Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Questions and discussions about gender, gender roles and identity.
Sunshine
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Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

Hello lovely people here at Scarleteen,

I haven't been around for a long while, and certainly haven't gotten any younger since my last post. I'm in my mid-30s now, so if that's too old to be taking up time here, please feel free to ignore or tell me to go away.

Something came up in my life recently though that I can't talk about with anyone around me and the first place I could think of for a little wisdom and insight was this one so I decided I'd at least ask.

In summary, I think a very dear friend recently came out to me as trans. I'm afraid I might not have responded properly and I'm unsure how to proceed further. (I wasn't quite sure whether to post this under "gender" or "relationships" btw but because I'm mostly looking for help with the ally aspect, I decided to leave it here for now.)

The reason why I say I think they came out as trans is that they didn't actually say the words "I am trans". What they said was (parpaphrasing here and also translating because we were not having this conversation in English but trying my best to stay faithful to their words and not put my own spin on things), that they felt extremely uncomfortable in their own body and unable to accept it because it is a woman's. That they had always felt this way for as long as they could remember and hadn't ever told anyone else before. Also that they had looked into hormone treatments and surgeries but decided that they weren't willing to risk possible side effects and complications, especially considering some other health issues they already have. They added that they were already facing enough discrimination at work and from a part of their family being seen as a lesbian woman and that they didn't think they'd be able to handle any more.

I was so overwhelmed in the moment and upset with myself for not having had the slightest clue before that my friend, whom I have known since we were both little kids, has been living with so much hurt right under my nose, so to speak, that I'm afraid I didn't really give a very coherent reply. All I said was something along the lines of "oh wow, I had no idea". To which they replied "fake it 'till you make it" and then made it clear to me that they wanted to end the conversation.

Now, this person is right up there with my partner and my child in how strongly I love them. I feel terrible for them and I can't believe I have been so oblivious to what they've apparently been dealing with for so, so long. I want to offer any support I can - but I don't know how.

First of all, I don't know how, when or if at all I should bring the matter up again. I've been trying to signal that I'm available for talking any time and that nothing has changed, friendship-wise, on my end, but so far, I haven't mentioned our talk again because I thought with something this personal, I should leave it up to them how much more they want to share, if anything. Now I'm wondering whether that wasn't maybe a mistake because they could take my silence as disinterest or denial or not taking them seriously etc.

Any ideas on how I could make it clear that I am very much willing to provide sympathy and any support that I can without being pusyh or intrusive? And any ideas on what support could look like?

Thanks for reading!
Mo
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Mo »

Hi there Sunshine, it's nice to see you here again!! :)

I think it's really common for people to kind of "freeze" in the moment and not be sure what to say when someone discloses something like this. When someone comes out in a really explicit "this is who I am!" sort of way, it can be easier to say "congrats!" or offer some other form of support, but it sounds like this was ambiguous enough, and surprising enough, that you just weren't sure what to say, and that's understandable.
I agree that it's probably best to let your friend decide if and when to really bring this up again, but I also think it's a good idea to make one very explicit statement of support and willingness to hear or discuss more.

Maybe that could look something like "when you mentioned some of the feelings you've been having about your gender, I didn't respond the way I really wanted to. In my initial surprise I worry that I didn't come off as being that supportive or interested in what's been going on. I care about you a lot and if this is something you ever want to discuss more with me, or if there are ways I can support and affirm you, I would love to hear more. But because this is clearly very personal and painful right now, I understand if you don't want to. My door is always open, even if you don't want to talk about this until a long time from now." And then you can move on and be loving and supportive in all the ways you already are, and see where things go.
I would definitely drop it after this unless your friend brings it up directly; this is a good way to signal that you want to help but also want to respect your friend's privacy around a difficult subject.
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

Hey Mo! Thanks so much for the reply! Very much appreciated.

It sounds like a good idea to explicitly refer back to the initial conversation and limit whatever I have to say to that. Just me adding something I didn't manage to say right then rather than invading their privacy. I have a million questions of course but those will have to wait and if they never get answered then they just don't.

For me this seems like a really new situation right now but that's most likely not the case for them and since our friendship has survived all these years the way things were, there's really no reason to for me to take this as a call to action. Maybe all I'm supposed to do atm is, well, not share the burden, that sounds presumptuous, but just recognize it's there and it sucks and there's no easy solution?

