1. Be proactive about pronouns.
Most people are cis gender, which means they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. They may also take for granted their ability to identify with their assigned gender. The majority of cis people also present legibly as their assigned gender—and make it easy for the world to assume what their pronouns are: she/her for women, he/him for men.
But the truth is that you can’t tell anyone’s gender just by looking at them. Some folks who might look to you like women may identify as men; perhaps they are not interested in presenting as traditionally masculine, but want to use male pronouns. That’s their prerogative. So it’s up to allies, cis or trans-identified, to be sensitive about pronouns. Listen to others first to hear what pronouns are being used to refer to that person. If you want to ask directly about their pronouns, start with yourself: “I’m Sally and I use the pronouns she/her.” If you do end up using the wrong pronouns, apologize and let it go. Being sensitive and open to learning is the most important thing—so try your best, even if you mess up once or twice.
2. Realize that someone else’s genitals and/or sex life is not your business.
Let us ask you this: would you ever walk up to someone—a non-trans-identified, cis person—at a party and ask them about their genitals, or what kinds of things they got up to with a sexual partner? We are guessing the answer is no.
So, the same rules of being appropriate apply for interacting with trans folks—intrigued as you may be to know more details. Period.
3. Avoid qualified compliments.
Another phrase for these might be “backhanded compliments”—compliments that assume a level of privilege and are condescending, such as “You’re smart for someone who didn’t go to college.”
For trans folks, don’t give compliments that you feel have the implied qualification of “for a trans person.” In other words, if a trans woman looks gorgeous, you can tell her so—but don’t say things like, “Wow! You look so feminine!”, “You look like a real woman!” These kinds of statements are alienating and insulting.
4. Respect how people self-identify.
A lot of the vocabulary around transgender identity is not exactly mainstream—and it’s OK if you’re new to it. The way to be a good ally is to show respect for the vocabulary people use to self-identify. If someone tells you they use the pronouns “they/them/theirs,” it may be unfamiliar to you, but respect it. No one can determine anyone else’s gender—and being averse to the notion of a non-gendered pronoun, or the idea of being “genderqueer” or “non-binary” carries with it many prejudiced assumptions that ultimately deny the validity of someone else’s very personal beliefs about how they exist in the world.
The same way you walk into a new place and say, “Hi my name is X” and people believe you and respect your name, you can respect the identity of others by respecting their terminology.
5. Know that sexuality and gender identity are separate.
One of the most common assumptions about trans folks is that they’re “gay” or somehow trying to express something about their sexuality. The bottom line is that gender and sexual orientation are totally different! A trans woman who likes women may identity as a lesbian, bisexual, queer, or may prefer not to use labels. This question is unrelated to how she identifies in her own body.
While we’re certainly not recommending that you walk around and randomly ask strangers about their sexuality, we want to point out that you should be sensitive to the differences here, and the various nuances that exist around one’s own gender expression, and one’s sexual interests with regard to the gender expression of others.
So, these are just five basic ways to begin your journey as an ally. We look forward to sharing more posts like these, and hope to hear from you with resources and ideas you’ve found especially helpful.