This is What Support Looks Like

If a friend or family member asks you to support them through their transition and/or coming out process they are asking for a whole lot more than the words “I support you and your decision”. When we talk about supporting transgender people we are talking about tangible things that cisgender friends and family members can do to help make life easier for the trans* people they care about.

We know that you love us, and that you care about us, but we also know that you may not know how to do that in a way that is good for us. Supporting your trans* friend or family member is much more than just loving them or telling them you support them. Being supportive of a transgender person in your life is a pro-active thing and it is something that you have to be taught how to do. Most people are not brought up learning how to be respectful and supportive of trans* people, most people are not even brought up knowing what the word “transgender” even means. Not knowing what to do or how to help your friend or family member is perfectly normal and ok, but it is very important that you make an effort to learn. Coming out as transgender can be very painful and isolating for many people because of the reactions of their friends and family. The best way to demonstrate your love and support for the trans* person in your life is to take this very seriously and educate yourself so that you can be there for them in a way that is truly helpful during this potentially difficult time.

Supporting the trans* person in your life means being their ally in this struggle. And it is a struggle. It may be difficult for you to see it that way at first, because as a cisgender person, the ways in which our society is difficult or dangerous for trans* people will probably be invisible to you. They will be things that you don’t ever have to think about, things that you take for granted, like being able to safely and fearlessly use a public restroom. Its tiny things like that, that, in the life of a transgender person can become monumental battles full of fear, stress and anxiety. This is just one example of what we call cisgender privilege. Cisgender privilege is all of the little (and big) ways our society is set up to favor cisgender people, because really, everyone should be able to safely use public restrooms, but throughout most of this country that is not the reality for trans* people. For more examples of the ways that our society is set up to favor cis people over trans* people see The Cisgender Privilege Checklist. The purpose of this list is not to make you feel guilty for the ways in which your life is easier than a transgender person’s , but to help you understand and empathize with the daily unjust struggles of the trans* person in your life.

How To Be An Ally To Transgender People:

Ask people about their preferred pronouns. Do your best to remember to use said pronouns to refer to the person in question, if you slip up just apologize and move on.

Call people by the name they ask you to call them. Do not ask them about their “real name” or their “old name”. If you knew them before they changed their name do not continue to refer to them by that name after you have been informed that they have changed their name.

Do not out someone as transgender to other people without their explicit permission. This is just not your decision to make, and the results can range from mildly uncomfortable and awkward to incredibly dangerous. Outing someone can mean that they lose their job or it can put them at risk for serious violence. Don’t do it.

Don’t demand “ally cookies”. Basically what this means is that you should not expect to be constantly praised and applauded for being an ally or for being one of the “good cis people”. Your motivation for being an ally should not come from the fact that you need to feel appreciated and recognized it should come from a desire to do good and right injustices. Choosing not to participate in the oppression of  trans* people does not make you a superhero, it just makes you a decent human being. You shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for being a good person, you should just be a good person for the sake of being a good person. It should be its own reward.

Don’t make it about you. The point here is that transgender people should be at the center of transgender issues and conversations about them, not cis people. Allies need to be mindful of this. What this means is that you, as a cisgender person, should not dominate conversations on transgender issues. The whole world is a platform for you to speak about your opinions, when it comes to transgender issues you should take a backseat and listen. Let trans* people speak from their own experiences instead of telling them what you think about trans* issues. This also means that you generally should not insert yourself into trans* people’s conversations and offer your opinion without being asked.

Listen. Listen to the transgender people in your life when they talk about their feelings and lived experiences as trans* people. Our culture tells transgender people that they are wrong, that they are freaks and that they are mentally ill, it constantly tells them that their experiences and the way that they perceive the world and themselves is invalid. Be someone who can listen, empathize and validate your friend of family member.

Educate yourself. Do not expect your transgender friend or family member to be your walking encylopedia. Its super exhausting for trans* people to have to be constantly educating other people about ourselves, if you can do some of that legwork yourself we really do appreciate it! Remember, the internet is your oyster. Read stuff, the internet is full of resources. PFLAG is a great place to start, but try to keep in mind the importance of prioritizing the voices of transgender people in your reading. If you can find things that are written about trans* people by trans* people those are the things you want to be reading.

Learn the Lingo. Learn the words that transgender people use to refer to themselves. Learn which ones your friend or family member prefers. Learn which words are generally considered disrespectful and should not be used at all.

Speak out. Call out discrimination and transphobia where you see it, especially if you are with your transgender friend or family  member, they may not feel safe or comfortable speaking up, so it can be wonderfully helpful and supportive when someone with the social leverage to silence bigotry speaks out against it.

