How to Be a Better Ally to Trans Folks in Four Steps

By , March 12, 2012 6:08 pm

This piece is cross-posted at In Our Times, an awesome blog collecting various queer Chicago writers and viewpoints. I’ve just started writing with them, and can’t speak highly enough of the work they’re doing.

When I first came out to my parents as transgender, at around fourteen, I had a lot of unspoken questions: What did wanting to be a girl mean, when the whole world thought I was a boy? Could I ever be happy? How would this change our relationships? And, perhaps most important of all, how would transitioning from being a boy to being a girl work? What would that process be like?

I was lucky in some ways. I didn’t wonder whether my parents would kick me out of the house, or stop supporting me, or beat me, or any of the horrible things that happen all-too-often when trans youth come out to the adults in their lives. And when I said those terrifying words, “I think I want to be a girl,” my parents responded with love and compassion. My mom said, “We will love you, no matter what.” My dad said, “We’ll love you, whatever you are. As long as you’re not a Republican.” (The source of my own sense of humor was never a big mystery.) However, they didn’t know how to address my unspoken questions — or even know that those questions existed.

I tell this story a lot, and I do so for two reasons: First, to highlight a way in which my parents were awesome, by responding to my coming out by reiterating their love for me. But also to highlight a way in which they fell short, to highlight their ignorance around what it meant to be trans, to have a trans child. I tell the story of my coming out to focus on the difference between tolerance and acceptance, which my parents absolutely displayed, and support, which they didn’t know how to provide.

Being an ally to trans folks isn’t simply about being accepting and tolerant. It’s not just acknowledging that trans folks exist, even going so far as to say that maybe they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It’s about taking an active stance around issues of trans equality and being explicitly supportive of trans people in your life, as well as those who aren’t in your life. But what does that mean? Lets take a look at some of the basics.

Step Zero: Don’t Deny Someone Else’s Reality

The first thing about being a trans ally — something really before the first thing — is to know when to keep your mouth shut. You know you’ve failed at this if you find yourself saying any of the following:

  • “But aren’t trans people just reinforcing gender stereotypes?”
  • “I didn’t like dolls or dresses when I was growing up, and that doesn’t make me a man!”
  • “Gender reassignment surgery is just like any other plastic or cosmetic surgery.”
  • “But how could you ever want to cut off your penis?”

Go read Derailing for Dummies for other ways to expose yourself as an ignorant, privileged jerk. If it’s not your experience, don’t speak as if you’re the expert.

Step One: Educate Yourself

So, you’ve learned to keep your mouth shut. Awesome! You’ll go far. The next step toward being a strong trans ally (and the first real bit of work) is to transform yourself into an informed trans ally. To do that, you need to educate yourself. This is hard for lots of people: admitting ignorance and working to fix it. It’s especially hard because you — as an ally-in-training — need to remind yourself it is not the responsibility of Generic Trans Individual to educate you. Bumping into someone that you heard is trans at some social event does not give you the right to grill that individual about gender theory or what’s between their legs, in the same way straight people don’t have the right to ask gay or lesbian individuals, “Wait, how does sex work?”

So educate yourself, and don’t wait for others to do it for you. A few resources in that direction: Not Your Mom’s Trans 101 is a great primmer, particularly because it addresses things like gender binaries, self identification, and the obnoxiously persistent myths that “Sex is between your legs and gender is between your ears.” Go read it. Maybe even a few times, until it starts to make sense. You can also check out Trans 101 at T-Vox, or at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions. It means that you should know when and where it is socially appropriate to ask questions. For example, I’m an educator. I love talking about gender, identity, what it means to be trans — all that jazz. However, I’ve chosen to be an educator, and put myself in the role of teacher. If you’re in a situation where it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about what’s between your legs, you probably shouldn’t be asking about anyone else’s business. If you don’t know what something means, Google it. (For example, Wikipedia has a solid article on what cisgender and cissexual mean.)

Step Two: Begin To Speak Up

So, you’ve read through some Trans 101 websites. You’ve got a grasp on gender identity, cissexism, why you shouldn’t use words like “tranny” and “shemale.” Now what?

Begin to flex your ally muscles. This can be incredibly simple: Call out the next transphobic joke you see on TV. (Family Guy and early seasons of How I Met Your Mother are two places where trans women are consistently the butt of jokes.) Mention to your friends how that’s bullshit. Ask your friends or coworkers or whomever to stop using words like “tranny.”

It really is that easy. Being an ally isn’t scary, but it does require some courage. One of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had was I saw a straight, cis, frat-going, sports-playing friend of mine stop a conversation he and another friend were having to say, “Wait, you’re making really problematic assumptions about gender.”

He was being an awesome ally.

Step Three – Go Big or Go Home

Now that you’ve educated yourself and know enough to call out basic transphobia among your friends or peers, it’s time to step up your game. In your own life, this can be things like asking your employer why there isn’t a gender-neutral bathroom at your workplace. (Or complimenting them if there is!) Checking if trans issues are covered in your health insurance plan. When filling out forms, ask why there are two check boxes for gender or whether gender is required for the form at all. (Hint: It usually isn’t.)

If that’s not big enough, start to look at the local, state and national level. Does your community have protections for trans folks? Chicago, Cook County and Illinois all do. Huzzah! But the Federal Government doesn’t.

Likewise, while repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was incredibly important, I still can’t serve in the military because I’m trans; it’s an immediate medical discharge. Organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law ProjectNational Center for Trans Equality, NYC’s Audre Lorde Project and Chicago’s Gender Just are all places to look for information about specific policy issues, as well as donation and volunteer opportunities.

Step Four: Evangelize

Now that you’re an awesome ally to trans folks, enlist your friends to become the same. And don’t let them get away with saying it won’t impact them. If gender expression isn’t included in non-discrimination laws, you might be protected from being fired for being a lesbian but could still be fired for being “too masculine.” If gender expression isn’t included in anti-bullying policies, a student might be protected from being called “faggot” but not from being told he “looks like a girl.” Being a strong trans ally ultimately means being an ally to the entire queer community, as well as all the folks out there who aren’t queer but are read as being a little bit “different.”

So, step up. No time to waste.

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