Being An Ally For Your Trans Loved Ones
We are in the middle of a gender revolution. Many of us are having our understandings of gender broaden rapidly, and many folks of diverse genders are gaining rights and privileges they deserve but have gone without for so long. While this is not to say that transgender identities are “new” (many cultures have rich histories of gender diversity!), it is to say that many of us are still trying to understand how to interact with a gender world that is more intricate than we were once taught. This is especially important for those of us who have important people in our lives that are not cisgender - whether they are friends, co-workers, partners, or even our children. Even if you don’t currently know that someone in your life is transgender, there’s a good chance you will meet someone who comes out to you at some point. To create a more gender-friendly environment in our communities, it’s important that we all take the time to educate ourselves.
In this post, we’re going to review some helpful tips for both those who feel that they are “new” to understanding gender diversity as well as those who have been working towards allyship for a long time. While there is not one perfect way to be an ally, these tips are great to keep in mind as you are striving towards creating a gender-friendly space.
Definitions to Start
There’s a good chance you may already be scratching your head at some of the words used above. That’s okay! Depending on where you’re at, you may not be familiar with all the vernacular, so here are a couple helpful definitions to start:
Transgender / ”Trans”
A person who identifies as a gender different from what they were assigned at birth. This term can be used both as its own identity (i.e. “transgender man”) or it could be used as an umbrella term that captures other identities.
Non-binary / Nonbinary / ”Enby”
A person who identifies as a gender outside of solely man or woman, or may also identify as a combination of genders. Nonbinary folks may or may not also identify under the transgender umbrella.
A person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Some folks may define these terms differently, which is also okay. Presented here are some of the most common definitions. If you’re ever curious about how an individual identifies, it’s always best to ask them in a safe space as opposed to assuming you understand what any of these words mean to them.
Incorporate Gender Friendly Language into Your Day-to-Day
One of the most effective ways to show you are a gender-safe person is to show it in how you speak. That said, it can be challenging getting a hang of gender-friendly language when it’s not what you’re used to. However, opting out of gender-specific language can be a first step towards making everyone in our lives feel more welcome. Simple changes in our language can show that we acknowledge that gender is not a binary and that people of all genders are around us. Here are some examples of simple changes you can start incorporating into your speech:
Practice, Practice, Practice
Whether it’s incorporating friendly language as discussed or getting accustomed to using someone’s pronouns or name, it’s rare that we get it perfect immediately. This is why practicing is so important. This means that not only is it important to be practicing your ally language and skills as often as you can with others, but also that it can be beneficial to practice when you’re alone. Here are some examples of ways to practice:
Gossiping doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Make time, whether talking with another trusted person or while alone, to discuss a trans loved one in the third person. Use their names and pronouns often while you talk about them as a way to get accustomed to the correct identifiers without your loved one around.
Give yourself a TedTalk
Talk to yourself in the mirror (or present to a pet!) in a way that challenges you to use gender friendly language. Maybe it’s giving a presentation on why you like your favorite movie, but make it a point to practice some of the phrases we discussed above (such as “you all”, “folks”, etc.).
Whether you have a loved one or not that uses pronouns other than “he” or “she”, it’s important to get familiar with how to use nonbinary pronouns. Look up different forms of “neopronouns” (pronouns created specifically to go outside the gender binary) or even just practice using the singular they by writing sentences or short stories about characters with these pronouns. Here’s a sample sentence to start:
“They ordered their favorite tea at the cafe, but it was already cold when the server gave it to them.”
“___ ordered ___ favorite tea at the cafe, but it was already cold when the server gave it to ___.”
Make Mistakes - the Right Way
Sometimes trying to be an ally can be nerve-wracking. We want to be perfect, say all the right words, and above all else, we don’t want to hurt others. However, every person reading this is human. At one point or another, you will make a mistake around your loved one. You might use the wrong name by accident, a wrong pronoun, or even just language that isn’t quite gender-friendly. Our goal as allies is not to be perfect but to be thoughtful about how we respond to our own mistakes.
When it comes to gender allyship, there are right ways to make mistakes. Dr. Lee Airton, a professor at Queen’s University, coined a simple phrase to guide our mistakes: sorry, rephrase, move on. Mistakes become worse when we “lose our cool” and put too much emphasis on the error. As opposed to focusing on your shame and making the mistake about you or about how hard recognizing your loved one’s gender is (which can make the mistake far more harmful than just messing up), simply instead apologize briefly, rephrase to correct your mistake, and move on with the conversation. Here’s an example:
“She told me - oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I keep getting their pronouns wrong. I’m so sorry, it’s so hard to remember.”
“She told me - sorry, they told me where the meeting is already.”
It’s important for us not to draw too much attention to the mistakes and make a “bigger deal” out of the mistakes because it inadvertently tells the trans folks around us how difficult it is to be inclusive - in particular, how difficult it is to include them. It’s understandable to feel embarrassed with an error, and it’s also important to remember that the way we react to our mistakes conveys a lot to those around us.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the people around us are so much more than their gender identity. While it is a part of them that deserves respect, fixating only on their gender will lead you to fixate on what divides you. Every trans person you meet has more in common with you than not. We’re all humans with feelings, hopes, and dreams. If someone in your life has recently begun their transition or recently come out to you, it’s critical to remember that they are the same exact person as before - you have just gotten the privilege to know something more about them. The very best way to be an ally is to show love, support, and empathy for people regardless of their gender.
If you’re interested in learning more about gender allyship or just about gender in general, I recommend this book as a great primer:
Gender: Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture by Lee Airton, PhD