Transgender Allyship and Advocacy

by Justine Matlock

CW: discussion of transphobic behavior and action


The transgender community is one of the most underrepresented, misinterpreted, and misunderstood facets of the LGBTQIA community- as such, in our society we/they face unprecedented rates of violence, higher risks of homelessness and drug addiction, and extremely high rates of self-inflicted violence.

J Mase III is a Black/Trans/Queer/Rowdy-as-Hell Poet with a capital [P] based in New York City and creator of the national performance event, Cupid Ain’t @#$%!: An Anti-Valentine’s Day Poetry Movement.

Historically, trans people, specifically trans women of color, founded the queer liberation movement. The current freedoms we as a community possess are thanks to such brave women as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera- two of the countless trans women of color to help in the early progress of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. Yet, the community is often undervalued, tokenized, and even oppressed by other members of the LGBTQIA community.   This double burden of facing higher threats to survival, as posed by systemic and institutional cissexism and transmisogyny, on top of having members of their own community turn their backs on them, highlights the needs for allyship, empathy, and advocacy for the trans community, not just by the trans community.

What is trans?

Trans, or “Transness,” if you will, with or without the *, is an all encompassing umbrella term used to describe, as trans activist Toni D’Orsay put it, “the state of awareness or condition in society of someone who does not conform in a majority of aspects to the way their society or culture sees them as behaving and living in relation to their culture’s social construction of physiological sex, usually due to a variance between their physical sex and one or both of their social sex identity and/or internal sex identity.”

A less complete, and more easily digestible way to describe the complexity of transness is to describe it as an umbrella term for someone whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the typical, socially constructed, ascribed characteristics of the sex that they were assigned at birth.

However, it is important to note that not everyone with a gender expression that departs from the stereotypical characteristics associated with their assigned sex of birth, is trans. Gender Non-Conforming is a term used, typically, to describe one’s gender expression being in opposition to the expected social behaviors for a person of their gender. For example, cisgender men who perform as drag queens can be thought of as gender non-conforming, but not trans.

Diego Sanchez, PFLAG’s Director of Policy, having his copy of Redefining Realness signed by author, speaker and Trans Advocate Janet Mock

A good example that elucidates gender non-conforming vs. trans can be explained thusly: imagine you have two people who were assigned male at birth. One is a transgender woman with a butch gender expression. One is a cisgender man, with a femme/cross-dressing gender expression. Both are gender non-conforming, but only the woman is trans. Let’s take two more people: a masculine expressing agender person, and a masculine expressing transgender man. The former is gender non-conforming, due to the fact that they’re gender-less, and expressing as masculine, but the latter is not gender non-conforming. However, both are trans.

“Gender Non-Conforming,” “Gender Expression,” and “Gender Identity” are vital terms to include in policies that protect LGBTQIA (specifically trans) identified people, as the greater LGBTQIA community celebrates the departure from traditional and restrictive gender roles. Not only will the inclusion of “gender identity” in non-discrimination and hate-protection policies provide trans students with safety, but when policy language is crafted to include “gender expression” and “gender non-conforming students,” even those outside the LGBTQIA spectrum who receive hate based on misdirected cissexism are protected.

Cissexism is a term used to describe a mechanism of oppression and prejudice that prescribes gender and sex are reducible to one another, and are interchangeable; it is the assumption that one’s gender is dictated by their genitalia/biology, rather than their gender identity, and is caused by the socially constructed sexual dichotomy. A reason in part for this is cisnormativity– thinking is that it is deviant or ‘abnormal’ to be trans; that cisgender people are the only ones with acceptable gender identities because that is what seems to be most common, and thus assuming everyone is cis.

Cisgender – or cis – is a term used to describe people whose gender identity and expression mirrors, sympathizes, or otherwise match the typical, socially constructed, ascribed characteristics of their assigned sex at birth.

Parsing it out

In order to get a better picture of who is trans, and how you can better empathize and serve the community, the clear labeling of a few definitions will be necessary.

Trans → an umbrella term describing a community of people whose gender identity differs from the gender that, in a Western context, is associated with their ascribed sex. It is important to note that there are people who identify as outside the Western gender binary, whose ascribed sex matches their culturally relevant, and universally valid, gender identity. Examples of such identities include: Hijra, Fa’afafine, Bakla, Two Spirit, etc.1

Non-Binary → another umbrella term describing trans people who do not identify as male or female. These people can identify as genderless, or multi-gender, or a gender that departs from the conception of a two-part, Westernized model of gender. A few examples of non-binary people include: Agender, Bi-gender, Genderfluid, Genderqueer (which can be used used to describe non-binary identities, as well as existing an identity itself), Intergender (not to be confused with Intersex) etc.

Intersex → “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”2

Gender identity → as currently understood, one’s gender identity is the recognition or state of awareness of one’s own, innate, personal experience with their gender. One’s relation to gender identity can be complicated and nuanced, especially if we’re approaching what gender identity means to a person with a non-Western worldview, so it’s best to leave this definition as open-ended as possible, so that trans people have the freedom to self identify within or out of the gender binary.

