How To Be A Better Trans* Ally

By WWN Intern Rachel Cohen

Once a month, the Wisconsin Women’s Network hosts a “Women on Topic” Brown Bag discussion. These are great opportunities to learn from leaders in our community; if you haven’t been to one, join us next month on Monday, March 3 to hear from Nancy Graham of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom. On February 4th, we were lucky enough to hear from Katherine Charek Briggs, Assistant Director of the LGBT Campus Center of UW-Madison (LGBT CC). Giving a workshop called Trans* 101, they discussed the transgender umbrella,  the use of proper pronouns, the spectrum of gender, and tips for being a good ally. This workshop inspired me to write about being a good ally. I am not transgender; I am cisgender and cannot write first hand about the experiences of trans* people. Instead, I hope to be the best ally to the trans* people I can be, and would like to share some information about how to be a great ally from the UW LGBT Campus Center. All the information I present here is adapted from the LGBT Campus Center’s handout “Action Tips for Allies of Trans People,” which can be found here.  The Wisconsin Women’s Network is made up of a coalition of organizations who work to support women, and we believe that in order to support women we must support all women, including trans women. So let’s take a look at how the cisgendered among us can be allies.

Before going into specifics, I think the first thing to note is that you do not become an ally (for any group, not only trans* people) just by calling yourself one. We must consistently work to cease the oppression that we are a part of, to realize the privilege we hold, and to listen to the voices of those we want to be allies for. We will inevitably mess up at times. It is important that we acknowledge our mistakes, apologize, and fix them. Being an ally is more of a process than a title one can secure.

Identities

  • We cannot assume to know how anyone else identifies. There are certainly stereotypes about how trans* people look, but many do not fit this mold. Do not make assumptions about someone’s gender identity because of their gender expression.
  • Make sure to separate sexual orientation from gender identity. Just like cisgendered individuals, trans* individuals may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, asexual or any other number of sexual orientations. The gender that one identifies with is not a basis for assuming whom they are attracted to.
  • Just because a trans* person has entrusted you with their trans status does not mean that they are ‘out’ to everyone. Gossiping about the trans* status of others can not only be hurtful and invasive but can have serious consequences. Trans* people can lose their friends, housing, or jobs if outed. Gender identity is for everyone to disclose for themselves.
  • If you don’t know what pronouns to use in regard to someone else’s identity, just ask nicely and politely. Concurrently, when someone asks that you use a certain set of pronouns or a new name, use it. It is not our job to decide what other people should be called, we must be respectful of their identities and preferences. People can label or identify themselves and it is not anyone else’s job to tell them who they are.
  • Don’t assume that all trans* people are moving towards surgery or hormone therapy. There are many ways trans* people may choose to express their identity. It may be through surgery or hormones, but it may also be through how they dress, how they wish to be addressed or many other things. Do not assume that trans* people are homogenous.

Inappropriate Questioning

  • A trans* person’s “real name” or gender history is none of an ally’s business. If someone wishes to share that information, that is up to them, and it is not okay for allies to pry. Birth names and gender histories can be “a tremendous source of anxiety, or…simply a part of their life they wish to leave behind.”
  • The state of someone’s genitals is also not okay to ask about. I know I would find it incredibly rude and invasive if someone asked me about my genitals, and that doesn’t change for trans* people. Just because we don’t know and are curious does not give us as allies the right to ask about the state of someone’s genitals or about their surgical status.
  • Do not ask trans* people how they have sex. Just like asking about someone’s genitals, it is not appropriate to ask anyone, cis- or transgendered, about their sex life.

Putting in the Legwork

  • It’s common to use the acronym LGBT these days, but before you do, think about what it means. Are lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans* people being represented and included? Don’t purport to support trans* people if that is not actually the case. All cisgendered people, even queer people, must challenge our own ideas about gender and transgender people. No one is exempt. We cannot be true allies without reexamining ourselves and how we support trans* people.
  • As allies we will never be able to completely understand experiences that we have not had. If there is something you don’t know, do some research and find out. In order to be a good ally to trans* friends and family we have to keep learning.
  • Perhaps the best way to be an ally is to listen! Trans* people know far better than cisgendered folks about what kind of support they want or need. If a trans* person tells you you’re doing something wrong as an ally, or let’s you know you’ve messed up, listen and correct yourself.

For more information about how you can be a great trans* ally, check out the UW Madison LGBT Campus Center, Transwhat?’s guide to allyship, or Tranifesto’s ‘Five Attributes of Trans Allies’. Last but certainly not least, if any of our trans* readers have found something that they think should be changed or added, please let me know!

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