One of the most common questions that friendly people ask me as a trans person is about themselves: “How can I help?” “How do I be a good ally?” “Should I do…?”
Sometimes these questions come from a place of fear. Folks have been taught to be afraid of me as a trans person. They treat me like a forgotten, but still armed, munition that they must very carefully navigate around. Many times though these are friendly people who genuinely want to be helpful and they see me as a safe person to ask for tips. I’m really glad of that!
So for the people who want to be allies, go get yourself a cup of coffee. Sit down, be comfortable. Let’s talk about what that means, what you can do, and what you probably can’t.
Nice Badge Ya Got There, Pardner. Shame If Something Happened to It.
So you’ve decided to be an ally, that’s super cool! There’s this sort of performative allyship that folks do with LGBTQ folks like wearing rainbow pins or what have you. They call themselves allies when they talk to me. They like to tell me how they were nice to a trans person once, or how they argued with a homophobe.
I wanna propose a different view of allyship to you though. Being an ally, much like love, is a verb. It’s something you do, not something you are. It’s not a place of honor at the LGBTQ table to be an “ally.” You can call yourself a gardener but unless you do the work, you will yield nothing.
I have never once in my life met a person who badged themselves an ally who actually did the work. They wanted to be seen, like the folks who video themselves giving money to homeless people. It’s not a great look. I’m never going to call you out for saying you’re an ally, but it is most often an empty word. The folks who are doing the work seldom say they’re doing the work, because you can see them doing it. There are people who are my allies, and I say that about them, they don’t call themselves that.
My sister is my ally, she is my champion in so many ways and a staunch advocate for me. My partner is my ally. She makes calls behind my back to businesses who have mistreated me and demands they train their people better. She’s always there to support me. My brother is my ally. He’s there to support me emotionally and offer me validation when I am worn down from the world.
And so I wanna talk about what that work actually looks like, because the questions that folks ask me usually make it sound like a grand fight or some kind of battle. It’s usually not. If the fighting is happening, that’s a sign that the work wasn’t done well before or done at all. We have to go deeper than just arguing with people who hate trans folks. So let’s talk about that work.
Cisgender people are like dirt. That might seem like an insulting comparison but what I mean is that every person creates around them an environment and that environment can be toxic, difficult, nourishing, or fertile. And this environment is everything. Every action you do, every thing you say helps to build this environment around you and your spaces.
There’s a model of allyship that people have where they feel they must confront, confront, confront. I don’t buy that nearly as much as I feel it’s about growing trans positivity. Beating other folks into submission is a last resort that should be reserved for those who are actively causing harm.
Through your actions you can help create spaces around you where trans people can flourish safely. And when you’re doing that work you won’t have to call yourself an ally, people will know you by your work. Be aware of the results of your speech and your actions.
Look, Listen, Learn.
This is simple, but it seems really challenging for folks. You can’t know how to make environments safe for trans people until you understand what that means. And you probably have some idea in your head about what that means right now. You probably don’t actually know what that means, though. You’re probably scoffing at me suggesting you don’t. After all, you’re informed, right? You’re probably wrong. There is nothing more audacious than the confidence of cisgender folks who don’t know how much they don’t know about trans people. Assume you know nothing.
Look for trans people. Look for the spaces we are already feeling safe. Seek out educational Facebook groups. Do what you need to do. It might mean going to your local Facebook yard sale page, subreddit, or some public forum. My suggestion here is that if you find a receptive transgender person to talk to, buy them lunch or at least coffee. Ask them if they’re willing to talk to you and teach you a little over a meal. Make this a habit.
[EDIT: 2020-02-26 – This does not mean you should just approach just any random trans person or expect any trans person to be willing to perform this labor. That’s super duper rude please don’t do that. There are places and situations where trans people might reasonably expect to be approached by a cisgender person in this way. You could also ask in local groups or wherever with an offer to buy lunch, dinner, coffee, snacks, whatever for a trans person who is willing to exchange information with you this way. I recommend talking to as many trans people as you can. We are not a monolith and we all have different life experiences. More perspectives are better in this case. Just please understand that transgender people are asked to educate about ourselves and our bodies nearly constantly and it’s exhausting. Don’t make yourself part of our exhaustion.]
