Help, I have a transgender friend

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Dear Bronwyn,

I have a new friend who recently asked if she could share something with me without me judging her. She told me she was actually born a boy and has been living as a girl since she was 14 (now 17). He had wanted to be a girl since a young age, but his mom would not allow it until he almost committed suicide. Questions that followed were in regards to dating, if she should tell the person she is with, what to wear, how do do makeup for the date, etc. I have been struggling with how to respond to such things so that I am not being too involved and encouraging living as a girl, but also not coming off as judgmental while still living out my own christian beliefs and making them clear. How can I continue to build a trusting and positive friendship with her, and lovingly share Gods truths? – P.C.

Dear P.C.,

A few years ago, I met someone who had had gender reassignment surgery. She had lived as a man until well into her adult life, had married and had kids, and then in her 30s made the choice to start living as a woman. After a few years, she followed it up with surgery to ‘seal the deal’. It cost her her marriage, her career, her relationship with her kids – and it caused a terrific amount of stress in the extended family: some were accepting, others refused to ever come to a family meeting where she (or ‘he’, as they insisted) was present.

I knew some of this background before meeting her, but I was still a little unprepared when I finally met her and her boyfriend (!!) I did my best to be loving, friendly and attentive – but I confess I was really unnerved when I got up to use the restroom and she got up and accompanied me, “because we girls go to the restroom in pairs.” A few minutes later I was washing my hands and she came up next to me and observed: “You also have big feet – don’t you find it a hassle to find nice shoes that fit?” I didn’t have a clue what to say. Yes, I find it hard to find big shoes – but I have big feet for someone who was born a woman. I mumbled something and skedaddled out of there.

All of this is to say: I can relate to your feeling of confusion, but I don’t feel I have excellent answers for situations like this. What I can say, though, is this:

You are already showing love and friendship to her by being a safe person who listened without judgment. You have shown welcome. I do believe this is the most important thing Jesus would have us do: he welcomed people and did not lecture or judge those who were hurting. It is one of the most wonderful things in all the gospel that Jesus did not require us to change before he loved us or bid us ‘come’ (Romans 5:8).  That you have shown a willingness to love her as she is in itself is a powerful witness to the gospel.

Secondly, your job as a friend is not to be a counselor or psychologist: you cannot possibly untangle all the things going on in her head. But you can listen. You can try to understand. And that is more powerful than you might realize.

Thirdly, your job as a friend is not to be the Holy Spirit. He is the one who prompts and enables real change in us, when it is time for that change. I want you to know you can love her freely without feeling like you need to act as her conscience too.

Fourthly, your job as a friend IS to be honest about who you are, even as she is being honest about who she is. So just as she is entrusting her true self to you, when the time comes – you must honor and respect her enough to entrust your true thoughts to her – but do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Remember: “I don’t know” is often a very useful and honest answer to know you have. If she asks your thoughts about how to apply lipstick or dating, I would say it is okay to answer “I don’t know. I have never been in your situation or had a friend in your situation, and I have no idea what to suggest.” It is okay to say “this is an awkward question for me, and I don’t have an answer but I’m glad you feel safe asking me.”

Fifthly, if she asks about your faith, tell her about Jesus. Tell her about the hope that you have, and what God means to you – she needs that more than she needs a position statement on being LGBT. We are saved by grace, not by keeping the 10 commandments. I know that her sexuality might seem like the “big sin issue” from one perspective – but in truth it is only one of a NUMBER of complex issues which God, in his love and wisdom, cares about.

Finally, I would offer this one piece of advice if she’s wondering whether to disclose her situation to other friends. She is in an awful situation where not telling someone about her identity means that she can never be fully known in that friendship. She will always be afraid of being found out or rejected – and in truth, the longer one keeps that information, the harder it is to disclose it later in a relationship without someone feeling really betrayed. However, telling someone from the get-go  risks a huge amount of rejection and enmity with people who may not have made good friends either. So I would say: she doesn’t have to tell everyone or wear it on a pin – but if there is a relationship which she feels has potential for being a significant friendship, she will have to make the decision to trust them with that information… and I daresay earlier might be less damaging than later.

