Often when I speak to new pals about my gender identity, I get asked how they can support me best. How they can be not only a good friend, but a better ally to me and the other trans people in their life. The word "ally" is used a lot today and it can be a challenge to work out exactly what it means, or how you can be one. Part of it is using correct inclusive language, but there are many other steps you can take to be a good trans ally. So if a friend, family member or someone you know comes out to you, here are a few things that you can do to make them comfortable.
Consider the gendered language you use
A great place to start is to consider the language you use on a day-to-day basis. Gendered phrases such as "ladies and gentlemen" or "hey girls", which can isolate trans people, can be swapped for gender neutral phrases such as "hey folks" or "hey everyone". On a similar note, it's far better to say "that person in the blue shirt" as opposed to "that man in the blue shirt" if you don't know their gender identity.
Particularly if you're with a trans friend, using overtly gendered language based on assumptions, even when directed toward other people, isn't the greatest idea. It can take practice to get into the habit of using more gender neutral terms, but it can go a long way at making the trans and non binary people in your life feel safer.
Normalise asking for, and stating your pronouns
This is a great habit to get into, and can signify to trans people (who may not be out) that you could be someone safe to talk to. Whether in a work meeting or a new social situation, introducing your name and pronouns can help people correctly address you and the others in the room. It sets the tone that all trans gender identities, names and pronouns are respected in that space.
Stating your name and pronouns isn't just for trans people. When cis people state theirs, it normalises the practice and can mean trans people in the group feel comfortable to share.
Pronoun or language cueing can sometimes be a safer option
It's always a good idea to ask a trans friend how you can support them best in a certain situation. When a friend of mine was once joining me for a work dinner, she asked me how I'd feel about her correcting my coworkers on language, or if that would be risky. Because conversations around gender with my workplace felt tense at the time, we decided "cueing" would be a safer bet.
Cueing is when you deliberately use words or actions to 'cue' others about someone's gender identity and pronouns. For example, if someone were to say, "Alex has just gone to get her lunch," you could reply, "No worries! We'll see them when they get back". Sometimes this gentle nudge can act as a good reminder and encourage others to correct themselves. Plus, it can also be safer for the trans person as it has a lower risk of an adversarial reaction.
Don't make assumptions about a person's identity
Even if you know several trans people, it's still impossible, just by looking at them, to tell if someone is a transgender person. There's no one way to 'look' or 'be' trans; everyone has their own unique gender expression and gender identity.
Hearing cis people point out if they think they can see another trans person, or speculating about their gender identity can feel pretty gross, and make you wonder if they'd do the same to you.
Be wary of transphobic questions or sharing photos
Even if you're close with a trans person, there are a lot of questions that can be harmful to ask. If someone has changed their name as part of their transition, asking what their 'birth name' is, or using it in a conversation can be incredibly anxiety-inducing. Similarly, always double check before sharing any photos you have of your gender diverse friends prior to them coming out. It can remind them of a part of their life they're leaving behind, or make them feel like their current gender identity isn't seen or respected.
Asking about someone's genitals or if they've had 'surgery' unprompted should be completely off the table. Those questions are invasive and can really unsettle trans folks. If you wouldn't ask a cis friend a question about their body parts without explicit consent, don't ask it to your trans friends. Even questions about what someone's gender assigned at birth is can be invasive and seem like their identity is under a microscope.
Use your privilege to support trans and non binary people
One of the best ways you can be a solid ally to your trans and non binary friends is to understand your privilege as a cisgender person and use it to support them. Most of the time, it's going to be a lot safer for a cis person to challenge when people make remarks or jokes about trans people.
Trans or non binary people can worry that standing up against transphobia can lead to an aggressive situation toward them, so cis people stepping in to support can make a world of difference.
Be careful about confidentiality
It's always a good idea to check with the trans or non binary people in your life who else they've spoken to about their gender. Sharing that someone is transgender to others without their consent can 'out' that person and possibly put them in danger.
Gossiping or casually talking about a person being trans, is not only an invasion of privacy, it can potentially open them up to transphobic reactions.
Consider how you're being a trans ally when trans people aren't around
Something frustrating is knowing that a cis person is using the "right" language, or speaking out against transphobia, but only when there's a trans person in the room. Although it may have good intentions, it comes across as performative allyship – that they're only acting as an ally to transgender people to get points or praise, as opposed to actually understanding the role they can have in supporting trans people every day.
Correcting pronouns, or shutting down transphobic jokes, when there aren't any trans folks in the room, shows you're serious about being an ally to transgender and non-binary communities.
Know how to apologise
One of the most frustrating things 'allies' can do is handle messing up in the wrong way. Everyone makes mistakes, and slipping up on pronouns may happen from time to time. The worst thing you can do if you mess up is to make it into a huge deal; explaining you're normally a great ally or apologising profusely and turning it into a big situation. This can mean the trans person feels obliged to comfort you, which can be anxiety-inducing. The best way to apologise if you mess up (and trust me, we've all done it!) is to quickly correct yourself (or thank someone for correcting you), and move on. If the person brings it up with you later, listen and learn from the experience, but be cautious of centring your experiences over theirs.
Listen and learn about the trans community
A good way to be a solid ally to transgender folks is to do your homework. Transgender and non-binary folks have existed forever – gender diversity is not a new concept. Learn what you can about trans and gender diverse folks throughout history, about trans rights movements and the rich and diverse stories of the community. Learn about the gender binary, particularly considering hearing trans educators talk about how impossible it seems to fit every single person's gender identities and experiences into the boxes of male or female. This can help you better understand the experiences and identities of the trans and gender diverse folks in your life.
This could mean checking out movies, TV shows or documentaries featuring trans folks (particularly Laverne Cox's Disclosure documentary) listening to podcasts or reading books or diversifying who you follow on social media. Also check out GLAAD and ACON's Trans Hub who have a tonne of great resources.
This is a non-exhaustive list of ways you can support the transgender and gender diverse people in your life. As a rule of thumb, the best way to support people in your life is to have an open and honest chat about any specific needs they have. Show up, be a strong ally and make sure they know that they're loved.
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