Part of being a trans ally is helping to build and cultivate trans-friendly social spaces. But helping to create a vibe of inclusion in situations like cocktail parties or dinners with friends and family is often more just about awareness than actively doing or not doing certain things.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be allies—we should. But we think a very important step in creating a more inclusive world is starting with the basics—namely, raising people’s awareness of some of the most salient and foundational issues in everyday group settings.
These tips are by no means comprehensive, but this guide is a primer for creating a sense of openness and safety in social situations. We don’t go into procedural stuff about the bathroom debate or harassment policies, as we wanted to think in a more focused way about everyday settings—at a house party, at a small group gathering at a restaurant, a cocktail hour before a professional event.
With that, here are our preliminary tips for helping to create more trans-friendly social spaces…
1. Avoid references to stuff “all women” or “all men” do—even casually.
Like menstruation, or having massive amounts of chest hair. This is harder than you think, as we all tend to oversimplify the world we live in. It’s survival.
And yes, things like having your period are, of course, signs of being born with organs like a uterus and a vagina. But NO biological process is the ultimate defining quality of femininity or masculinity. Gender has very little to do with bodies and specifically, with genitalia.
By the same token, be wary of generalizing around behaviors that are coded “feminine” or “masculine”—wearing makeup or heels for women; watching sports and being stoic for men. Whether you’re cis or trans, it’s not fair to assume that certain things are defining characteristics for an entire gender.
When you speak from your own experience, you invite others to do the same. They can find solidarity with your experience or express differences—or they can simply speak from a first-person perspective about something that feels personally relevant. Remember that there is more than one way to be as a woman or man (trans or cis), and by showing people you realize that (even if it’s by avoiding categorical statements) you open up the floor to be more inclusive.
2. Acknowledge that trans women are women; and that trans women are men, even if passively.
It’s true that gender is non-binary and that we as much as anyone want to emphasize that gender isn’t a strict dichotomy between male/female, man/woman, boy/girl. Some identify as genderqueer; others as gender fluid; some as non-binary and others prefer qualifiers many of us haven’t even heard of.
That said, many trans folks do identify within the gender binary, and simply want to be treated as the gender they feel they are. Even in queer spaces, we’ve heard of lesbian-identified women refer to the fact they’re “even attracted to trans women” as though that should be a striking anomaly. But the fact is that trans women are women; trans men are men (of course, unless they mention identifying otherwise).
So remember that not only is there no need to qualify that a trans woman is trans, or a trans man is trans—but it can actually be alienating. It reinforces otherness and undermines the idea that any feeling of inclusivity is genuine or organic.
3. Don’t speak solely in terms of binary gender—ever.
Remember not to call attention to the gender binary by using phrases like “ladies and gentlemen” when addressing people, or referring to “all the guys and girls” at school. Some people don’t identify within the gender binary, and even if you think you know that all the people in a room or party do, why not cultivate a more inclusive space anyway? We’re working toward a more trans-friendly world, and we shouldn’t just be doing things to get ally points.
4. Remember that eye contact shouldn’t be a gift—it’s a basic expectation.
It’s funny how trying to be “politically correct” (AKA “PC”) makes people tip-toe in social situations in a way that makes people more uncomfortable than not. It’s great to assume that not everyone wants to talk about personal issues at parties—and therefore that asking trans people about their sex lives or genitalia is as inappropriate as asking a cis person about their most personal lives.
And yet we’ve heard stories again and again of people being so uncomfortable in the presence of a trans person (or people) that they treat them like artifacts in a museum. They might avoid eye contact, or try to be so polite that conversation becomes stilted and wooden.
It’s a balance: be polite and look out for clues as to how much a person wants to talk about or not talk about their identity in social spaces. Some people may point out their identity as trans during the first five minutes of a conversation with a stranger; others may want to just go about their business. Just as it’s helpful to realize that no two people are alike in general, remember that no two trans people are alike. There aren’t any special rules for how to be polite to trans people other than human decency. Look people in the eye. Set appropriate boundaries when you first meet someone. Be engaged and present. Being courteous to a fellow human being is not, in fact, rocket science!
5. Remember the “T” in LGBTQ. (But remember that LGB and T are not the same.)
Nuff said. Some organizations or publications that deliberately include the “T” in the popular acronym “LGBTQ” often tend to be more focused on issues related to gay and lesbian politics and equality than trans issues. We get that more people are out as gay or lesbian, and that we’re still working toward merely normalizing the idea of trans identity worldwide.
The bottom line is that it’s important to remember trans folks when talking about these overarching issues related to gender and sexuality, while also recognizing that sexuality and gender are NOT the same thing. For instance, a recent article we read also reminded us that many movies about straight trans people such as Boys Don’t Cry are categorized under the “Gay and Lesbian” drop-down menu on Netflix. In other words, don’t be a transphobic gay and lesbian activist, but also make distinctions between sexual orientation and gender identity.
6. Ask people about themselves as people, not as trans people.
Many of us joke about how annoying it is to be at a cocktail party and be inundated with the question “What do you do?” as if professional life is the only aspect of life that matters. We realize, obviously, that this question can just be a quick and easy way to get more of a sense of someone’s personality and interests...and that it levels the playing field by creating a ready-made question for social spaces.
What’s even MORE annoying for trans folks, and often offensive, is being inundated immediately with questions about trans identity right at the get-go of meeting someone. This doesn’t mean that being asked for your preferred pronoun is disrespectful (and in fact, pronoun sensitivity is known to be one of the most basic ways to be an active trans ally). What it does mean is that it’s unnecessary to qualify your experience of a trans person you meet by calling attention to their experience as a trans person. If you want to ask someone how their ski trip was, ask—but no need to add, “How is it skiing as a trans person?” We’re all people, trans or not. And as much as being sensitive involves watching out for opportunities to pay closer attention to people and the nuances of their experience, it can be counter-productive to treat people as “special” if you read them as different. We’re all special after all.
These are just a few tips to start us all out on building a more trans-friendly world, which often starts in everyday intentionally social spaces like dinner parties, picnics and other social gatherings in which people from different walks of life get together.
Note: some of these tips involve some explicit “do’s” and “don’ts,” and others are simply geared at raising our awareness of what kinds of statements and questions are respectful of the individuality of all humans on earth, regardless of gender identity. One good aphorism we made up is as follows: being respectful to a trans person is often not that different from being respectful in the basic ways you learned to be polite and kind during childhood. Make eye contact. Respect people’s boundaries. Make them feel heard and safe. Don’t make assumptions. Create space for people to share, but don’t pressure them.
Any tips? We’d love to hear from you. Remember that we’re always looking for original content of tips and tricks and how-to guides, personal stories and reflective essays, lists of questions and resources. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!