An in-depth guide for Allies
By Mx Berty
“Maybe you’re an ally wanting to understand a little more or maybe you’ve never met a transgender person and think you’d be uncomfortable knowing what to do or say when you do meet someone who is trans. Hopefully this will help you understand, we’re human, just like you.”
This may sound silly, but until I came to understand I’m transgender, I didn’t know anything about it. I hadn’t ever met another transgender person until I went to my first support group meeting. Even now, if someone was to ask me how it feels to be transgender, I can only say that trying to explain it is like a football supporter explaining the offside rule or a petrol head trying to explain torque. I know within myself but I can’t put it into words.
– Transgender, adj.
Designating a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond to that person’s gender assigned at birth, or which does not otherwise conform to conventional notions of gender.
That is as far as the definition of a transgender person can and should ever go. It is important to remember that every transgender person’s experiences and journeys are unique and yet still as worthy as all the others. A transgender person does not have to pass anyone else’s preconceptions or stereotypes of what a transgender person should be in order for them to be valid. As soon as I came out to my friends and family, it was right for them to abandon my ‘dead name’ and use my ‘preferred pronouns’. Yes, I may still have looked male. I may still have a very deep voice. At the time I may not have had many female clothes but I still identified as a woman. For many there is no point at which their transition is complete. Some may one day stop referring to themselves as transgender because they feel they have completed their transition. Also, a transition is not just physical, it’s also social. My transition began in September 2019 when I came out to my friends and family. I didn’t start HRT until nearly a year later. Just because someone doesn’t ‘look transgender’, does not mean they’re not. We’re all different, but we’re all valid. Non-binary and genderqueer people can also fall under the transgender umbrella, although some non-binary people don’t consider themselves transgender.
Trans people are not “new”
I can hear people responding, “We didn’t have all this in our day!” Yes, yes you did, but those people didn’t have the terminology or information to understand or express who they were. Social media has given me the knowledge and support I needed to come to terms with who I am, and I owe my life to that. Many others before me were not so lucky.
I was prompted to write this piece because of an interaction I had with my insurance company. I’ll share the insurance company’s email below:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us, I’m sorry to learn that you’re unhappy with our service.
From reviewing our records I understand that you’re unhappy that we’re unable to input your title as ‘Mx’ due to a system limitation, and with the delay in us getting this matter resolved for you.
If you feel that I’ve misunderstood your complaint or if you have anything further to add, please contact me on the above email address. I’ll be investigating your concerns fully and will be in touch when I have a resolution for you.
I’d also like to understand the impact that this matter has had on you, so that I’m able to take this into consideration when responding to your complaint.If you’d like to contact me in the meantime, please feel free to contact me by email.”
And my response:
(Since sending that email I have stopped self prescribing and am under the proper care and supervision of shared care between my GP and GenderGP.)
The insurance company replied with a personalised email to let me know they are now making the necessary changes to accommodate me. I’m really glad they asked me and gave me the chance to explain what it means to me. You see, I, along with many (not all) of my transgender siblings really don’t mind answering questions about being trans and our journeys, as long as those questions are phrased correctly and not too intrusive.
It’s not a decision
I have had people ask, “When did you decide to become a woman?”, and start a sentence “When you decided to become a woman…” etc. The problem with this question is that I was and always have been, female. I just spent forty years of my life pretending to be male and to be honest, I wasn’t very good at it. So (for cis people), generally it is better to say, “When did you come to terms with being transgender?” or “When you started your transition…”. Instead of saying someone was born male or female, please try and say, “assigned female/male at birth” (afab/amab). These terms refer more to what society put on the person, and not it being matter of fact that someone was a particular gender. Also, instead of saying “When you were a man…”, try saying “When you presented as male…”, because as I’ve said, I have always been female, even if I didn’t understand it.
We use the term ‘transgender’ and not the outdated ‘transexual’ because it’s important to differentiate between sex and gender. There are different reasons for this. Partly to do with the difference between biological and psychological, but also to distance ourselves from the word ‘sexual’ so people don’t confuse being trans with anything to do with sexual orientation or it being some sort of fetish.
