My Boyfriend is Trans, but not out yet. How do I support him?
Sam W replies:I recently became comfortable with my sexuality. Attracted to girls and boys. As a girl I always thought that I was just comfortable around girls, but I realized I liked them when I developed a crush on my friend, L. I started flirting with L and soon it came to light that we both like each other. That same day L told me she is a he. A transgender boy born a girl. I was okay with that, I didn't like L because of his gender I like him because he is a good person. Is it bad that because I have to call him a girl at school (he's not out yet) and refer to him as his birth name at school that I sometimes see him as my girlfriend? I'm trying to be open minded and I think I love him. Every time I think of him as a girl I snap out of it, but sometimes I feel guilty. Am I a bad girlfriend?
There are so many things that make me glad in your question. Glad that L has at least one person that he feels safe sharing that part of himself with. Glad you reacted positively and confirmed his trust in you. But oh how I am not glad that he's still in a situation where he doesn't feel comfortable revealing that part of himself to more people. It sucks that there are still so many people and places that aren't safe for trans people.
One of the sticky things about coming out is that it's really a process rather than a moment. Trans folks will find themselves coming out at varying points in their lives, as they move into new social spaces where their identity is not known. That can be exhausting and nerve-wracking (and, sadly, dangerous in some cases). Too, some trans people will (if they're read as the correct gender all the time) just stop coming out at all because of the stress it can cause.
Even if a space is safe, trans folks may not come out to everyone right away for various reasons. If that's the case with L, it's still important to let him be one to set the pace for how and when he chooses to come out.
The first, major thing you can do is to talk with L and ask about his feelings around this (which it sounds like maybe you've already done). What does he feel is the approach to names and pronouns that is the best compromise between validating his identity and keeping him safe? Let him set the guidelines, and then follow them unless he tells you it's time for a change (changes can be as small as "X knows I'm a dude now, so green light for using the right pronouns with her.")
To answer your initial questions, it's not bad of you to refer to L by female pronouns or use his birth name around people who he is not out to. In fact, a general rule is to not out (either directly or indirectly) someone to someone else unless they've given you permission to do so (I'm assuming that you and L have discussed this, and that he's okay with you using the old name and pronoun. If he isn't, then stop).
As you're discovering, even though it may be the "right" choice given the circumstances, using a name or pronoun when you know it's not the correct one can feel like you're doing a disservice to the person you're referring to. The best thing to do is to remember that you're doing what is needed to keep someone you care about safe. It sucks that we live in a world where doing so means invalidating what you know to be their true self, but unfortunately sometimes it comes down to either doing that or outing them and making them possibly unsafe.
Another thing you can do is to see if there are any ways to help make the spaces you both inhabit safer to be trans in. If it's his family he's concerned about, you have a pretty limited influence. You can't just grab his parents by the shoulders and shout, "Trans identities are valid and trans people need love and support! You will provide that love and support or so help me I will lock you in a room with a dozen angry emus until you can behave!" All you can do in those moments is be a person from who L gets the acceptance he deserves, but is not getting from them.
What you can do, if you so choose, is to take a look at your school, your social circle, or whatever areas L doesn't feel safe in and see if there are any ways to make those spaces more inclusive. If you notice people in your friend group saying transphobic things, call them out on it and explain why it's not okay. Even small steps like that can go a long way to making a space safer. If, by chance, they react negatively to you trying to make those changes, that tells you something valuable about those friends: they may not support L, or you, in your identities. And it may be time to start cultivating a friend group that is more likely to offer that support.
If it's the school climate in general that's making him not want to be out, that's another one of those spaces where you (or he) can only do so much. Schools involve a lot of chains of command, a lot of people who have power over you, and a lot of competing interests vying for their preferred policies (witness the fierce push-back against trans-inclusive school bathrooms). But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done. If there's a GSA (gay/straight alliance) or QSA (queer/straight alliance) on campus, try joining it. Or try creating your own, if you think it might help change the campus environment. Educate yourself on the rights that trans students have in schools to protect them. Again, consult L about these actions. It may be something you two can do together. Or, he may not want to be a crusader: he might instead just want to keep under the radar and survive school. He gets to make the choice that's best for him. You can support him in the ways he asks, but you can't force him to take on more than he wants to.
When it comes to your own brain, that's an easier fix. My first recommendation is to be sure to take extra care when talking with L to get names and pronouns right (that's not to say you're not already doing this, but it never hurts to reiterate). It's true that when you meet someone before they start any kind of transition, it can be hard to shake those old ways of talking. But you do need to shake them if that person is ever going to trust you. Taking care with the right words will also help cement them in your brain. And if your brain every now and then slips into thinking about your "girlfriend" you can self-correct it with "boyfriend." Heck, you can even take it one step further and visualize erasing the word girlfriend and writing out "boyfriend" in its place. In all likelihood, the word slip-ups are one of those habits that will go away with time and practice.
In the end, you're already on the right track. You're being a supportive and open partner, which counts for a lot. As long as you keep letting L set the guidelines around how to refer to him around others, the rest of this will get a least a little easier with time. And I hope everything else only gets easier from here as well.