How To Support a Loved One Through Gender Identity Changes

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During lockdown in Phoenix last year, Theo Grace Quest found herself thinking about her name. Theo identifies as nonbinary, and her given name is Grace, but she didn’t feel like it actually fit her. (“I’m not a graceful person,” she muses.) So, in a pandemic-imposed exile, she had the space to imagine a new name.

For many LGBTQ people, the pandemic exacerbated challenges the community already faces: social isolation, barriers to gender-affirming medical care, and economic instability. But in the midst of those struggles, many in the community found something else: space to explore identity changes and ask questions they hadn’t been able to before.

“It was like we suddenly had this time where we weren’t showing up every single day filling the roles that were expected of us,” she says. Theo didn’t have to clock in at work and discuss a possible name change with her employer. She wasn’t seeing her family, so she didn’t have to tell them in person. There was freedom in having mental and physical space to figure this out for herself. And she did. She chose a new name.

Though the decision was her own, Theo’s friends were instrumental in the change–after considering Theo for a few months, she shared and their reactions affirmed her choice. One of her friends encouraged her to think beyond whether Theo was a “good” or “bad” name and to embrace whether or not the name change would feel good. Another friend, upon learning about Theo’s new name, addressed a package to Theo Grace Quest and dropped it in the mail. When Theo received it, it was the first time she had seen her chosen name in writing.

“Seeing my name on a package and knowing it was from someone I care about so much… [it] really clicked,” Theo says. After her friends showed their support, Theo says it gave her the push she needed to talk to her parents. To tell them, Theo, a graphic designer and illustrator, created a mock newspaper announcement. The headline read, “Local Artist Changes Name: Child who ranks anywhere from 1st to 3rd favorite now goes by Theo Grace Quest.” Theo’s mother wasn’t receptive, but her dad sent her an email to tell Theo that he supported her. He also listed famous people who don’t go by their birth name including the singer Cher, and people her dad loves, like John Wayne.

According to Russ Toomey PhD, a professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona, the stressors of sharing a changing identity can be mitigated by the person receiving the new information. This makes a lot of sense, sharing yourself with someone is incredibly vulnerable, and rejection is a very rational concern. One way that friends and family can support their loved one is to “take in the new information with gratitude and create a sense of safety for the person who shared,” Dr. Toomey says.

Still, there’s no right way to affirm a friend’s identity change, Dr. Toomey says, adding that “the best advice here is to follow their lead.” For example, Dr. Toomey says that if you notice a friend has changed the pronouns in their Instagram bio, you can ask if those are the pronouns you should use moving forward. “That way, the information is clear within the relationship and the ball is now in the court of the person who changed their pronouns to decide how to establish boundaries,” Dr. Toomey says.

Ultimately, Dr. Toomey says it’s important to remember that each person will have different needs and desires as they came to realizations about their identity. Your job, as a friend or loved one, is to affirm that they are safe and supported in that process.

For Amy, the realization that they are genderfluid and pansexual came with questions: Who should she come out to? They live in a small town in a conservative and wondered, “How are people going to respond? how quietly do I need to do this?”

She decided to tell her other friends in town who have marginalized identities. Though she says the small scale of her coming out “kind of lonely,” they found some comfort in sharing with people who were grappling with the same kinds of questions. “It meant a lot to me to communicate that with somebody else,” she says.

Her next step was to put “she/they” pronouns on her resume, which was an affirming moment. Amy works in academia and wants to use their privilege as a femme-presenting person with a cis-gender male partner and children to give rise to representation for nonbinary people–although she doesn’t know if her colleagues see the inclusion of her pronouns as a form of allyship or a declaration of being nonbinary.

When Amy came out to her partner, who they call “cishet through and through”, he was receptive. “He gave me a lot of grace,” she says. “he didn’t make it about himself. He didn’t go ‘where does this leave us?’ He let me have that.” And, when Pride Month rolled around, Amy’s partner bought her a Pride flag. Although she had always participated in Pride as an ally, this was the first time she had seen herself reflected in the celebrations. Their partner gave her the flag and wished her a happy Pride.

“I didn’t even know I needed that [visibility],” Amy says. “That was very sweet and affirming.”

Theo’s father and Amy’s partner both found ways to support their loved ones, and Dr. Toomey says there’s one defining factor: It’s critical to show that you’re honored someone is willing to share identity changes–a deeply personal aspect of their lives–with you. “Follow the person’s lead, respect their pronouns and name, and ask them how they need to be supported with these changes.”

In the seclusion of the pandemic, Amy has found herself unlearning what she thought she knew about gender and sexuality. Her sentiments mimic some of the universal questions many of us asked ourselves while we were alone: “When left to be as weird as I wanna be, I’m like, ‘Woah, who am I?'” she says. “I look forward to all that unfolding.”

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