Wikihow has some good guidelines on this topic, but I wanted to provide something a little more thorough. These are suggestions based on my own experiences, as well as a lot of reading I’ve done of others’ experiences. If you are new to trans* issues, welcome! Feel free to ask questions after reading.
If you are not new to trans* issues, please feel free to offer feedback. I’ve broken up the guidelines into a tiered system in an attempt to be realistic. As much as I want everyone to be trans* allies and advocates, it is likely above the heads of many who are just learning of a trans* person in their lives, so I hope that this will provide some starting points to meet folks where they are. I also hope that this will provide a gauge for people to understand how much they are or are not being supportive of a trans* person in their life, while providing suggestions for improvement if it is needed.
The Bare Minimum:
Use the correct name and pronouns. These are the name and pronouns the transgender person (TP from here after in this post) has asked you (or everyone) to use. Do so immediately upon being asked, and never look back.* See Tips for Getting Pronouns Right. If you happen to know their previous name/pronouns, pretend that TP never used them and interact accordingly. If you don’t know their previous name/pronouns, don’t ask.
When referring to past events involving TP before they came out, continue to use the current correct name and pronouns – see above tip about pretending TP never went by their previous name/pronouns. Many trans* folks feel that they have always been the gender they currently present, they just didn’t know it before, or were unable to express it due to other circumstances. Also, any use of old names or pronouns can be upsetting.
*The only exception to this is if TP is coming out for the first time and hasn’t come out to the whole world. In this case, check with TP about when to use their new name/pronouns, and when to use the old set in order to maintain their privacy and/or safety. If you are not sure, ask. See below.
If TP has come out to you in confidence, keep it confidential. If you are unsure about how ‘out’ TP is, such as if you should use their new name/pronouns in front of other people who may not already know, ask them. If you have not had a chance to ask them and are confronted with such a situation, avoid using their name or any pronouns to refer to them. Then make it a priority to ask them.
If TP is perceived to be their correct gender (i.e. a transman who strangers naturally perceive to be male), do not disclose their trans status to others without explicit permission.
Do not disclose private or sensationalizing information to others. This goes beyond simply not gossiping. If and when other people ask you about TP’s trans* identity, do not disclose private information, such as transition-related plans, if you happen to know. Let TP control the information they want to share. Also, don’t gossip about how ‘weird’ or ‘different’ they are, in case that wasn’t already obvious.
Do not ask TP questions about their body (i. e. their plans for surgery or hormones, or their medical history) unless that information has been offered freely by TP first. If you have a question about trans* issues you are not sure you should ask, start by using the internet to find answers. If you still have a question, start by asking TP if it would be ok for you to ask some questions, and state explicitly that it is ok for them to refuse to answer any question at any time. If TP doesn’t want to answer any questions, accept this freely and move on. Ask yourself, would I ask a cisgender acquaintance about this kind of thing? If the answer is no, then don’t ask.
Do not police TP’s gender: If TP has come out to you as female, do not give unsolicited advice about how to be female or feminine. If TP has come out as an identity that is non-binary, as in, neither exclusively male nor exclusively female, do not make them prove it. Do not tell TP that because TP is wearing a dress one day, that they must actually be female, or that because TP wore a suit, they’re actually male. Trust that TP knows their own identity better than you do.
Treat TP like you did before, and like you would anyone else. There are a lot of ‘Do nots’ in this section because so many people do and say inappropriate things to and about trans* people, forgetting that we’re fellow human beings. We’re actually pretty boring. There can be a lot of paperwork and other logistics in transition. We often have jobs or families and interpersonal drama, just like cisgender people. Our bodies and sex lives garner way more curiosity than they deserve credit for, because we’re just as varied as cisgender people. Really. And as Laverne and Carmen put it so eloquently on Katie Couric not too long ago, focusing on our bodies or our ‘trans-ness’ takes away from our real lived experiences as human beings, and the life-threatening struggles so many of us face on a daily basis.
The More-Than-An-Acquaintance-But-Not-Close Friend:
Don’t make gender generalizations that reinforce dominant views of masculinity and femininity, at the very least not in front of TP. Don’t make fun of a man for being feminine. Don’t make jokes about how an insecure man is probably compensating for a small penis. Don’t talk about how only women can understand what it’s like to have a period, or suggest that all women understand this. Trans* people often experience bodily configurations that are outside the culturally accepted ideas about what male and female bodies are. These generalizations also ignore the existence of non-binary identities. When you generalize about male or female bodies, you render trans* people invisible. We exist. Please don’t generalize us out of existence when we are struggling for legalized respect, and when we are dehumanized and violently attacked really frequently. We need to be acknowledged.
In addition to these generalizations excluding the existence of trans* people, they can be harmful. For example, the idea that a man who expresses femininity deserves to be made fun of further dehumanizes transwomen who people perceive to be men dressed as women (which they are not: transwomen are women, regardless of how they are perceived). When a transwoman is seen as a man dressed as woman, and society has deemed femininity on a man to be bad, then that transwoman is significantly more likely to be harassed or attacked.
Don’t blame TP for your discomfort. TP’s experience is real and valid, even if you are completely unable to imagine it, even if their gender identity and expression make you uncomfortable. If TP has asked you to use a new name and pronouns, it is most likely because they have to in order to live a full life. They are not imposing some kind of obscure, optional weirdness on you. They are trying to live life with dignity and hope. If it is outside the realm of your current understanding, try reading more about trans* experiences – see suggested starting points at the bottom of this post.
The Good Friend:
Advocate for TP: When you observe people saying or doing things that are harmful as described in the above sections, call them out. Read about trans* experiences, post articles on your own social media pages, speak out about how messed up the world is for trans* people. Challenge your own and others’ preconceived notions of gender.
Model correct pronoun usage: If you are hanging out with TP among a bunch of people who may not be perceiving TP as their correct gender, create opportunities to refer to TP with their preferred pronouns until folks catch on. Correct people when they get it wrong, so TP doesn’t have to – do so quickly and without drawing much attention to it, if possible.
Check in with TP if they’re going through any transition: Ask how things are going, generally. Allow TP space to talk about transition-related stuff if they want.
Be excited for TP! If TP has recently come out, help TP celebrate their revelation and/or their liberation! If TP is making other changes in their life, either medically or legally, celebrate with TP when as they take these steps! Any kind of transition, whether it’s social, physical, or legal, or all of the above, is exhausting, but can also be really exciting. Recognize that TP is doing something really awesome for themselves, and requires a great deal of courage!
Suggested reading for gaining a better understanding of the trans* experience, as expressed by trans* people. (Feel free to suggest more if you know of any!)