So, as many people might have seen, I came out at the end of last year. I’m transgender, I use she/her pronouns, and my name is Lauren. This blog has even changed domain names! (old links still work thankfully)
I have been uncertain what to write about this, as this blog is very medical AI focused. While I am happy to discuss this aspect of my life and I am proud of who I am, I’m very new to this and I don’t have any special expertise on being trans. Many others have written brilliantly and at length about the transgender experience, to the point that I don’t have much to add.
But today is the international Transgender Day of Visibility (TDoV), so I feel like I should try to, y’know, be visible.
I’ve tried to think of something useful I could write about. In this blog I tend to try to simplify complex topics and provide ideas and recommendations that people can actually use in their own research and work, so I’ve decided to do the same thing, but for finding out someone you know is trans or otherwise gender diverse. Given my recent experiences, I thought I might explain what is feels like coming out as a trans person to all the cis* folks in the audience.
Since I want this to be useful, I will explain how people have reacted to me, what was nice and what was less so. Essentially, a “cis person’s guide on how to react when a friend or co-worker comes out” (TL:DR 🥳🎉🎂 not 😟🤔😢).
I’m going to skip a lot of the basics, since they boil down to “don’t do anything you wouldn’t do to a cis person”. So, for example, don’t ask your co-worker about their genitals**. There are plenty of similar things, but honestly the “don’t be an intrusive weirdo” rule is pretty rock-solid for all of them 😂***.
What I will cover instead is the less obvious stuff. Some of this is just going to be my own personal experience, and it may even contradict what other trans folks say and feel, but I’ll try to explain when that might be happening. But I also did show this to a few other trans and gender diverse folks, and one of them gave me the lovely feedback of “I would feel much safer coming out if people had read this and internalised it”, so hopefully I am mostly saying sensible things.
So, in no particular order:
Don’t be ambivalent
I honestly have had only a few overtly negative or uncomfortable experiences with coming out. No one has attacked me, only a few people cried (🙄), and almost everyone offered some level of support. But I found that ambivalence was actually pretty hurtful.
To explain this, you need to understand what a good response looks like: enthusiastic acceptance.
Enthusiastic acceptance is not simply a lack of ill-will, it isn’t just indifference. It is not trying your best to avoid saying slurs. It is not only offering logistical support (like the usual empty “we as an organisation will do whatever we can to support you” – this is a fine thing to say, but it is really what everyone deserves, trans or not).
Enthusiastic acceptance is hearing someone say “I am transgender” and you start smiling. Widely, openly, honestly. You actually are happy for them.
Enthusiastic acceptance is hearing someone say “I am transgender” and you start smiling.
Enthusiastic acceptance is the first thing you say being “congratulations”.
Unfortunately, while I didn’t receive any real hate when I came out, enthusiastic acceptance was fairly rare. It was wonderful when I got it though. I’ll give you a truly wonderful example of enthusiastic acceptance I received from a friend. I was early on in my process but we have always been close so I made a time to meet up and told them in person. They looked so happy, they smiled, they congratulated me. They asked a few simple questions. And then, after the positive, enthusiastic response, they said “oh, and by the way, I’m nonbinary”.
You might not understand why this was so important to me, but let me explain. They are queer. They have queer friends. People have come out to them before, multiple times. None of this was new or shocking to them. They could have simply alleviated my fears by just outing themselves and showing that being trans was no big deal to them. But instead of neutrality, they went out of their way to make me feel positive about my coming out, which went a long way towards giving me the courage to come out more broadly. This is a textbook example of enthusiastic acceptance, and I honestly treasure the memory.
Interestingly, I haven’t noticed a strong correlation between enthusiastic acceptance and prior experience with trans folks and trans issues. In fact, some of the best responses I received were from self-proclaimed “trans-novices”; folks who had absolutely no prior contact with transgender people. Given the sort of people who reacted this way I can only assume it simply has to do with them being really very nice. A nice person, when you make a big life decision that you feel is right for you, especially one where you might be worried about how people will react, expresses their support and their trust in your decision making and let’s you know you are not only supported, but loved.
Conversely, I did get ambivalence or, more often, kind of shady responses from quite a few people who would consider themselves to be trans allies^. So this next bit is for them.
Don’t be shady
Being trans isn’t all awesome. There are parts of the trans experience that are hard and even traumatic, but the extent to which this is true varies wildly and certainly nobody knows this better than the trans person themselves.
There is absolutely no benefit bringing up the bad bits when someone is coming out to you. They already know, and even if you are someone they would discuss that stuff with, now is not the time. And if you aren’t someone they would discuss trauma with, honestly, wtf? Do you go around to your other co-workers or friends and randomly ask intrustive questions about their insecurities and painful moments?
Now, some of these issues are obvious and I hope most of you already know not to randomly bring up, for example, the high rates of violence and murder that trans folks face during a coming out**.
But some of the things I found a bit subtly hurtful were, well, subtle. So I want to explain these things, since I don’t think there are obvious to the average cis person.
