Trans Ally FAQs

Being an ally to the trans community starts with learning. We are committed to answering all of your questions about trans issues.

This list answers many of the Frequently Asked Questions that cisgender people have about the trans community! For weekly discussions on these questions, join our Help for Allied Loved Ones (HALO) Facebook group.


If you have a question about the trans community or how to be a better ally, please fill out our Google Form!

TRANS ALLY FAQs

The Basics

What’s the difference between sex and gender?

Many people use “sex” and “gender” as interchangeable terms. For many people, their sex and their gender are the same—these people are cisgender. However, sex and gender are different things.

Sex is a label that refers to your biology: sex chromosomes (XX, XY, or otherwise), hormone levels (estrogen, testosterone, and others), and reproductive organs (internal and external, primary and secondary). Some people do not exactly fit into our ideas of what “male” and “female” are, and these people are intersex.

Gender is your internal connection to a social label and the role associated with that gender—from behavior to pronouns, to clothing. People are given an assigned gender (AGAB, Assigned Gender at Birth; usually AFAB or AMAB) based on their perceived biological sex. When someone’s assigned gender does not match up with their internal feelings of gender, this person is trans.

For cis people, there is no noticeable difference between their sex and their gender. However, for trans people, there is a difference between their assigned sex/gender and their actual gender. T

his separation of a trans person’s sex and gender—called gender incongruence—is what makes a person trans. Being trans is not a bad thing, a mental condition, or a problem to be fixed; it is merely the result of the difference between sex and gender. 

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Are there more than two sexes or genders?

While our society generally operates on the assumption that there are only two sexes (sex binary) and two genders (gender binary), this is not the case.

Sex is a biological category based on chromosomes, hormones, and sex organs. None of these things, however, are binary and not everyone fits neatly into our categories of “male” and “female.” People who do not fit into our sex binary are intersex.

  • Sex chromosomes are generally XX (usually associated with female) or XY (usually associated with male), but there are countless other combinations, whether they have only one sex chromosome or extra chromosomes (e.g. XXX, XXY, XYY).
  • Contrary to popular opinion, estrogen is not exclusively female, and testosterone is not exclusively male. All men naturally produce some estrogen, and all women naturally produce testosterone. Varying hormone levels can affect a person’s physical attributes, making them look “more male” or “more female.”
  • There are also genetic conditions resulting in intersex sexual organs (e.g. varying sizes, combinations, etc.).

Gender is also not binary despite our social constructions of only “man” and “woman.” The umbrella term for genders outside these categories is non-binary.

  • Some people use this as their label, and some use it as an all-encompassing category to include specific terms.
  • There are culture-specific identities outside the gender binary, like Two Spirit (umbrella term used across Native cultures).
  • While non-binary people as a whole are included in the term “trans” (sometimes “trans*”), some non-binary people do not claim trans as a label for their individual identity.

Many phrases — such as “ladies and gentlemen” — exclude non-binary genders from everyday life. Reframing language to include those outside our traditional ideas is integral to inclusion of non-binary and intersex people.

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What is your biology like? What’s “down there”?

This question is one of the most disrespectful questions cisgender people ask. Asking this question immediately invalidates someone’s gender by suggesting that biological sex is more important than gender identity. 

There are often very negative intentions behind this question, particularly with the insinuation that “I know you are not really the gender you say you are.” However, if you ask this question with neutral or good intentions, you may actually be wondering about a person’s gender identity, the gender someone was assigned at birth, or their transition/surgery status. If you do not mean to be offensive, avoid this phrasing at all costs. If you want to know if someone is trans or not, wait for them to tell you on their own. Demanding to know such personal information as soon as you meet someone is disrespectful. Ask for their pronouns instead; this often lets people know that you are accepting of trans identities.

  • If you want to know the gender someone was assigned at birth, ask yourself why you feel like you need this information. Will it affect how you treat them? Will it change the way you see them regarding their gender presentation? If you are not their doctor or someone else who actually needs this information to do your job properly, you likely don’t need the answer. Being curious about trans people is natural, but avoid questions that you would not ask a cisgender person.
  • If you want to know someone’s transition status, especially whether they have had “the surgery” yet, ask yourself why you care what their genitals look like. Do you care what a cis person’s genitals look like? Probably not. Again, if you are not their doctor, you probably don’t need to be asking this question. You don’t want a stranger to ask about your sex characteristics, don’t ask others about theirs.
  • If you are curious about how trans people deal with the incongruence between their bodies and their gender, do research! Resources like those listed below and in previous FAQ posts can help answer a lot of the personal questions that are inappropriate to ask a trans person in your life. Google is your friend.

