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When somebody in your life comes out to you as transgender, it’s a big moment. How you respond can change the nature of your relationship with that person forever. It might even end the relationship, whether or not that’s what you want.

What they’re saying might seem a little “out there” to you. Maybe you think, “no way—they’ve never shown me any signs of being the gender they’re telling me they are.” You might be new to the concepts they’re describing, especially if they talk about being neither a man nor a woman (like me), or some combination of both. It might just feel too out of left field for you to be willing to accept.  You might have deep ideological problems with the idea of anybody being anything but their assigned binary gender.

So you don’t believe them.

But if you don’t believe them, no matter how much you want to love that person, you’ve shown some pretty unloving cards (even though you probably didn’t mean to).

Here’s why.

You’re treating their mind as inferior to your mind

By believing your own opinions about who that person is more than you believe who they’re telling you they are, you’re demonstrating that you don’t recognize their self-knowledge as legitimate.

This signals that this relationship is not built on mutual respect. Everyone has unique expertise in the subject of who they are. If you don’t believe them, you’re elevating your opinion about who they are and what they feel above their knowledge of themselves. You have no grounds to do that. That’s an extremely disempowering thing to do to another person.

You are treating their mind as significantly inferior to yours. That’s pretty messed up.

Know that the person you disbelieve gets this message loud and clear.

You’re showing your trust in them has severe limits

It doesn’t matter how hard it is for you to believe what your trans friend/family member is saying. If you don’t believe them, you’re showing that your trust in them only goes so far, and no further. 

No one should have to “prove” their gender to anyone, because proving something that complex and abstract isn’t possible. It’s an internal sense. It leaves no paper trail of evidence. 

There are sensitive, expressive trans men. There are trans women who are tomboys. Just because you think someone never “showed signs” of being boyish enough to count in your mind as a boy doesn’t mean they aren’t one.

The only thing they have is that powerful internal sense, and they’re going out on a limb to share this with you. They already know that you probably see them as someone different from who they really are, and they’re asking you to believe what they’re telling you they know about their soul above what you perceive with your eyes.

If you don’t believe them, it’s a vote of no confidence in them as a person. You require proof that they can’t give; you’re showing that their word isn’t good enough for you, and that you aren’t going to support them while they work to set their soul free.

If that’s true about something so important, your relationship is not in a good place.

You’re demonstrating that you don’t see them

When you don’t believe someone who tells you they’re trans, you make it clear to them that you see them as a person they’re not.

You can’t love someone if you can’t even see them as real. The person you love isn’t the real them. Even if you don’t think that’s going on, they know it. 

The sentence: “I love and accept you, but I don’t believe that you’re really trans,” is an oxymoron.  

The thing is, they are trans. You can’t even see them, so how can you accept them? You think they’re a different person, so how can you love them?

Being seen is step one, and being accepted is step two. You have to see someone first before you can accept them. Personally, I’d rather be outright rejected for being trans than to have a loved one disbelieve me. Because then, at least, I’d be seen.

You’re hinting that your love is conditional

Entertain the idea that they’re telling the truth. Picture that person as the gender they say they are. Do you still love that person? 

If you don’t even put yourself through this process, you don’t even know the answer to this question. And your trans friend/family member knows you don’t know the answer.

You’re painting a picture that the only version of them that you can be OK with loving is a version of them that isn’t trans.

That’s not really them. 

Do the hard work of actually processing through the truth they’re telling you. If you don’t, then the trans person who comes out to you will be stuck not knowing how conditional your love is (or isn’t).

You’re refusing to treat that person as sane

You can’t both question someone’s sanity and believe their thoughts matter. Those things are mutually exclusive. In fact, questioning someone’s sanity is one of the most toxic things a person can do to another human being. Especially when you push this questioning hard enough that you get them to wrongly question their own sanity. That’s called gaslighting. And unfortunately, a lot of people do this to trans folks, all the while maintaining the belief that they’re being loving. (Also unfortunately, I know this first hand.)

When someone comes out to you as trans and you disbelieve them, you’re questioning their sanity.

You can see why that’s not cool, and isn’t conducive to being a positive influence on someone’s life.

Believe us, because we’re not lying.

If you don’t want to harm or lose touch with a person who comes out to you as trans, listen to them and believe them.

Gender is not as black and white as most people think. Listen to stories that are different from what you’ve been told. Just because you don’t relate to it doesn’t mean it’s crazy. It means you don’t know everything already. It means there are experiences you haven’t had. It means the world is more beautiful and mysterious than you realized.

And that’s a good thing.

Struggling to believe a trans person in your life? Here are a few things you can do:

  • Be a good listener, and take the time you need to seriously process what they tell you.
  • Do some reading from the perspective of other trans people. Expand your vocabulary around gender.
  • Be humble—don’t treat yourself as an expert on the subject of gender, let alone someone else’s gender. You are not. If you’re cisgender, it’s almost guaranteed you’ve thought less about gender than the trans person coming out to you has (even if they’re young).
  • Don’t make what they’re saying about you and what you want for them. This is about who they really are, so what you want that to be doesn’t matter.
  • Accept that really seeing someone isn’t always a surface level thing, and commit to working past your surface-level false perceptions to what’s really there.
  • If you’re struggling to understand, ask questions. But be gentle and patient, because the person who’s come out to you is probably exhausted. They’ve had a wrong identity imposed on them their entire life, and they’re probably working really hard to get that thing off so they can finally just live.