I posted a photo of myself to a group on Facebook recently; it’s a group where people explicitly give you compliments because, honestly, that feels nice. One of the commenters was very kind, but she said something to me that every trans person has heard more times than we care to:
Let’s talk about that. I want to explain to you why it’s not the compliment you believe it is to call us brave, and what you can say (and do) instead. Because people call us brave often and honestly, a lot of us will accept the compliment without complaint. And then we go to our private trans spaces and complain about it. Being called “brave” is incredibly high on the “pet peeves” list of almost every trans person I know.
Because you’re the reason we have to be brave. People who say we’re brave understand that people treat us awfully. They know we are terrified to be out and alive. They see the red tape we have to go through. They see the insults we get. They know about the people who show up in our messenger accounts to remind us of how we were born. And they gloss over that to talk about how brave we are for living through it.
Friend, no trans person should have to be brave. Being trans shouldn’t require bravery. We don’t want to be brave. We want to quietly live our lives as the people we know we are. We know we’re brave, but almost every one of us knows we are terrified all the time. We are scared to go to the store. We are constantly watching ourselves for signs that might make us clockable, because being clockable can get you harassed, sexually assaulted, or killed. Shortly after I came out and started presenting femme, someone shattered my car window. I got another car, and instead of decorating it the way I wanted, I’ve left it unmarked in any way because I don’t want someone to be able to know it’s mine. I don’t feel brave.
I feel like a member of the Scooby gang being chased by one monster into the arms of another. I would have hidden my entire life if not for the crippling dysphoria and the suicidal thoughts getting harder to ignore. I was able to come out when I did because I was sure I was going to die and I just wanted to die honestly. I’m able to live as a trans woman because now that I have my life back, I realize I’m less scared of you all than I am of me. I’m not brave. You’re just preferable to the horrors of the closet.
And I think that’s a common theme for so many trans people who just want to live. We’re just… less scared of you, but we’re still scared all the time. And we don’t want to be. Nobody wants to be scared, and you can only be brave when you’re scared. I can feel my blood pressure spike when I have to go on walks. My heart rate goes up every time I dare to walk out my door. When a stranger looks at me, I am terrified they’ll see how I was born instead of who I am, and that they’ll hate me for it.
So are we brave? Yes. Fuck. Yes, we are. But we shouldn’t have to be, and none of us feel brave. We don’t feel like the titular hero of our stories. There’s no heroic background music playing when we leave our houses or have the audacity to want to have a relationship. We are amazing and yes, the things we do are brave because we are risking harm to buy our groceries.
And you should never call us that.
What to do instead.
Admire the beauty in what we’ve done, and there is so much that we’ve done. Every trans person, every single one, had a moment where they made a decision that the world was wrong about them. And then so many of us made a decision to tell the world it was wrong about us.
That’s an amazing, beautiful act of self-determination, and yes it’s brave, but it says SO much about our awareness and thoughtfulness and our desire to be ourselves. Every single trans person operates on a different level of thought about things you’ve never even had to consider: we are always analyzing, watching, taking in, adapting, and learning. The least knowledgeable trans person about gender has considered gender more than almost every cis person. Affirm that. Admire that. See that. Don’t mark the bravery — that’s a symptom of the society you all enjoy.
Here are some better compliments to pay a trans person:
“I really admire you.”
“You deserve all the happiness in the world.”
“I’m proud of you for taking care of yourself.”
“You’ve done so much for yourself, and it shows.”
And you can affirm us in our gender. My sister compliments me best of anyone because sometimes she doesn’t. When she calls me to ask me to get sister tattoos or to tell me about her latest boy troubles, my heart sings because she’s treating me like her sister. When she calls me a bitch, it totally warms my heart. There are compliments and activities and conversations that don’t explicitly affirm my gender, but they require affirmation as a requisite for doing. That’s more powerful than saying, “you’re a real woman.”
But let’s say you’ve just met a trans person and you want to say something kind, here are some tips:
Ask for some advice.
We put work into our appearances. Thoughtful, considerate, effort, and time goes into everything from hair styling to picking our jewelry. There is something on this trans person worthy of going, “Wow, I love your dress. Where’d you get it,” “I need you to teach me how to do my eyeliner,” or, “Ok, but how do you get your hair like that?!” Chances are we’ve learned something you’d find useful.
Acknowledge Our Efforts
And if you don’t need advice, you can still acknowledge our efforts. Compliment the clothes or the hair or anything we’ve chosen to do to our bodies. I used to have a terrible relationship with my curly hair, and so I love when people think it looks nice.
And if you want to be an “ally” to that person?
Offer us time and companionship.
Walk with us. Talk with us. It does amazing things for us to be able to go to a coffee shop with someone and just have that be a normal, casual coffee shop day. Time and companionship mean a lot to us, but it also means we’re getting to be somewhere where we’re not alone, and when we’re not alone, we don’t have to be so — blech — brave.
Alleviate our fear.
Wearing pins to show us you’re safe is, to be honest, performative and low effort. It’s effortless to say you’re not a danger to me, it’s another thing entirely to help me know that a space is safer for me for you being there. One of the few pins I think allies should wear is the “I’ll go with you” pin. Now, I don’t have an issue with restrooms most of the time because I pass(-ish).
When I see someone wearing one of these pins, the result is that I know this person has made a promise to help me and — while the promise is just bathroom specific — I still feel safer knowing at least one person has agreed to put themselves between me and someone who wants to hurt me.
These kinds of promises can be made by simply saying, “I’ll walk with you.” “Oh, let’s grocery shop together, nobody will bother you.” “Would you like someone to go to the movie with you so you’re not alone?” Simple things. The presence of a friendly cis person is often a deterrent to people who low-key want to harm us.
The moral of the story.
The point here is that “brave” just reminds us that we have to be. If it’s truly a compliment, it’s the most backhanded and ominous compliment possible. So please, offer trans people something other than an acknowledgement that they live through hell. That doesn’t make us feel exceptional or heroic.
If you want to offer kindness to a transgender person: see the beauty in our experience and highlight it. Be warm, open, and compassionate. See our hard work, not our struggles, and see the beauty in how far we’ve made it for ourselves.
And if you want to take it a step further, if you feel strongly about being an ally to this person, then offer your company, presence, and friendship. These things make us feel so much more human when it seems like the world wants to convince us that we’re monstrous.
Trans people deserve love, genuine love. If you’re reading this and you’ve made it this far, then I assume there’s a reason and that you do want to offer that love. I hope this was helpful to you. Be well friend, and do good while you’re at it.