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Affirming your loved one's gender exploration and identity

Being transgender isn’t a mental health condition, but the trans community faces higher rates of mental health challenges than any other LGBTQ+ identity group. Supporting these individuals in being their authentic self is one of the best ways to protect their well-being. If someone you know is questioning, trans, and/or nonbinary, it is essential that you support and affirm their journey.

This article covers:

  • What gender identity and exploration are.
  • The basics of supporting someone who is exploring their gender identity and/or trans.
  • How to affirm your loved one’s unique journey.

If some of this language is unfamiliar to you, you can find bolded words defined in the Human Rights Campaign's Glossary of Terms

Gender can be hard to understand.

Most of us have grown up with the gender binary, which is the idea that there are only two genders (men and women) based on the sex that we were assigned at birth. This comes with very clear gender roles. Based on your gender, society has certain expectations of you – how you dress, your personality, your hobbies, the way you show emotion, and how you interact with others are expected to line up with your gender.

In reality, gender is a social construct, an idea our society has created to understand and explain the world we live in. There’s no reason that we should encourage boys to enjoy sports over art, or girls to dream of being teachers over construction workers. But because of these gendered labels, straying outside of the boxes we are put in can be difficult.

Because of society’s expectations, most people feel they are a man or a woman based on what was assigned at birth (cisgender). Others feel like “a boy in a girl’s body” (or vice versa) from a very young age, and as soon as they’re introduced to words like “transgender,” they realize - hey, that’s me! And some people aren’t sure yet.

As our society starts to unlearn the gender binary, more and more people – especially youth – are beginning to explore their gender identity. If this sounds like someone you care about, it is essential that you support and affirm their journey.

You may feel unprepared to support someone you love on their gender exploration journey, but it’s important that you learn how.

Questioning your gender is often incredibly confusing, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is trans or nonbinary. Figuring that out is the whole reason to explore. Gender plays a huge role in our lives, so it benefits anyone to look deeper at that piece of themselves – and is a really brave thing to do.

It isn’t safe for many trans people, especially those in the BIPOC community, to publicly explore and affirm their gender identity. Know that if your loved one has shared with you that they are questioning or trans\, they likely felt incredibly vulnerable. If they haven’t said anything and you think they might be trans, educate yourself in advance but let them tell you at their own pace.

The Basics: Supporting Any Trans or Non-binary Individual

It takes some knowledge and understanding to best support people you care about, especially when they have an identity different from your own. Learning more about gender also gives you the language to talk about these ideas and can go a long way in showing someone that you care.

You don’t have to understand someone’s gender identity or expression to respect them. Everyone has unique needs, but there are a few essentials when it comes to supporting people who are trans or non-binary.

Believe them. Gender is internal – the only person who can know someone’s gender is themself. When they tell you their gender, it isn’t up for debate.

Follow their lead. Their journey with gender exploration is just that – theirs. Let them steer the timeline, how and who they come out to, and all the other pieces that come into play.

Use their name and pronouns. It’s okay if you aren’t perfect about this. If you slip up, just correct yourself and move on.

Know who they’re out to. They might want to use a certain name and pronouns at home, but something else at school or work. Be mindful of the people around you.

Expect to adapt. Someone’s gender identity can change over time, and people often try out different names, clothes, or behaviors as they figure out who they are. Embrace the versions of them that they share with you.

Discovering oneself’s gender can be an uncomfortable process and might bring up challenging feelings for your loved one.

They may feel:

  • Confusion about who they are, how they didn’t know earlier, or how to “figure it all out.”
  • Worry about acceptance from family, friends, school, workplace, and society.
  • Fear of harassment, hate crimes, or violence.
  • Loneliness, like no one understands, sees, or loves their true self.
  • Gender dysphoria, an uncomfortable disconnect between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender they identify as.

Gender dysphoria often causes significant distress. This can’t be alleviated by ignoring or rejecting exploration, which can actually increase distress levels. Feelings of gender dysphoria can lessen or even disappear over time when someone is allowed to be and express their authentic self.

These challenging feelings are normal, but can sometimes lead to a mental health condition. If you’re concerned about your loved one’s mental health, encourage them to take a mental health test to see if they’re experiencing anxiety or depression.

Remember, this distress isn’t because of their gender. It’s related to the pressure that society puts on people to stick to gender norms. With an affirming support system, your loved one can also feel:

  • Joy in experiencing the beauty of transness.
  • Freedom to be out and finally living an authentic life.
  • Connection with a large community of people you can relate to and a chosen family (their closer, tight-knit support system of LGBTQ+ friends).
  • Gender euphoria – a feeling of comfort and bliss when they are perceived as or deeply affirmed in their gender identity.

Support their unique journey.

It takes some knowledge and understanding to best support people you care about, especially when they have an identity different from your own. Learning more about gender also gives you the language to talk about these ideas and can go a long way in showing someone that you care.

When someone close to you is going through something big, it can be painful if they don’t let you in. Feeling hurt by that is valid, but so is their journey, whatever that looks like. They may be experiencing a lot of anxiety about their journey and want to keep it private for now. Process your own feelings independently of your loved one, and know that any time and space they need isn’t a reflection of your relationship.

Support them in trying new ways of expressing their gender through physical appearance, clothing, makeup, hairstyle, behavior, or whatever else makes them feel like themself. If it feels appropriate, consider gifting them an item or searching online together for something to try.

Don’t question their identity, but genuine curiosity from a loved one about their experience can be very affirming. This is a new part of them to you, and you want to get to know them better. See if some of these conversation starters feel relevant:

  • What parts of your identity and expression feel true to who you are?
  • Have you had any specific moments or experiences that contributed to you questioning your gender?
  • Have you ever considered changing your pronouns? What was that like?
  • How do you feel about embracing a different gender identity than you were assigned at birth?
  • How can I support your journey?

Being trans isn’t easy, especially with hateful legislation and attitudes on the rise. Even if all you can do is listen, show them you are with them.

The trans community is at high risk for loneliness and isolation. Knowing and interacting with others they can relate to is a great way to protect their mental health and empower themselves. Encourage them to attend trans and broader LGBTQ+ events – even as an ally if they aren’t ready to be out. Social media is also a great place to connect with others in the trans community.

This can include TV shows and movies, attending LGBTQ+ events, or reading books with trans characters. With young children, this can even be as simple as making more things gender-neutral. For instance, don’t label “boy’s clothes” or “girl’s clothes,” and give kids access to all types of toys, like dolls, cars, arts and crafts, and action figures.

No one person can provide all the support that someone needs, and no matter how much you care - you might just be stumped on how else to help your loved one. Support them in finding gender-affirming mental health care.

Recognize what a big deal it is for them to explore their gender identity – and especially to share that journey with others. If they’re open to it, be loud about your pride in them! If they aren’t publicly out yet, make sure you let them know in a way that’s safe for everyone.

Regardless of if your loved one is out, you can affirm their journey by advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. Start by sharing your pride in your loved one with your state legislators.

Take a mental health test

Online screening is one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine whether you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition.

See more LGBTQ+ resources

Learn more about LGBTQ+ communities and mental health