Tips for Allies of Transgender People

Click Here to view "An Ally's Guide to Terminology," part of the Talking About publication series.

The following are tips that can be used as you move toward becoming a better ally of transgender people. Of course, this list is not exhaustive and cannot include all the "right" things to do or say - because often there is no one "right" answer to every situation you might encounter.

When you become an ally of transgender people, your actions will help change the culture, making society a better, safer place for transgender people - and for non-transgender people who violate gender expectations.

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

Transgender people don't all look a certain way or come from the same background, and many may not appear "visibly trans." It's not possible to look around a room and "see" if there are any transgender people. (It would be like a straight 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.

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

Gender identity is different than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is about who we're attracted to. Gender identity is about our own personal sense of being male or female (or someone outside that binary.) Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight.

If you don't know what pronouns to use, ask.

Be polite and respectful when you ask a person which pronoun they prefer. Then use that pronoun and encourage others to do so. If you accidently use the wrong pronoun, apologize quickly and sincerely, then move on. The bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone.

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

"Coming out" to other people as lesbian, gay, or bisexual is typically seen as revealing a "truth" that allows others 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 as their authentic gender - that is their "truth." The world is now seeing them as their true selves. Unfortunately, sometimes when others discover a person is transgender they no longer see the person as a "real" man or woman - and it can feel disempowering for a transgender person to have that experience. Some people (like Janet Mock) may choose to publicly discuss their lives in an effort to raise awareness and make cultural change. But please don't assume that it's necessary for a transgender person to be "out" to everyone in order to feel happy and whole.

Be careful about confidentiality, disclosure, and "outing."

Some transgender people feel comfortable disclosing their transgender status to others, and some do not. Knowing a transgender person's status is personal information and it is up to them to share it. Do not casually share this information, 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 difference - transgender people can lose jobs, housing, friends, or even their lives upon revelation of their transgender status.

Avoid backhanded compliments or "helpful" tips.

While you may intend to be supportive, comments like the following can be hurtful or even insulting:

"I would have never known you were transgender. You look so pretty."

"You look just like a real woman."

"She's so gorgeous, I would have never guessed she was transgender."

"He's so hot, I'd date him even though he's transgender."

"You're so brave."

"You'd pass so much better if you wore less/more make-up, had a better wig, etc."

"Have you considered a voice coach?"

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 find out what identity and/or gender expression is best for them. They might, for example, choose a new 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/or pronoun requested.

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

The transgender community uses many different terms to describe their experiences. Respect the term (transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, cross-dresser, etc) a person uses to describe themselves. If a person is not sure of which identity label fits them best, give them the time and space to figure it out for themselves. 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.

Understand there is no "right" or "wrong" way to transition - and that it is different for every person.

Some transgender people access medical care like hormones and surgery as part of their transition. Some transgender people want their authentic gender identity to be recognized without hormones or surgery. Some transgender people cannot access medical care, hormones, and/or surgery due to lack of financial resources. A transgender identity is not dependent on medical procedures. Just accept that if someone tells you they are transgender - they are.

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 already know someone's prior name don't share it without the person's explicit permission.

Don't ask about a transgender person's genitals or surgical status.

It wouldn't be appropriate to ask a non-transgender person about the appearance or status of their genitalia, so it isn't appropriate to ask a transgender person that question either. Likewise, 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, let them bring it up.

Don't ask a transgender person how they have sex.

Similar to the questions above about genitalia and surgery - it wouldn't be appropriate to ask a non-transgender person about how they have sex, so the same courtesy should be extended to transgender people.

Challenge anti-transgender remarks or jokes in public spaces - including LGB spaces.

You may hear anti-transgender comments from anti-LGBT activists - but you may also hear them from LGB people. Someone may think because they're gay it's ok for them to use certain words or tell jokes about transgender people. It's important to confront the former and educate the latter.

Support gender neutral public restrooms.

Some transgender and gender non-conforming people may not match the little signs on the restroom door. Encourage schools, businesses and agencies to have single user, unisex and/or gender neutral bathroom options. Make it clear in your organization that transgender and gender non-conforming people are welcome to use whichever restroom they feel comfortable using.

Make your organization truly trans-inclusive.

"LGBT" is now a commonplace term that joins lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender under the same acronym. If an organization or group lists "transgender" as part of its name or mission statement, it needs to truly understand the needs of the transgender community and involve transgender people in all aspects of the group's work.

At meetings and events, set a transgender-inclusive tone.

At a meeting where not everyone is known, consider asking people to introduce themselves with their name and preferred pronouns - for example, "Hi, I'm Nick and I prefer he and him." This sends the message that you are not making assumptions about anyone's gender, and that people are free to self-identify. As the leader, start with yourself and use a serious tone that will hopefully discourage others from dismissing the activity with a joke. Also, in a group setting, identify people by articles of clothing instead of being using gendered language - for example, the "person in the blue shirt," instead of the "woman in the front." Similarly, "Sir" and "Madam" are best avoided. If bathrooms in the meeting space are not already gender neutral, ask if it's possible to put gender neutral signs so that transgender people feel more welcome.

Listen to transgender people.

The best way to be an ally is to listen with an open mind to transgender people when they talk about their lives. Talk to transgender people in your community. Check out books, films, YouTube channels, and transgender blogs to find out more about transgender lives.

Know your own limits as an ally.

When speaking with a transgender person who may have sought you out for support or guidance, don't be afraid to admit when you don't know something. Volunteer to work with the person to find appropriate resources. It is better to admit you don't know something than to make assumptions or say something that may be incorrect or hurtful.

(Adapted from MIT's "Action Tips for Allies of Trans People.")

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