Ask questions and listen to the answers. What makes them feel safe? What would make them feel comfortable around you? Ask them about their experiences as a trans person, ask them about how folks treat them.
Then listen. And here’s what I mean by that. You’re going to feel called out. The odds that you’ve unknowingly done something that has contributed to trans people’s suffering are basically 100%. Check your ego at the door, just listen. Don’t challenge this person, you’re asking for their expertise and labor as a trans person. Give them the consideration of listening. Then after you have listened, ask more questions and listen more.
There’s a kind of fear that new folks who want to be friendly have. It’s this fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Folks who want to be supportive often treat me as though I were an armed munition waiting to explode on them for the smallest slight. Put this fear aside, listen first. If you are listening then you’re not saying the wrong thing and you’re going to learn the right thing. Trans folks don’t want to be angry at you, we just want to live our lives. That’s all anyone wants. We get angry when people put their assumptions ahead of our dignity. Check your assumptions at the door. Ask questions.
And while we are here. Nobody is asking you to make yourself lowly. You don’t have to insult or degrade yourself to be kind to trans people and listen. It is not an insult that you are cisgender and it does not make you evil in our eyes. That’s the place you’ve started though, and that gives you a different perspective. All we ask is that you accept that the trans perspective is every bit as authentic as yours. This is our lived experience. Trust us to guide you well.
Start Where You Are.
Good news, bad news. You probably don’t have a lot of influence or power. That sucks right? You wanna help and now I’m telling you there’s not much you can do. That’s not true, you can do tons! You just have to start where you are and grow your influence from there.
That means working with the ground you’re given — and that ground might need a lot of work depending where you live. Not all spaces and people are equal, some are more fertile ground and some will need far more time and effort to be made safe, let alone supportive.
So the first step is all about prep work and learning. It’s about understanding your environment. Think about the shops you frequent. Think about the restaurants you go to. Think about family gatherings. Think about your sports league or the place you go to play D&D. Think about the places where you’re known. And when you’re in those spaces, think about how you can make them safe for trans people.
And a lot of times that just means asking the question of the person who owns or runs the space: “Hey, is this a safe place for me to bring my trans friend?” You don’t need to have a trans friend to ask this question, just ask it. Chances are that in many of the spaces you’re in the topic has flat out never come up. Ask the restaurant owners and your favorite bartender. Ask the host of your D&D group. Ask the person who runs your bowling league. Ask your boss.
Questions shine sunlight into dark places because they demand answers. And you’re going to get them. When the answer is “yes,” the next question should be, “how can we let trans people know this space is safe?” That might mean pronouns on badges, trans flags visible and apparent, etc., etc.,
I believe a space must first be made neutral before it can be made positive. Safety is the first goal. Safe places are what can turn into supportive spaces. Sometimes that process is so fast it’s basically simultaneous but before any space can be made supportive it must first be safe. Safe, for me, means that a trans person would suffer no consequences for being out and visible there.
Sometimes the answer is going to be “no.” When you hear “no,” as a caring person you have to make some decisions. You can choose to try to make that space safe, using your influence, or you can migrate to more fertile ground that IS safe. Honestly, unless you really have a lot of influence in those places you’re probably better to start taking your business and company elsewhere. You should publicly challenge the location on their policies in reviews, local forums, newspapers, however you need to do. Call on them to do better, and make that call publicly.
But this has all been all about spaces. You should also be asking this question to the people in your life, in a variety of ways. “Could I invite my trans friend to the BBQ,” can be an incredibly enlightening question… And just like with spaces a person must first be safe for me before they can be supportive of me. Find out who around you is safe. Start with that.
How to Weed Friends and Influence People.
Let’s talk about confrontation for a second. Some people are going to resist their space being made safe for me. And you, as an ally™, now have to make a choice. You could try to educate this person. That might work if your relationship is strong enough. I find transphobia is best defeated with “do this, not that” and not “you did this thing and so you are bad.”
The antidote to fear isn’t knowledge, though. It’s banality. It’s exposure and familiarity. People who don’t know us and are afraid of us are flat out ignorant or misinformed about us — there’s nothing actually scary about trans people. All their learning comes from shitty media channels. They must first let go of their learning before they can make room for new information. So your ignorant friend needs exposed to us, how can you do that? Think on how that can happen safely and with consideration for trans folks.
