How to be an Ally to Transgender People
April 21, 2015
A recent Pew Research study showed that only 8% of Americans reported knowing a Transgender Person. We all know this number is low because of two main things. 1. They may not know the person is transgender. 2. Gender is SUPER complex and not completely understood even by the world’s top neuroscientists, let alone the general population. So, most people have a vague idea, but don’t even 100% know what “transgender’ is, let alone if someone they know fits the definition.
But the statistic is telling, never the less. What it tells us, besides that gender isn’t widely understood, is that many people can have a strong discomfort with gender non conformity, because it is unfamiliar to them. And humans tend to be uncomfortable with unfamiliar things.
So becoming an ally to transgender people is simple. Just getting people educated and comfortable! Start by educating yourself, get excited about it (gender is wildly fascinating), and start dialogs, conversations, and get good, accurate, information spreading. (Sharing this blog, or different things that come across your newsfeed where Transgender people or their families are telling their story are great ways to be an ally.)
As a transgender ally and the mom of a beautiful gender creative child, I’ve noticed that natural human curiosity combined with discomfort of the unknown and not quite knowing the “social rules” tend to stand in the way of great understanding, love, and acceptance between people all over the gender spectrum. Or the “gender web” as I prefer to think of it (see the infographics).
The good news is “the social rules” of relating to transgender people are simple and are the EXACT same as they are for anyone else. As an ally you can help educate people about this. The problem is our natural human curiosity leads us to want to ask questions that can be invasive and our desire to follow human social behavior rules can cause us to fail to ask questions that are perfectly acceptable. This can block healthy communication.
So, let’s just dive in and bust down these barriers once and for all!!!
What does “Transgender” Mean Exactly?
Well, that is a great question! Essentially gender has 3 components: Biological Gender, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression.
So, the “Gender Spectrum” is actually 3 Spectrums in one!! (Fascinating to visualize, try it!)
Biological Gender –
The body’s gender. In most cases this is “binary” (meaning it is one of two things: male or female). However, biological gender can be on a continuum too depending on how someone’s chromosomes are built exactly. (Check out Pink Brain Blue Brain for a great run down).
Gender Identity –
This is the gender the person feels like they are. This tends to be a little less “binary”. In other words, many people don’t identify absolutely as a male or female. There are more people in more places on this continuum, though frequently people gravitate to one end or the other.
In some cases, the identity matches the biology and in some cases it doesn’t. Even the world’s top neuroscientists don’t fully understand this yet. But it is emerging and exciting to follow! What we DO know is this spectrum can be fluid, especially during early development, and it isn’t always obvious to someone where exactly they fall on this continuum so it can seem even more fluid.
However, this fluidity does not mean it would work or be healthy to stifle or “steer” someone’s gender development or creativity. Even for well-intended reasons such as sheltering them from bullying or discrimination. (It also won’t affect their sexual orientation.)
In fact, the ramifications of stifling someone’s gender exploration are very serious and include a deep seeded “self-unacceptance” and ensuing depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior up to and including suicide. So it can actually amplify the effects of bullying, exclusion, and other relational violence because the person feels so badly about who they are. It is easier to believe and be affected by mean things people say about you or to you. It also may deteriorate your potentially beautiful and strong relationship.
So, while temping, and driven by love and protective instinct, it’s important not to try to “steer” someone. Just love, accept, and encourage the person to be themselves. Make sure they know you love them because of how they are and are proud of them for being themselves. In our house we say we’re the “Free to be you and me police” (derived as the opposite of the “gender police”). As an ally, consider joining us on the “Free to be!” squad! It feels great!
In the mean-time, you CAN help protect your loved one and others from bullying but supporting an empathetic culture, general kindness, and helping others become allies of the gender non-conforming crowd. And you can help build their resilience (the only real protection from bullying) just by being their unconditional supporter and cheerleader.
Gender Expression – This continuum is the most familiar to people. A large part of gender expression is social constructs. (For example, in some societies long hair is a feminine gender expression but not others. Or, in the 40’s in the US, pink was a “boy” color. Now it is the signature of “girly”) So, it tends to be the least “binary” and the most socially acceptable continuum to bounce about on. In other words, personal styles are frequently not in line with someone’s biological gender (We all know a “tomboy” or two… or twelve. We know forcing them to wear ruffles wouldn’t change anything, and would frustrate them.)
Where I live in MN, people are pretty tolerant of gender expression not matching biology or identity. Occasionally, people are homophobic and associate it with homosexuality. But the majority don’t, or don’t care. People value their freedom to express themselves through style and grant it to others. It really does make things more lively and fun.
This is a little over simplified but here is a fun infographic to get our minds a little more around this fascinating thing called gender. You can plot out where you fall (at the moment). Or use it to be an ally and help build education, understanding, and appreciation for the beautiful web that human gender is.
A "snapshot" of the gender spectrums
How do the Pronouns Work?
The English language assumes gender is “binary” and in fact it isn’t. So if you are a little confused by the pronoun situation, it isn’t your fault!
It is considered the most respectful to use the gender pronoun the person identifies with. (I.e., if the person identifies as a male, use “he/him”)
However, some people, trans or cisgender (cisgender means your biology matches your gender identity and expression) use “they/their” either because they don’t identify absolutely as male or female, or because they want to raise awareness that gender isn’t binary.
Not sure what to say or do? The same social rules you already know apply for the same reasons. Just like it is ok to politely ask how someone wants to be addressed (Do they like Ms. Soandso or their first name?) it is OK to in the same spirit, politely ask someone what their preferred gender pronoun is.
The Whole NAME Thang…
Humans are naturally curious creatures. So, if you are curious what a transperson’s born name was, the good news is it means you are normal. The bad news is, previous names are on a very long list of things it isn’t polite to ask about in our culture because it could cause discomfort to the other person. (Just like you might be curious how much money someone makes. It’s OK to be curious but it isn’t polite to ask.)
A name change is often associated with a painful past the person is healing from. This is true regardless if it due to divorce, abusers associated with the name, a gender transition, or any other reason. So, as caring, polite people it’s best not to ask about it. As an ally you can help people understand this, and feel OK about being curious and not asking.
Surgeries and Private Parts
This is something curious people trying to get their mind around gender wonder about a lot. After all, human’s evolutionary success has depended on us being curious in general and specifically interested in private parts. But our evolution is also dependent on being social creatures. And with that comes social rules and needs including privacy and respect for others. So, in our culture we don’t usually ask people we aren’t intimately acquainted with about their surgeries and/or private parts, no matter how innocent and caring our curiosity is. (A member of the PTA recently apologized for going off grid and explained she had an unexpected surgery. Of course I was curious. But we all know she has a right to her privacy and she can share if she wishes. As much as I just wanted to understand and maybe help, we all know it would not be nice to ask.)
It may help to know this. Gender re-assignment surgeries are expensive and painful. The majority of transpeople do not have them. In some cases they do use hormone therapies to encourage their bodies to match their gender identity a bit more.
To be a great ally and civil rights champion, help people understand that their curiosity is very natural, and we’re THRILLED you want to better understand transgender people. And it may actually be a comfort to know the same social rules we play by everywhere else apply. It is invasive and impolite to ask people about their medical treatments or their “bits” (or both). If you befriend a transgender person they might tell you all about it someday. (And they might be super cool and loyal and fun even if you never get to know the details of their genitals!)