What the LGBT community needs is allies. Every letter of the acronym does, in common but also in particular ways: we all need allies to stand by us and fight against specific problems of varying shapes and sizes. Especially the less privileged identities and intersections of the community need support and people to participate actively in their cause. Trans people are much less privileged than cis people (the people who are not trans), given that they are more-often-than-not discriminated against in most aspects of their everyday lives, experience higher levels of violence and harassment, as well as higher rates of mental illness and suicide risk, increased by the lack of acceptance and constant mistreatment by a transphobic, prejudiced society.
You may have decided to be an ally of the trans community; and that’s a great start: it means you’ve decided to actively step up in solidarity for a social problem’s solution. That is the first step to allyship.
However, it takes hard work to understand the issues of a community when you haven’t experienced them yourself, and effectively participate in a movement for said community’s liberation.
Here are some points that can help you become a better ally for your trans siblings in the LGBT community. But first remember that ally is a verb, not a noun; it’s not a label that you are granted, but instead it’s a constant act of commitment and personal betterment, of acknowledging mistakes and working your hardest to not repeat them.
We’ve all made mistakes, and they the path through which we grow and learn.
- Remember that your language matters.
Many people will argue that language is just language, that it has no power, but will at the same time use it to re-establish their pre-existing power.
Such an example is white people who will argue that they have every right to use the “n-word”, finding it absurd that they simply can’t use what they see as “just a word”, but at the same time fail to recognize the privilege that allows them to use such an offensive term without even considering the effect it may have on black people.
In a similar way, some people may argue that inclusive language doesn’t matter, that it’s very hard to learn new pronouns and remember them etc. Yet language is one of the most important tools of inclusion.
Trying to make your language gender neutral will help in the inclusion of non-binary people when making a generalization.
If you use the wrong pronouns and misgender a person, you are actually invalidating their existence.
It is very important to use the correct gender when referring to someone – if you don’t know, ask privately and discreetly, or just introduce yourself with your own pronouns to give the cue to the other person to do so.
Try to learn the pronouns of your friend who has just come out as trans. You may make a mistake or two – don’t make a huge deal out of it, unless you’ve done it on purpose. Apologize, correct yourself and move on.
Language is fluid and it evolves. It is also a tool that we use to communicate with each other: it is an adaptable tool created by us, for us.
New pronouns are used by people – so lease don’t use the argument that they don’t exist or that they’re made up.
Language is arbitrary; every word that we use is practically made up. It also shapes our view of the world – it is the way we express ourselves, construct our thoughts and culture. Language is powerful, and it matters.
By minding your language, you’re not denying a person’s entire existence. Misgendering a person in your language, and doing it purposefully, is violence.
- Remember that trans people don’t exist to answer your questions
Trans people are not moving libraries.
LGBT people, women, people of color, intersex people, and other intersections of people who face systematic oppression in general, are often expected by the most privileged groups of society to be constantly available – and unoffended enough – to answer to all kinds of questions.
The argument used most often is that allies need to learn stuff, so people who face some kind of oppression are obliged to answer to all questions and explain themselves in order to educate them.
Something people usually tend to forget is that Google is our friend. You can find out almost everything about terminology, even about the experiences of people who have been willing to share their own, online.
A few days ago I saw a comment of a person underneath a trans boy’s video, asking: “so is a trans boy a girl who wants to be a boy?”
When that person got told that what she said wasn’t okay and that a trans boy is simply a boy who got assigned female at birth, she got upset and told that she can’t see how what she said is not okay, since she was right, and a trans boy was a girl who wanted to be a boy.
That person repeated a hurtful thing in a comment after being told that it was not okay.
She could also have Googled “trans boy”, and it would have been extremely easy to understand what this meant from thousands of explanations – some more first-handed than others – online.
People simply won’t stop asking trans people about their genitals, about the “surgery” and if they’ve had it, and how they had sex, and other questions that reduces trans people’s personhood to their bodies – to bodies that may also make the people questioned feel dysphoric and uncomfortable in first place.
