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How to be a cisgender ally to trans* folks

There have been so many stories in the media lately about trans* folks making their voices heard. From the unjust imprisonment and eventual release of Cece McDonald to the outcry against the dehumanizing sensationalism of Janet Mock, to the most recent coverage of the detention of Canadian comedian Avery Edison, trans* people are making their stories mainstream news.

Though we lefties love to think our communities as too progressive to fall into exclusivity, cisgender privilege is all too often forgotten. Cisgender is a term created by trans* activists to disrupt the idea of “normative” gender. Cis folks identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. The term trans* comes from a type of web search, where asterisk signified a space for wildcard search responses. The trans* umbrella term could cover anyone who identifies as genderqueer, a trans man, a trans woman, transsexual, two spirited but above all those who self-identify as just trans*. To truly support trans* folks, cis allies must be actively supportive, not just in theory. Here are a few ways to start.

1) Don’t assume.

Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that because someone passes as a certain gender, that you shouldn’t ask what their preferred pronouns are. Don’t assume that just because trans* women are more frequently victimized that they also aren’t creating art, contributing to their communities or seizing political positions as well. Don’t assume that feminist services, like women’s shelters, will be safe places for trans* women. Don’t assume that you know anything about their experiences, their lives, their sexuality or politics. Don’t assume that because someone came out to you as trans*, that you can now out them at every chance by adding that they are your “transgender friend.”

All gender issues involve all people of all genders. Don’t assume that a feminist issue only affects cisgender women or that misogyny doesn’t affect trans* men because of their past experiences with gender. Don’t assume that trans* people even want to be male or female and not somewhere on a gender spectrum or that medicalized transitions, which are often inaccessible to poor trans folks, are the only ways to “legitimately” transition.

Check and double check that spaces have access to gender neutral bathrooms and that your organizing includes resources that actually understand trans* issues. The best way to find this out is by asking trans* folks what services they use.

Create spaces where everyone can identify with their preferred pronouns. Suggest folks begin their introductions with pronouns when they enter an organizing space. Tell people your pronouns first, creating a space where it's not weird for someone to follow up with their own. Create spaces that don’t just focus on transphobia, but celebrate trans* folks.

2) Use your privilege.

Sometimes activist events can be problematic, but you still really want to go and they’re doing their best, with no funding and inclusivity is expensive… Don’t buy into this. If an event has a strict “women only” policy, don’t go. Tell others why you aren’t going. Tell the organizers. Let them know that transphobic spaces aren’t acceptable. Use social media to get the word out to local media, other organizers and even the venue. In 2012 a transphobic “radical feminist” conference had its event space pulled after activists denounced their exclusionary agenda.

When you hear a joke with a transphobic punch-line, call folks out on it. It’s not comfortable being the person to bring a context of oppression into someone’s privilege. Do it anyways. Start by checking out this tool on calling people out. Refuse to tolerate transphobic language, even when it’s used by drag queens (even RuPaul). Talk about trans* issues, successes and celebrities. Draw attention to trans* culture and how often it is silenced.

Lead by example. How you interact with trans* folks affects the actions of those around you. Folks are much more likely to take cues from a non-trans person. Use this privilege to be respectful and inclusive.

3) Insist on action.

Many radical campaigns mention anti-transphobia as a tenet of organizing. Hold these folks to task. Ask for concrete action. Adding a “T” to an LGB organization isn’t enough. How exactly are spaces being made more inclusive? How is the policy against transphobia going from paper to the real world? What trans* perspectives are organizers using, what trans organizations have they reached out to?

When organizing a protest with the possibility of arrest, make sure trans* folks know their legal rights and risks. In Canada, people are placed in prisons based on their sex assigned at birth, not their chosen gender. This means that trans* folks are often at an increased risk of violence in holding cells and prisons. Follow the tips in this tool about safety for trans* folks during direct action.

4) Don’t ask.

Don’t ask trans* folks to identify within the gender binary. Don’t ask trans* folks about their genitals, their sex lives or their surgery/hormone status. Don’t ask trans* people to educate you on their oppression. Don’t ask trans* folks to fit into a narrative of being “trapped in the wrong body.” Don’t ask trans* folks to be responsible for breaking apart the gender binary when they are just living their lives. Don’t ask to be included in trans* only spaces. Don’t ask to speak for trans* people, to lead trans-focused organizations or committees. Actively seek out trans* folks for these roles, making space for their experiences.

5) Listen.

When trans* folks speak about their experiences, just listen. When a trans* person tells you that your space is not safe for them or uncomfortable or inaccessible, hear them out. Never be above putting your own voice as a person with cisgender privilege aside to create space for trans* experiences. Listen to the kind of change trans* people are working towards and take cues.

It’s amazing to see mainstream media taking notice of some of the work of trans* folks and their experiences. Trans activists will continue to do important grassroots work -- it’s up to cisgender allies to support them and make sure that there is always a welcoming space to celebrate it.

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