Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How to be a Trans Ally

A friend of mine on Facebook asked: How can I be a good trans ally?

The answer to this one isn't nearly as complex as people really make it out to be, it comes from two key components: Respect for trans persons, both the ones you personally know, as well as ones you've not met, and an open-minded desire to learn with the understanding that no, you probably don't know everything about being trans, and that many assumption you've probably already made are wrong.

The first part seems like it would be common sense, but it often isn't. You need to respect the person and their identity. Don't use their old pronouns or name. This one is basic, if they ask to be referred to as 'Crissy', call them Chrissy. These practices should extend beyond just interacting with the person directly; it says a lot about how little you respect their decision if, as soon as they're out of earshot, you start calling them by their old name. If you talk with a mutual friend, and Chrissy comes up, she should be Chrissy, not Christopher, She, not He. Even if she's not there, it's still a matter of respecting her. In fact, a show of good faith as well as a personal reminder, switch to their new name in your phone. It shows that you respect their change, even when nobody else would see it.

Don't disrespect OTHER trans people, besides the ones you know personally. This should be fairly intuitive, if you want to be considered a trans ally, you have to be an ally to all trans people. If you aren't, your broadcasting some really negative things about yourself. For one, "It's only okay that you're trans because you're you" in other words, you're acting self important, and accepting them/treating them nice as a favor to them. It's not a favor, it's baseline respect for any trans person, period. Alternatively, in the case of "Well, but, you don't LOOK trans, you, you know, look good! not like those others" you're basically saying it's only okay that they're trans because they pass for cisgender; implying if they didn't look cisgender, you wouldn't support them. Further, there really aren't a whole lot of trans people per area. If you're speaking of someone else locally, there's a fairly good chance we know the person you're talking about, and don't appreciate you looking down on them. So, respect all trans people, easy.

Don't intentionally out them as trans. This is important for a few reasons. For one, the fact that they're trans is not a particularly relevant detail for most social interaction. Drawing attention to it does nothing but cause hassle for someone who's trans. People get curious, uninformed people may give her or him a hard time (OH, so you're REALLY a DUDE? Sorry guy, I didn't know!), she may have people become dismissive of her experiences or gender. Even in the best case, if the present party is accepting of trans people, there's STILL issues present because most cisgender people are still very ignorant and misinformed about trans people. This is clear even in LGBT communities.  If the trans person volunteers their status, that's another matter, but revealing that part of themselves is a deeply personal choice that should be left to them. 

In an argument, NEVER use their trans status against them. For one, it's going to make you look like a petty bigot. If you get into a big fight with your trans friend, don't resort to using their old name/pronouns as 'punishment'. It speaks more about you than it does about them: That your acceptance of their trans status comes on a string. That you're subtly reminding them who's in charge here, flexing your cisgender privilege and waving it in our face. You're expressing that you have power to define their gender. Basically, it makes you look like a cissexist, bigoted ass. And it doesn't even accomplish winning an argument, because insulting them is an Ad Hominem logical fallacy. So, just don't do it.

Now, on the topic of mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. I've even personally made mistakes. The key is to try your hardest to NOT make those mistakes, and to correct yourself immediately when you do. Though it's especially important when you're out and about with them in public. Trans people often face discrimination, violence, hatred, and other unpleasantness from the uninformed general public. They rely on their friends and allies to help validate their identity to others. People who look at your trans friend may not immediately be able to discern one gender or the other (many of us look androgynous), hearing your use of proper pronouns, name, etc is a social cue that helps other people to refer to your friend as they wish to be.

Then there's the darker truth to this. If a person's trans status is revealed in the wrong situation, or to the wrong person, your trans friend may face insults, derision, mistreatment, discrimination, abuse, or in extreme cases, violence, or even death. By using their preferred pronouns and name, you're shielding them from the view of these hurtful people.

Now onto open-mindedness. You may, yourself think you're open minded, you're accepting of trans, etc. But then someone tells you what you said was offensive, and you're taken aback. That wasn't your intent at all! You don't see what's wrong with calling them your "Tranny friend", you meant it in a good way, after all!

The key here is: You are not trans. You do not have the experiences of gender dysphoria, hormonal changes in your body from a medically induced second puberty. You've never been discriminated against because you're perceived as the opposite gender. You've never had to contemplate suicide over your gender, as some odd 41% of trans identified people have. You've never been slurred because of your gender presentation. You've never been expected to foot the bill for medically necessary treatments because your insurance company considers them 'cosmetic'. You're able to take your gender for granted, we cannot.

Because you are not trans, you cannot tell them what is or isn't offensive. If you offended them, take it as a learning opportunity. Turn your mistake into better understanding of your friend. Even if you think you're the most supportive ally on the planet, odds are you're still deeply ignorant to aspects of trans life. Have you ever had to worry whether or not you'd have access to a restroom before? We do. You, in all likelihood, are not as educated on trans issues as your trans friend is. You should differ to them, and trust what they say, because they will likely know better than you. Put your ego and arrogance aside, realize you don't know as much as you think, and you'll find you might learn something.