And even then this won’t work for everyone. Some people are always going to think I’m monstrous. Some folks will always believe I am unsalvageable and toxic. And this is where I say you should learn to draw hard lines, softly.
I have never seen someone successfully debate a person into accepting me. Don’t bother. That’s not a good use of your time. Their fear about me isn’t about logic or philosophy. Use the leverage you have here.
Learn how to tell these people that what they’re doing is not ok in a way that gives them an opportunity to grow later. Use I words. “I’m not going to feel comfortable inviting you to _______ if I know you aren’t going to be kind to my friend.” Things like that.
If you have sufficient leverage and this person cares about you, they’ll favor you and decency over clinging to their ignorance and fear. But sometimes you’ll have to cut ties and when you do have to do that, be kind as you can about it while still being firm. When your mutual friends ask why, make sure you’re pointing to the behavior, not the person. Leave room for them to grow as people.
Toxic people bring toxic environments with them, though. Making a space safe for trans people often means removing bad actors who make it unsafe. And this is where confrontation can happen. Arguing with these people publicly will not convince them but it can send the message that bigotry won’t be simply accepted in that space. Stand firm and call on the spaces to make their safety clear by ejecting bad actors. Removing invasive species from your environment is just good policy.
Be Personal. Make Promises. Keep them.
Maybe you’re not into the whole local activist model of being an ally. Maybe you want to do smaller stuff, too. Maybe you don’t have that kind of leverage. Maybe your community is that unsafe. Whatever your reason, maybe you need to start smaller.
The first steps of looking, listening, and learning still apply to you. But here are some ways you can make yourself into the safe space.
Think about the resources you have to offer. This can be your time, money, or simple things like your company or your washing machine. What do you have that you can share or give? Try as best as you can to match that with someone’s needs. There’s a story about a young girl tossing star fish back into the ocean. Someone says something to her like, “you can’t help them all so you can’t make a difference.” She then picks up another starfish and throws it back, then says, “I made a difference to that one.” It’s a fun story and the message is good. Helping just one person is as valid as helping dozens, or hundreds.
Get business cards, not rainbow pins and t-shirts. Simply put, once you’ve done that first step now you need to let people know they can get that resource from you. Make a promise, put it on business cards, and give them out to folks or leave them in places LGBTQ folks might find them. I recommend putting a burner number on this card so when someone calls it you KNOW it’s coming from someone who has one of those cards. You can also leave these in safe places that you’ve helped make.
Plant Seeds of Support.
Now that you’re a Safe Person™ and you’ve made some safe places, it’s time to talk about how to grow support.
This is where the time, effort, and energy truly comes in. This is where your learning becomes useful. It’s easy to say you support trans people, but if you do the work you’ll never need to tell anyone you support trans folks. We’ll know you.
Go to those safe places and start encouraging events, specials, whatever you can that make it into a supportive place. Supportive places are actively positive and good influences for trans people. They aren’t just places where we can exist — they are places where we can flourish. They can provide education, fundraising, backing for legislation, tons of stuff. If you can get a business to proclaim support for trans people, that’s a serious win.
Through your listening and learning you’ve probably learned what problems trans people in your area have. Don’t try to solve all these problems. Find one. Whatever the problem is, specialize in it. You can’t fix the world, so pick something. Make that your specialty. Gather resources, be they financial or lists of names or whatever solving that problem needs.
A common one is simply getting folks transportation to doctors. Trans folks often have to drive long distances to see doctors willing to treat them, it’s getting better but often we need help.
Maybe the problem is housing availability and security in your area. Work with local politicians to pass ordinances to make housing in your area secure for trans folks so we can’t be made homeless by bigoted landlords.
Once you succeed in one area or goal, move to the next. Ok you got that housing ordinance passed, you got a transportation schedule set up with volunteers. What can you do next? Go and make more safe space, then grow support there too.
Enjoy The Fruits of Your Labor.
Seriously, is there any better feeling than knowing you’ve helped people? I hope y’all will go out and tend to the world and help turn it into something nourishing and good. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to say the wrong thing. You’re going to have to learn. Every day you’ll have to learn, because you’ll need to learn to be a good champion for trans folks. But if you look, listen, learn, and grow supportive environments you can make a massive difference in the lives of people near you and far away from you.