Transgender for Families
A supportive family network can make a huge difference to the social and emotional health and wellbeing of a trans person. Due to the important role family can play in our lives, the difference between a hostile reaction and compassion can have a significant effect on the lives of trans people. An unsupportive family network, or one with a culture of transphobia or strong ideals about gender norms, can isolate a trans person and cause serious harm. We can think of family networks as mini-societies: just like our larger society is becoming more tolerant and accepting of LGBTQI people, so too can our family units. The voices of a few supportive and vocal members can go a long way to helping educate family members who might not yet be on the same page.
Creating a culture within your family that is supportive of trans family members can be a conscious choice. In practice, this would entail embracing the trans person’s choices, respecting their chosen name and pronouns, and asking other family members to do the same. It is not uncommon for family members to wish their loved one was not trans. This can often come from good intentions: not wanting your loved one to experience discrimination and hostility is entirely normal. Whilst the feeling of wanting to protect a loved one from harm is understandable, all efforts to reduce harm can best be placed in the direction of changing societal attitudes. Research has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of conversion therapies, not to mention the immense trauma this inflicts upon trans people (see our information hub for resources).
Hostility toward trans people is not always about face to face confrontation or open discrimination. The most common types of hostility, especially in a family context, tend to undermine the trans person’s current identity. Examples of this can be family members constantly using their previous name (often referred to as ‘dead-naming’), using the the wrong pronoun or using an incorrect family title, such as son or daughter. It is important to raise this if you hear it and to inform other family members they are using inappropriate language. This should be done when the trans person is not present, but also if they are present, so that the labour does not always fall to them. Constantly having to validate one’s identity can be exhausting. Taking this burden of a trans loved one can be a huge relief and powerfully demonstrate your support.
It is best to correct people regardless of whether you think their use of the wrong language was deliberate or accidental. Whilst it can feel tricky to do this, practice will make it much easier. Being consistent with everyone will mean people learn quickly and develop the new habit of using the correct language. Correcting people can be a bit of a cultural taboo, and it may create some anxiety for you to do this, especially with family members who are older or who command particular power within the family hierarchy. Practising out loud with a friend can help you gain the courage to do this and can help you find the right balance of being non-confrontational and matter-of-fact. Creating more inclusiveness at family gatherings will create spaces where transgender people get to feel comfortable, safe and able to express themselves.
As an ally, this support does not have to be exclusive to family gatherings. It can mean creating a safe space for any trans person who has not told the rest of their family. It can also include providing emotional support when other family members are hostile or being a connection to the rest of the family when they feel alienated.
Being the supportive voice in a hostile environment can be emotionally draining. This is not something that needs to be taken on alone. If you are feeling significant distress or difficulty coping, there are many resources to support you. AGA has support groups for both you and the trans person in your life, and can put you in touch with experienced counsellours to help navigate the journey.
Simply being a positive voice in a trans person’s life can be the very validation that someone might need. The family unit is the perfect place to start turning the narrative around for trans people from one of judgement and hostility to that of love and acceptance.
- It is beneficial for families to come together to ensure their trans family members feel supported, safe and included.
- You can support a trans person in your life by helping them to access social groups and/or crisis services.
- Standing up to and educating other family members can be difficult, but it is one of the most powerful things you can do.
- Being a visible ally for your trans relative can help alleviate the strain and anxiety of constantly dealing with an otherwise unsupportive family environment. Knowing that that there is someone will provide an enormous boost to their social and emotional wellbeing.