Still I can't help wondering if there are changes I should just know to make. Like, should I tell my kid to stop calling them aunt, for example? (We're not really related but they've always been the honorary "aunt" ever since I became a mom, I feel so bad now for choosing such a gendered term but I didn't know any better at the time obviously.) Should I drop the gendered nickname? At least when we're alone? Should I ask if there's another name they'd like better? Or just wait and see whether they ask for anything like that?

(I'm not the greatest at waiting and seeing but I'll try of course.)

It's really kind of you to say I'm loving and supportive, thanks, and I certainly try to be but unfortunately there is a history of me not being the best kind of friend to them in the past. We've known each other for a really long time and I've had a lot of learning and growing to do along the way... Which is normal I guess but still there's a voice inside me screaming "do not fuck this up!!!" Not that it's about me, but if someone places enough trust in me to open up about something this personal, I do think it's important to honor that with an appropriate response.

I'll definitely say something along the lines you suggested, I just have to make up my mind whether to do so in person or write it in a message.

I wish people around us were more open and accepting in general. I have it easy with my femme looks and my "straight" marriage and all that, I can just fly under the radar and nobody knows I'm queer unless I choose to tell them. It's different for my friend and I wish it wasn't.
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sam W »

Hi Sunshine,

You're clearly being so thoughtful about this and wondering how you can adjust your behavior or language to help your friend feel most comfortable, and that says good things about the future of this friendship overall. And I feel you on that instinct that you have to know and change things RIGHT NOW and the stress that comes with fearing you're somehow lagging on supporting someone you care about (especially when, as you pointed out, you're aware of how unaccepting the world can be).

I actually think your suggestion of acknowledging the ways it sucks could be a good thing to pair with that bigger offer of support. When people we care about are hurting or otherwise seem stressed, it's totally understandable to want to find the concrete ways to fix whatever is hurting them. But in some cases, the most we can do in a given moment is affirm they're feelings about what's going on and acknowledge that yeah, sometimes this stuff really sucks, but that we're not going anywhere. Does that make sense?
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

That does make sense, yes, thanks Sam!

And yeah, I do have this "something has to happen RIGHT NOW!" feeling. Totally. :) But I tell myself that it's not a right now issue, just one that I newly learned about. It's been there all these years, I just didn't know about it before. And what needs to happen and what not is up to them, another autonomous adult human being, not me.

It's never been the kind of friendship where we bond over our femininity. So I don't have any "girlfriends" feelings to let go of. I guess that's helpful.

Looking back, I feel like I should have known. But I somehow... Didn't. At all. I was aware that they were uncomfortable in their own skin but I assumed it was just "regular" body issues. And it never occurred to me to ask. I kind of took it all for granted.

One thing that threw me off is that during the past few years, they started to present more feminine than before and also began to talk about seeing themselves in relationships with men too. Which seemed somehow off to me but I thought nothing further of it, people change, sexuality, preferences, gender expression can change, who am I to doubt anything. I thought maybe I have some kind of inner resistance to this because I often have problems with change and also I personally really liked their old style. So when asked I said yeah, you look great (which wasn't a lie, they always look great) or yeah, cool, whatever makes you happy.

Then the way this maybe-coming-out started was them admitting to me that all those changes were part of a performance, an attempt to get relatives and people at work to treat them better, and it worked; the more "womanly" and "straight" they seemed, the less harassment they had to deal with. But that it came at the cost of feeling even more shitty inside and they were trying to decide what was the lesser evil. So I was already really outraged and shocked when they came to the other stuff, which probably didn't help my reaction.

I am just so appalled that this kind of charade is necessary to be treated with basic respect and decency. What the heck is wrong with people? And then my friend says they feel bad for "lying" to a family member about who they are. I want to just shout, you know what? You owe those people absolutely nothing. Lie all you want, go right ahead. If all they care about is a version of you they've made up in their own heads then they don't deserve the real you anyway.

You're right, sometimes things just suck.
Mo
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Mo »

Oh gosh yeah, I've definitely seen it happen where people will push their gender expression to what they feel is a more "acceptable" state to people around them, either to deflect scrutiny or to try really hard and force themselves into the mold they're feeling pushed into already. It's sad and stressful and I hate that it happens but I also get it, too. I know I tried things like that at certain points of the process in figuring out my own gender identity.

