Supporting someone who is questioning their gender identity

People going through gender identity issues need support, but it can be difficult for family and friends to know how to help, particularly if they’ve not had a similar experience before. Understanding these five things can help you to offer the right kind of support.

Mental health issues are common

According to TransPathways (the largest study ever conducted into mental health and care pathways of trans and gender diverse young people in Australia), mental health issues are prevalent amongst young people experiencing gender identity issues. This study found that:

Almost 75% of participants have been diagnosed with depression at some point;

  • 72% have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder;
  • 79% have self harmed;
  • 48% have attempted suicide.

The results also found that these mental health difficulties are primarily associated with external factors, such as unreliable accommodation; abuse; educational environments that are not safe and inclusive; and a lack of family support. Study participants also described inexperienced or transphobic health professionals as a major barrier in seeking treatment.

Whilst these findings are confronting and concerning, they also show us what can be done to improve the lives and mental health of young people with gender identity issues. Family support, in particular, is integral to the wellbeing and safety of trans young people.

Language matters

It is important that we have appropriate language for all gender groups in our society, just like the language we now have around sexuality within the LGBTIQ community.

People with gender identity that aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth are considered to be cisgender. However, gender diverse is a much broader, umbrella term used for “individuals who identify as trans, transgender, gender questioning, gender fluid, and all gender identities and expressions that are different from the sex assigned at birth” (Trans Pathways p.9). This lack of alternative language around gender can imply that cisgender is the “norm” and any deviation is not considered to be “normal”.

Another important language distinction is that gender is not the same as sexuality, which is our sexual orientation, attraction, and behaviour as it relates to others.

Terminology and language is constantly changing, and can be unique to the individual. As a general rule, it is best not to assume –instead it is best to ask what language they would like you to use. In particular, asking someone what their preferred name is and which pronouns they would like you to use (i.e. she, he, they). For a glossary of terminology based on extensive research and interactions with the LGBTIQ+ community, please refer to the Trans Pathways report.

Transitioning won’t happen overnight

Facilitating social experimentation and social transition is the first step for people experiencing gender identity issues, and while experimenting with different names, pronouns, toys and clothing might seem scary, it is a very safe step that is also completely reversible! (Remember, accessing gender affirming medical treatment is a measured process with many checks and balances along the way- particularly for those under 18).

When supporting someone who is experimenting with their gender identity, there is absolutely no harm in being validating. Even if you can’t understand what’s going on for them, or believe that they might change their mind, this person needs to know that you support them no matter what their choices are.

It’s a common misconception that supporting someone to explore their gender identity will cause someone to choose medical treatment. Actually, it is more important to facilitate a healthy exploration of gender identity to help young people better understand their gender identity, and to make more informed decisions. Depending on their age, this can be done through playing with toys that may not be stereotypically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth, experimenting with different kinds of clothing, engaging in play where the young person can ‘try out’ different roles, and trying out a different name at home.

Educate yourself

One of the most common complaints voiced by the parents of trans young people consulted for Trans Pathways, is a lack of information about what it means to be trans or gender diverse. This is also true within our wider society and a lack of knowledge is often at the heart of the stigma, bullying, and transphobia young people experience.

Again, reading the Trans Pathways report is a great start, as this study consulted a vast array of trans young people and their parents. In particular, you may find the  “recommendations” section on page 141 useful.

Other excellent resources include:

Be genuinely curious

Showing genuine interest and curiosity to learn and understand what someone is going through is a critical part of supporting young trans people. Connecting with people you may know in the LGBTIQ+ community can be another good way to educate yourself and open dialogue.

However, it is very important to seek permission from someone before asking questions. Remember, trans people as a community has experienced years of discrimination and it is completely valid for them to be wary of someone asking questions about their experience. If your interest is rejected, be respectful and acknowledge that you understand why they are not comfortable speaking about their experience. You may invite them to approach you in the future should they change their minds.

It can also be useful to ask whether there is anything you have done personally to make them feel uncomfortable in talking about their experience. If they welcome your questions, be transparent and make it clear that your questions come from a place of genuine curiosity, and wanting to help and better understand.

Written by Katharina Targowski, Clinical Psychologist (Registrar)

Please note: This guide was written based on research, training, and my personal experience of working with individuals who identify as transgender. It is not a definitive set of guidelines. I identify as a heterosexual cisgender female and therefore do not claim to be a spokesperson for gender diverse people or members of the LGBTIQ+ community in general. In writing this, I publicly assert myself as an ally to the LGBTIQ+ community and welcome further education in this area through training opportunities, consultation with professionals in the area, and conversations with anyone who wishes to start them.

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