All of this comes with a caveat: we are not all alike. Not all trans folk are offended by the same things. Not all trans people are bothered by the same words. I could go on, but the gist of it is, we're all different. The only way you can know for sure what to do in a given circumstance is to ask them yourself.

For example: I'm out. Everyone directly relevant to me knows I'm trans, I live fulltime. However, I've not yet explained my circumstances to my neighbors. It's just simply never came up, and I've never gone out of my way to tell them, because our interactions are infrequent, and frankly, they don't NEED to know.  This is just one minor example, but it does highlight that you should ask your trans friend if you're unsure.

So there you have it. My short list on how to be an ally.

Quote of the day: "Mistakes are another opportunity to refine" Bad Religion, Prove it


P.S. I really appreciate when people leave me questions in the comments. I use them as prompts for my posts here, and so far there's been almost no participation. So if you can think of a question you want me to address, post it in the comments section and I'll try to get to it soon as I can. It helps me, and you get your question addressed. It's a win - win!


  1. Thank you for this post, Lyn. I can use this (with your permission, of course) for the ally meeting my college organization meeting has planned for the upcoming fall semester. It's very helpful, and also somewhat relieving for me personally, since reading your post and seeing the things that you suggest are all things that I try to do.

    And, I mean, I recognize that being a trans* ally (or an ally in general) is supposed to be for the protection and betterment of the people you claim to ally with, but it's just a relief to know that at the very least I'm not hurting the people I need to support.

  2. Sometimes, because i am afraid I might lack proper trans-etiquette, I stay quiet when I really want to reach out to trans people and show them I am their ally, so thank you for writing this.

    Ying (who cannot remember her gmail password)

  3. Recently, I heard a lesbian woman comment about a trans woman (who happens to be a lesbian). She said the transwoman was not "really" a lesbian like she was. It was upsetting to me. No one can define another person's identity, right? It seemed so petty, too. What skin is it off her nose anyway? What are your thoughts on people not accepting a trans person's sexual orientation as being valid?


  4. Good post, as always, I dunno if it's acceptable for me to ask more than one question, but I might as well.

    When I talk to even my most accepting cis-friends, the concept most of still can't get to grips with is the idea of outing oneself during a relationship. Most of my friends are of the opinion that the outing should occur before the relationship has even begun, and that it's basic decency to out oneself. I maintain that if your trans* partner tells you they are trans*, that is a sign that they trust and respect you with something that is often a deep secret for many people.

    I believe this idea that outing must occur instantly and its non-occurance is some kind of "deception" on the part of the trans* person is really rooted in deeply-ingrained homophobia and transphobia. The homophobia is this idea where people don't want to even consider sleeping with anyone even remotely connected to their own sex, and the transphobia based in refusing to acknowledge people's gender identity. What do you think?

    (Yeah, I type pretty verbose, I'm pretty sure I coulda cut that question down to a few sentences, sorry.)

  5. Normally, I'd address your question, Orangeban, but this particular issue has been covered by someone else already:

    It has all the exact answers you're looking for, and anything I could give you would be a rehash of that's posted here. I hope you find the answers you want there, because it answered mine. (Spoiler alert: Demanding you out yourself before relationship one is Cis privilege)

  6. I think we in the trans rights movement, on the topic of cisgender allies, can take a page from the feminist movement and their guidelines for cismale allies. All groups, especially marginalized groups, have a right to self-determination. Therefore, it should never be the case that cisgender allies dominate the discussion in a forum on transgender issues. It is okay to make suggestions, but never deign to believe that you know what's best for us. It is our future, we are the ones who decide it.

    Also, pretty much everything in this blog entry holds true:

  7. I recently heard on the radio about an experience that a mom went through with her intrigued me and made me remember that there are people out there who are far more confused about life than I.

    Would it be offensive or otherwise in poor taste to actively search for someone to date or otherwise befriend that is transgender?

    1. Dating-wise it depends on your motives. I won't go in depth, but there is a part of the population that fetishizes us.

  8. May you clarify?
    you said that that cisgender people are able to take your gender our granted. can you elaborate?
    I'm a cisgender girl and as long as i remember people have been telling me "that's not lady like or act like a lady" whenever I played in dirt or just did something consider "boyish" that was when I was younger even now I feel like I have to reach a standard that society sets.

    But I digress, my main point is that I understand as a cisgender woman i that will never have the challenges that a transgender one will have to face. but I am constantly reminded that I am a woman and have to live up to the standards.
    I think i misinterpreted what you said.
    P.s. if you find this hateful in any way shape i am sorry that was not my intention but if something is then ill try to explain my words better or just accepts that it was wrong and not do it again
    2. sorry for my sentence structure/grammar i realize it is atrocious :)