Mostly, and this is reeeeaaally important so I am repeating myself, don’t bring up pain and trauma. I got quite a few well-intentioned comments like “you must feel so much better being able to live as your true self, I’m sorry you were in pain for so long”.
I can’t say this enough, being trans is not characterised by pain. I’m gonna repeat this in big quotes:
being trans is not characterised by pain.
Trans is just a thing people can be. Like cis. Like straight or gay. Like short or tall. I’m trans, and I am an individual human with a whole unique story.
Where cis people get confused, and fair enough because there is an awful lack of education on the topic, is that some trans people experience dysphoria, which is a disconnection between your internal sense of gender and your external/presumed gender. It is often, but not always, associated with discomfort around one’s physical appearance, and that can be really bad. Life-threateningly bad. But not all trans people experience that kind of dysphoria (I didn’t, at least not that severely). In fact, not all trans people experience dysphoria at all (I did and do, but it is mostly different than that sort of physical distress). But most of all, almost no trans people want to talk about their dysphoria with colleagues/acquaintances***.
But there is a flip side to dysphoria – gender euphoria. This stuff is incredible. Like, tiny little stupid things just fill you with incredible joy. I feel so alive when I am wearing an outfit that affirms my internal self-concept, when I hear my heels going click-clack, and when my kids call me mum I just melt, in a way that being called dad never came close to.
I don’t actually know if cis people get this? Maybe the best comparison I can give is the feeling you get when you put on an outfit that makes you feel like a badass, or when you achieve something huge, like crushing a presentation or maybe winning a major sports match? Like … it’s euphoria. But honestly I can’t even describe the intensity of it. It is fireworks and rollercoasters and puppies and everything. And here is my point: gender euphoria is also an extremely common trans experience. Extreme, unmitigated joy is a part of being trans. So why, if someone is coming out, do people focus on pain?
Joy is a part of being trans.
More subtly, a really common response that is meant to be positive is “that’s so brave” or “I’m so proud of you”. Which, sure, is a broadly nice sentiment, and honestly a lot of trans folks do like being recognised like this, but if you look close you can kind of see that it centres a negative: a trans person has to be brave because being trans is not accepted and they will face discrimination.
Also, maybe this is unfair, but it implies that the speaker themselves might be a bit iffy on their understanding of trans folks because they see the negatives first and the positives second (or not at all)..
I don’t think these sort of statements are that bad, and lots of trans people do appreciate them, so I think it is usually ok to use them. Just don’t get upset if a trans person says they don’t like it. Anyway, I’m really just trying to illustrate a point: being trans is not synonymous with pain, there is joy as well, and even if pain is involved, someone’s coming out isn’t the time to talk about it.
Don’t be silent
This is the last one, but it is important. All the previous discussion might make you feel like there is lots of rules to follow in talking to trans people, and maybe it is just better to say nothing so you don’t get something wrong.
I can tell you, at least in my own experience, this is never the right approach^^. Silence is really, really uncomfortable.
This obviously isn’t something that tends to happen in person, but it happened a lot to me in my wider workplaces when “the email” was sent around to inform all the other staff that some chick called Lauren was taking over from their old colleague. I had a few close friends who immediately reached out with their congratulations (love it ❤️), but from many other people including quite a few I thought I was really close to … nothing. Complete silence.
For most of these people, I’m fairly sure there is no ill-will behind it, just a general sense of not knowing what to say, but for me, receiving the silence, it was like the sword of Damocles. Do they hate trans people? Do they hate me now? What will this mean for my work? What will happen when I inevitably bump into them?
Just last week, after 6 months or more of not seeing a colleague I consider a friend, I noticed her in her office. We had always got on so well, and she was always a supportive person. Despite knowing that, I actually had to work up some courage just to knock on her door because I didn’t know why she never said anything.
Well, it went great. After she worked out who I was (I’m starting to get a lot of people not recognising me if they haven’t seen me in a while, HRT is magic!) she had the perfect response. Big hug, said I looked great, even had a vent to me about misogyny in the workplace which left me feeling very included and accepted.
So … why the silence? Her actual response was great.
Cis people feel awkward and uncertain. I get it. They don’t want to hurt you, and that is a good, healthy attitude. But silence isn’t neutral. Silence hurts.
Silence (when you come out) isn’t neutral. Silence hurts.
And honestly, most trans folks are pretty tolerant of accidents^^^. I do sometimes get misgendered (I get referred to as “he”) and most of the time I don’t even say anything. If I do, I’ll simply say “oh, it’s she, now”, usually with a smile.
So don’t feel like you need to hold back. It costs you nothing to send a simple message of support, but for us, it means a lot.
Keeping it simple
So there you go: simple explanation of how to react when your colleague comes out as trans:
- be enthusiastic, positive, accepting and affirming! Smile, be happy. Someone coming out to you is a good thing.
- Don’t bring up negative things. Don’t bring up private things (like genitals 😂)
- Say something, even if it isn’t perfect. “Congratulations” is enough. It means the world to us.
Happy Transgender Day of Visibility ❤️