Someone you care about might be struggling to express their gender identity

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about might be struggling to express their gender identity.

What do you notice?

You notice that someone you care about might be struggling with expressing their gender identity. Perhaps they’ve become upset at being called anything gender specific or not reflective of their preferred identity description. They might have also expressed discomfort or a strong dislike of the associated parts of their biological sex. Maybe they’ve rid themselves of any signs of their biological sex, such facial hair or breasts. Or maybe you’ve noticed them withdrawing from regular activities and showing signs of anxiety or depression.

What do you need to understand?

Identity exploration is a natural human behaviour exercised at different times in life  as we go through key transitional periods. Understanding ourselves and our place in the world takes time and is a process. Part of understanding ourselves is finding comfort with our gender expression or identity, and this can change as well throughout our life. Gender identity is our sense of who we are – male, female, both or neither. Gender identity should not be confused with sexual orientation, which is one’s pattern of romantic or sexual attraction to another.

However, when an individual finds that their preferred gender identity is at odds with expected roles or ways of presenting themselves within a community, this can be upsetting and cause mental distress. Gender dysphoria is a term that describes a sense of unease a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity.

What do you need to consider?

If an individual feels unable to express their preferred gender identity, they could experience gender dysphoria, which can impact their mental health. Even if they do express their preferred gender identity, they could face challenges about fitting in and having others understand their choice, and this can be stressful. Since exploring identity is a personal journey, be supportive and accepting  so that the individual feels free to continue exploring what works for them.

Engaging in a supportive conversation

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be  happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I noticed that you’ve been withdrawn lately and changing aspects of your appearance. Everything okay?”
  • “I noticed that gender seems like an upsetting topic for you. I’m here to support. Can you tell me what you might be feeling?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person is open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re experiencing.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you’re heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing that you’re exploring your gender identity, but fear others are going to criticize or alienate you. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Highlight

Highlight strengths  you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation include:

  • “Thank you for trusting me with this. Opening up to another takes great courage. I didn’t know that you were feeling this way.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to seek further understanding about how to feel safe when expressing your gender identity, so how can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other’s life.

Create

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of  how you’ll be supportive.

 Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. I’m here to support you. You mentioned some things you wanted to explore to create some change in your life. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets  your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: