Becoming a Better Ally for our Transgender Family

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I am not transgender, however, I am an ally and continually work to be a better ally. I am a gay cisgender male and am part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The “LGB” are the most familiar of the letters: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual. Sadly, the latter half of our community is shunned, not supported and more often overlooked and forgotten – they are the TQIA+: Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and the “+” is for anyone on the spectrum of sex, gender or sexuality to which a specific term does not yet exist. These are sentient beings, these are people and they matter. Before I move through this piece there is background as to why I am writing this:

  • Currently the Trump administration is seeking to remove transgender as a protected class based on a series of executive orders issued during the Obama administration; and, they’re looking to assign anyone who is born with external genitalia as their given “sex,” regardless of whether it aligns with how they feel.
  • Oftentimes the LGB part of our community does not show the same level of fight, respect and demand for equality for our TQIA+ family.
  • Everyone can be a better ally, myself included. This starts with education and speaking with people within the community. As I am a cisgender male who has had great, in depth conversations with transgender individuals, I want to start by showing we do care. And by “we” I mean the LGB part of our community. We need to show up and fight for their support. They have every right to live as authentically as us – and when part of our community is not protected that means the whole community is not protected, and at risk.

Terminology to know:

Gender: is often defined with respect to one’s self as the state of being male, female, both, somewhere in between, neither or something different. When referring to gender with respect to society it is a system of classification that is deeply rooted in social ideas about what is masculinity and what is femininity.

Gender Expression: this is how one chooses to express themselves regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or other identifying factors. For example, a cisgender gay man may be feminine or masculine in the way that they dress or carry themselves, but it doesn’t take away the fact that their gender identity is still male.

Gender Identity: this term relates to how someone feels on the inside, despite any external anatomy that may imply otherwise (i.e. if a person has a penis they are a male, when in fact they may identify as female).

Sex: either male or female (sometimes referred to as binary) based on their genitalia at birth, and typically based on “reproductive function.”

Genderqueer: Genderqueer, also known as non-binary, is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine‍—‌identities which are outside the gender binary and cisnormativity. Genderqueer people may express a combination of masculinity and femininity, or neither in their gender identity.

Cisgender: when one’s biological sex aligns with their gender identity. For example a person born with male external genitalia, male reproductive systems and expresses themselves as masculine, they’d be a cisgender male.

Cisnormative: what is considered “normal” for the majority of folks that identify as cisgender male or female.

Gender Dysphoria: the internal conflict one may experience when their biological sex does not align with their gender identity or expression.

Transgender: when one’s biological sex does not align with their gender identity. For example, when someone is born biologically “female” but feels as though they are a man, they are transgender.

Intersex: when a person is born with a discrepancy between the appearance of their external genitalia and the type of internal genitalia. Often parents of intersex children are forced as a result of cisnormative culture to assign a gender to their child that may ultimately not align with how their child actually feels later in life.

In terms of modern cultural awareness the topic of gender, gender identity and sex is confusing, at best, most especially to those that will only subscribe to the notions that both exist as a binary relationship (i.e. someone can only be male or female) – in other words the cisnormative lens. The reality is that gender and sex are both fluid and exist on a spectrum. This may be hard to grasp for cisgender folks since the way they were raised contradicts this very notion of sex and gender – I am not excluded from this as I am cisgender and was raised this way. I was brought up with you are either born male (i.e. a boy) or female (i.e. a girl); but, I promise that in time with some educational dialogue and reaching out to people that are transgender, genderqueer or gender non-conforming, you can come to an understanding, and learn to accept that things aren’t always neatly packed in boxes of black and white, but there is more than just being a boy or girl.

Sex vs. Gender

Let’s first talk about the differences between the terms sex and gender. Often they are used interchangeably, however this is incorrect. They are different entities and should never be used interchangeably. Generally speaking “sex” refers to the biological differences between females and males; take for example the differences in external and internal reproductive organs. The term gender is a bit more challenging to define, but to generalize it refers to the role of a male or female in society. Typically this is known as a “gender role,” but it can also be an individual’s view of themselves, or gender identity. When someone’s genetics doesn’t align with their gender identity, these individuals may refer to themselves as transgender, genderqueer/non-binary or gender non-conforming.