Gender expression → the expression of this identity, is gender expression. This is the physical manifestation of one’s gender identity, be it through medical interventions such as hormonal replacement therapy or surgical intervention, or stylistic choices in clothing and appearance. Gender expression can be thought of as supplementary to, but not necessarily indicative of, gender identity.

Brie Harrison is the Facebook Engineer who lead the Facebook Gender Project and stayed for the entirety of Camp Pride 2014

Sex vs. Gender

The sex vs. gender distinction, in the trans community has varied understandings. The community holds a vast array of different views about this interrelating pair of ideas. It is here that you see divides in identity over what it means to be ‘transgender,’ vs ‘transsexual’. These identities and views about what gender means and what sex means are valid, and deserve to be respected; again respect of self identification needs to be emphasized here.

However, when it does come to this, an understanding that serves the entirety of the trans community, can be thought of as follows: sex is the culturally/societally created designation at birth of either male, female, or intersex, based on the presence or absence of certain genitalia and hormones produced in the body. Sex, just like gender, is a construction of society, whereby genitals are prescribed genders.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Gender “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

To flesh that out in a way that encompasses people who do not identify within the gender binary, gender is a system of categories that is used to describe the wide variety of culturally governed gender identities. The attributes associated with these gender identities seem ontological (that is, natural, and necessary, and a part of everyday life) but are actually artificial, and culturally produced; it is this reason that gender roles vary from culture to culture.

Trans Etiquette/Allyship

There are literally a million unthinkable ways that a cisgender person (re: non-trans person) can step on a transgender person’s toes; we’re culturally coded to make assumptions about the relations between sex and gender and our everyday society, and breaking down those tenuous connections can be tough. But if trans advocacy, equality, and respect is your goal, then this work is necessary.

This list can be updated infinitely, and, frankly, chances are you’re going to mess up. The best way to get over the fear of stepping on a trans person’s toes, or the prospective fear of unknowingly being rude, is to simply get over yourself. If/when you mess up, acknowledge what you did wrong, ask what you can do better, and make an effort to change your behavior. As cisgender allies, your gender identity is respected by default, by society. Going into a space where people don’t necessarily share this experience of validation is one in which misunderstandings will occur.

The most important thing to remember is to respect the self identification of trans people. Trans people’s self identification isn’t speculation, it’s not cosmetic. It’s valid. If a person presents themselves as androgynous and identifies as agender, and uses they/them/theirs pronouns, then respect them. They’re not confused, they’re not wrong. They’re non-binary and their gender identity is valid. Do not make assumptions about a person’s gender based on external appearances; let them self identify and them respect that identity, because, as tautological as it seems, this person knows themselves better than you do. Beyond that, here are a few rules on talking to trans people:

1. Don’t conflate genitals/sexualities/gender. A trans person (a person in general) is the ultimate authority of who they are; for example, don’t tell a trans woman, who is dating a cisgender woman that identifies as lesbian, that her girlfriend is straight because the trans woman has a penis. You’re reducing the trans woman to her anatomy (and thereby objectifying and dehumanizing her), and disrespecting her partner all at the same time. That’s a big no-no. Instead let trans people self identify as whatever sexuality and gender they proclaim, regardless of their physiology or visage.

2. Whenever you meet anyone for the first time, ask what pronouns to use. Regardless of whether or not someone looks cisgender or not, or transgender or not, assuming you know something about their gender identity just based on looks is cissexist. By constantly, and in all your circles, asking what pronouns to use, you can slowly normalize the question, which consequently makes it seem less tokenizing when you ask trans people what pronouns they use.

3. Don’t ask us about our genitals/surgical status/birth name/highly private information. It’s highly inappropriate for you to ask any other person about their genitals, so I’d suggest you apply the same heuristic you use for cisgender people and don’t ask trans people about such private information. This includes their birth name; for some trans people, their birth name causes distress, anxiety, and dysphoria.

4. Speak to trans people like you would cis people. For example, don’t give, rude, unsolicited advice. You wouldn’t tell a cis woman that she’d look more “like a woman,” if she wore more make-up, so the same applies to a trans woman. If she comes to you for make up tips, feel free to give her suggestions, but there are countless ways that comments you view as supportive can be harmful, and have the opposite effect

