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On Practicing Allyship with the Trans Community

After posting this AMA (Ask Me Anything) last month, I was thrilled to see how many of you were excited about engaging in conversation! Several reader questions stood out, but I wanted to dedicate this newsletter to one question in particular, which really boils down to:

How can we support trans people, even when we don’t fully understand the trans experience?

It’s no secret that TGNC (or transgender and gender nonconforming) people around the world are under attack—physically and legislatively. The first step in educating ourselves and moving toward positive change is having honest conversations and learning in public. I’m grateful to the person who asked this question for coming forward from a place of vulnerability, who also shared they were working outside the U.S.

Growing up in Singapore, I never knew anyone openly gay or trans. Not because (as you'll read later on) TGNC people don't exist the world over, but because it's unsafe for many to exist, and in the societies I grew up in, that is more so because of the legacy of colonial rule.

I'm absolutely delighted that in my life now in Seattle, my 6-year-old kid has had multiple teachers from the LGBTQ+ community, a few classmates that don't identify with the gender they're assigned at birth and many friends whose parents are same-sex partners. It's wonderful and inclusive.

Firstly, as a cishet woman, I can––and must––acknowledge that I don’t understand all of the nuances of moving through this world as a TGNC person. So, I do not speak as a member of the community, but rather, as someone who deeply believes in trans rights and that we are all under attack when trans people are. Below is what I've learned in my journey as someone who didn't know an openly TGNC person in my formative years, to someone who now is regularly in community with trans leaders.

Photo by Karollyne Videira Hubert via Unsplash

Trans stories are not monolithic

Trans people are not a monolith, and everyone’s experience is nuanced and unique. But we can all educate ourselves on trans rights and amplify TGNC voices. One way to do this is to familiarize ourselves with what vocabulary to use. For example, when I say “cishet,” that’s a new-ish term meaning two things: “cis” - short for cisgender, or I identify with the gender that is typically associated with the sex I was assigned at birth and “het” - short for heterosexual, or I’m only attracted to people of another gender.

Planned Parenthood has a great glossary here.

While these terms are new-ish (and still evolving), there’s a rich history of trans and non-binary people. India, where my ancestors come from, has long recognized a gender beyond "male" and "female." The Human Rights Campaign put together a list of 7 Things About Transgender People That You Didn’t Know, and number one on the list is that trans people go back to at least 5,000 B.C.

Understanding that this isn’t “new” or a “fad” is central to supporting and advancing trans rights. In fact, that’s the journey I’m currently on.

Ask good questions

Another question we must all investigate is when was the gender binary invented? And why?

Gender is a spectrum which was fortified as a binary to benefit powerful people, intrinsically tied up in systems of oppression like racism, late stage capitalism and the patriarchy...AND especially more so when homosexuality was criminalized by British colonizers all over their colonies. Do check out The Patriarchs by Angela Saini for a fascinating read on the origins of the patriarchy, which was fortified by imposing a strict gender binary.

In tandem, we must also investigate—why has the LGBTQ+ community historically been attacked? Why would those attacks be targeting trans people now? Why is LGBTQ+ literature (along with literature centering folks from other historically underestimated groups—particularly Black people in the U.S.) being taken off library shelves?

The LGBTQ+ community has historically been painted as one to fear. But once more of us who were socialized to believe in very strict definitions of gender and sexuality (not the same thing!) learn about the truth of both as beyond narrow binaries, it is so liberating. It’s so thrilling and joyful to learn that there are possibilities for us beyond the binary. It’s liberating to teach my kid that there’s no such thing as “boy” colors or “girl” colors and that love is a feeling inside your heart, not based on who society tells us to love (like I was). And that, in itself, is a radical attack on white supremacist ideals.

How can we meaningfully support trans people?

Because it isn’t always safe (or even legal) for trans people to advocate for themselves, anyone who practices allyship with the TGNC community needs to be well versed on ways that they can help:

  • Support TGNC people in conversations with friends and family.

  • Learn about and from trans leaders. There’s a great Netflix documentary on Marsha P. Johnson, and I’ve learned a lot from Alok Vaid-Menon. (I love this clip of them in conversation with Jonathan Van Ness.)

  • Respect people’s pronouns. This website is really helpful for people who want to learn more about what different pronouns are and why they matter.

  • Consider donating to an organization that supports trans people like the Okra Project (providing food for Black Trans people), For the Gworls (raising money to assist with Black Trans people’s rent and gender affirming surgeries), Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (ending discrimination based upon gender identity and expression through education and direct legal services), or many more.

  • Seek out your local LGBTQ+ organizations and learn how to best support them.

And when it comes to the workplace, be sure to invest in DEI that’s intersectional and inclusive of people in the LGBTQ+ community, hire TGNC people, respect people's pronouns, and accept that mistakes will be made. It's important to acknowledge those mistakes, apologize, and make positive changes. I recommend checking out Lily Zheng's work, particularly their book DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing it Right.

Advocate for what you DO believe in

As for the second part of the question, it’s okay to not understand all facets of any issue or take a strong position on an issue you're still learning about. It's more important to vocally support what you DO—the right for anyone to choose whom they love, marry who they want, wear what they want without fear. And as always, center the voices of those most impacted.

As you self-educate and build your awareness, your comfort with speaking up may change and expand. I've personally seen children as young as 3 and 4 already know for sure they're not the gender they were assigned at birth and witnessed the struggle they've had when they aren't supported or loved....and conversely, the peace and joy when they were accepted for who they intrinsically knew they were. That experience alone reformed biased beliefs I was conditioned with about being trans, and I’m continually learning.

Oddly enough, I’m comforted by Republican state senator Daniel Thatcher’s stance on the GOP’s treatment of trans people. In his interview with Lulu Garcia-Navarro, he says, “They’re being told this is a social contagion, these kids are popping up because we’ve made it popular. Bullshit. It’s becoming more common because it is becoming safer. It is not safe. But it’s safer.” Thatcher has built a reputation for himself as one of the few Republican representatives standing up for TGNC rights. This is where I really think change can be made—when we remove political rhetoric from what should be basic human rights and respect.

It’s true, we are seeing and hearing from more TGNC people––though not nearly enough. The more space trans people have to safely express themselves across all binaries and spectrums, the more comfortable people will feel just existing as their most authentic selves. Isn’t that what we want for everyone?

I love these words by Alok Vaid-Menon:

“I want so badly for the world to feel entitled to its joy, to its pleasure, to its delight. I want so badly for people to give themselves permission to try, transgress, transcend. I want so badly to be able to walk down the street without having the joy punished out of me. I want so badly to share this with you. This (un)becoming. This invitation. This joy.”

Trans people have been here since long before the gender binary, long before we had the word “trans” and any misconceptions of what that means. It’s up to us to make sure everyone is safe, supported and free.

Because until all of us are, none of us are. Not really.


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