Transgender Allies 101
What is a transgender ally?
Anyone who advocates for the cultural, social, economic, and political rights of transgender persons. Allies don’t have to march in parades or lobby legislators; we can work for transgender rights via interpersonal conversations, while posting on Facebook, by signing online petitions, and so on. Allies come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors.
What is privilege?
Every person is a glorious combination of our identities: our sex, race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, class, ability, family status, and so on. However, not all identities are equal. Structurally and interpersonally, we tend to assign more value, and therefore more status, to some identities (e.g., male, cisgender, straight, White). As individuals and as members of groups, we experience these valuations as privilege. This comes with a ton of unearned benefits, such as being listened to, earning more money, not worrying about violence, and not having our true selves questioned.
On the flip side, some identities are devalued. We experience these devaluations as oppression. Oppression comes in myriad forms, ranging from not finding oneself represented in pop culture to being at much higher risk of physical and sexual assault.
For example, I am a White, able-bodied, cisgender woman. I experience racial (White), ability (able-bodied), and gender identity (cisgender) privilege and oppression in my sex (woman).
Who has privilege?
All of us, albeit in different ways. It’s important to note we also experience oppression, although again, because our identity combinations are unique, not in exactly the same way as others.
How does privilege pertain to transgender allies?
Anyone can be an ally to transgender persons. If we are cisgender, regardless of any of our other identities, we experience privilege. Allies rock, but when our advocacy in any way contributes to the oppression of transgender persons, we are abusing our privilege.
Ways to be the Best Trans Allies We Can Be!
From One Ally to Another
1. We shouldn’t equate our own oppressions with those of our transgender friend/s. Whether we are genderqueer, pansexual, asexual, non-White, disabled, or whatever flavor of oppression/s we experience, it is not the same as being a transgender person. It’s no better or worse – it’s just not the same.
2. We shouldn’t assume we can relate to transgender folks because we know other transgender persons. Each person’s experiences vary. Some transgender folks may identify differently than we’re used to, may or may not “pass” (may or may not want to pass!), may or may not want to transition in any way, may use pronouns we’ve never heard of before, and so on.
3. Never out a transgender person. Let them take the lead in identifying themselves in various spaces. Keep in mind that in oppressive places, a transgender identity can be very dangerous.
4. Allies rock! That said, as allies, we shouldn’t presume to know the best way a transgender person should act, feel, behave, or advocate for themselves. Our transgender colleagues, friends, and family members may not want our help, and if they do, it may be in ways we don’t expect. We should never presume to speak for transgender persons. Allies are helpers, not saviors.
5. Try to avoid assumptions about a person’s sex, gender identity, pronoun preference, or sexuality, whether or not we know them to be transgender. Transgender persons differ from one another and may identify and talk about themselves completely differently than we are used to or might expect.
6. As allies, it is imperative that we listen to determine a person’s preferred pronouns and ways of discussing their experiences. If we can’t determine a person’s pronoun choice, there’s no shame in asking. Also, as the University of Wisconsin-Madison says, “Instead of using prefixes like bio-, real-, or genetic- to designate that someone is not trans, use the prefix cis-. Using real, genetic or bio sets up a dichotomy in which trans people are not considered real or biological.”
7. Avoid at all costs asking a transgender person their “real name,” their “actual sex,” or where they’re at in their transition. Speaking of transitions, they may or may not choose to transition using hormones or surgery, or they may transition in ways we don’t expect; honestly, whether/how a transgender person transitions is really none of our business. Just as no one asks you what it feels like to have an innie belly button or a double chin, so should we not presume to ask intimate questions about transgender bodies.
8. It’s lovely to show support, but we should be very aware of backhanded compliments. Some examples include: “You look just like a real woman!”, “You’re so brave!”, “I’d date him even if he is trans!”, “You do womanhood better than me!”.
9. In our daily lives, we have the wonderful opportunity to advocate for more inclusive situations and spaces: gender-neutral bathrooms, avoiding gendered language (I’m a huge fan of using “they” instead of “he/she”), asking about pronoun choice, shutting down transphobic comments and jokes, and countless other examples. Let’s use our privilege for the powers of good!
10. We may mess up from time to time. Let’s be sensitive to our transgender friends but show the same compassion to ourselves and one another. Don’t give up. We can work on ourselves while working for social justice.
11. Educate ourselves! We have the entire Internet at our fingertips and can learn about the issues facing our trans friends as well as their variety of experiences.
Sources: Elle Hill, Ph.D.; Terri Bruce, MA; http://www.villageq.com/10-tips-lgbt-allies/; http://www.bustle.com/articles/76762-11-ways-to-be-a-trans-ally-according-to-transgender-people-themselves; https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/allies/trans-ally-tips/; https://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/8-ways-to-be-a-good-ally-when-a-loved-one-comes-out-as-trans/; https://wp.vcu.edu/swog2015/2016/01/31/blog-2-privilege-pledge-cisgender-privilege/