How can I support trans and gender diverse relatives at family gatherings?
Updated: Mar 13
(Note: This is a version of a question that a relative asked me recently before a family event, and I'm turning it into a blog post because it's such a good one. I'll share my specific answer and K can share his, but these are examples rather than general advice; we'll also talk about why this is an excellent thing to ask someone. -S)
Q: There's a family gathering coming up. I want to help you feel as comfortable and safe as possible, but I'm not sure what specific things would be helpful. Is there anything you would like me to do? You don't need to answer right now (or at all).
S: To be very clear, the point of this post is not to answer the question above. Everyone's needs will be different; I know mine vary from one type of situation to another and also change over time. Something that I want for myself might actually be harmful to do for another trans or gender diverse person, and vice versa, and what I wanted five years ago might not be the case any longer. The advice bit of this post is that, if there is a situation where it seems appropriate, ask this question--or something like it--and listen to the answer (and then do it, of course).
As an example, my response includes the following:
-Correct people who misgender me. Nobody in the group we'll be seeing does that intentionally, but family members are the only ones who still get my pronouns wrong, and it happens fairly regularly. I do want them to be reminded that they still need to work on that, but it would be really nice to have somebody who isn't me do the correcting (either in the moment or after in a private conversation, which I do not particularly want to be present for).
-Not mention my old name in relation to me, and tell others not to do so if it happens. It makes me very uncomfortable to hear it and a lot of cis people seem to think that it's okay to use in the past tense, like when looking at old photos. And for some trans people, maybe that's fine! But it isn't for me.
For me in this context, that's pretty much it; it's overall a well-intended group. But even these two things certainly aren't universal. Another trans or gender diverse person might want the opposite. And for a lot of people in more uncomfortable or dangerous spaces, all sorts of other support might be in order. So ask!
My last note is that I especially like the way ignorance here is both admitted and not used as an excuse. You don't need to be an expert on trans experiences or gender inclusion in order for there to be very valuable things you can do to support someone. That's actually one of the important things about asking at all: regardless of the answer or if there is one at all, it demonstrates that you are willing to help and open to talking about this stuff. In many cases, trans and gender diverse people can't trust this to be the case, so don't assume that someone will ask you for support if you haven't extended the invitation.
K: Agreed with everything said above. Important takeaways here are that there isn't a universal right answer that will apply to everyone's situations, and you cannot assume people will know you are someone they can ask for support from. Depending on if someone is out to everyone at the family gathering, how the family members respond to corrections, etc., correcting people may or may not be the best thing for your trans or gender diverse relative. Sometimes, dealing with people's responses to corrections, even if you're not the one correcting, is more draining than getting deadnamed and misgendered repeatedly. And, as S stated above, it is important to make it clear that you are willing to provide support instead of waiting around to be asked. Asking people what you can do ahead of time (instead of after the fact) is very helpful. I would also advise letting the person know what you're willing to. These examples could be tailored to what you've observed at past family gatherings if this has already been an issue, but if this is the first family gathering where someone is out, you might not have past experiences to draw from. Using the original question as a foundation, you can say something like:
"There's a family gathering coming up. I want to help you feel as comfortable and safe as possible, but I'm not sure what specific things would be helpful. I'm willing to correct people who misgender/deadname you in the moment or privately afterwards, redirect conversations about your gender, stick nearby you and make excuses to pull you aside so you can leave conversations, and anything else that might help you. You don't need to answer right now (or at all)."
I personally prefer when people give me some examples of things they're willing to do instead of just saying something like "what can I do to support you?" because it's not always easy to think of things I need, and sometimes I know exactly what I need but I don't know if I'm asking for more than someone is willing to offer. Additionally, I've come to learn over the years that people are not always sincere in their offers. Many people who consider themselves allies know they should be supportive, but freeze up in the moment or won't actually stick around to follow through. If you're going to offer support, be prepared for what that means. Don't put marginalized people in the position of expecting backup and then instead they need to coddle you afterwards and explain or listen to what you could have done differently.