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What makes someone trans?

Some people may think that trans people choose to be trans, or that something happened in their childhood to “turn them trans.” Neither of these are true. What actually makes someone trans is a disconnect between their gender and their assigned sex; this is called gender incongruence. In other words, trans people do not connect internally with the gender label they were given at birth.

Gender incongruence may present itself in a variety of ways depending on the person, but the two main ways people feel gender incongruence are gender euphoria and gender dysphoria.

  • Gender euphoria is exactly what it sounds like: a happy feeling when associating with your actual gender, rather than what you were assigned. For example, a trans woman may feel euphoric when referred to with she/her pronouns, or when wearing feminine clothes.
  • Gender dysphoria is the opposite; an unpleasant feeling when associating with your assigned sex, rather than your actual gender. For example, a trans man may feel dysphoric when referred to be she/her pronouns, or when wearing clothes that do not fit his idea of masculinity.

Some people experience both euphoria and dysphoria equally. Some people experience one more than the other, or only one. Some people do not feel either in a particularly strong way, but have a clear internal sense of gender incongruence.

It can be confusing for cisgender people to understand the concepts of incongruence, euphoria, and dysphoria because you have never experienced them. However, just because you do not understand how something may feel to a trans person does not mean that it is not valid, true, or possible. Being trans is just as natural as being cis, and nothing besides incongruence is involved in the difference. Trans people do not choose to be trans, they simply choose to reveal it.

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Why do you want to be trans? Why did you choose to be trans?

The phrasing of these questions is incredibly disrespectful to trans people. You may just be curious about how trans identities work, but saying that someone “wants” or “chooses” to be trans is offensive. People do not choose to be trans. They do, however, choose to tell people about our identity and pronouns, and hearing these questions often encourages trans people to stay in the closet.

Asking these questions is asking a person to justify or explain an identity that is very personal and often more complicated than cisgender people realize. Trans people often take long periods of time to explore their gender and what labels, pronouns, and language makes them feel most comfortable. To be asked questions like “Why do you want to be trans?” or “Why did you choose to be trans?” suggests that being trans is a phase, trend, or quick decision made, when it’s the opposite.

  • If you want to know the language someone prefers (e.g. pronouns, labels, descriptors), ask directly (e.g. “What pronouns do you use?).
  • If you want to know more about how trans identities work in general, research on your own! Explaining how trans-ness works to everyone around us can get exhausting, especially when it is phrased in a disrespectful way. 

When you think about asking these questions, ask yourself: Why did I choose to be cisgender? When did I decide that I would be [my gender]?

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Coming Out & Identities

How should I react when someone comes out as trans?

Lots of emotions are involved when someone comes out as trans. They are likely afraid or worried about what you will say, and you are likely dealing with some worry of your own. Everyone’s coming out process is different, so there is no “rulebook” how best to react when your trans loved one comes out to you. However, there are some good standards to go by:

  • Be supportive – It is so important to make sure they know that you still love and support them. One major anxiety of those coming out is that their loved ones will not be supportive. Make sure they know you still love them.
  • Don’t guilt them – You may be tempted to say “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” to let them know you’d always support them, but you may make them feel guilty. Accept that trans people come out to people on their own terms.
  • Ask about boundaries – This is important, especially if you are one of the first people they have told. Ask if they have a new name or new pronouns, and ask who else knows. You want to avoid “outing” them — revealing their trans identity without consent — so make sure you know who it is okay to use the new name, pronouns, and labels with.
  • Match their energy – This is where the diversity of coming out experiences comes in. If your trans loved one is excited to tell you, match that energy and be excited too! If they seem stressed, scared, or emotional, match that with comfort and sympathy. It may be hard to control your own reaction in the moment, but it is important to pay attention to what your trans loved one is feeling. 
  • Continue the conversation – Keep the conversation going past the initial coming out discussion, especially as you navigate a new world of information. If you have a question about trans experiences in general, consult Google, the resources below, or a trusted friend. If you have a question specific to your loved one, ask them directly. Don’t let the coming out conversation be the last time you talk with them about trans topics. Perceived apathy can be just as hurtful as rejection.