Would you ask a person who introduced herself as a cis girl if she has had an hysterectomy?
Would you ask a cis man about the size of his penis?
It is understandable if you are curious for issues that you haven’t experienced yourself, but there is a thin line between asking questions to learn productively about these issues, and get to know a person better, and asking extremely personal questions that are bound to make a person uncomfortable.
You are not entitled to demand all answers about someone’s personal life, body and choices. No one gave anyone the right to invade in all sensitive issues for one’s life.
- Never out anyone to a third person without their consent
Whether they are present, or absent. Outing someone may be extremely dangerous for someone’s life – it can cause a person to lose their job or be harassed.
Some trans people may feel uncomfortable for a number of ways when they are outed to someone who didn’t know they were trans.
- Do your reading – and listen
Again, Google really is your friend.
There are many trans people out there, sharing their experiences, needs, and problems. In any kind of ally process, we need to constantly educate ourselves, read, listen to people who are directly affected by an issue, and validate what they say instead of trying to prove them that we know better than them – about them.
When you’re told that you’ve made a mistake, but you disagree, give it some time to think why that person would tell you that this was a mistake.
Do some research. See how other people of a community feel about a thing. Give the trans community a stand to phrase its issues, and give these demands credit.
- Don’t assume people’s gender
Sometimes people may not look the way society has taught us a “man”, a “woman”, or even a non-binary person looks like.
Some need to dress or express their gender a certain way in order to be safe, or because they are not out to everyone yet.
Some others just don’t wish to conform to gender norms. It’s better to not immediately jump to conclusions about a person’s gender, based on their appearance.
- Don’t expect trans people to have unlimited tolerance to bullshit
Try to be understanding.
When someone goes through the same shit everyday, shit that can make one’s life extremely difficult, they gradually lose their tolerance and patience to people’s problematic opinions, minor or major offenses, and everyday microagressions.
You may mean no harm, or really mean that something you’ve said is harmless, but when a person tells you that it was hurtful for them, it probably means that they’ve had enough of it already from so many people.
Please, remember that a tired trans person’s reply to something problematic, is not a personal attack against you.
Most LGBT people who’ve had to put up a lot already with society’s bullshit can probably relate to that. Even the most well-tempered people get tired of constantly having to defend and validate their existence after a while.
Which brings us to…
- Trans people are not obliged to prove their gender or existence to you
Nothing is more exhausting and painful of being told you’re a liar when you speak about yourself, your identity, feelings, and experiences.
Trans people are constantly placed in a position where they have to validate and prove that they’re really trans, or that their gender is real.
This is horrible, especially when it comes from within our community.
Cis people – and sometimes even trans people – will insist on the existence of a gender-binary, denying the existence of non-binary people, will invalidate another trans person’s identity based on whether they experience gender dysphoria or not, or on whether they wish to medically transition or not.
This must stop. No one knows a person’s gender better than they do.
Which again brings us to…
- People’s lives are not up for debate
Trans people’s lives are neither something to be proven, nor something that can be discussed detachedly on TV, in the form of “pros and cons” when it comes to the bathroom bills in the US, or as if non-binary people are just “a new theory”.
Speaking like that for our community is alienating.
Don’t use biology as an argument to invalidate trans identities. Biological sex is not something objective or a simple “fact”; it is a socially assigned combination of characteristics much more complex than that, and it is not definitive of a person’s gender identity.
Additionally, remember that science is not written in a completely objective, ideology-free vacuum.
Being a student of philosophy of science, I could go on and on for ages discussing this. It’s one of the topics I find the most interesting!
But just think of that: homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness by the medical and psychiatric community until 1973. Scientific truths change, scientific knowledge and methodology are often strongly affected by the spatio-temporal background and set of beliefs, prejudices and ways of thinking of each society.
- Call out other cis people
Don’t just let it go if someone misgenders a person in their absence. Call out other cis people on the transphobic things they say. Try to explain why it’s not okay to say such things.
- Think outside the gender binary
With a very few exceptions, we have grown up being taught that there are only two genders, and that each gender, for reasons more or less ostensibly connected to a rigid biology, needs to be performed, acted out, expressed and felt in a specifically manufactured way.
