My friend Kate is a freaking badass. She escaped near murder in Honduras, traveled through Central America in “the caravan,” nearly drowned in a river crossing the border, was held in a freezing detention center, and is now surviving and thriving in Washington D.C. Kate has a job to support herself, she’s studying for an international business degree, she’s earned an educational training certificate in Human Rights, and she’s learning to model at school.
Kate carries herself with a massive smile, reflecting her overflowing joy and faith in the future. When I asked Kate where she finds hope and positivity, she said, “If I let myself fall down, I won’t achieve what I’ve always wanted, which is to be respected for who I am.”
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This Transgender Day of Visibility in honor of Kate and all trans* people in the world, here are four ways for cisgender individuals to be the best trans allies possible:
- Have the ability to define “cisgender”. We often focus on gender identity and expression as though they’re traits unique to the trans* community, but in fact, all human beings — including straight, cisgender people — have a gender identity and expression too. The first thing cisgender people can do is understand the definitions of “cisgender” and “transgender” by watching this two minute explainer.
- Consider how you yourself fall within, or not, the spectrums of gender and sexual orientation. Remember that coming out as trans* is very different than coming out as lesbian, gay, bi+ or any other sexual orientation, but 77% of trans* people identify as something other than straight too. People of all orientations have gender expressions that are perceived in different ways. When I was using “lesbian” as my label, people were surprised because I didn’t appear gay. What they meant was I’m very femme presenting and didn’t fall into the stereotype of a lesbian, which had nothing to do with my attraction towards women. Now that I identify as bisexual apparently my gender presentation makes so much more sense to others, go figure.
- Sex ≠ Gender. The first misunderstanding is when we get hung up on our junk, but genitals do not predict your sexual orientation or your gender. People have been assuming, incorrectly, that our sex, i.e. what’s between our legs when we’re born, tells parents that they have a baby boy or girl. But that’s not true for everyone, which makes “gender reveal” parties utterly ridiculous. By all means, have a fun “pregnancy party”, but why we need to say what the baby’s genitals look like is way TMI.
- Don’t ask people about their privates. Going back to my friend Kate from Honduras, she is a transgender woman and I am a cisgender woman. We are both immigrants, we both have siblings, we are both ambitious, we both take risks, and we are both women. We were just born with different genitals between our legs, and that’s very personal so neither of us should have to explain what’s in our pants, thank you very much.
- Use your privilege. When our gender meets society’s expectations, we experience an easier time in the world. Those of us who easily conform have an opportunity to speak up for those whose gender does not neatly fall into one of society’s silly boxes.
- Learn about the spectrum of identities. Generally, all people have a label for their gender, including “agender” for the feeling of having no gender, and these labels help express who we know ourselves to be. But how someone appears on the outside is not necessarily how they feel on the inside. Nor is it reflective of the body they were born with, which quite frankly – as I said above – is none of our freaking business.
- But what we can do is listen. So many brave people are sharing their stories in multiple ways online, on podcasts, in books, etc. We can learn from hearing other people’s life experiences and oftentimes they help us navigate our own. Be mindful that you don’t know what you don’t know, but there’s always the opportunity to learn through active listening.
- Be empathetic. When I was working on the film TransMilitary, which documents the lives of active duty transgender service members advocating to end the ban on their service, I didn’t know what it felt like to be transgender, but I did know intimately how it feels to be seen as someone you’re not. To varying degrees, practically all people — including straight, cisgender people — understand feelings of anxiety, depression, fear, powerlessness, and being othered. We can also relate to being respected, powerful, worthy, loved, and included. Even though our circumstances are different, we can empathize with other people’s emotions and show kindness and courage in our actions.
- Politely ask for someone’s pronouns, and not their “preferred” pronouns. This isn’t like asking for someone’s wine preference, but if you’re wondering I’ll take red, please! An easy dialogue is to share yours first. For example, “My name’s Fiona, my pronouns are she, her. May I know your pronouns too, please?” Put your pronouns on video calls, email signatures, and introduce yourself with your pronouns regardless of who’s attending the meeting. We can never assume someone’s identity by the way they look. If someone questions why it’s important you can send them here.
- Practice patience with all people in your life. Being patient with a person who is questioning or exploring their gender identity is extremely important, however, as no human being is born with a manual and it can take a while to figure ourselves out. Like cis people, trans* people’s paths to know and express themselves are unique and personal. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to transition, but there are definitely right ways to be supportive like affirming someone’s experience. Period.
- Use gender-inclusive language, always. Once you realize how we’re perpetuating sexist language it’s hard to un-hear it. We’ve also been using gender neutral language our entire lives too… for example, I have a plumber coming to my house today, but I don’t know what time they’ll be here. There are tons of listicles on the internet giving words to use instead of “Hey guys!” as a greeting. “Hey y’all!” is my favorite, which pleases cis and trans* non-male identifying people alike.
- Speak up. Seriously, silence is complicit. Being a badass trans* ally is rooted in using your voice in whichever form suits you best to not only call out violence and discrimination, but to help educate those who don’t understand and are fearful of difference. Whether it be sharing films, books, or viral TikToks with loved ones, having a heavy offline conversation, or backing someone up in public, being an upstander is critical for trans* equality. The rights of a minority were never won without the support of the majority.
- When you mess up, say you’re sorry and move on. I say “when,” because even the best-intentioned of us mess up, but don’t rub salt into the wound by making your slip up the focus of the conversation. The trans* person you’re talking with doesn’t need an explanation of how hard you’re trying, or how difficult it is for you to use their name. They just need you to keep doing your best since practice makes perfect.
- Create a platform and recognize when to take a seat. Not all trans* people want to explain or educate about their lives and bodies to the world. But some trans* people do. Finding a balance between being a vocal advocate, but not taking a stage when a trans* person should be up there is a call back to our own self-awareness. Form genuine friendships with a variety of people in your life and live with a mindset of abundance rather than lack. When you see an opportunity for a trans* person to have a job they love or be seen and heard on a platform they admire, make introductions and step out of the way. Trans* people have existed since humanity existed. Now is the time to decolonize our worldview of gender and sexuality, and lift one another up for our collective greater good.
Happy Transgender Day of Visibility, y’all. I see you, I hear you, and I celebrate you.
Emmy® nominated and award-winning filmmaker Fiona Dawson hosts “NOW with Fiona”, sharing unexpected stories from the LGBTQ community of people being kind and courageous in the face of adversity.