Everyone is different and everyone’s needs are unique. If you stay supportive, loving, and engaged, you will be equipped for a positive coming out experience.

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How is sexuality different from gender identity?

While the LGBTQIA+ community includes both sexualities and gender identities, they are separate. Your gender identity and transition status do not inherently affect your sexual and romantic orientations, though they are related for some people. Some common questions on this topic include: Can you be trans and gay? Are you sure you aren’t a masculine lesbian girl (for straight trans men) / a feminine gay boy (for straight trans women)? Can non-binary people be gay or lesbian? For these answers, keep reading!

  • Can you be trans and gay? – Yes! Because gender identity and sexuality are separate, you can be any gender identity and any sexuality. Trans men (assigned female at birth) attracted to men, and trans women (assigned male at birth) attracted to women, are both on the LGB spectrum. Some trans people realize their sexuality while transitioning, some people’s orientations never change. Neither label dictates or changes the other.
  • Are you sure you aren’t a masculine lesbian girl (for straight trans men) / a feminine gay boy (for straight trans women)? – Asking this question invalidates a person’s sexuality and gender identity. You may think it is “easier” or “harder” to be straight but trans instead of cis but gay, but this is inappropriate. People do not choose to have stigmatized identities, they choose to reveal them. Asking this question dismisses all of their self reflection and assumes they are transitioning to avoid anti-gay stigma.
  • Can non-binary people be gay or lesbian? – Yes! Non-binary people can identify in whatever way makes them feel most comfortable and most represented. While the terms “gay, “lesbian,” “MLM” (Men who Love Men), and “WLW” (Women who Love Women) are generally associated with binary genders, this is not always the case. Non-binary people can be aligned — more strongly connected or comfortable with a binary gender — while still being non-binary. Non-binary people can also use binary terminology. If you meet a non-binary person who is aligned non-binary or who identifies with binary language, ask what terminology they use and stick with it.

It can be a lot of new information to learn about sexualities and genders and you may not understand, but your job as an ally is to support them regardless of understanding.

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How do I know if someone is trans? Can I ask?

Once you start learning about trans identities, it is common to get curious about people in your daily life who may be trans. The most important thing to know on this topic is that you cannot tell who is trans and who is cisgender by looking. You may think that all trans people have a certain “look,” making it possible to identify who is trans simply by looking, but this is not the case. (On this subject, do not “compliment” a trans person by saying they “don’t look trans”, because it is an offensive statement.)

The only way to know if someone is trans is for them to tell you. However, it is often inappropriate to ask if someone is trans, especially if you do not know them personally or you just met. When you want to ask someone this question, ask yourself why you want that information. Do you need it to perform your job properly (e.g. you are their doctor)? If you realize that you want rather than need this information, you should not ask. Instead, ask for their pronouns (this is often a good way to let someone know that you are aware and accepting of trans identities). If they feel comfortable, they may share whether they are trans with you, but let them do it on their own terms.

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Are non-binary people trans? Is “non-binary” the same as “trans”?

The label “trans” refers to people whose gender does not match up with their assigned sex, and non-binary people — whose gender does not match up with either binary gender — certainly fit into that category. Some non-binary people do not individually claim “trans” as their label, but as a whole those who do not conform to the gender binary are in the trans community. 

Sometimes when people talk about the trans community, they may not realize that non-binary people are also included in the conversation. To address this issue and to explicitly include non-binary people, sometimes we add an asterisk (*) to the word trans (i.e. trans*) to make sure everyone knows that non-binary people are also included. 

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When did you become trans? When did you decide to be trans?

Similar to asking why someone may “choose” to be trans, it is incredibly disrespectful to use this phrasing. Saying someone “became” or “decided” to be trans suggests that being trans is a choice, which it is not. If you are wondering when someone “decided” to be trans, you probably want to know either when they started to question their gender, when they realized they were trans, or when they came out as trans. All of these questions are valid and okay to ask as long as you have established that this person’s identity is an okay topic!

If you are wondering about how long they have known they were trans, you can totally ask that. It is different for everyone — some people have known all their life, some started to question their gender in their teen years, some realized in early, mid, or late adulthood, and all of these are valid paths. If you are wondering about how long they have been out of the closet, you can ask this too! Some people have big announcements where they tell everyone they know all at once, and some people come out one person at a time. It really is unique to everyone. As long as you ensure that they are okay talking about it with you and ask in a respectful way at a good time, it is acceptable to ask these questions.

