By: Skylar G.
Bob Dylan once said that “the times, they are a-changing” and he couldn’t have been any more correct in this day and age — nationwide approval of gay marriage skyrocketing, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA have both been repealed, and a more nuanced view of LGBT characters are increasingly finding visibility in the media. However, oftent peoples’ understanding and support of the LGBT community falls just short of the “T”.
Things are changing, but they aren’t changing fast enough. The transgender community is ignored by large organizations that claim to help the LGBT community and still face inequality at nearly every turn. There are small steps cisgender people can and should take to be an ally and facilitate change amongst members of the dominant paradigm when it comes to gender identity.
1. Realize that you have cisgender privilege
The first part of being a trans ally is accepting that you have cisgender privilege.Everyday Feminism has a great list of 30 examples of cisgender privilege which is a fantastic place to start. From this list alone, it is obvious that trans folks have to deal with obstacles that cisgender people cannot even begin to grasp because they are so taken for granted, like using gendered restrooms.
Having privilege is not morally good or bad, it just is. With privilege, however, comes a great weight and acknowledging it is the first step. Having cisgender privilege means that what you have to say is acknoweldged as more valid and important than transgender folks, even if you are saying the exact same things they have been say. Being in a place of privilege means that you say has more weight and that you can lead by example.
This is a huge aspect of being an ally in any space, and the number one rule is that if you are NOT directly a part of that community, do not speak. It is not your place to speak, but instead it is your place to listen to what people in these communities are feeling and experiencing and realizing how you, as a part of the dominant culture, can accommodate those needs.
Do not argue with the people in these circles, because as a cisgender person, you will never experience that one specific part of oppression and struggle that transgender people experience on a day-today basis. If you say something that a transgender person takes offense to, do not get offended and defensive, but instead listen so you can remedy it and take it as a learning experience.
Respect is a large part of being an ally to transgender people, and a large part of that is never making assumptions. Never assume a person’s gender or gender pronouns. It’s always best to use gender neutral terms like “they” and them” and ask what that person’s preferred gender pronoun is (and yes, before the naysayers say it is not possible, the singular “they” is grammatically correct.). While it may seem clunky and awkward to do so, it’s a great method of being more inclusive to everyone.
Furthermore, it is NEVER okay to ask a transgender person what the state of their genitals is. It is not your business if the person you are speaking to has a penis, a vagina, or something completely different, and is not okay to ask a person how they have sex with their partner(s).
It is also none of your business what their name was “before they transitioned”, and is considered offensive to tell a transgender person that they “pass” as a cisgender person. It may seem like a compliment, but it’s really not.
Respect a trans person’s confidentiality! If a trans person has disclosed to you that they are transgender, don’t mention it to other people, whether or not you’re around them because they might not be “out” to other people. With the disproportionate amount of violence and discrimination that transgender people face for merely existing, it’s incredibly important to listen if, how and when they want their gender identity disclosed.
Language is a big part of being a good ally to any movement. Keep up to date on best language practices and allow yourself to be open to being corrected by people who are a part of that community.
Avoid gender essentialism (eg equating vaginas with women, penises with men). One of the most important steps to being a trans ally is unpacking all of the things we have been taught about gender growing up. Not all men have penises, not all women have vaginas, and some people have either but don’t identify as a man or a woman. By equating genitals with gender identity, transgender folks are being excluded and invalidated.
Furthermore, there are a few words that are commonly uses that you should banish from our vocabulary:
“Transgendered/transgenders/a transgender”: You can’t “transgender” someone, so that word is really not used, nor is it appropriate. A group of transgender people are not “transgenders” and a singular trans person is not “a transgender”.
“Transvestite/transsexual”: Unless a transgender person calls themself a transvestite and gives you permission to do so, please do not say that word. Real life is not The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“Sex Change”: IF a transgender person decides to get surgery, it is not a “sex change”. Listen to what they’re calling whatever surgery they’re getting, and refer to it as such.
“Tr*nny”:That word is a slur. It does not matter that RuPaul loves to use it. Do not say it. Ever.
If you are in a space and hear somebody say something transphobic, it is your duty as an ally to speak up and say something to the best of your ability. Cis privilege is the ability to walk away without saying anything, and as allies, we have to be in that role even when trans people aren’t around to watch and hear what you’re saying. However, never speak over a transgender person if they are challenging that instance of transphobia. Your position then is to back them up, not dominate the conversation.
There are other less confrontational ways of nipping potential transphobia in the bud rather than waiting for people to say something. A great idea is to ask people’s preferred gender pronouns if you are leading a space, like a feminist club or some other group that advocates for intersectional social justice.
For Further reading on being a better ally for trans folks: