Support groups, I think, are almost as synonymous to the trans experience as hormones and name changes can be. Almost every reasonably sized city has some kind of LGBT focused support group in town. You may be a member of one yourself.
But if you live in a small town without a large thriving LGBT community or don’t feel like your city’s selection of available support groups really fits your needs, you may be considering starting your own support group. How can you start one while staying sane? Consider this your all-inclusive survival guide.
Decide Who It’s For
The purpose behind a support group is to provide a safe, supportive space for likeminded people, whether it’s because of a common interest or because of a shared background. As a transgender person (or whatever group you happen to belong to), you already have a built-in audience.
The key to starting a support group is making sure that you don’t spread the group too thin. Generally, you don’t want your group’s focus to be too broad.
So your group’s open to transgender people? Great. But your group’s also open to friends and family members, community allies, cross-dressers, ferret owners, and whoever wants to show up and hang around for a couple hours? Slow down there, friend.
You’re going to have a lot more luck with your group if you start with more of a narrow focus. A big, giant, inclusive group sounds awesome on paper but unless you have a giant organization or a group of people to help you run the thing, you’re not going to have the time or energy to manage a large, barely connected group of people.
Try to focus on one very specific niche. The more specific, the better. Maybe run a support group composed of other trans women or men. Or, if you’re the mother of a transgender person, maybe focus your support group on the friends and family members of transgender people. Ferret owner? Great, start your ferret owner’s group and have at it. Just don’t get too cocky. Keep it narrow. Someone else can always start another support group to pick up the people who are not part of your target demographic.
Deciding the age range that’s welcome into the group is important too. Not all groups can or should be child-friendly. Sometimes you’ll need to reinforce that some spaces are all-ages friendly and others aren’t. Decide what works best for you before you have to worry about whether or not you have to worry about what kinds of topics you can discuss openly at your next meeting.
Don’t Do It On Your Own
The key point that I hope you understand is that running a support group shouldn’t be a solo effort. While being the sole moderator/dictator behind your own support group sounds awesome on paper (who wouldn’t want to tell all of their friends/coworkers/family that they own their own group?), it doesn’t work out too well in reality.
Unless you’re Wonder Woman/Superman, running a group should be a team effort. And hey. Even Wonder Woman and Superman had the Justice League. Have a co-mod who can help you host meetings once in a while. Consider having someone who can help you advertise your group or even manage issues like finding a venue for your group. Ideally, you want at least a couple people who can act as co-leaders. After all, try as you might, you won’t be able to host every single support group meeting on your own. You have a life. You need to be free to go on vacations, visit the doctor, have family over, or even just take a sick day off without having to worry about what’s going to happen to your group.
Going into group moderation on your own without having any help is an easy way to feel burnt out in a flash. You’ll appreciate your group much more if you don’t feel running it is all on you.
Lay Out Ground Rules
I’m going to be upfront with you for a second. I’m not a confrontational guy. The idea of having to lay down ground rules or call people out goes against almost every fiber of my being. I’m the kind of guy who just wants everyone to get along.
But people don’t work like that. People don’t always get along without a hitch. So it’s important for you, even if you’re someone like me and it’s hard, to lay down some ground rules and have some sense of order in your group.
For one, what do you want your policy to be on talking about adult subjects? Is the group a more casual space or do you want to have guided topics and for everyone to take turns speaking? What kind of behavior is or isn’t allowed? While you’re not trying to babysit your group members, you want to make sure you’re running the kind of support group that works for you and the kind of support you want to offer.
Decide Where and How Often You’re Meeting
Every support group needs a good, consistent venue where you can hold meetings. Whether you secure a couple tables at the local Applebee’s every Friday or commandeer a church basement, you’ll need to make sure that you have a reliable space where your group knows to meet.
If you’re meeting at a public space, call the management of the café, restaurant, or whatever venue you have in mind. You’ll want to make sure that the potential venue is actually cool with being host to a support group every week or how often you want to host meetings.
And specifically, you want to make sure that your potential venue is actually going to be a safe, inclusive space for your members. Unfortunately, not every café or restaurant or church has warm feelings for the LGBT community.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a larger city, you may have a local LGBT or social justice organization around. Contact them and see if they have space to let you run your meeting.
Some venues may require a fee for renting out a space. Make sure you can cover the fee if needed.
You’ll also need to determine how often your group is meeting. Do you want to meet every week? Every other week? Once or twice a month? Decide what’s manageable for you and your co-mod to handle. Don’t overexert yourself. If you’ve never run a support group before (which I’m going to assume is the case), try to stick to the once or twice a month routine until you’re comfortable enough with the group to consider increasing the meetings’ frequency.
What Are You Going to Talk About?
A good support group often has focused discussions. Consider plotting out potential topics you want to talk about. While many support groups may end up allowing discussions to develop naturally, having a focused topic or discussion can help you determine the direction of a potential group and have something to focus on. Be sure to consider input from your members when deciding what to talk about. You can write up a list of potential topics or ask your members what sounds good to them at the start of the meeting.
Deciding the structure of your meetings early on is helpful. In general, you’ll want to start every meeting with introductions, especially if you have new people joining the group. In a transgender focused group, it can often be helpful asking for your members’ preferred name and pronouns. Spend most of the meeting talking about your subject and perhaps allow for your members to ease into a less focused discussion near the end of the meeting.
Dealing with Drama
Alright, let’s not sugar-coat it. Every group is going to have drama. Your group is going to be filled with people from all kinds of backgrounds and who offer almost every imaginable point of view. While no one wants to admit it, not everyone is going to get along.
You may need to ask members to leave if they’re not going to behave themselves or act cordially. Hard as it is, it has to be done. If two members are on the outs, consider talking to each of them quietly and discreetly outside of the confines of the meeting.
While vibrant debates can be healthy for a group, take action if debates descend into name-calling, personal attacks, or so on. It’s never a positive experience when members feel like they’re being bullied or attacked in the confines of what should be a safe, empowering space.
How to Raise Awareness of Your Group
You don’t need to put a billboard up off the highway to raise awareness of your group’s existence. But you certainly want to have some way of letting people know that your group even exists. Otherwise, you’ll be the only person at the meetings. And unless sitting by yourself in a church basement is your idea of a good evening, you need to do some outreach.
Printing out flyers is a decent and inexpensive way of advertising for your group. Be sure the name, the target audience, the meeting place, and the next meeting’s date of your group are printed on each form. Post flyers around town. If you have a queer or social justice oriented community center, consider leaving a few flyers with them.
Use social media too. Consider starting a Facebook page or group. This will give you a place to both talk about your group. You can even add people to your Facebook group, giving them an additional space to talk about the issues that matter the most to them. Set up Facebook events to raise awareness of upcoming meetings and connect with local people.
Word of mouth can work in your favor too. As your group grows and evolves, people may start bringing along friends or community members in need of the unique support your group offers. Be sure to tell people about your group if you feel it would be helpful for them. Having flyers or business cards with your group’s information handy on you can be very helpful.
Starting a support group can be a fun and rewarding experience. So long as you know what you’re getting into, it’s a unique way to both offer a safe community space to like-minded people and connect with others. No matter how large or small your town is, a support group is a welcome addition, especially when you’re offering support to a community that doesn’t have a lot of available resources in the nearby area. Now get out there and start meeting people.
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