You mentioned above wondering if there are some changes you should be making in how you address or treat your friend and I think that's something you can work into a conversation, too, something very quick like "if you'd ever like me to use different language for you, please let me know. Is [nickname] still okay in private, or would you prefer something else?" That way you're showing that you are open to making those changes without flooding your friend with too many questions at once. Even the most well-meaning questions from very close, beloved friends can feel stressful or high-stakes in situations like this, so I think indicating your willingness to listen and make changes without really pushing for a huge conversation all at once would be a big kindness.
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

Thanks for your insight, Mo!

Yeah, the last thing I want is to cause even more stress. I don't need to be the person shouting "you have to make changes!" from one side while the rest screams "you have to conform to our standards!" from the other.

That would be incredibly hypocritical on my part too because I'm mostly closeted myself and I completely get the advantages that has around here. (I tried to come out as bisexual to my mom once and she just laughed it off, since then I haven't told anyone IRL and only my partner and this friend know. My parents are very liberal in general so I concluded it could only get worse outside the family and there's no necessity because I'm in a monogamous relationship with a guy anyway.)

I'm really grateful I get to ask all my questions and voice my worries and frustration here, that does help with leaving my friend themselves alone about it all. Normally I would talk through stuff like this with my partner who fortunately somehow manages to combine his religion with a general attitude of acceptance and respect towards practically anyone, but I can't in this case because that would mean betraying my friend's trust.

Atm I'm trying to keep the friendship light-hearted and relaxed, focusing on the fun, nerdy and silly things we normally communicate about. I think I'll send a message or an email soon with roughly what you suggested and then I'll let the matter rest as best I can.

They're a very strong person and have survived so much already, I keep telling myself they've got this, I need to have a little more faith in their resilience and it will all be as ok eventually as sucky things can be. I hope.
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

So, quick update: I recently messaged them saying pretty much what Mo and Sam suggested. The response was a very sweet thank you for caring but no, I don't want to talk about this any further atm and I don't want you to change anything for now because it is indeed very stressful.

Thanks so much for walking me through this. I think me being able to come here and unload my emotions, ask my questions etc saved us both a lot of unnecessary drama and awkwardness.

I know now that they didn't misunderstand my initial response and I have a much better idea of what support from me should look like atm.

We're planning a little weekend trip, just the two of us (first time I'm doing something on my own since becoming a mom, I'm so excited!) and it's really good to have cleared this up beforehand. I hope that now we can focus on just being friends and taking time off without tip-toeing around each other wondering what the other is thinking.

Thanks so much for your help!
Mo
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Mo »

Thank you for the update! I hope you and your friend have a fantastic trip together, that sounds like it'll be a great getaway for you both.
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

Thanks Mo, it sure was!

We were out in the middle of nowhere together for 3 days and I can't begin to express what a relief it can be to take a break from society like that... There was zero awkwardness, we just laughed 99% of the time even when we were having serious conversations because it was just so peaceful and freeing having nobody else around.

I'm still not sure that I understand their gender identity but I think what I learned was it doesn't matter that much whether I do or not, when we're together it's just as people who are friends and that's ok.

We did actually end up talking a lot about names and pronouns and gender expression stuff etc in a roundabout, general way (and I swear I did not initiate these topics) and it felt very low stakes and relaxed.
Mo
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Mo »

I'm so glad you both had a lovely time! I was able to have a little trip out in the woods with a friend this spring and it was such a great experience, it sounds like you had a similarly nice trip together. I feel like that sort of trip and time alone in a new place can really help people open up and talk about personal things, and I'm glad that you were able to discuss some parts of their identity in a natural and organic way over the course of the trip. That's really fantastic.
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

Sigh... It was really fantastic, yeah, but now I'm back in the real world and because we don't live very near each other (any more) our communication is long distance again and here I am once more, feeling confused and uncertain.

The thing is, the response to my message back then was basically "thanks but I don't want to talk about it or take any further action." OK, I can work with that.

Then on our trip there was lots of general, easy chat about gender topics without any explicit personal reference. Again, ok, I can totally work with that.

Now I feel like I'm getting mixed messages. Like, the other day I (thoughtlessly) mentioned something about their voice, how I noticed it goes down a lot when they're relaxed and happy - and I got a pretty brusque response that seemed to me like I had crossed a boundary. Which maybe I did and I'm sorry.

