How can I be a good friend/trans ally?
Lots of people want to be respectful to transgender people, but worry about saying the right thing. Being respectful in what you say is really important because of how personal trans issues are. Mistakes do happen and might sometimes cause upset, but as long as you are prepared to accept correction and try not to repeat them, they needn’t be a huge problem. A general theme throughout this guidance is to ask people what is okay for them. Asking and checking what is okay for an individual is a positive and respectful thing to do and should be well-received.
Trans respect: the absolute basics
Friends and colleagues can do some really simple things to make trans people feel at ease and show them respect:
Please check which name and pronoun (e.g. ‘she’ or ‘they’) someone would like you to use, and use it. It is fine to ask this outright; people would much rather tell you this information than be misgendered (treated as a gender they are not). From a trans perspective, being asked about pronouns is a positive thing as it’s a sign that people around you have some understanding of being transgender. In an ideal world, asking for pronouns would be something everyone did for everyone, as naturally as asking for someone’s name – since it is impossible to know for certain without asking. Using the right pronoun is really important, because it shows people that you respect the validity of their experience. Not everyone uses ‘he’ or ‘she’; some people use less well-known options such as they/them/theirs, ze/hir/hirs and many others.
Don’t ask what their ‘real’ or ‘birth’ name is. Use the name they prefer: this is their real name! Giving former names can colour people’s perceptions of trans people. You might be curious about someone’s life pre-transition, but please try to restrain that curiosity. Many trans people consider this to be very private and sensitive information. If you know or have access to this kind of information about a trans person, please don’t share it with anyone else.
Similarly, respect their boundaries. If you want to ask a personal question, check that they’re OK with that. You’d be surprised about the number of people who don’t do this! Personal questions include:
- Questions to do with their sex lives
- Questions to do with their genitalia.
- Intimate questions about their past and present relationships.
- Questions about their hormonal/surgical status
Don’t assume that you know what their sexual orientation is. Gender identity and sexual orientation are independent.
Importantly, do not make transmisogynistic jokes. Please don’t participate in transmisogyny (hatred and prejudice specifically against trans women) by allowing jokes or comments that glorify being disgusted at trans women to be made around you without calling them out, whether or not a trans person is present (this includes jokes about men in dresses). Please listen to trans women and trust them on what is offensive in this way.
If a trans woman is talking about transmisogyny, or any trans person is talking about transphobia, cissexism, or any related issue where trans people are oppressed: please listen, believe them and do not speak over them. Remember it is down to trans people to decide whether something marginalises them and it’s important for cis people to listen to the voices of trans people on issues relevant to them.
For more simple tips, you can look at this: http://lesbianlife.about.com/od/trans/ht/TransAlly.htm
These simple DOs and DON’Ts are the absolute basics of behaving respectfully towards trans people. Ultimately, however, to adopt a truly trans-positive attitude, it is necessary to come to think of your friend, family member or colleague as having the gender they wish to be seen as having. This can often take some time to adjust to. In particular, it requires that you develop an awareness of your own comparatively privileged position as a cis person (see below). Some resources to help you at this time are listed on our ‘Resources’ page.
If someone comes out to you as transgender:
If someone has come out to you as transgender and you want to be helpful and supportive, that’s great! The best way to be helpful is to educate yourself on trans issues (such as by reading this and other guidance) and also ask them how best you can help in their particular situation. Importantly, please do not assume that other people around you know this person is transgender. Be sure to clarify who is aware and which name and pronouns you should use with whom. It might be helpful for you to offer to tell other people for the person, particularly if the person is coming out to a lot of people at once; but do not do this automatically: please ask.
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Being a good trans ally
So you want to be an ally – that’s fantastic! Allies are extremely important and valuable and we need as many of you as possible.
Ally is a term that carries a lot of weight and requires you to go on an educational journey. In order to become an ally, you need to learn as much as possible about trans issues through listening and talking to trans people and reading as widely as you can about the issues that face the trans community.Understanding how cis people are comparatively privileged in our society is vital to helping the trans community: it can help you avoid inadvertent discrimination against trans people, and can enable you to use your advantage in a positive way to aid trans people, for example by calling out transmisogyny, transphobia, or cissexism in situations where trans people are not present, or would be uncomfortable doing so themselves.
In order to help fight against discrimination and transphobia, the most important concept that you will first need to understand is cis privilege. Understanding how cis people are comparatively privileged in our society is vital to helping the trans community: it can help you avoid inadvertent discrimination against trans people, and can enable you to use your advantage in a positive way to aid trans people.
Allyship is not a declaration of whose side you are on, but the sum of your actions. You should not label yourself an ally; instead, you should simply aim to act like one. It is impossible to reach a point where you have totally unlearned the transmisogyny, binarism, and cissexism that you have been taught by our culture and are constantly being retaught. You should instead be constantly trying to unlearn these things and challenge them in yourself, and in others where your voice is appropriate, as an ongoing action.
For example, if you would date women but never a trans woman (or men but never a trans man), or would date men and women but not non-binary people, this is because you have internalised cissexism and transmisogyny. (The solution is not for you to go out and date a trans person to prove this isn’t true – the solution is to start working on combating these things within yourself.)
Allyship is ultimately a balancing act: listening to trans people, and educating and advocating within cisgender circles where appropriate. Remember that being an ally basically boils down to treating others like human beings and caring about their struggles; it might be tough, and will almost certainly be deeply appreciated, but you don’t get cookies for every individual act of allyship.
TransWhat? is a recently compiled website containing information to help people inform themselves and become trans allies. Their ‘Misconception Debunked’ and ‘Allyship: First Steps’ sections are very useful and up-to-date. (content warning for discussions of coercive gender/sex assignment, biological essentialism, transphobia, transmisogyny, misgendering, coming out, dysphoria, homophobia, invalidation, cisnormativity, cissexism, legal & medical gatekeeping, detailed descriptions of medical processes including surgeries, outing without consent, transphobic & transmisogynistic slurs, invasive questions, harassment, discrimination, sensationalisation, violence)
You can find out more about cis privilege in Julia Serano’s excellent transsexual manifesto, Whipping Girl Chapter 8 Dismantling Cissexual Privilege p161-193. Julia Serano’s website can be found at: http://www.juliaserano.com/index.html
Also, this website is really good for debunking common misconceptions about trans people: http://www.transmediawatch.org/misunderstandings.html