to reduce dysphoria and get medical treatment without telling their friends or coworkers, while another may change their name without taking any medical steps. There’s no right or wrong way to transition and every person’s transition is a unique experience.

Transition is a very stressful time. Confronting dysphoria head-on can cause acute changes in mental health, including depression. Social pressures around coming out can lead to a loss of support, and feelings of alienation. Medications have physical side-effects and cause emotional changes. Surgeries are hugely expensive, there are waiting lists and difficult barriers to getting proper medical treatment. Trans people face the risk of losing friends, family, their jobs and their lives as a result of transitioning.

What Can I Do to Help?

Use the right name and pronouns. If a trans person tells you their name and pronouns, use them. Trans people who change their names call their old name a deadname, and referring to someone by the wrong name is deadnaming. Referring to someone with the wrong pronouns is misgendering. Some people might use pronouns you’re not familiar with like they/them or ze/zir. If you’ve known someone for a long time you may find yourself accidentally slipping up - if you do make a mistake, apologize and correct yourself. Being defensive about mistakes or ignoring them can make the person you’re talking to feel like you don’t accept their identity.

Accept their gender expression. People often bring social expectations into discussions of gender, and trans people can experience extra pressure from the people around them to be hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine during transition. Some people may not want to conform to social expectations about gender. Gender-conforming clothes like dresses for trans women may reduce dyphoria and fit social expectations, but they may also be hard to shop for or fit. It’s important to let a trans person express themselves in a way that makes them comfortable and continue to respect their identity - they don’t have to change their gender expression to change their identity, name or pronouns.

Help them transition their own way. You may have expectations about how someone will transition - the order or timing of the steps they take, for example. It’s important to remember the primary goal of transition is to improve the trans person’s mental health. Some steps they might feel are very urgent, and some might not matter as much. They’ll want to move at their own speed, and there may be social, legal or economic barriers they have to surmount. Being an effective ally means helping them overcome those barriers and supporting them emotionally, but not trying to set how they transition or the pace.

Support them in gendered spaces. There are many places where transgender people may feel especially unsafe due to social expectations. While discrimination can happen anywhere, places like change rooms and restrooms are examples of spaces where trans people are at a very high risk of being singled out and potentially subjected to violence. Accompanying trans people in these spaces may help them feel more comfortable and reduce the discrimination they experience.

Don’t out them. Outing is when you disclose someone’s gender or sexuality without their permission. In the same way that it’s not appropriate to talk about someone’s sexual orientation, it’s also not appropriate to talk about whether someone is transgender. This isn’t only about people who are transitioning privately who may not have shared a new name and pronouns yet - if someone’s changed their name and pronouns, it’s also not appropriate to share their old name, pronouns, or even the fact that they’re transgender.

Epilogue

Being an effective friend and ally doesn’t require you to have all the answers, or to know everything about trans people. Being an effective ally is about listening, respecting and trusting people. Dysphoria will seem alien to people who have never questioned their gender, and never worried about being in the wrong body. Your job as an ally is to accept the experiences of trans people, respect their choices, and help them live happy, fulfilling lives.

Resources

Transgender 101 at Everyday Feminism

Provides some more detailed explanations of gender identity, non-binary genders, transition and how sexuality differs from gender.

GLAAD’s Tips for Allies of Transgender People

Tactical, real-life examples of ways to be an effective ally and avoid stereotypes when you’re with trans people.

Ontario Human Rights Commission - Gender Identity and Expression

An overview of the legal requirements around discrimination and harassment in Ontario.

Rainbow Health Ontario - Point of Care Guidelines

Guidelines for doctors and patients about access to medical care and legal services, including detailed guides to providing HRT and how to change gender markers on Ontario IDs. Effects and Expected Time Course of Hormone Therapy Regimens is a useful quick reference for understanding the effects of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

World Professional Association for Transgender Health - Glossary of Terms

A glossary of many terms related to trans people, oriented more towards medical providers.