Transgender: How to be an ally instead of an asshat

As the former partner of a genderqueer person, an acquaintance and ally of a number of transgender people, an out feminist queer, and a “bisexual” who’s attracted to people of various genders, I’ve done a lot of reading and learning about transgender people, identity, and issues since the late 1990s.  And although I don’t currently do public speaking about anything except social movements in Argentina, I’ve been afforded plenty of opportunities in the last decade or so to educate people about transgender what-have-you.

Most people who’ve asked me questions are well-meaning but afraid to offend, so I try to start with the basics and indicate that I’m open to answering anything.  Many folks don’t know where to begin and seem to think it’s safer to keep their mouths shut; I can’t count the number of times co-workers I like and respect have mumbled, “Uh, I don’t know anything about that…” and then clamped their mouths shut.  This may be a wise choice, given the number of non-transgender (called cisgender in academic circles) people who think it’s just fine to make trans people the butt of jokes or the monster in their latest “art” work.

My friend and ex, G., recently had the misfortune of having to deal with one of these smug asshats at a public ceremony.  Friends of G’s partner were receiving their master’s degrees from a low-residency creative writing program, and one of the graduation-weekend readers was a middle-aged, white, male, presumably heterosexual and cisgender fiction writer who happens to teach at two educational institutions in my hometown.  G. emailed me after the graduation to ask if I knew anything about this writer, reporting that the guy had read from his latest story, about a doctor who medicates a female-to-male transsexual with too large a dose of testosterone, turning the trans man into a gorilla.  G., out to celebrate a happy occasion with a loved one, was instead reminded that the mainstream culture sees hir and other trans people as freaks and that so-called artists still feel free to lampoon them.

Ze fled the room in tears, and later emailed the director of the creative writing program, who offered her apology and forwarded G’s complaint to Mr. Clueless Writer.  As we’d expected, Mr. CW did not apologize for having turned a transgender character into an animal and a laughingstock, but instead responded to G’s email with a defense of his right to write about anything he cared to in a fictional account.  [Note: Mr. CW did apologize later, after I posted this.] In other words, the same indefensible manure my classmates and I used to have shoveled at us 20 years ago when we protested racist, misogynist, homo-hating poems and stories in our master’s-level creative writing workshops.

I’m happy that some things have changed in the past two decades and that some heterosexual, cisgender, white men do get it.  One of them, Dan Solomon, wrote a column yesterday in response to an offensive portrayal of trans people in England’s Guardian newspaper.  Solomon recognizes his privilege as a cis het white guy, and writes about going beyond compassion to become an ally in trans people’s struggles.

Becoming an ally instead of a silent bystander afraid to ask questions begins with self-education, which is pretty easy these days with web access.  A few reading suggestions are below.  Of course every trans person’s experience is different, so I’m including the links to only a few articles and sites.

A good place to begin is with the links in Solomon’s column:

Sebastian’s Trans Etiquette 101:

Butch Wonders blog: “How Non-Trans* People Can Be Trans Friendly”:!+Mail

Professor and truly creative writer Jennifer Finney Boylan has a new parenting column in Psychology Today and has published op-eds in the New York Times:

s.e. smith’s column about ou’s experience being genderqueer:

Resource list from University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Stonewall Center:

About springbyker

See more at: Feminist QBLTG Left activist grammarian & general crank. Love grassroots political movements, literature, independent film, travel in Latin America, bicycling, & good vegetarian food. I plan to write about all of these, plus being a recovering clutterer, writing, and saving the planet from suburban sprawl.
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