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5 things you can do to support your trans relatives this holiday season

December 20, 2017

The holidays can be a particularly stressful time for families. They can be fraught with agonizing over finding the perfect gifts, balancing your budget, feigning a deep appreciation for the Glee calendar your Aunt Susan bought for you, and for some, fielding intrusive, insulting, boundary-crossing questions about your gender identity and/or gender expression.

If you’re seeing your trans relative this holiday season here are five tips to help turn your family time into Happy Holidays for all.

1. Check-in

The best way to establish yourself as an advocate for your trans relative is to follow their lead. People have different timelines, and depending on where your relative and their family are in their life, they might have needs different from what you’d expect.

While some people will want to come home and immediately have an open conversation about their pronouns, name, transition, etc., others might not want to talk about it at all, and others may want to stay quiet until it is brought up naturally.

Check-in with your relative and ask what they need. A simple “How can I best support you?” is plenty. It will mean the world to them to know that they have your support and that you’re paying attention.

2. Be active – Not passive

If you're prepared to ask how you can help you should also be prepared to follow through on any requests they make, regardless of how weird or awkward they may seem to you.

  • Your relative may ask you to do some research on trans politics beforehand and be prepared to back them up in any arguments that arise: do it.
  • They may ask you to make an animal noise every time someone misgenders them: do it.
  • They may ask you to cover for them if they suddenly need to leave the dinner table to decompress: do it.
  • And most importantly, they may ask you to do nothing: DO IT.

If you’re ever uncertain about how you should have reacted in any given circumstance go back to number one and check-in once the dust has settled. Something like: “I wasn’t sure what you wanted me to do when Uncle Gregory misgendered you 40 times and then laughed it off. I tried to just change the subject really quickly because you seemed uncomfortable but I wanted to see how you’re doing and if there’s anything you’d prefer that I do in the future.” Boom. Done.

3. Be prepared to hear "no" and remember Google exists

Your trans relative is under no obligation to educate you. No person, of any marginalized identity, is responsible for educating others on their experience. Trans people spend a large portion of their life explaining themselves to other people; don’t add yourself to that list.

It is a remarkable privilege to have access to unlimited knowledge at your fingertips – use it. Try to resist asking any Google-able questions, and if you find yourself still unclear after doing research and want to reach out to your relative ask them first if they’re comfortable answering.

Your trans relative might be thrilled that you’re asking questions and feel validated that you care enough to ask. But here’s the thing – they might not. It’s super important that you don’t make them feel guilty for that. Educating people, particularly loved ones, on the complexities of gender takes an extreme amount of emotional labor out of most trans people, so recognize what you’re asking of them and respect their answer. If they don’t want to engage with you in a dialogue, they don’t have to, and you should never force someone to talk about something they’re not comfortable with – especially with something as personal and political as gender.

4. Be aware of your unconscious bias

It should go without saying, but trans people are experts on being trans. That means a trans person is more likely to know what constitutes transphobic comments. If a trans person tells you that using the phrase “biological man” is transphobic, don’t continue to use it. Try “cisgender man” instead, or "non-trans man." Both phrases communicate the same social category without reducing the conversation to biology and thus creating a distinction between who you think are “real men” and “not real men.”

If a trans person in your life tells you that a phrase, a word, a comment, or an attitude is transphobic PLEASE don’t get defensive or try to argue your way out of it. Take a step back. Listen. And process on your own time. If you’re still unsure of what was problematic, return to #3 on this list after a few days of research and time to think.

Remember: if even you yourself are queer or you’ve read gender theory doesn’t mean that you understand “the trans experience” better than trans people do. They live it every day. Trying to make conversation by debating about trans topics can be psychologically damaging to the people whose lives are directly affected by the issues at hand.

Confronting your conscious or unconscious prejudice is never enjoyable for anyone, but it is a necessary step in unlearning biases and becoming a better advocate.

5.  Confront your relatives when necessary

You don’t have to have a background in gender theory or academia to be a good ally. If a relative makes a comment that seems offensive or negatively affects your trans relative, a quick “what you’re saying doesn’t seem okay to me” can go a long way in making sure everyone in the room is reminded to respect the feelings of each member of the family.

It’s okay to mess up and it’s okay to not know the answers. Ultimately, the best thing that you can do is to be open to new information, to listen, to learn, and to grow. Who knows? If you follow all these steps maybe next year your trans relative will ask you to join them in building a non-binary snowperson!

 

Rowan Hepps Keeney is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and senior at Barnard College studying women's, gender, and sexuality studies with a concentration in activist theatre. They are currently working on their thesis on transgender revolution through performance which will be staged in the Spring of 2018.

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