Courageous Communities: Strategies for Supporting Trans Peers

Each day, trans kids, teens, and adults navigate living as their true selves in systems that don’t provide much space for gender diversity. Questions that many of us have never even asked ourselves are ones that many trans individuals think about daily:

What bathroom should I use (and will it be safe)? Will this person still be kind to me after I respond to their question and they hear my voice? Will my friends and family still tell me that I look beautiful/handsome? Will anyone stick up for me if I’m being bullied or harassed?

For many years, these were questions that trans people had to find answers to themselves: finding strength to stand tall in the face of adversity, identifying friends who could exhibit the type of courage necessary for unflinching support.

When gender identity is measured through national and international surveys and individuals are asked how they self-identify, researchers find that as many as .5% of the population identifies as trans and these numbers range from .5% to 4% of the population. In fact, data collected in our Born Brave Experiences Study showed that 3.9% of the 8,419 youth and young adults who took the survey identified with a trans identity.  That may still seem small, but even if we translate the 0.5% number into, say, a school or organization of 2,000 people, that would mean that 10 individuals identify as trans. And though there may not be 10 individuals who are visibly or outwardly trans – after all, there are a lot of barriers to coming out and transitioning in society today – it is likely that there are at least a number of individuals who find themselves struggling with those questions related to safety and acceptance on a daily basis.

In fact, the findings from our Born Brave Experiences Study show that:

– Trans youth and young adults (ages 13 to 25) reported more physical and verbal bullying than their cisgender peers;

– Trans respondents reported less support from family and friends;

– Trans respondents reported greater levels of depression and anxiety than cisgender respondents;

– Lack of family and peer support predicted depression and anxiety; and

– Family and peer support are critical for the health and well-being of trans individuals.

So, what can YOU do?

Be an advocate. Add your voice to others’ calling for equal access, opportunities, and basic human rights. Be the person to write the letter or talk to your boss or to school administrators supporting or advocating for trans-friendly policies. Cisgender allies have a lot of power to help make systemic change.

Help trans individuals feel safe. Locker rooms and bathrooms are probably among the most gendered spaces in U.S. society today. Going alone into a bathroom or a locker room can be pretty scary for a lot of trans individuals. Recognizing and understanding just how difficult such experiences can be, an ally program named #I’llgowithyou was recently created to provide a way for allies to “go into bathrooms and other spaces with transgender people who may be afraid or concerned about their safety.” Trans allies wear buttons that make them readily identifiable to trans individuals who may need or appreciate that type of safety support.

Show that you care. This one maybe sounds pretty simple – and in many ways, that’s because it is. However, sometimes conversations about topics like bullying, harassment, or even gender identity and sexual orientation can feel uncomfortable or scary. But even if you do come face-to-face with your discomfort at times, think about ways you can demonstrate that you care. Check out the #IAmAWitness campaign.

Get familiar with trans culture and language. If you are able to use language and terminology that is consistent with that used in trans communities, that will go a long way to making you identifiable as a trans ally. Language has long been used as a weapon of bias and hatred for many groups. For trans people in particular, whether intentional or not, the use of pronouns or preferred names can be a form of violence in and of itself. So if you are able to intentionally use language that is appropriate, positive, and consistent with how trans people use it, this can be a powerful source of support and affirmation. For a good place to start in learning more about trans terminology, check out National Center for Transgender Equality.

With Gratitude,

Elliot and Sue

Dr. Elliot Tebbe is an Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. His research focuses on the relation of sociocultural and identity factors with mental health and well-being in LGBQ and trans individuals and communities.

Dr. Sue Swearer is the Chair of the Research Advisory Board for Born This Way Foundation and the Willa Cather Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her research interests center on treatment of depression, anxiety, comorbid externalizing disorders, bullying prevention and intervention, and ways to foster kindness and bravery.