Unequipped as you may feel to be her friend, you are being a friend right now. I want to encourage you to keep being that friend: be kind, generous, loving. Be honest. And I do believe God will use your friendship to her to show her something of His welcome.

Related posts: Why I Won’t Take a Stand On Gay Marriage, The Parable of the (Gay) Samaritan

Photo Credit: Giulia Cortigiano -Ci piace! La vogliamo in: Friendship never ends (Flickr Creative Commons)

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12 thoughts on “Help, I have a transgender friend”

  1. Excellent advice, Bron. The focus for P.C. right now is on the sex issue because that’s what’s come up most frequently, but really being a friend is the same as it’s always been: do the things that friends do, hang out together, be there for each other. The transgender part of her friend is nowhere near all of who her friend is, and God knows that more than anyone.

    Perhaps P.C. might glean some more insights on friendship from this post on my own gay and lesbian relationships. I’m praying for the guidance, wisdom, compassion and the hospitality of God to be with her and her friend.


  2. This might not be the same advice you’d give, Bronwyn, but I thought I’d add my two cents to at least give people something to think about…
    Treat your friend as what she wants to be called. If she’s calling herself a she, call her a she. Treat her like a girlfriend. If she’s asking about make-up, explain; I did a lot of drama, and putting mascara on guys and girls is all the same; no matter the body and genetics, it’s all eyelashes! Follow your friend’s lead, unless you feel uncomfortable about something. If you do, then say so, in love, and ask, “How can we make this more comfortable for both of us?”
    I say all this because it’s not our job to change anyone. Ever. It’s our job to be honest and loving. It’s our job to learn and be challenged.

    1. Liz, I love your advice and am so glad you added it. The letter I have in this post is substantially shortened from the original, where the writer suggested she was uncomfortable with the girlfriend-make-up-tip-sharing aspect.

      So glad you added your wisdom and experience!

  3. I agree with what you and the others have said. Time *just* had an interesting article about that very thing. It’s crazy because I can’t understand it at all, but I would hope if faced with the same situation that I could express the love and care you have thoughtfully put out in your letter.

  4. Hi Bron, really challenging situations, I agree. As a man I usually do not face transgender issues in the same way that I sometimes hear my women friends do. Perhaps a boy or man feeling compelled to live as a woman might be more reticent about talking to a man than to a woman?

    I agree that you should always be as loving as you can and be supportive without feeling the need to embracing all of the aspects of where someone is going.

    We had a man on stage here in Singapore recently who went through a fairly lengthy period of transgender life before accepting that, in the depths of his being, he was not a woman but was a man. My one bit of advice, and it is fairly generic, might be to encourage them to NOT consider doing something irreversible – like surgery – before they have really come to grips with what is driving this desire. (I also counsel against tatoos, extreme piercings, etc. – act in haste, regret at leisure).

    Blessings, Kris

  5. Good answers and discussion here. This is a hard topic, for so many reasons, and I’ve never been in the situation of P.C. or her friend. A relative had a coworker who was transgendered and who decided to have the gender-change surgery (from man to woman). Several days after my relative told me about this situation, my sunday school class was discussing how to be grace to a broken world, and I brought up the situation at my relative’s work. I asked, “So how should we respond, if faced with this?”

    I was disheartened by some of the snide comments my classmates made. (“He’s turning into a female? Send flowers!” got lots of laughter. Not from me, though.) The teacher turned my question around and asked me what I thought. I fumbled for a reply, mostly because my tongue got all twisted around and I was thrown off by my classmates’ response.

    I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say: Show respect. Don’t ridicule that person. There’s a whole lot of pain under the surface actions, and even though we may not see it, this is still a person made in the image of God and because of that, we should always seek to treat other people with dignity and respect. And if others start joking about this person, say something. Don’t allow others to bully or treat another person disrespectfully; that doesn’t honor God or show love to others. (That’s what I wish I’d said.)

    1. I appreciate your comment so much, Laura. I see a lot of teasing and name-calling and gracelessness in Christian responses to these issues online, but usually I have found people to be more restrained and gracious in person. I can’t imagine what I might have done in your situation, but like you I hope that if I did find myself there in the future I would do as you suggest: show respect, and stand up for those who are being disrespected. For as you rightly say, transgendered people are made in the image of God.

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