Why It Is Important To Be An Ally To Transgender People:

– Because 234 transgender people where murdered in 2013. Most of them were trans women.

– Because in many states it is still perfectly legal to fire or not hire someone because they are transgender.

– Because trans people, especially trans-feminine people, experience astronomically high rates of harassment and violence.

– Because according to “Injustice At Every Turn” the report on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey…

  • Transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty.
  • Transgender people experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.
  • 90% of transgender people report experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job.
  • 22% of respondents who have interacted with police reported harassment by police, with much higher rates reported by people of color.  Almost half of the respondents (46%) reported being uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
  • 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population.

Transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, face shockingly high rates of murder, homelessness, and incarceration. Most states and countries offer no legal protections in housing, employment, health care, and other areas where individuals experience discrimination based on their gender identity or expression. (from: GLAAD’s Transgender 101)

Words To Know:

Transgender: a person who does not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Genderqueer/non-binary: a subcategory of trans* people who do not identify fully (or at all) with either of the two binary genders (male and female). There are many types of non-binary trans* people, many of whom have more specific terms that they use to describe themselves.

Note: “genderqueer” is also used as a stand alone identity, an umbrella term, and is not always viewed as being under the transgender umbrella or interchangeable with “non-binary” by all people who use it to identify themselves. If you meet/know someone who identifies as genderqueer it may be best to politely ask them what the term means to them and how they use it.

Gender binary: the cultural belief that there are only to genders and the enforcement of that  belief (the gender binary does not exist in all cultures for more info google: fa’afafine, kathoey, hijra or muxe).

Gender identity: one’s internal sense of their own gender.

Gender expression: the ways a person outwardly expresses their gender (hair, clothes, mannerisms, etc).

Cisgender: someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth; anyone who is not transgender. (for why this term is important please read: Semantics, Gender and “Cis”)

Ally: an ally is a member of a privileged class of people who acts against the oppression of people who do not share that privilege (ex: a cisgender person who advocates for and supports transgender people in the fight against their oppression).

Dysphoria: aka “gender dysphoria” a feeling something like a mix of distress, discomfort and anxiety because of the difference between one’s gender identity and one’s physical body and/or the way one is perceived and treated by others. What triggers feelings of dysphoria varies from person to person and the level of dysphoria a person experiences can range from mild to severe.

Socialization As A Child: Binary vs Non-Binary

So, I’ve read several posts out there in the netherworld of the internet written by binary trans* people talking about socialization and assigned at birth gender. Specifically, about how cis people will assume that, for example, a trans man who was assigned female at birth knows what its like to be a woman because of how he was socialized as a child.

All of the posts I’ve read refute this as being a cissexist assumption because a trans man was always male, even as a child and even though society may have been directing female socialization at him that doesn’t mean that he was receiving it. Instead he was being socialized as male because he was identifying with and emulating male roles even as a child, he was absorbing male socialization even if it was not directed at him and ignoring female socialization because he knew himself to be male and knew which socialization was appropriate form him no matter what other people said. As a non-binary trans* person, these posts by trans men and women about people making cissexist assumptions about them based on their assigned sex at birth and corresponding socialization were enlightening because the same thing does not hold true for me. I think this is one of the places where the experiences of binary and non-binary trans people diverge.

Growing up, I was socialized as female, and I accepted that socialization. I only had two options and I didn’t identify with male roles or the adult men in my life so, hey, they must’ve been right about me when they told me I was a girl, right? It wasn’t until I got my hands on books and zines about trans* issues and gender identity, specifically stuff with a radical politic, that I had the words to describe things that I’d felt all my life. I think that’s the difference, as a binary trans person, you have access to examples of what your true gender looks like, you have access to socialization that you identify with.

However, as a non-binary trans* child all you have access to are two genders that you don’t identify with, but you are told that these are the only two genders in existence and you must be one or the other. I think this is why it took longer for me to come to a conclusion about my gender and why for me and many of my friends who are also non-binary our genders are still very much a work in progress, we didn’t know that our genders existed, because we were brought up believing in the false dichotomy of male and female. Now, we’re constructing our genders pretty much from scratch, we have few or no examples to look to for how to live out our genders, except, of course, each other.

This is one of the reasons that I feel like access to information about non-binary gender identities is so important, because I feel like I’d have continued to identify as female indefinitely, despite being uncomfortable, if I’d never become part of the radical community in my city and had conversations about gender and trans theory. Even now, I’m not entirely sure which non-binary gender fits me best, I’m still just defining myself by what I’m not. I suppose I feel as though maybe that wouldn’t be the case if I had had access to examples of non-binary identities when I was younger.