“You look like a real woman!” – Implying a trans woman isn’t a real woman
“Biologically speaking…” / “Born a boy, born a girl.” – We’ve already discussed how genitalia isn’t inherently male or female; we’ve just built our society to believe that. “Biologically speaking…” a person isn’t “born a gender,” they were born a baby, with genitalia, and then they were assigned a gender. Not to mention, that unless you personally preformed a trans person’s karyotype test, you would not know which of the numerous chromosomal pairings they fall under, in order to qualify their biology. Instead use terminology such as ‘designated male/female at birth,’ or ‘assigned male/female at birth’ (DMAB/DFAB, AMAB/AFAB, or DIAB: designated intersex at birth). This lingo is so much more appropriate, and respectful than the ‘born a…’ narrative.
“Becoming Male/Female” – This type of rhetoric is also highly insensitive. Just because a person undergoes medical transition to achieve a more congruous sense of their identity doesn’t mean they weren’t their gender before they came out. A trans woman isn’t born a boy and then becomes a female. She’s born a baby, told she’s a boy, and then has to work through invalidation of her gender identity until she discovers her own truth. Her girlhood looks different from what’s common because she was told she’s a boy- but it’s still just as valid as any other woman’s.
“You’re so brave.” – We appreciate the sentiment but this is pretty tokenizing for a trans person just living day to day to hear.
“You pass so well, are you on hormones?” – Inquiring into the medical status of a trans person is a no-no.
“Transgendered.” – Transgender is an adjective, not a verb. I don’t do trans, I am trans.
“How does ‘your culture’ feel about your transition?” – This is being both tokenizing and racist when asked to a trans person of color. This implies that a persons cultural, ethnic, or racial background is more/less accepting than the white hegemonic culture of the U.S.

5. Stop assuming there are only two genders. There are infinite gender identities and expressions, all of which are equally valid. It is cissexist and extremely rude to raise an eyebrow at someone who identifies as agender, genderqueer, or anywhere under the non-binary umbrella.

6. When (not if) you mess up: stop, apologize, move on, and make a sincere attempt in the future to fix it. Too often, especially when referring to people who they’ve known since before their transition, habitually people will use birth names and wrong pronouns. We get it. The trans thing is a little complex at first to understand. The point is, is to not ignore your failure and to recognize that you messed up without making yourself look like a martyr (because that’s just cloying). If you misgender someone in your head, or when they’re not around, correct yourself, and make a mental note of it. Work on deconstructing any cissexist tendencies you might have: take a few moments of your free time to look up etiquette guides, and transgender 101s. It gets exhausting having to explain and defend your identity every time you meet someone new and enter a new space- when going into an LGBTQIA designated space, and having to clarify your gender identity, it can even be hurtful. As a leader of an LGBTQIA organization is to make your space the most accommodating it can be to the community you serve.

7. Don’t Tokenize Trans People. It is disrespectful and draining to constantly have to serve as the voice and ambassador of your community; if you look around your organization and you see only one trans person, and they have to do all the talking about trans issues, then that should be a sign that you need to step up. Educate yourself as best as you can, so that the trans community doesn’t constantly have to do the work of explaining our identities, safety, and concerns. Allow us the space in your organization to speak up, and give real-life, lived experiences of being trans, but do not pigeon hole us into being “an ambassador.” Instead, build coalitions with trans people in the greater community, even if you’re going to look like a placating, patronizing cis ally. It’s not enough to have a Trans Day of Remembrance event once a year, or just a single trans-audience-oriented meeting. The T of LGBTQIA often goes silent in an uproar of GLB- so uplift it.

Trans advocacy

Mara Keisling is a Transgender Advocate and the founder and Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

We are an extremely at risk community facing nearly insurmountable amounts of violence and poverty, huge blockades to healthcare, housing and jobs and belittling, dehumanizing, and less-than-sympathetic views from the heterosexual, cisgender majority. We need support from the larger community in order to grow and to thrive, and it starts with inclusion and empathy from communities within the LGBQ spectrum. Do your best to understand trans people contextually, and make this advocacy and allyship not just limited to your office hours, and meeting spaces. What you can do is educate yourself and the community and provide resources to the trans people on your campus.

⁃ Host meetings on trans etiquette
⁃ Have more than just one meeting or event that is trans-centric
⁃ Make language in your meetings more trans-inclusive (beyond just “ladies and gentlemen,” “men and women”)
⁃ Have panels on diverse gender identities and experiences
⁃ Have organization members clarify the pronouns they use upon introducing themselves to the larger group
⁃ Make available resources your campus offers to trans people, such as:

⁃ school ID name change forms,
⁃ inclusion of gender identity in non-discrimination and hate-protection policy
⁃ campaign for gender neutral restrooms and housing/make a list and map out the available gender neutral bathrooms on campus
⁃ LGBTQ or Multi-Cultural Resource Centers that can hold staff accountable for their actions

⁃ Utilize resources as provided by the NCTE, and numerous other online publications to educate fellow organization members

Justine Matlock, author of this resource, pictured with Janet Mock

Talk to the trans people on your campus and in your organization to see how you can best serve them; by treating each of us with respect and dignity- as contextual human beings- and making LGBTQIA spaces (spaces originally intended for us) safe and inclusive, you can help to create a culture shift in your own communities that will hopefully carry on after you graduate. These attitudes of mutual respect, kindness, empathy, and a willingness to reach out and learn are important starting points upon which meaningful partnership, allyship, and friendship can be built.

Written by Justine Matlock
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