For many, discussions of gender identity and transgender experiences bring questions. What language should I use, and what should I avoid? How can I support someone in my own life who is questioning their gender identity? What should I do when I make a mistake?
This month, The Reader hosted guests Ryan Sallans and Megan Smith-Sallans on the inaugural Reader Radio podcast to break down what inclusivity really looks like. Ryan Sallans is a international speaker and author who shares his life experiences as a transgender man, and Megan Smith-Sallans is a practicing psychotherapist in Omaha who works largely with LBGTQ+ patients and families.
When Sallans first came out in 2005, some members of his family were supportive. But there was fear about how the rest of his family and community would react to the transition.
“The best thing you can do is let go of the ‘what ifs’ and just be there and have faith in the other person’s journey and process,” Sallans said. “And when that person needs to reach out, be there for them.”
When working with young patients, Megan Smith-Sallans often sees that parents fear the rejection their child will face in the world. But parents also grapple with insecurities about their own parent-child relationship.
“For parents, there’s a big disconnect when they’re hearing information, maybe that they didn’t know about their child,” Smith-Sallans said. “There’s a grieving in that, like, ‘Oh, what did I miss? Did I not see this?’ And sometimes it can come out as, ‘This isn’t happening because I didn’t know it.’”
The couple also discussed the prevalence of pronouns and labels in the internet age, which can oftentimes be more damaging than helpful for genderqueer people.
“I worry that we get stuck too far up into our heads and defining things and thinking that that means your sense of self, versus actually living life and experiencing things to understand more about who we are,” Sallans said. “Because those words and labels aren’t who we are. Who we are is something much more complex inside.”
So what should you do if you meet someone and you are unsure of their pronouns?
“If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, don’t use pronouns. It’s easy to do,” Sallans said. “If you learn someone’s pronouns, use their pronouns. If you make a mistake, apologize. If someone is harassing someone and refusing to use their name or pronouns, tell them that is not OK, that is harmful to that young person. We need to respect people for who they are today, or how they currently identify so that they have more room to grow.”
Their main advice to create inclusive and safe spaces: Slow down and make room for exploration.
“What inclusivity means for me is creating enough spaciousness that all parts of ourselves get to exist,” Smith-Sallans said. “Now, that also means you get choice around which parts you may or may not want to share with people. But I think that self-awareness is making room for all of those parts of yourself.”
Check out the Reader Radio podcast at thereader.com.