How To Support Transgender People: Tips for Cisgender Allies
2023 has already been a record breaking year for anti-transgender legislation in the United States and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently tracking 491 bills that would directly threaten the rights of LGBTQIA+ folks. Examples of proposed and passed legislature include bills that:
- Restrict access to gender-affirming health care.
- Restrict access to bathrooms and other public spaces.
- Restrict participation in sports.
- Censor LGBTQIA+ topics, history, and terms in schools.
Hearing about these active efforts by the federal government to undermine their rights can take a huge toll on the daily life, mental health, and livelihood of transgender and LGBTQIA+ individuals and communities, including youth who are in crucial stages of their identity development. In a study by the Trevor Project, a staggering 93% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that “they have worried about transgender people being denied access to gender-affirming medical care due to state or local laws.”
Having one’s identity questioned and challenged so consistently and systematically can have devastating impacts. Last year, 45% of LGBTQ+ youth reported seriously considering a suicide attempt, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth surveyed.
Blatant attacks on the rights and humanity of LGBTQIA+ and more specifically trans folks can make it a scary time to be a part of those communities, and it is crucial for allies to stand up for the gender diverse people in their life and the larger community whose lives are both directly and indirectly impacted by these policy changes and trends.
Supporting and advocating for the rights of trans and queer people is more than just about embodying the value of unconditional love and support for fellow humans. It is about ensuring the safety and survival of vulnerable members of the queer community.
Below are some tips for allies to show up for their trans friends, family members, co-workers, and strangers.
A note on terminology: “Transgender” is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Transgender is often shortened to “Trans” as it is more inclusive than transgender because it includes transgender, transmasc, transfem, and those who simply use the word trans. “Cisgender” or “cis” refers to folks whose gender identity correlates to their sex assigned at birth.
There are many online resources with more extensive information on vocabulary that allies should familiarize themselves with. Keep in mind that terminology is always shifting and that these words and identities mean different things to different individuals. Parents can read our blog My Teen is Queer – I’m Confused for a breakdown of more terms.
Tips for allies:
- Never make assumptions about someone’s identity.
You can’t tell by looking at someone what their gender identity or sexuality is. Rather than making an assumption about someone’s identity when you meet them, step back and follow their lead. Use the language that the person uses for themself, and if you’re unsure, ask their pronouns. There is not one way to be or present as trans or queer and it is never appropriate to assume that someone is trans, cis, non-binary, queer, or anything else, based on how they appear.
- Make gender neutral language your norm.
Make a habit of practicing gender neutral language in your life more broadly. As mentioned previously, there is no way to immediately identify a queer or trans person, and using gender neutral language allows people to feel comfortable and seen in all sorts of settings. “Hi y’all” or “Welcome folks” gets across the same message as “Hi guys” or “Welcome ladies and gentlemen” without excluding or invalidating gender expansive people that may or may not be present.
Everyone uses pronouns, including cis folks! Introducing yourself with your pronouns creates a culture of not assuming things about people and is an act of solidarity to queer and trans folks who may not want to draw attention to themselves by sharing their pronouns when nobody else in the room is. For more information about pronouns and what to do when you accidentally misgender someone, see our blog on misgendering do’s and don’ts.
Avoiding gendered compliments/comments can also go a huge way in avoiding accidentally disrespecting someone’s identity or lived experience. Beyond gendered language in compliments, try to avoid comments about physical appearance generally. More information on how to do that can be found in our blog about giving compliments that are not about appearance.
- Listen to the trans people in your life and outside of it and make increasing your own awareness a priority.
One of the best ways that allies can show up for trans people is simply by listening and having open arms and ears to hold their stories and experiences. The desire to feel heard and understood is inherent to human nature. Listen and learn from the queer and trans people in your life. If there are not trans people in your immediate communities, seek out content and resources online from queer and trans creators.
Trans people have always existed, all around the world. If you aren’t aware of the history of trans people and trans liberation in the U.S and around the world, do some research, and center trans voices in your sources. If you don’t understand a term or idea related to gender, look it up. In a world where people in power are trying to erase their humanity, listen closely to and affirm gender diverse people here today and the testimonies of those no longer with us.
- Trans people don’t owe you an explanation.
Listening to trans voices is important, but keep in mind that trans people don’t need to talk specifically about their trans identity or experience for their ideas and thoughts to be respected and appreciated.
It is societally understood that cisgender folks aren’t expected to be bombarded with intrusive questions about their reality, identity, or anatomy, so why would it be okay to ask those questions of anyone else? If it would make you uncomfortable to be asked a question, don’t ask it to someone else. Although someone’s life and identities may be different from yours in ways that may be hard to understand, there is no reason to question or invalidate someone’s gender identity or expect them to justify or defend it.
Trans folks just want to navigate the world safely, and the extent to which they disclose their gender identity, history, and experience to someone is up to them. Respect the disclosures that trans people share with you by not sharing them with others. Again, this is about safety, and it is often a strategic approach for trans people to disclose only certain things to certain people, so take that into consideration when processing what information has been shared with you.
- Call out transphobia.
Calling out transphobia and other discriminatory or disrespectful behaviors or policies isn’t always safe for trans people. Use your privilege to speak up when you notice something anti-trans. This might feel uncomfortable or unnatural at first, but pushing through that discomfort and addressing something you saw or heard with friends, at work, or out in public, shows that you actively care about creating a world that is safe for queer and trans people.
- Think about your own gender.
In addition to calling out transphobia you observe in the world around you, be aware of the messages about heteronormativity that you have internalized. This one might not come easily, but taking the time to think intentionally about your own gender will make all of these other things make more sense and come much more naturally.
Similar to the way in which white people can operate for much of their life without thinking about their race because it is seen as the standard, cisgender people may not look as closely at their own gender simply because they have never had to justify it.
Just because your gender identity has not been questioned, policed, or controlled, doesn’t mean that you aren’t able to explore it. Your gender identity is unique to you, and thinking about what it looks and feels like to be yourself can be empowering to people across the gender continuum.
When cisgender is the norm, it can be easy to question or be confused by an identity that falls out of the binary without even thinking about your own. Try asking yourself: “What does it mean to me to be a woman/man/____?” Think beyond answers about gender stereotypes (anatomy, etc.). “What makes me feel secure in my gender identity?” “When do I feel most like myself?” “What sorts of things inform how I present to the world?”
Your gender, just like everyone else’s, is beautiful and unique!
To allies: we need you. Just as lawmakers are attacking our rights through legislation, trans people, particularly Black trans women, are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization.
The news of all of these sorts of attacks can’t be ignored and is deeply impacting the queer and trans folks around you. Let them know you are there, that you care, and commit to building a safer world together.
Blog written by Client Care Coordinator, Ellie Struewing.