Learning From Caitlyn Jenner: Supporting Transgender People
In April, Bruce Jenner spoke about her transition to being a woman in a two-hour television special that drew nearly 17 million viewers. Through tears, Jenner revealed that her whole life she’s had “the soul of a woman” but with her image as an invincible athlete, she could never really be “her.” On Monday, she revealed her new identity as Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. This was accompanied by the headline “Call Me Caitlyn,” making her into the most famous transwoman in the world and earning her a massive global platform in under 24 hours. More than two million people have followed her on Twitter and she has been showered with praise. While the response to her public transition has been overwhelmingly positive, Jenner is still likely climbing an uphill battle.
As a transgender person, Caitlyn is part of a group of people who do not identify with their birth-assigned sex and/or their birth-assigned gender. Research shows that transgender people more often suffer symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety than cisgender people, those who identify with the sex they were born with. Some studies suggest that transgender people have higher mortality rates, more suicide attempts, and are at an increased risk of developing substance abuse problems compared with cisgender people. Many people do not fully understand what transgender means or they have misinformation about it, and the fear of the unknown is likely fueling the stigma against people who are transgender and ultimately contributing to stress, anxiety, depression, and other health issues.
If you have recently learned of a person who is transgender in your life, you might not understand this part of their identity and you may be unsure of how to act around them without offending or hurting their feelings. These tips might help you support him or her:
Learn their story and be supportive. Those who have begun to express a gender different from the one assigned at birth are usually undergoing a major life-changing event. Don’t make assumptions; instead, be guided by what they tell you about their own situation and listen without preconceived notions. Patience, understanding, and a willingness to discuss issues these changes bring about will help them through a difficult and emotional time. It is best to ask open-ended questions that allow the person to share as much as they feel comfortable sharing – e.g. “How can I help support you during these changes?”
Use language appropriate to the person’s gender. Ask what pronouns the transgender person prefers to have used in reference to them and respect that choice. For example, someone who identifies as a woman may prefer feminine words and pronouns and a person who identifies as a man may prefer masculine terms. Other transgender people have begun using gender neutral pronouns like they, their and them. Also, use the chosen name they ask you to use – they have chosen the name that best suits their gender to be their real name.
Don’t make assumptions about gender identity, sexuality and GRS. Do not assume that their gender correlates with their sexuality – it doesn’t. There are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and asexual transgender people. If the person comes out to you about their sexual orientation, use the terms they use. Not all transgender people pursue genital reconstruction surgery (GRS). GRS is almost always more appropriate to use than “sex change operation.” Don’t assume that it’s appropriate to ask about a person’s plans for surgery, hormones, and so forth, and don’t assume that there is only one “right” path to transition.
Seek Therapy. Transgender people and their families seek the services of therapists for a variety of issues related to gender transitioning, including questioning and exploration, assistance in obtaining medical treatments, and helping to navigate relational difficulties. Therapists inquire about the coming out process, explore risks of disclosure, educate family and workplaces on transgender issues, assist finding support systems, and help the family integrate the transgender identity, redefine relationships and foster healthy communication.
Educate yourself. Don’t expect the transgender person to be your sole educator; it is your responsibility to inform yourself. Here are some resources:
Charmaine Ensinger, MFT is a marriage and family therapist who enjoys working with adults, young adults, children, couples, and families of all backgrounds. Her areas of focus include anxiety, depression, trauma, and life transitions.