This system is still enforced as the prevailing, even though today we know that genders aren’t just two, and that the gender norms people are expected to conform to are socially constructed.
Try to think of gender not as two separate boxes, but in a spectrum, in a solar system where every star is a different, unique and particular way in which someone experiences, expresses, and names their gender.
There are non-binary people, who feel neither as women or men. Some people are genderfluid, some people are agender. These people don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, therefore they fall under the trans umbrella.
Both the trans community and its allies need to include non-binary people in their language, in their advocacy and visibility projects.
Non-binary people are often alienated and reminded that society thinks we don’t exist, or that our identities are made up. This is false and counterproductive, and it most certainly doesn’t do the community any good. We exist, we are here, and we are part of it.
- Remember that no person under the trans umbrella is the same with anyone else
As all groups of people, the trans community is very diverse, and even though mainstream representation and depictions can have a positive impact, visibility is still monolithic.
Not all stories look like Caitlyn Jenner’s.
It’s time to stop representing trans people as white, gender-conforming, conventionally attractive according to Eurocentric standards, rich, able-bodied, and respected by society.
In fact, Caitlyn Jenner is actively participating in a power system that enforces the oppression of most trans people. While it’s very important for her story to be heard, we need to hear more stories.
Also, in the same way that “I have a black friend that said so-and-so is okay”, and “I have a gay friend that said so-and-so is okay”, it’s not okay to say that you have a trans friend who says it’s fine to say or do something other people in the community feel is problematic or makes them feel uncomfortable.
Some of us are okay with some things, some other people are not.
It’s better to make sure where each person’s limits are, and you can always ask what someone is comfortable with, or try to assess it in the way that we take a personal journey in order to understand the way every person with whom we communicate and form a bond works.
All people have different experiences, sometimes having to do with their personalities, some others having to do with the intersecting parts of their identities and the way these participate in power relations within society.
My story as a Greek, white, middle-to-upper-class, non-binary person who figured out more about their identity at 21, is different in so many ways to a trans woman’s in the US who has trouble being employed, or to a black non-binary person’s, feeling that way all along and wishing to medically transition.
Even my personal feelings towards my identity didn’t match any narrative I found online, and this was discouraging at first. This is why we need to raise visibility and work for representation by sharing all stories.
- Don’t be transnormative
Trans people’s job is to be themselves and live their lives. It’s not to validate anyone’s standards, or to conform to society’s pre-existing norms about gender, gendered behavior or appearance.
The idea that trans people should be more respected or validated if they “pass” – which means to looking like cis people (if cis people had a certain look in first place), to look like stereotypical men and women – is part of what we call respectability politics: “I’m okay with you being a lesbian, as long as you don’t adopt children and you don’t flaunt your sexuality in public”.
Does that sound familiar to you?
The existences and identities of LGBT people should be respected just because they’re people, not because of their constant effort to not put anyone out of their comfort zone.
So, even if you have the best intentions and wish to compliment someone, please don’t say something along the terms of “I couldn’t even tell you were trans!” or “You look like a real girl!”, because these are implying that trans girls are not real girls, or that trans people need to somehow “look cis” in order to be considered beautiful.
This is enforcing cis as the default, and it is very harmful.
- Speak up. Make a mess. Spread the word. Make the right choices
In two words: Be political.
Support and participate actively in any way you can in actions opposed to the oppression of trans people. Vote for the party that is more likely to fight for legal gender recognition in your country.
Boycott a company that is known to be transphobic.
Share resources with your friends and family.
Participate in the education of other allies, without taking up the space of trans people when it comes to sharing experience on their issues.
Being an ally is hard work that needs to be done.
You have to be ready to fuck up, it’s normal, it happens!
That’s part of the process, and you know what? It’s alright.
As long as you recognize your mistakes, learn to apologize for them, work your hardest to get rid of the prejudices society has made us internalize; as long as you’re actively and constantly trying your best to stand up for your trans siblings within the LGBT community!