From a genetic perspective people can be born with an array of sex genes – as already mentioned it’s not wrapped up in a neat little box. I will make the assumption that everyone is familiar with the “X” and “Y” gene, and that the combination of “XY” is male and “XX” is female. It’s assumed that when you’re born with a penis you have “XY” and if you’re born with a vagina you have “XX.” This is not always the case. In fact there are many combinations and genetic variations that exist, and the folks born with these genetic variations are no less human. Here is a table to summarize some of the known variants (adapted from a paper at www.nature.com written by Claire Ainsworth; full article here). vaiations in biological sex

It may be hard to understand, but some “men” are born with two or three “X” chromosomes; some women can be born with “Y” chromosome. This grouping of genetic sex chromosome combinations is often referred to as intersex. Parents who give birth to a child that is intersex is often forced to choose which gender to assign their child. They often never inform this child of what happened, or why, and it can and usually arises later on in life with conflicting internal feelings, or gender dysphoria. To quote, “This pressure has meant that people born with clear DSDs [Disorder of Sex Development] often undergo surgery to ‘normalize’ their genitals. Such surgery is controversial because it is usually performed on babies, who are too young to consent, and risks assigning a sex at odds with the child’s ultimate gender identity — their sense of their own gender. Intersex advocacy groups have therefore argued that doctors and parents should at least wait until a child is old enough to communicate their gender identity, which typically manifests around the age of three, or old enough to decide whether they want surgery at all.”

Moving Forward and Becoming a Better Ally

By definition an ally is someone who “combines or unites forces/resources often to benefit the other party.” In other words, being an ally means you are accepting of, but also actively partaking in the defense and progress that another marginalized community may experience. Being an ally it not easy, it takes work. It takes empathy. It takes understanding, time and acceptance (not tolerance, here’s a piece I penned on the difference between acceptance and tolerance to review.

So how does one start?

Moving Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Seek out people who are not like you and have open dialogues. Be ready to have your views challenged and be open to learning new ways of thinking. Not everyone has the same lived experiences in our world as we all bring uniqueness. Being different is ok, despite what some may think. Be ready to be challenged in many ways, and accept the challenge as a way to broaden your mind.

Gender Neutral Language

Language matters to everyone whether we see it that way or not. When we say something like, “that’s a boy’s thing,” or “girls can’t speak like that,” it implies something much greater, and those with children know how language matters. They pick up on everything. However, in absolute language and reality nothing is a “boy thing,” just like nothing is a “girl thing.” Things are just things. Right? From a cisnormative viewpoint this many not be the case, but language like this alienates and indoctrinates young children to feel as though they “must” fit into the cisnormative binary. This forces them to choose as opposed to being free to feel as they may. Take the following examples:

  1. The boy who wants to wear nail polish. In our society only women are socially allowed to paint their nails. Why? It’s considered a feminine detail and if a boy has anything feminine it immediately emasculates him, makes him less of a boy/man. In reality this is not the case. Paint is paint and painting our names is a form of art and modification albeit temporary. How many of us, men included, modify our bodies in artistic forms: tattoos, ear piercings, dying our hair, wearing various color clothes etc.? Painting one’s nails does not determine how masculine or feminine they are, but rather, they just want their nails decorated. Period. End of story.
  2. The girl who wants to dress up as a teenage mutant ninja turtle, or the boy who is obsessed with Moana. Children are meant to learn by playing. We play and wear costumes all the damn time, and especially around Halloween. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a child wanting to dress up as someone they look up to. Hell, if my son wanted to dress up as Moana or any other strong, independent and brave woman he’ll be unconditionally supported. No questions asked. And not to be Abba-bear, but come at me. Watch what happens 😉
  3. “Boys will be boys.” This is a phrase that’s recently gotten a ton of social media attention and is often coupled with the idea of toxic masculinity – where inappropriate and lewd male behavior is excused simple by virtue that they are male, and have no control of it. Hogwash. Bullshit. Men have control, they just are never asked to own what they do and receive “get out of jail free” cards. But only if they’re white and male, but I won’t digress. Cases such as Brock Turner exemplify how toxic masculinity is a part of our culture, and it shouldn’t be accepted. Ever. Period. I’d bet he’s heard the phrase, “boys will be boys” more than once. If you do something wrong you pay the price. At the end of the day kids will be kids – boy, girl or otherwise. No child or person is exempt from misbehaving as a result of their gender or sex. All children or people can act inappropriately, poorly or just down-right illegal. It’s up to us as people to correct the behavior and teach what it means to be a good human being.

