The first time I told a therapist that I was transgender at 15-years-old, I was immediately asked, “Aren’t you too young to know that?”
Many agree that the teenage years are rife with adults telling us that they are not yet prepared to have autonomy over our own lives, bodies and choices, but for transgender teens, this treatment can be even more detrimental. It can be overwhelming when it seems like no one believes you are capable of understanding even the most basic realities about yourself.
For trans* youth this can be an issue of life and death. More than 50 percent of trans people will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program.
But as the LGBT rights movement fires ahead and continues to gain support, transgender people are becoming more visible than ever. People like Janet Mock, Chaz Bono, and Laverne Cox are making their way in the mainstream and are calling for an eradication of transphobia.
There are some basic ways you can join the movement and become a strong and active trans* ally. Always using the correct name and pronouns; do not use offensive terms like “tr*nny”; do not ask invasive personal questions about someone’s body or past—all of these are crucial ways of showing your support for trans people. However, as a trans teenager myself, I would like to add a few extra pointers for our potential allies.
1. Be patient with young people who are questioning their gender identity and avoid trying to explain or rationalize their gender identity choices.
Think back to your youth and of all the times you felt ignored because of your age. Think about how crazy you would feel if those around you invalidated your most basic identity simply due to the sex you were assigned when you were born. Oftentimes trans* youth are told by their parents, teachers, and even medical providers that they are “too young” to know that they are male, or female, or both/neither, etc. We are told we are being influenced by the media, or by our friends. That we are acting out, want attention, or are going through a phase.
My lip piercing came and went, my music taste changed rapidly, my interest in wearing lots of vests and making ridiculous hand symbols in pictures faded away, but my gender has always been male. Through all the different ways I have expressed myself, all the different crowds I ran with, when I was rebelling and when I was a teacher’s pet. It’s who I am. It hasn’t changed and it’s not going to change.
2. Be sensitive to the difference between gender dysphoria and common gender identity anxieties.
Adolescence can often be an awkward time as a youth grows into their rapidly developing body. It’s perfectly natural for young people to dislike certain parts of themselves, to feel anxious about all the changes. This is different from gender dysphoria, which is an intense discomfort someone feels with their bodies on the basis of their sex. Do not tell a trans youth that everyone feels that way about their body.
Gender dysphoria is something that a non-transgender person, or a cisgender person, cannot understand. The best thing to do for a cisgender person to support a trans person is simply to listen and sympathize. Do not talk about anyone’s body in a way that might make them uncomfortable. While a young man may beam that you noticed his growing facial hair, for a young trans* woman, this can be mortifying and emotionally damaging to their self-esteem. If a trans* youth is developing secondary sex characteristics they feel out of place with, by no means point them out.
3. Be aware of pertinent legislation
Helping a transgender youth understand their rights is a great way to be an active empowering ally. Keep up to date with the rapidly progressing legal protections. AB 1266 has taken effect in California (as of Jan. 1) and it allows youth to access the gender-segregated spaces that match their identity (i.e. the gender appropriate sports teams, bathrooms, and locker rooms). Opponents of the measure are currently collecting signatures to overturn AB 1266 on the November ballot.
4. Outing is not acceptable
This is a basic piece of allyship for all people, to respect an individual’s privacy. It is especially important for trans* youth as oftentimes we are dependent on our families for basic life necessities and outing us can put us at risk for immediate danger, homelessness, and rejection. Currently, 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT, according to a study by the Williams Institute.
Ultimately transgender youth simply wish to be authentically ourselves, so we can grow, learn, make mistakes, and mature just like any other young person. By empowering yourselves to know how to handle issues of gender identity appropriately, you take a step in the direction to allowing us to do that. Beneath the oppression we face, the bodies we struggle with and the emotions we feel, is a regular child, pre-teen, teenager, or young adult just trying to grow and thrive without shame.