As a trans ally and the son of a transgender parent, I would say I am probably more comfortable than your average cis man on the street when it comes to interacting with trans and gender variant people.
Yet recently, I found myself in a situation where I literally did not know what to do for the best…
How should you approach a trans person who hasn’t ‘come out’ to you yet?
As a trans ally, I was at an event in support of GenderGP. The event was organised specifically for a trans audience and my role was in a professional capacity, as a videographer.
Everything was going well until I heard a familiar voice behind me. I turned around to see a friend who was attending as a guest. They hadn’t spotted me and this was the first I knew of them being trans.
I stood, frozen to the spot, a million thoughts running through my head. They didn’t know about my family situation and, knowing them as I do, I had no doubt that they would be mortified to be exposed in this way. I considered how best to diffuse the situation. Should I get their attention with a wave? Go to the bar, say ‘hi’ and offer to buy them a drink? Act totally normal so that they could see I was fine with their being trans. I thought about dropping them a text, reaching out to make them feel at ease.
Then it dawned on me. I was in their space. This was their safe haven and in making my presence known I would effectively be ‘outing’ them against their will. I realised that, in spite of having the best intentions, I was making it about me. What I needed to do was make it about them. So, I chose to make myself invisible. If they spotted me and they wanted to say hi, I would acknowledge them and, if not, I would disappear without them ever knowing I was there.
They left and nothing was said. I have seen them since and again, nothing was said. Perhaps they are not ready to share their secret quite yet and that is absolutely fine. When they are ready I will be too.
I went back and spoke to a few members of the trans community about my experience.
Here are a few of my trans friend’s top tips for how best to handle the situation of meeting an acquaintance for the first time after they’ve transitioned. I thought I would share this with other trans allies out there:
- It all depends on the context: If a trans person comes into your space it is likely that they feel brave enough to be open with their gender variance. If you are in their space, it should be on their terms. Let them guide you.
- Don’t let your fear about getting it wrong stop you from trying. You aren’t expected to get everything right straight away.
- It’s perfectly ok to ask questions. Find out how they would like you to refer to them, which pronouns to use and what their preferred name is.
- Explain that you will try your best but ask forgiveness for any unintended slip ups. If you do make a mistake, don’t make a big deal about it. Correct yourself and move on.
- Don’t just ignore trans people. Often people feel so awkward that they just don’t bother even acknowledging their existence. This can really hurt. If in doubt, make eye contact and smile.
- Don’t make a fuss! Equally, trans people don’t necessarily want to stand out, they may want to fade in to the background so don’t go overboard. Treat them like any other person, say hi, acknowledge them with a smile.
- Acknowledge how seeing you might make the trans person feel. If they are feeling vulnerable they might ignore you outright – don’t take it personally and please don’t stop trying!
- Don’t forget that while they may be presenting differently, they are still the same person you have always known.