When I first came out, I was working in a factory with some fantastic people who I told and they were fine with it. Then we had a new manager start and when I told him I was trans, he said “Whatever you get up to in the privacy of your own home is nothing to do with me!”. I thought, “What? I don’t think you understand, I’m not telling you how I get my kicks. This has nothing to do with what I like in the bedroom.”
To reduce a life of pain and suffering to that one comment was a massive shock for me. I am not a pervert. This is not a fetish. Nor, as someone once suggested, do I just have a thing for nice panties! (Anyone that thinks that would be sorely disappointed to see my underwear drawer.)
If someone has just come out to you as transgender, this isn’t an invitation to suddenly ask lots of personal and inappropriate questions. For example, if someone said to you “I’ve always been afraid of heights!”, would you consider it ok to then ask “Ok, so, are you gay? How does that work?”. Please, separate gender and sexual orientation from your thoughts. The two are not connected.
Another term you may hear is ‘gender dysphoria’. “Gender dysphoria describes the distress experienced by those whose gender identity feels at odds with aspects of their body and/or the social gender role assigned to them at birth. This can be experienced as physical discomfort, and psychological and emotional distress. Social factors are often key in the experience of gender dysphoria.” (source, gic.nhs.co.uk).
It’s important to understand that neither gender dysphoria nor being transgender are illnesses. We do not suffer with being transgender. That may seem a ridiculous thing to explain but I have been asked, “Have you received counselling?” I always wonder what they think I need counselling for? Do they think I’m mentally ill?
I recently read that scientists have said that excluding the biological, they cannot say what makes us the gender we are, however recent studies have shown that trans children are aware of their gender at very young ages – the same age cis children become aware – around 2 to 4.
I don’t like this term. Calling them ‘preferred’ suggests I’d prefer you get it right, but don’t worry yourself if you can’t be bothered. They’re not preferred. They are my pronouns. Just because I’m transgender doesn’t mean someone can decide if they consider me worthy of making the effort. No cis person would like it if someone you’d just met suddenly decided to start misgendering you for no reason. I fully accept that if you’ve known that transgender person for a long time before they came out as trans, it may take some time to get used to and as long as you’re making the effort, that’s generally fine. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. However, please don’t tell a transgender person that using their correct pronouns is difficult. It completely diminishes everything they’ve gone through.
I don’t think people realise how difficult it is coming out. Taking those first steps out in public while presenting as a woman can be terrifying. In comparison, saying ‘she’ instead of ‘he’, or vice versa, it’s not difficult. If you’ve just met someone and you’re unsure what pronouns to use, just ask “What pronouns do you use?”. If you’re unsure and don’t want to ask, use ‘they’. If someone mentioned ‘Dr Smith’ to you, you wouldn’t know what gender they are, so you’d refer to them as ‘they/them’. It really is that simple.
It actually took me a while to get used to people using my correct pronouns. I remember sitting with my bestie and her sister, chatting away and one of them referred to me as ‘she’ and for a moment I genuinely didn’t realise she was talking about me. Those first times people used my correct pronouns, it made my heart skip a beat. It made me feel valid. It made me feel accepted. I think acceptance is a huge part of what it’s all about and by using someone’s correct pronouns and chosen name, you’re accepting them.
If you do accidentally use the wrong pronouns for someone, all you need to do is quickly say sorry to acknowledge you did it, it wasn’t intentional and move on. Try not to make a big fuss over it by repeatedly apologising and trying to explain why it happened.
It’s taken me a long time to leave behind the male traits I learnt over time. For people who realised they were trans later in life, we probably don’t realise quite how much social conditioning we have been exposed to, until we’re confronted with trying to undo it all. It took me a long time to leave behind the male bravado while at work, trying to fit in with the lads and the ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ attitude. I had to realise it’s ok to admit I’m vulnerable and when things become too much it’s ok to sit and have a good cry. I’m not suggesting it’s not ok for men to show emotion or cry, that’s just one extreme example of the toxic social conditioning I received, when I was socialised as if I was a boy. It comes down to the smallest details, like how we walk and sit.
