5 ways cisgender queers can show up for trans people

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Trans people and gay people share a number of the same experiences and struggles. Most of us “come out” at one point or another, and many of us experience backlash from family, friends, and from society at large for simply being who we are. But each letter in the LGBTQ+ community has its own set of experiences and struggles that differentiates it from the others. 

If you aren’t trans, you’ve mostly likely never: dealt with being constantly misgendered by loved ones and strangers, suffered crippling gender dysphoria, experienced medical gate-keeping, or had difficulty accessing life-saving gender affirming care. These struggles are a fact of daily life for many trans folks, and as such they uniquely shape our understanding, our perspective, and our experience of ourselves and the world. 

Here are some ways that you can use your privilege as a cis (or non-trans) queer person to make the world, and our community, a better place for trans people.

  1. Educate yourself 

You can’t show up for someone whose identity, experience, and struggles you don’t understand. So the first thing you can do to show up for trans people is educate yourself about our identities, experiences, and the barriers we face in simply trying to exist in society. But keep in mind that it’s emotionally draining for trans people to have to constantly explain and defend our gender to cis people. Think about how you feel whenever straight people treat you like you’re their tutor for Gay Studies 101. So please don’t treat us like your personal Intro to Gender tutors, especially if we barely know each other! Unless we have established rapport and have made it clear that we’re happy to answer your questions and share our experience, don’t assume that we’re up for it. Do your own research—but please make sure to use reputable sources.

  1. Include us, but don’t tokenize us

To be permitted, or allowed, in a space, is not the same thing as being included in that space. Inclusion means that your presence is expected and your needs are considered before you even walk through the door—so that when you do walk through the door, you feel like you belong there just as much as anyone else.  

Sadly, LGBTQ+ spaces are often not inclusive of trans people. Even though the very first Pride was the result of a trans woman throwing a brick and catalyzing a riot, trans people are often underrepresented on LGBTQ+ boards and committees, and as a result, many LGBTQ+ events, initiatives, and spaces are designed and organized with only cisgender gays in mind. Accordingly, in these spaces, trans folks end up feeling like an afterthought at best, an imposter at worst.

Even trans-specific events can fail to be trans-inclusive when they are spearheaded by cis people or cis-dominant organizations. This is inevitable when trans people are left out of the planning, or when we are included as a mere afterthought—as the “token trans” featured at the event. Tokenization, or the inclusion of a member or members of a minority group for the purpose of appearing inclusive, is not the same thing as inclusion. Personally, I would rather be excluded from an event than be invited to participate as the “token trans.”

So how can you make your LGBTQ+ event, space, or initiative trans-inclusive? By involving us from the get-go, and making sure that we are adequately represented on your boards and planning committees. By actively seeking out and listening to our perspectives and opinions, and giving us credit for our ideas. By compensating us for our time and services, just like you would a cis person with the same skills or credentials. By starting all of your meetings with introductions, and asking folks to state their name and pronouns. By training your teams on the importance of gender neutral language and not assuming others’ genders, so that trans people are not being misgendered by event staff when they show up to a Pride festival. (Yes, this actually happens.)    

  1. Respect our genders—and our sexualities

Respecting someone’s gender means using the appropriate pronouns and terminology when speaking about them, whether or not they are present. So, if someone isn’t a dude, you don’t call them a dude. And if you don’t generally call cis men “hon” or “dear,” then you don’t use those terms when referring to trans men either. It’s really pretty simple: you respect a trans man by treating him / talking to him like you would any man, a trans woman by treating her / talking to her like you would any woman, and a non-binary person by *not* treating them / talking to them like a man or a woman.

Trans people’s sexualities, our sexual orientations, ought also be respected. The main thing I would like to say here is that cis people don’t have a monopology on gayness. Trans men can be gay (men attracted to men), and trans women can be lesbians (women attracted to women). This means that gay trans men absolutely belong in gay male spaces, and lesbian trans women absolutely belong in lesbian spaces. More on this below.

  1. Acknowledge your biases, and be teachable 

If you’re getting ready to skip over this section because you “don’t have any biases against trans people—you’re totally fine with them” please keep reading. Just because you’re “totally fine with” a group—you have no problem with them existing, identifying, and living as they do—this doesn’t mean you don’t have biases about that group. After all, you live in a society that systematically invalidates, erases, and misrepresents trans people at every turn. If you aren’t one of us, how could you not have some biases regarding trans people?

We are simply asking you to acknowledge that you have biases, and be open to having them pointed out to you. Accept that you, as a cis person, are going to make mistakes. The best thing you can do when that moment comes is apologize, allow the trans person space to feel whatever they are feeling, and when they’re ready correct you. Then make a point of understanding where you went wrong in your thinking. We don’t expect you to become a gender expert overnight. But we do expect you to be open to being corrected, so that you can avoid committing the same mistake/microaggression in the future.

  1. Hold others accountable  

Humans are creatures of conformity. It’s in our DNA. We conform because we are afraid: of being rejected by the herd, of being without our community and support network, of being left in the dust to fight for our survival. Even marginalized people, or people who’ve faced negative consequences as a result of not conforming to the norms of the dominant culture (so, even queers) are afraid to violate the unspoken norms of our subcultures. 

As I discussed, gay spaces and Gay Culture at large tends to be cisnormative: they reinforce cisgender bodies and experiences as the golden standard for gender. So what happens when a trans person enters such a space? If there are no allies in the room, nothing happens. The cis gay men and lesbians in the room will carry on equating their sexuality with their love of dick or vagina, respectively. The gay men will talk about how repulsive vaginas are, and the lesbians will make a show of their disgust toward penises. The trans person will sit in silence, visibly uncomfortable. The group will be oblivious to the trans person’s discomfort, or they’ll choose to ignore it. What do they get out of participating in these exclusionary rituals? A sense of validity, a feeling of belonging to the group.

If an ally is present, they will use their voice, and their cis privilege, to educate and influence their peers so that the trans person doesn’t have to. They will call out any transphobic remarks or jokes. They will point out that not all men have dicks and not all women have vaginas. They will explain that, by equating gayness with dick, lesbianism with vagina, the group is erasing trans people.

Cis allies show up and speak up—not for “ally points” or for the political advantages. They show up because they know what it’s like to be excluded and mistreated, and they know how much it meant when someone showed up for them. They understand that, echoing Marsha P. Johnson, there can be no pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.

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