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Is non-binary a “third option”?

Gender is not an “either/or” system. While many people may think that gender is either “man” or “woman,” there are many other labels outside of those two options to define identities outside of the binary. Non-binary is the umbrella term for these labels, and everyone’s interpretation of this word is unique and for themselves.

  • For some, being non-binary is like a third gender and is sometimes represented as in between male and female.
  • For others, being non-binary (or whatever label(s) they use) is completely independent of the existing binary system, and do not see it as a “third option,” but rather as one of many other labels on the gender spectrum.

The way someone relates their gender to other genders and the gender spectrum as a whole is completely up to them. Gender is a super personal part of someone’s identity, and so is their view of how other genders relate to their own!

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Why are there so many trans people now? Is it a trend?

Trans identities have existed as long as humans have. They have existed in every culture, era, and region of the world, albeit in different forms and with different labels.

Today, trans people still exist in all cultures, despite our Western society’s gender binary. The reason some argue trans-ness is a “trend” or that there are more trans people now than before is because more trans people are being open. It is easier — definitely not easy, but easier — to be openly trans now than it has been before, and this encourages more trans people to come out. There are not necessarily more trans people, but more vocal trans people.

 

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Names & Pronouns

How do I know what name or pronoun to use for a trans person?

Names and pronouns are often a big part of a trans person’s social transition. The name given to them at birth (called their birth name, given name, or deadname) and pronouns referring to their assigned gender can cause a lot of gender dysphoria. If a trans person has told you that they have a chosen name and/or pronouns different from what you might assume, always use those. It is disrespectful and invalidating to deadname or misgender, whether it is on purpose or by accident.

You will almost certainly mess up their name and/or pronouns at least once, especially if you knew them well before they came out. When you deadname or misgender someone, quickly correct yourself and move on with the conversation. Try not to make a big deal about it or a long apology, because this gives the trans person the burden of comforting you.

  • The only time you should purposefully use someone’s given name or original pronouns is if there is someone who does not know, and who the trans person does not want to tell. Being closeted with some people and out with others is pretty common and totally valid, so if your trans loved one wants to keep their identity private from some people, make sure you honor that decision.

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What pronouns do non-binary people use?

The short answer: non-binary people can use whatever pronouns they want! In general, however, to avoid assuming someone’s gender and pronouns, you can use the neutral “they.” 

  • Some non-binary people use only they/them.
  • Some use only binary pronouns.
  • Some use neo-pronouns, which are any pronouns not he/him, she/her, or they/them, including (but not limited to) xe/xem/xyr, ze/hir/hirs, and ey/em/eir.
  • Some people use multiple sets of pronouns (e.g. both she/her and they/them), any pronouns, or fluctuating pronouns based on current feeling.

It is up to each individual to let you know what pronouns they specifically use.

Some people argue that they/them pronouns are grammatically incorrect or asking “why do you use they/them pronouns if you are just one person?” Neither of these questions are respectful of non-binary people. First, they/them pronouns are grammatically correct (see: Merriam-Webster dictionary definition). Second, even if these pronouns weren’t “correct,” breaking some grammar rules is worth avoiding dysphoria. Third, you can use “they” or “them” to refer to a group of people, but you can also use it to refer to someone whose gender you don’t know. It only became “controversial” to use neutral they/them pronouns when trans people started asking for it.

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What if someone uses more than one set of pronouns?

Many cis people do not fully understand the way that trans people adapt language — including pronouns — to fit their identities, and that’s okay. Some trans people find that using two or more sets of pronouns (e.g. if someone uses both he/him and she/her pronouns) helps minimize gender dysphoria best for them. This is often the case for genderfluid, multigender, and other non–binary people, but can be done by any trans person.

The best way to know how to use a person’s different pronouns is to ask. It really depends on the person. Some people prefer that you occasionally switch between the different pronouns, some prefer that you stick with just one, some prefer one pronoun over another depending on the time or place, and some don’t have a preference at all! Just like a lot of things regarding identity, it is best to ask the person directly.

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Can I use your old name/pronouns? I know you as [deadname/old pronouns], can I use those instead?