There is so much more to this, but adopting gender neutral language where we don’t engender all aspects of our daily lives is a huge step in the right direction. It will take time and practice, and those around us challenging us and moving towards this ideal. Personally, as a two-dad family I have adopted a greater appreciation for gender-neutral language. For example, the societal notion that parenting is an innately female thing. It’s not I can assure you. Being a father is as much being a parent as being a mother. Though this is a topic for another piece, using gender neutral language all parents, regardless of their gender identity, to feel accepted and part of the community.

Don’t Assume Anything

You cannot tell if someone is transgender, genderqueer or gender nonconforming simply by looking at them. Despite the stereotypes it’s just impossible. Just as you wouldn’t want someone making assumptions about your religion or political viewpoint, neither do they. They are real people with real feelings, just like you and me. Just assume that where ever you are there is likely someone who is transgender, and for goodness sake just act in a way that models decency and be a good human being.

Don’t assume someone’s sexual orientation if they are transgender. Just as sex and gender are different, sexuality is an entirely different things. Transgender people can be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or any of the spectrum of sexual orientations.

When you meet someone who is transgender be an active listener to how they refer to themselves (i.e. pronouns). Do they refer to themselves as he or she, they or them? Whatever someone refers to themselves as is how you should proceed to engage in conversation. Anything short of that is insulting to their existence. Oh, and don’t ask them what “their real name is,” implying that the name with which they introduced themselves as is less “real.” That’s downright insulting and frankly, none of our business. They are introducing themselves as who they are and how they identify, it’s none of our damn business what was before they came out as transgender, unless they choose to share their story.

As it is with being LGB be careful not to out someone, especially if they’ve confided in you about who they are. This take a great deal of care, diligence and respect. There’s a reason they’re confiding and sharing details with you; be respectful.

Understand that there is no right or wrong way to come out as transgender, and not everyone who is transgender comes out the same way. Some transgender people come out and are happy to transition by way of changing their clothing. Some transgender people come out and with doctors are medically prescribed hormones to develop the characteristic traits they desire. And some transgender people opt to transition via surgical procedures. There is no “right way” to be transgender. Just as there is no right way to be straight – some straight men are macho men and some are not, but they are all nonetheless straight men. To be an ally is just to support them for who they are and respect their decisions. End of story. We don’t get to anyone how to feel.

The next tip I am pasting directly from www.glaad.org as it embodies so much truth to being an ally, and reinforces how language matters. “Avoid backhanded compliments and ‘helpful’ tips:”

  • “I would have never known you were transgender. You look so pretty.”
  • “You look just like a real woman.”
  • “She’s 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.”

These comments degrade who someone is. It’s not up to us as cisgender people to determine what makes a woman a woman and a man a man. Gender identity is a spectrum, a personal choice and what makes someone feel more masculine or feminine is different for everyone.

When you hear anti-trans epithets or conversation: stop them. Be brave enough to stand up! Even in LGB spaces. Challenge these statements all the time, anywhere. It’s not ok to let hate and negative language pollute our culture, and demean any group of people who have every right to exist and be their authentic selves.

As allies, know our limits. Know when it’s time to shut up and listen.

Read about transgender history and engage in dialogues with transgender people.

Volunteer or donate to organizations that support transgender rights. Here’s a list:

  • National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE)
  • Transgender Law Center (TLC)
  • Gender Proud
  • Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP)
  • Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF)
  • Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC)
  • Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC)
  • Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC)
  • Black Trans Advocacy
  • Trans Latina Coalition
  • Gender Spectrum
  • Gender Diversity
  • Trans Youth Equality Federation
  • Trans Youth Family Allies (TYFA)
  • TransTech Social Enterprises
  • PART*A
  • Transgender American Veterans Association
  • TransAthlete.com
  • TransLife Center at Chicago House

At the end of the day this is all still evolving. We are still understanding the spectrum of gender, gender identity and sexuality. It’s not a neat, clean topic that we can close in just one day. That’s just not how any of this works. Sure, some discussions may make you uncomfortable, make your skin crawl. That’s ok. Just because you’re uncomfortable discussing a topic does not give you the right to squash or eliminate one’s existence. Transgender folk are people, too. They are our siblings, they are someone’s children and they live, breathe and exist on the same planet that we do as human beings. All human beings deserve their humanity and dignity, and it’s up to us to act as true allies and help them, lift them up and be there for them.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to express my sincerest thanks to Dean Rasmussen, who writes and manages the blog: everydayanomalyblog.com. I became acquainted with Dean through LGBTQIA+ parenting blogs and other daddy-blog sites where we both participate and contribute pieces. Dean is an FTM living his life, engaged and has a beautiful family. I encourage anyone to read up on his blog and learn.