As part of trying to undo the years of social conditioning and as a result of the kind of grief I felt for the loss of the female childhood I didn’t have, I became obsessed with pink. I over compensated and had to have pink t-shirts and hoodies. Pink trainers, towels, shower curtain, cushions, duvet set and then, then I redecorated my bedroom! Let’s just say it’s not exactly classy but it was what I needed. It’s not that I was trying to prove anything to anyone else, I was doing it for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got a thing for pink now, even though my obsession has moved on a bit to purple, but it’s ok. I will go through phases just like every child does, because that’s the thing, I’m going through puberty again. This is something that not many people realise. We go through a second puberty. I have become that emotional, mood swinging teenager all over again. As mentioned above, I suffer PMS. Not all transgender women do suffer with this and out of those that do, not all suffer the same symptoms. I’ve felt bad actually saying that I suffer and started referring to it as my ‘moment’ because I don’t want to detract from what cis women suffer. The cis women I’ve discussed this with have all told me that I have every right to call it PMS. They recognise I am suffering and regardless of if the pain is as bad as a cis woman might suffer, it’s all relative. The thing that amazed me with this is that although my cis friends accept this and have supported me, the transgender community can be very different. It is assumed that we’re all one big happy family who are always high fiving each other and saying we’re all doing a great job. It’s not like that.
It’s not all roses!
I have received a lot of support from certain groups on Facebook but there’s also the same nastiness you’ll find in all walks of life. While discussing my PMS with another transgender woman, a third trans woman piped up and asked where she could find scientific references to this to back up our claims. I pointed out that I don’t need a doctor or scientist to confirm that what I’m experiencing is real. Another woman joined in and said “It’s a wonder we have doctors who spend years studying to get their qualifications when we’ve got internet experts like you around!” (or words to that effect). My response was to say that if my car had a puncture, I would take it to a mechanic as they have the knowledge and experience to fix it. However, I do not need a mechanic to tell me my tyre is flat! If a trans person is trusting you with information that is really quite personal, please don’t reply to say there’s no evidence that what they’re telling you is true. You know why there’s no scientific evidence? Because nobody has bothered to carry out the research. They’re all busy trying to teach pigeons how to differentiate paintings by Picasso from those of Monet. Seriously, I’ve not just made that up!
I get asked all sorts of questions. Some amusing, like “Do you still have to shave?”, to which I think, “Yes, you can literally see my face.” Some are offensive, like the question about counselling. But sometimes I get asked questions that can be confusing. The main one that caught me out at first was, “Are you going to have surgery?” Here in the UK facial surgery is not very common. Certainly not nearly as common as it is in the US. But I understand that peoples’ lack of knowledge and their preconceptions may lead them to think that to transition you have to have plastic surgery on your face. To me, the first couple of times someone asked, “Are you going to have surgery?”, I thought they were referring to gender reassignment or ‘bottom surgery’. Basically, are you going to keep the old fella? Obviously these are two very different questions. One is an innocent question that comes from interest and lack of knowledge. The other is very inappropriate and can receive some very shocked looks when answered honestly! Unless you know the person really well, it’s best to just avoid questions like that. Most of the time, they’ll offer that information up to you if they feel comfortable enough with you. There’s a big difference between showing interest and support with just being intrusive. Just because someone has confided in you that they’re transgender, doesn’t give you the right to suddenly ask personal and inappropriate questions. This sounds like an obvious thing to say and just common sense but I wish that were the case. I am, after all, writing this for a reason.
If you’re unsure about something and not sure if it’s ok to ask the question, like “How big will your boobs get?” (yes, I’ve been asked that too), I’d recommend doing some research on Google. Your transgender friend is not necessarily your transgender reference book. Support them but don’t interrogate them.
I’ve tried to be open, up-front and honest about my experiences here. I have done this in the hope that our allies may realise there’s ways they can be more aware or supportive to someone they know. Or maybe you’re reading this and have never met a transgender person and hopefully, when you do, you’ll realise we’re not aliens. We’re approachable, normal people. We’re the really tall friendly woman in the supermarket who comes over and offers to help get that thing down off the top shelf for you. We’re the quiet, shy woman, just taking her first steps who wants to compliment you on how amazing your hair is, without trying to be flirtatious. We’re just human beings, like you, just asking for the one thing most people take for granted, respect. (Oh, and having strangers tell me how amazing my nails are, I’ll never get tired of that!).
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Peace, Love & Happiness to you all!
Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash