How to Support A Friend or Partner Who’s Dealing With Gender Dysphoria
Gender dysphoria can create a lot of tough mental health days. Our friends and partners play an important role in our mutual support systems, and for people who are dealing with gender dysphoria, having supportive friends and partners can make a big difference. If you have a friend or partner who lives with gender dysphoria, here’s how you can support them.
What's Gender Dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is a feeling of distress that happens when a person’s gender identity or expression doesn’t align with their perceived gender or their sex assigned at birth. In other words, people experience gender dysphoria when the way they see their gender doesn’t match up with their body, with the way other people see them or with the way they currently see themselves. Anyone can experience gender dysphoria, but it has the most significant impact on trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. Not all trans and gender non-conforming people experience gender dysphoria, but for those who do, dysphoria can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.
People who experience gender dysphoria might take steps to alleviate those uncomfortable feelings or pursue positive, affirming feelings—also known as “gender euphoria"—by choosing clothes, makeup, or hairstyles that align with their gender; asking others to call them by a new name or pronouns; using tools like chest binders, bras, packers, or tucking underwear; pursuing gender-affirming mental care like hormone replacement therapy or surgery; and surrounding themselves with supportive people—like you!
If you want to be part of a friend or partner’s support network, here are six things you can do to show them love and respect:
Practice using the correct name and pronouns.
If your friend or partner has changed their name or pronouns (or are in the process of trying a potential change on) to feel affirmed in their gender, use that name and use those pronouns! It can be hard to speak about someone in a new way, especially when you’re using singular pronouns you might not be used to saying or hearing, like “they/them/theirs.” The best way to learn any new skill is to practice. Speak out loud about your friend or partner when you’re with other pals (or even when you’re by yourself) until you get the hang of it. And if you mess up in front of your friend or partner, that’s okay! Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. When that happens, briefly apologize, correct yourself, and move on with the conversation.
You might be inspired to correct other people when they don’t use the right name or pronouns. Before you become the Pronoun Patrol, ask your friend or partner if they’d like you to correct others or if they prefer to handle corrections on their own.
It’s also a good idea to ask if there are certain contexts in which you should not be using your friend or partner’s new name or pronouns. Some people don’t disclose their new name, pronouns, or gender identity to their family, their school, or their workplace because they don’t feel safe sharing that part of their identity in those contexts. Others just aren’t ready to share that information with everyone all at once, so make sure you’re clear on what your loved one wants.
Use gender-affirming language.
“Gender-affirming” language includes any words and phrases that make someone feel respected and seen in their gender—in other words, it’s language that creates a sense gender euphoria. Before you make assumptions about what words and phrases would feel best for your friend or partner, ask and listen—every person with gender dysphoria has their own unique needs. Do they prefer to be called “handsome” instead of “pretty?” Do they hate it when you call them “dude?” Would they prefer to be invited to a “friends night” instead of a “girls night?” Ask your friend or partner what words and phrases they like to hear and adjust your language accordingly.
Using gender-affirming language is especially important during sex, makeouts, and other ways of being part of physical intimacy. When someone lives with gender dysphoria, their body might not align with the way they see themself, so it’s important to ask your partner what words they’d like you to use for their body parts. For people with dysphoria, hearing words that feel right for their bodies can make a big difference in how they feel. Do they want you to say “chest” instead of “breasts” or “clit” instead of “penis?” Have that conversation before any physical intimacy starts happening. And remember, if you mess up in the moment, that’s okay! Briefly apologize, correct yourself, and keep on enjoying each other.
Use gender-affirming touch.
Some people with gender dysphoria like to be touched in specific ways that align with their gender. Are they okay with you playing with their hair? Do they want you to engage with their clothing in a certain way? Do they like to be hugged or held? In what way? As always, ask before you make assumptions about whether or not your friend or partner wants to be be touched or how they’d like to be touched, and if they let you know that certain types of touch don’t feel good for them, listen and respect their boundaries.
Paying attention to how a person who experiences dysphoria likes to be touched (or doesn’t like to be touched) is especially important during sex. Hopefully, you’re already having conversations about consent, STI protection, and pregnancy prevention (if relevant) with your sexual partners before you get down to business. This is a great time to ask about gender-affirming touch! Are there parts of their body that they don’t want you to touch? Do they like to keep their shirt or underwear on during sex? Are there certain sex acts or sex positions that bring them to place of gender euphoria? Don’t forget to share your own needs and desires, too.
Even if you talk about it before you touch someone and respect all of their boundaries, there’s still a chance they’ll experience some dysphoria during sex and other contexts of being touched. That doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong! If someone says they’re feeling uncomfortable with a way you’re touching them, step back (and remember: You always get to tell someone to pause or stop touching you in any context, including sex, too, for any reason—whether you experience gender dysphoria or not).
Validate their feelings and ask questions.
If your friend or partner wants to talk to you about their gender dysphoria, listen to what they have to say. Don’t offer advice unless they ask for it. Instead, validate their feelings—like by reflecting what they have said back to them in a way that lets them know you really heard or saw them, or by letting them know you agree their feelings are right and real—and ask questions.
Here are some validating sentences and questions you can use any time someone opens up to you about something you haven’t experienced yourself:
Wow, that sounds really hard.”
“I get why you’d feel ____.”
“Thank you for trusting me with these thoughts.”
“What can I do to support you right now or in the future?”
Provide fun distractions.
Gender dysphoria can really take over a person’s thoughts. If your friend or partner is having a tough dysphoria day, invite them to do something fun! Go see a movie, make a craft together, go on a hike—whatever takes their mind off of their body and into the present moment.
Encourage them to seek additional support.
If your friend or partner is sharing their feelings with you, that’s a great sign! It means they’re willing to ask for help when they’re struggling with gender dysphoria. Sometimes, though, additional support is needed. If you think your friend or partner might need some more people and resources in their support network, you can encourage them to use direct services like Scarleteen's, to reach out to a local LGBTQ+ group, a trans-affirming counselor, or any other trans-affirming mentor or helper they trust.
If their dysphoria is leading to depression or suicidal ideation, make sure your friend or partner knows the phone number for hotlines like the Trans Lifeline (call 877-565-8860 in the US) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call or text 988 in the US).
Thanks for your curiosity about supporting people experiencing gender dysphoria! Your support and encouragement can make a big difference in the mental health and overall well-being of the people you love.
Ro White is a Chicago-based writer, Autostraddle's Sex & Dating Editor, a former sex toy salesperson, and a retired performance artist. Ro was probably drawn to this work because one time when Ro was 15, they read the entirety of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book in the back corner of an Indiana bookstore. Clearly, Ro never looked back — and they're very, very happy with their queer present and future.