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Oh, ally…you’re such a complicated, touchy concept. As progressive causes (particularly LGBTQ causes) have gained traction amongst Gen-Xers and Millenials over the last two decades, the concept of being an ally has grown into an identity all its own. For the most part, that’s a good thing. Allies have helped push queer issues into the mainstream discourse, and it’s likely our progress would have been much slower without them.
Now, as transgender issues start to finally make their way into the popular consciousness, cisgender queer people and straight people of liberal stripes are beginning to take up the mantle of the transgender ally. However, advocating on behalf of the transgender community is still far more socially taboo than being a queer advocate. Much of the world still considers trans people to be mentally ill degenerates whose identities are nothing more than myth, so discussing trans issues at all is still substantially marked and carries the potential for huge social penalties. Just being associated with trans people carries a serious stigma, so for many people, their so-called allyhood doesn’t extend much beyond claiming to be an ally and trying not to be shitty to the trans people in their life. I think it’s time we really start to expect more from people who label themselves allies.
While I’m strongly in favor not being shitty to trans people, not being a jerk does not an ally make. You can’t half-ass your way to allyhood. I don’t have the option to only be trans when it’s convenient and safe, so if you’re really interested in progress for our community, you have to jump in with both feet. Trans people are also not off the hook here. All too often we also fail to be advocates for ourselves, and even worse, fail at being good allies to other members of our community, particularly those who are not part of our particular niche or are subject to additional axes of oppression that we’re not.
So, I’ve talked a bit about what being an ally isn’t, so now, you might be wondering, what exactly does go into being a strong ally and advocate for the transgender community. Well, I’ve identified ten things that I think provide a solid framework for calling oneself an ally. While the first eight of these ideas are strongly aimed at cisgender allies, the last two are lessons critical for cis and trans people alike.
1. Know when to listen.
I happen to think this is among the most important things that good allies do, and bad allies utterly fail at. If you’re purporting to be an ally, you should listen when trans people talk. And you certainly shouldn’t speak over them, ever. I’m always simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by feminists who will rage on about mansplaining, but have absolutely no problem lecturing trans people about what the real problems for trans people. Remember, trans people live these experiences every day. When you’re discussing issues specific to the trans community, you should be asking yourself “Is there a trans voice that can address this situation that I can signal boost?” Being an ally means listening to what we have to say, and prioritizing our voices over your own.
2. Know when to speak.
Almost as important as knowing when to close your mouth is knowing when to open it. If you see transphobia or transmisogyny, call it out. Don’t assume just because a trans person is in the room that it’s their responsibility to correct transphobic or transmisogynistic behavior. In fact, it can have a lot greater impact when the correction comes from a cis person, since this demonstrates that the behavior is viewed as unacceptable by the larger community. Point out when people make biological essentialist comments, when they use trans slurs, and when trans people are made the butt of jokes. (Seriously, do not let one more “HAHA BUT SHE HAD A PENIS!” joke go unaddressed.) Remember, subtle forms of transmisogyny and transphobia should be addressed just as often as more offensive and overt forms. Furthermore, don’t let the gangs of internet jerks verbally assault trans activists without being called out for their bullshit. Often times, trans folks feel pretty alone when the denizens of 4chan and Gender Identity Watch are hammering them with abusive nonsense, and comparatively few allies are willing to speak against those situations. Take the time to let us know that you support us, and that you oppose what’s being done to us, and do so publicly. You might get labeled an “SJW,” but your words go a long way in combatting the implicit acceptability of that kind of abuse in online spheres.
3. Educate yourself.
No one is expecting you to be the Encylopedia Trans-anica, so you don’t need to be up on every single detail and concept in transgender discourse. However, you should at least have a solid grounding in the basic concepts that are important to trans people and their struggles. Don’t understand how non-binary gender identities work? Find out on your own, without demanding that individual people in your life with those identities explain it for you. Don’t understand the concept of transmisogyny? Get reading. Google is your friend! If you’re looking for good introductions to the queer theory groundings of trans discourse, I strongly recommend Whipping Girl and Excluded from Julia Serano, and here’s an introduction to gender by b. binaohan.
4. Apologize when you screw up (and learn from it).
Everyone makes mistakes. You aren’t going to have your ally card automatically revoked for occasionally putting your foot in your mouth. The key is to own your mistake. Don’t make excuses, and definitely don’t get offended and defensive if you get called out or corrected for something you’ve done wrong. Give an honest, sincere apology for your misstep, and commit to improving in the future. Most importantly, do your damnedest not to make the same mistake twice. Real allies see their mistakes as learning and growth opportunities.
5. Keep working when trans people aren’t looking.
Being an ally isn’t about gaining social credit for being liberal or progressive; it’s about pushing for real change to improve the lives of trans people. That means you should still be calling out transphobia, even if there’s no trans people around to notice what you’re doing. Even if you’re sitting at Christmas dinner with your 100% cis, straight family and your Uncle Bob drops the t-slur, you still need to speak up. We need to work to make transphobia and transmisogyny socially unacceptable even when trans people aren’t around to experience it.
Of course, it’s not JUST about calling out transphobia. Real allies are also advocating, even when there aren’t trans people around to see what they’re doing. You need to contact your political leaders when legal issues crop up and donate money or time to transgender causes. You should share content created by trans people on your social media accounts, and take the time to educate others about trans issues when they arise. You should be pressing your employer for trans-inclusive healthcare and trans-inclusive non-discrimination policies.
