How To Be A Trans Ally: Part I of II

By: Lilianna LaVeau-Corey

Becoming an ally of transgender people helps to change the culture, making society a better, safer place for transgender people and for all people (trans or not) who do not conform to conventional gender expectations.

Read along to learn more and become a better ally.

You can’t tell if someone is transgender just by looking.

Transgender people don’t look any certain way or come from any one background. Many transgender people do not appear “visibly trans,” meaning they are not perceived to be transgender by others. It is not possible to look around a room and “see” if there are any transgender people. (It would be like a person looking around the room to “see” if there are any gay people.) You should assume that there may be transgender people at any gathering or in any space.

Don’t make assumptions about a transgender person’s sexual orientation.

Gender identity is different from sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is about who we’re attracted to. Gender identity is about our own personal sense of being a man or a woman, or neither of those binary genders. Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, or any other sexual orientation.

If you don’t know what pronouns to use, listen first.

If you’re unsure which pronoun a person uses, listen first to the pronouns other people use when referring to them. Someone who knows the person well will probably use the correct pronoun. If you must ask which pronoun the person uses, start with your own. For example, “Hi, I’m Alex and I use the pronouns he and him. What about you?” Then use that person’s pronoun and encourage others to do so. If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, apologize quickly and sincerely, correct your mistake, then move on. The bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone.

Don’t ask a transgender person what their “real name” is.

For some transgender people, being associated with their birth name is a tremendous source of anxiety, or it is simply a part of their life they wish to leave behind. Respect the name a transgender person is currently using. If you happen to know the name someone was given at birth but no longer uses, don’t share it without the person’s explicit permission. Similarly, don’t share photos of someone from before their transition, unless you have their permission.

Understand the differences between “coming out” as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and “coming out” as transgender.

“Coming out” to other people as lesbian, gay, or bisexual is typically seen as revealing a truth that allows other people to know your authentic self. The LGB community places great importance and value on the idea of being “out” in order to be happy and whole. When a transgender person has transitioned and is living their life as their authentic self–that is their truth. The world now sees them as who they truly are.

Unfortunately, it can often feel disempowering for a transgender person to disclose to other people that they are transgender. Sometimes when other people learn a person is trans, they no longer see the person as “real.” Some people may choose to publicly discuss their gender history in an effort to raise awareness and make cultural change, but please don’t assume that it’s necessary for a transgender person to disclose that they are transgender in order to feel happy and whole.

Be careful about confidentiality, disclosure, and “outing.”

Some transgender people feel comfortable disclosing their gender history, while others do not. Additionally, a transgender person’s gender history is personal information and it is up to them to share it with others. Do not casually share this information, speculate, or gossip about a person you know or think is transgender. Not only is this an invasion of privacy, it also can have negative consequences in a world that is very intolerant of gender diversity. Transgender people can lose jobs, housing, friends, or even their lives when other people find out about their gender history.

Respect the terminology a transgender person uses to describe their identity.

Transgender people use many different terms to describe their experiences. Respect the term (transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer etc.) a person uses to describe themselves. If a person is not sure which terms best describe their gender, give them the time to figure it out for themselves and don’t tell them which term you think they should use. You wouldn’t like your identity to be defined by others, so please allow others to define themselves.

Be patient with a person who is questioning or exploring their gender identity.

A person who is questioning or exploring their gender identity may take some time to figure out what’s true for them. They may, for example, use a name or pronoun, and then decide at a later time to change the name or pronoun again. Do your best to be respectful and use the name and pronoun requested.

Understand there is no “right” or “wrong” way to transition, and that it is different for every person.

Some transgender people utilize medical care like hormone replacement therapy and surgeries as part of their transition in order to align their bodies with their gender identity. Other transgender people want their authentic gender identity to be recognized without hormones or surgery. And some transgender people cannot access gender affirming healthcare due to a lack of financial resources or access to trained providers. A transgender person’s gender is not dependent on medical procedures or how they look. Accept that if someone tells you they are transgender, they are.

Don’t ask about a transgender person’s genitals, surgical status, or sex life.

It’s inappropriate to ask a cisgender (non-transgender) person about the appearance or status of their genitals. It is equally inappropriate to ask a transgender person those questions. Don’t ask if a transgender person has had “the surgery” or if they are “pre-op” or “post-op.” If a transgender person wants to talk to you about such matters, they will bring it up. Similarly, it’s not appropriate to ask a cisgender person about how they have sex, so the same courtesy should be extended to transgender people.

Stay tuned for Part II of our blog series, How To Be A Trans Ally – out next week!

(Updated March 2021 / Adapted from MIT’s “Action Tips for Allies of Trans People”)

Lilianna LaVeau-Corey (she/her) has been a teacher and an education administrator for over 8 years. She has assisted with families, overseen EDIA training, and developed curriculum. Lilianna will start providing services and classes specializing in LGBTQ & BIPOC clients starting in Summer 2023.

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