Using someone’s given name after they change it (deadnaming) or using the wrong pronouns (misgendering) is incredibly disrespectful and dysphoria-inducing in almost every context. Unless the trans person has explicitly told you not to use the wrong name and/or pronouns, use the right name and pronouns. Yes, even friends who have known them their whole life and grew up calling them something different. Yes, even parents who gave them their birth name. Yes, even extended family, old friends, new friends, teachers, employers, everyone. If someone has come out to you with a new name or different pronouns, it is your responsibility to use them.

You may have some difficulty updating the language you use for them, but the work is worth it. Before you tell them that “switching to your new name/pronouns is hard for me,” consider how hard it is to tell you loved ones about a personal part of your identity and have it not always be respected. Practice their new name and pronouns, whether it’s by yourself, with another friend or family member, or with a therapist (especially for parents dealing with the “loss” of who they thought their child was). A trans person with support is healthier and happier than one without. 

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What’s your real name?

This question is harmful to trans people in multiple ways. First, if you meet a trans person who has changed their name, you should never ask for their given name (unless you need it for medical or legal reasons). It is irrelevant to how you refer to them in the present. Ask yourself why you feel the need to know what they were called before they came out. Second, by using the word “real” instead of “given,” you are arguing that the name a trans person chooses to represent themself is fake or invalid. Their chosen name is their real name. 

Bottom line: don’t ask this question. Respect their chosen name, and don’t try to figure out what their birth name was.

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How do I start using a new name/pronoun?

Learning a trans person’s new name and/or pronouns is a huge part of supporting them after they come out! Both play a role in minimizing gender dysphoria and maximizing gender euphoria, and your job as their loved one is to learn their updated language — and unlearn outdated language. It takes effort to mentally replace the old with the new, but the work is crucial to the mental health of trans people. The short answer to this question: practice, practice, practice.

  • Try to do as much of the learning when the trans person is not in the room. We understand that you are learning, but it is nice to avoid as many slip-ups as possible.
  • If they came out to another family member or friend you are in contact with, talk to that person about your mutual loved one, using the right name and pronouns — this can be in person, on the phone, or over text. The purpose of this is to normalize the new language.
  • If you misgender or deadname them while you are thinking, repeat the thought with the right language a few times.

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that you will make mistakes. Learn how to correct yourself in our post. If you tend to not notice when you mess up, work with your trans love one AND with your mutual friends and family to create a reminder to correct yourself. It can be hard sometimes for a trans person to speak up and/or interrupt someone else to correct the language, so using a non-verbal cue (e.g. raising their hand, using name/pronoun tags) and working with others to delegate the responsibility of correcting makes it a little easier. 

In the end, it comes down to your commitment to change. Use whatever resources you need to change your thinking and support your trans loved one’s new name and pronouns.

More resources:

  • New York Times – Gender Pronouns Can Be Tricky On Campus. Harvard Is Making Them Stick.
  • Women 2.0 – A Crash Course on How To Use The Proper Pronouns
  • Journal of Adolescent Health – The Important For Getting The Name Right For Transgender and Other Gender Expansive Youth

 

How should I refer to someone when I am talking about them pre-coming out or pre-transition?

Oftentimes, cis people struggle to find the right wording to refer to a trans person’s pre-transition or pre-coming out self. You may find yourself saying things like

  • “before she was a he,”
  • “before you were non-binary,”
  • “when you were still boy,” or
  • “before [deadname] was [chosen name],”

but none of these phrases fully respect a person’s identity. Saying “before you were [label/pronoun]” suggests that they made a decision to become their label, when the real decision was to tell you. They may have rejected their assigned label and pronouns very early on in life, but only found the language to describe it recently; to describe them pre-coming out or pre-transition as before they were trans invalidates the long self-discovery process.

Instead, you can say “before [chosen name, or current correct pronoun] came out” or “before [chosen name, or current correct pronoun] transitioned.” These preserve the trans person’s dignity, and validate that they were their gender even before they came out or transitioned. 

As always, however, an individual may have specific preferences as to how you should refer to their pre-coming out or pre-transition self. Ask them individually to be sure.

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Reminders

  • If you have a question about trans identities, trans issues, or how to be a better ally, please let us know on our Google Form!
  • To participate in our weekly FAQ discussions, join our Help for Allied Loved Ones (HALO) Facebook Group!