6. Don’t expect cookies.
Trans people are extremely grateful for our allies. You’re absolutely critical in helping us move our causes forward. That being said, don’t expect a constant outpouring of thank-yous for what you’re doing. Don’t get huffy if you don’t get hugs and cookies and rainbow glitter for every single thing you do as an ally. Don’t pout if you don’t get the “props” you deserve for the work you’re doing. And no, you don’t get a special ally flag. Allies don’t do their work because they want gratitude and recognition — they do it because they genuinely care about trans people and want to see the world improve for them. If seeing positive change isn’t enough of a motivator for you, then you’re failing as an ally. Furthermore, claiming to be an ally (and even doing some ally-like things) isn’t a shield from criticism, and it doesn’t absolve you of the fuck-ups you make when interacting with trans people or give you license to act like an asshole. If you do something shitty, you should still expect to get called out. You should not, under any circumstances, accuse trans people of “alienating allies” if they get upset with you over your screw-ups.
7. Make sacrifices to push for change.
Call this one being an “advanced” ally. Refuse to accept jobs or contract work from companies that don’t include gender identity in their diversity statement. When you’re interviewing for a new job, ask the employer if they provide trans-inclusive healthcare. If they don’t, press them on the issue as a matter of company culture that you’re concerned about. Much like the push for same-sex partner benefits a decade ago, changes in trans healthcare and trans acceptance by employers will come much faster when companies begin to see it as a potential positive during recruitment.
8. Don’t appropriate our struggles or exploit our experiences.
Don’t compare the experience of being trans to any other set of life experiences, especially your OWN life experiences. That’s appropriation, and it tends to indicate that you don’t take trans struggles seriously. Being trans isn’t similar to anything other than OTHER gender identity situations. Even more seriously, don’t use knowledge of our experiences or struggles as a means to promote your own projects or career, especially if it comes at our expense. Our stories belong to us, and they don’t exist for your to make a name for yourself as a writer, speaker, etc. This also includes attempting to force your way into trans culture for attention or financial gain. Basically don’t be Kate Pierson of the B-52s.
9. Prioritize intersectionality.
The transgender community is full of very complex privilege dynamics along a number of axes. The experiences of trans women of color are very, very different than those of white trans women. Specifically, the experience of trans women of color — especially Black trans women — is that they’re even more likely to face assault, murder, sexual assault, incarceration, and other forms of violence than white trans people, and that needs to be kept in mind at all times when discussing the oppression the trans community faces. Those differences can be further complicated by relative economic privilege and education. There can be a bit of a gulf between straight and queer trans women. Trans women with very cis-normative appearances often have much different experiences than those who are more obviously trans. While white trans women with cis-normative appearances are often the public “face” of the trans community because of their relatively privileged status, it’s absolutely critical to remember that their experiences are not at ALL representative of the entire trans community and their concerns should not dominate the discourse of trans issues. Trans women of color are at considerably higher risk of joblessness, homelessness, and violence, and good allies should make a strong effort to listen to and work for the betterment of those who are most at risk. I think this point is especially salient for OTHER trans people, particularly white trans people. We often get so completely wrapped up in our pet issues because they’re things that affect us directly, and we ignore those who even more vulnerable and in need of advocacy. I think we could be doing a much better job of being allies/being inclusive to members of our own community, especially if we’d like cis people to do the same. This includes prioritizing the voices of trans women of color on the issue of anti-trans violence, and pressing harder for anti-discrimination statutes in public accommodations.
10. Mind the spectrum.
The transgender umbrella covers a whole lot more than just trans women and trans men. The whole range of non-binary gender identities are also important, and often completely overlooked. Good trans allies should be knowledgeable about the spectrum on non-binary identities, and consciously affirming the validity and acceptability of non-binary identities at every opportunity. That includes things like asking what the appropriate pronouns are for someone, and using those pronouns consistently, whether those pronouns are he, she, they, ze, hir, or any other. The larger cisgender world is even more ignorant/unaware of non-binary identities than they are of binary trans identities, which means allies ought to make an extra effort to ensure NB voices are not lost. Non-binary erasure is a constant problem, and good allies are careful to ensure that their work is as inclusive as possible of people of non-binary genders. This is another area where a lot of trans people could also step up their game. There’s a lot of fear/discomfort with NB folks among trans people who identify within the binary, as well as a considerable amount of ignorance about the specific issues and discourse surround NB identities. We need to be educating ourselves about their struggle, and taking care of our own instead of selfishly focusing on our own little niches. We ought to be leveraging our relative social privilege to help our NB siblings.
Being an ally definitely isn’t easy. It takes bravery and a real concern about the welfare of the trans community. It’s a sacrifice, undertaken willingly and without the expectation of getting anything in return. And given the relatively small numbers of the transgender population, we need good allies to boost our voices and help us secure our rights. Just being a good friend to the trans people in your life, generally not being a transphobic, and supporting the rights and acceptance of trans people makes you a pretty awesome person in my book. But, as a community, trans people are so accustomed to being shunned that we’ve been willing to accept even a modicum of kindness and acceptance as a momentous act of allyhood. I think it’s time we move beyond that and expect more from those who would claim to be our allies (and from ourselves.)