But then just the other day they messaged me about a gender neutral name they recently came across and "I'm thinking of stealing it." And I froze up again somehow and just said yeah, that's a really nice name - instead of hey, it sounds to me like you'd maybe like to try that name out for yourself, am I right? Do you want me to use it and see how it feels?

I don't know why this kind of thing makes me feel so awkward... It's not like nobody has ever come out to me before. But I guess I've never been so closely involved in the process. The only prior experience I have is someone I didn't know super well and just interact with regularly telling me hey, just Btw, I'd like you to call me (Name) and use he / him for me from now on. And I go yeah, sure, thanks for letting me know.

This situation is totally different.

I'm not complaining (I hope), I feel very honored by my friend being open with me. Just a little lost sometimes.

I would ask directly, hey, what do you need from me, has that changed? What can I do? But it seems to me like they don't 100% know that themselves yet. Which is fine of course.

I'm also a little unsure how to balance the general message that I don't see anything wrong or pathological about trans identities with the fact that clearly, my friend is hurting and is struggling, and it's clearly not a joyful subject for them right now.

And it's challenging for me because this is an area where I can't intuitively empathize so well because I myself am woefully cis. It was very different dealing with growing up queer together, that was an experience we both shared even though in different ways.

I want to sit back and let them call the shots at their own pace with me responding to wherever they're at in the moment but it seems they aren't sure themselves so it's a bit of a two people stumbling around in the dark together and sometimes bumping their heads situation.
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Heather »

Hi there, Sunshine.

You know, it's okay to feel awkward, and it's also okay for things to be awkward. And I find that it's a lot easier for everyone involved to get to that acceptance place with awkwardness when I can just acknowledge that it IS awkward, out loud, and have a conversation about it.

Is that something you might be up for trying? You could also, in that conversation, ask your friend if you two can talk about how they think you can best support them in all of this, and what they're looking for -- and aren't -- from you in this. I really do think it sounds like you're doing a great job here, but it also sounds like maybe you have the idea there is some way to do this where it's always perfect and everyone always feels good. There's not, though, and that isn't because you aren't doing a good enough job. <3. Even your title here, about being the "best possible" speaks to what sounds, to me, like a lot of pressure to put on yourself. After all, you are, like the rest of us, just a human being. There's no being the best for any of us, at anything, all the time.

I feel like if you can just talk about this with your friend more directly, it might be a really good, and illuminating, thing for both of you.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

Heather! Thanks for your reply!

I'd actually love to address the awkwardness directly with my friend and I agree that having a direct conversation would probably be helpful. Ideally in person.

I'm just unsure how to approach that without coming accross like "YOUR pain is making ME feel awkward (boo hoo)." That would seem inappropriate to me. They're over there cueing me in on what sounds like pretty severe dysphoria to me (don't want to go into detail too much here because even though this is of course all anonymous it feels like too much of their privacy and also I don't know whether other users here need to read certain things.) and I'm whining about feeling confused...

I think you're 100% correct that I seem to have some odd kind of performance anxiety regarding this friendship. I suppose it comes from my regret regarding some pretty bad behavior towards them from me when we were much younger. And our friendship having been on a pretty necessary hiatus for years after that. We only just reconnected (well, only just... It happened before the pandemic). Which made me so, so happy even though the occasion was sad and scary.

I think I'm scared to mess up again and lose them for good?

I'll definitely try to have that direct conversation though, I just need to think a little more about how to get it going.
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Heather »

I-statements can help with this!

Like, “I feel so awkward in so much of how I’m handling this with you. It probably is just that I’m new to it and so worried about messing up because I value you and our friendship so much. Can we talk a little bit about this, and can I check in and hear from you about how you think I can best support you in this?”
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead
Sunshine
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Sunshine »

That sounds good, thanks Heather.

I kind of expect the answer will be something along the lines of "I don't really know myself" and / or something defeatist about how there isn't anything anyone can do right now.

But then at least I've put the awkwardness out there and maybe we can both laugh at it.
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Re: Looking for advice on how to be the best possible friend and ally

Unread post by Heather »

You’re welcome.

If that is the answer, you can also just let them know that as they figure that out, you’re available and open to hear how they think you can do your best by them.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead
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