By Paula Gilovich
What does the word ally even mean?
For one thing, it’s context-dependent. But at least within the LGBTQ “conversation,” it seems we often describe the role of ally as a friend. In the case of trans folks, we tend to talk about how a cisgender person can be a great ally by being directly supportive and understanding of a trans person. This indeed sounds like friendship—though it also seems to mean that allyship is about taking the position between the trans person and society, and outwards into the greater ecosystem of public and digital spaces? Being an ally is an active position.
To me, separating friendship from allyship is an important distinction in the movement because we need to incite more action by cisgender folks on behalf of trans folks.
The culture around trans visibility right now seems to involve running at trans people, asking them urgently to explain themselves, to answer question after question about what they are doing and why. This is due, in part, to the insane amount of sensationalist stories brought on by celebrity and policy wars—so it makes sense that this is how the majority of people think about trans identity if they don’t have the resources or wherewithal to educate themselves.
These crucial moments—of possible misunderstanding, of stereotype perpetuation—are where an ally can step between the masses, the media, the government (and whomever else), to make sure that the onus doesn’t singularly fall on trans folks to educate the world through their own identities.
For example, we’ve heard multiple stories here at trans.cafe of people coming out at work, transitioning at work, and then while transitioning, having to host training sessions about their own identities for co-workers and staff at their companies. It should never be the trans person’s job to educate the company they work at, nor really does it need to be a trans person’s job to educate anyone about their identity—unless they want to. But coming out as trans does NOT mean you’ve come out as a trans spokesperson.
YOUR LIBERATION IS MY LIBERATION
This is how an ally can be defined: as translator. An ally can more powerfully influence the language people use to discuss things like best practices and policy around trans identities than trans people themselves; and in doing so, allies can become a category of people that help to remove the educational burden from trans folks themselves. But if any of us is going to step in as translator, we better know what we are going to say and how we are going to say it.
Trans identities are liberation for all of us. The construct of gender is constraining to each individual life, regardless of how familiar we are with gender theory. Undoubtedly, trans identities break those constructs in overt ways, which is why they challenge those not yet ready to see the world—and themselves—in a new way.
What are the big ally moves that affirm we want trans-inclusivity, that we want to loosen the self-binding gender categories? I suggest that they are one and the same. In fact, I would even suggest that so much of the discrimination against trans people in the context of the bathroom debate has nothing to do with safety. It’s just the utter fear of losing the significance of either pink or blue.
But consider the fact that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) pulled out of North Carolina, a state that so publicly and unjustly declared discrimination against trans folks this past year. This affirmed for me that the steel-toed, traditionally-gendered system of college .sports even wants change to happen, and thus we can rest assured that we all want it. Sports are certainly “of society” at their core—and so this is a huge signifier to us all that we are evolving, and the act of transition, the intellectual idea of trans identities and those who are transgender are helping us do this.
IN THE DESERT
At the time of writing this article, I’m in Arizona, glancing at the desert during each pause. A stunning landscape with its muted colors, Mars-like terrain, and its alien beings—the saguaro cactus—are standing all across the mountain as if they are waiting for me.
This is a troubled state on the whole for its identity politics. Their policies have incited a hate for everyone who is not white and middle class. The social conservatives have their talons in this state, as indicated by the numerous protect-the-unborn child billboards between Phoenix and Tucson.
Natalie, the founder of trans.cafe was asked to come here for an event called Revitalize, hosted by wellness media company mindbodygreen. Upon our arrival, beautifully and with ease, the desk clerk called Natalie “Ma’am.” Natalie LOVES “Ma’am,” but it’s worth mentioning that when people call me “Ma’am,” I distinctly hate it. A note on individuality and gender.
However, on our way up to our room, the bellhop called her “sir” several times. Natalie handled it, because I wasn’t handling it. I was being cowardly—I should have stepped in on her behalf. She has identity fatigue—her face droops, she looks tired in these moments. Of course, they are exhausting.
She said, “I need you to not call me sir.” Natalie’s way is always kind, pro-education, and never self-righteous or scolding, even when she is so disappointed. This is because she recognizes that people need a chance to get educated, to get it.
But he didn’t get it. And I didn’t do anything.
In our room, I asked her, “Do you want me to step in at those moments?” She didn’t totally answer me, and we were quickly distracted by the robes and slippers that came with our room, and then onto other things. Both of our feelings suppressed for the time being. She felt one way, and what I felt was guilt.
But the next morning at breakfast, it became abundantly clear that the staff of the hotel were trained to say either sir or ma’am at every turn, depending on the gender of the clientele. (Don’t worry, we will be proposing our workplace training program to this hotel chain.)
Our waiter, who otherwise struck us as so friendly and kind, called Natalie “sir” every time he came to the table. I could tell she was upset, but it was clear she was also just trying to let it go. But I wasn’t—so I got up and went over to talk to him about it. Conservative Arizona, here we go.
Was I nervous? Yes. I’m a people pleaser. And yet, my best self is built on the tenet that I am never to ignore social injustice and I do not ignore a teachable moment, if I am equipped to educate.
I pulled him aside, and casually asked to talk to him for a second. “Hey,” I began, “I just want to tell you that Natalie doesn’t go by sir. She is a woman. And if you can’t call her ma’am, please don’t use anything.” He was immediately shocked, horrified, and embarrassed. I could tell, so I followed up by saying, “This is why we are here, so please don’t feel embarrassed. We aren’t upset. This is just a moment for us to talk about it.” We ended up chatting for a while. He explained to me he had a little boy and that our conversation made him want to teach his son more about how to have an open heart, how to stand up for those who are not like him.
I’m not highlighting this to be self-congratulatory. Rather, I’m mentioning it because it wasn’t easy for me. I was making assumptions about how it would go and about him—assumptions I didn’t know I was making until the exchange went the opposite direction from how I thought it would play out.
Righteousness must be put aside during moments of education, and shame must be actively assuaged and dismantled for us to have the desired outcomes. Otherwise, we will be perpetuating the problem, even if we know we’re right and others were wrong. Had I let him stay ashamed, we wouldn’t have become friends of the weekend like we did—even if his ignorance irked me at the get-go.
There’s all these lists out there about how to be an ally, and the truth is it isn’t that easy, but the lists make it look easy – and the language is overwrought with simplification so it ends up being directionless direction void of any shred of meaning, and yet, the ally position is crucial. Of course, stories are the only way to get at real points of how to be an ally, and to that end, we will continue to collect them. The stories of how to be an ally are as varied as people themselves.
At the end of our breakfast, the waiter, let’s call him Xavier, came over and hugged us, thanking us with immense “gratitude” (his word) for bringing him into a clearer understanding. He then took our exchange home to his wife, and when he told her what happened, she cried. It was important for me to step up for Natalie. It was important for Natalie to have someone who would handle it for her. And it was important for Xavier that we took the time to meet him where he was at.
While seeking trans-inclusivity, we should be designing an inclusive conversation about trans identities, and that is what an ally can do – as the mediator, translator, the one who takes a second to stop the moment and right it. Because when it comes down to it, each of us must get out of the stands, stop watching, and start kicking the ball towards the goal.
Paula Gilovich is queer, an ally to all those who are trans and non-conforming, a youth advocate and a playwright, essayist and regular contributor to trans.cafe, and the founder of the Goldmine collective. She is also the Director of Content + Production for abc home, where she is the producer of the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy calligraphy exhibit: “I have arrived, I am home.”