Working on making trans resources available to students through the LGBT center on campus led me to the realization that good allies were and are and immeasurably beautiful part of my identity development as a trans person. I am fantastically grateful for the allies I have in my life, and I think we (trans people and trans allies) can help each other a lot when it comes to navigating the very charged terrain of trans identities. Taking a cue from my dear alma mater, American University, I’m actively compiling and composing some helpful hints for people who want to be effective trans allies. I welcome feedback.
On Being an Effective Ally:
The truth is, there is no universally acknowledged acceptable language for talking about bodies, genders, and identities that are sensitive subjects for a lot of trans people. There is no learning the “code” that works for all trans people; there are no words that will always be acceptable in every situation. There are only strategies for sensitivity. Sensitivity is a muscle: we can’t develop it with some hard straining and then assume it’ll always be there. We have to use that muscle frequently, maintain it, and push ourselves to make it grow.
**Modified from American University’s “Effective Ally Behaviors”, the Gender Education and Advocacy, Inc. flyer “Basic Tips for Service Providers working with transgendered people (2001), the George Mason University Safe Zone Program Training Manual, and the Trans@MIT “Action Tips for Allies of Trans People”**
Don’t assume a gender identity – It is extremely important to refer to a trans person by the pronoun appropriate to their presented gender, mostly easily cued by what the person is wearing. If you aren’t certain which pronouns a person uses, ask them politely.
If You Make a Mistake, Correct Yourself—If you mistake someone’s pronoun, then correct yourself without drawing excess attention to your error or offering an explanation for it. Correcting yourself clearly and confidently demonstrates that the mistake was yours and that it is not the fault of the trans person for “not looking like” their gender identity. It can be awkward and intimidating for a trans person to speak up and correct someone who uses the wrong pronoun, so correct your own mistake. Never assume that they didn’t notice.
Don’t “out” someone – Do not tell others that someone is trans without his or her permission. Also, do not assume that everyone knows. Some trans people pass very well and the only way someone would know would be if they were told. Additionally, before you start correcting pronouns on behalf of a trans friend, ask that friend if they are comfortable with you doing so.
Don’t ask about surgical status – Never ask a trans person if or when they are having surgery. Not every trans person wants or is going to have surgery. For those who choose to have surgery, many are extremely sensitive about their surgical status and/or their body’s physical state. Accordingly, questions about this should be avoided or, if medically necessary, asked very carefully. Moreover, this information should be considered confidential and should not be shared with others unless it is medically necessary.
Don’t tolerate anti-trans remarks or humor–Work hard to become comfortable voicing your disagreement when transphobia comes up in social situations.
Don’t assume sexual orientation – Do not assume a trans person is straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any other sexual orientation. Like you would for anyone else, respect how people name themselves regardless of behavior or perceived orientation.
Educate yourself – Begin to understand policies, laws and practices and how they affect trans people. Educate yourself on the many trans communities/cultures and come to an understanding of the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation and coming out as “LGB” and coming out as trans. Learn gender-neutral pronouns and use gender-neutral language.
Know your limitations – You are human and not expected to know everything. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Additionally, know a few resources to guide people to for additional information.