Minding Your Health - Tips for Being an Ally to Transgender People

A few years ago, I enrolled in a human sexuality course as part of the preparation for graduate school. In one class, a panel of students talked about their experiences as members of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s LGBTQIA community.
I remember this day clearly because a student shared: “Some days I feel like a boy. Some days I feel like a girl.”

“Well, make up your mind,” I thought.

I was horrified and embarrassed by my reaction. Clearly I needed to check my biases toward the transgender community. Through that experience and some personal reflection, I learned the following:

Own your ignorance: Gender identity and expression cut to the very core of how we see others and ourselves. Talking with a trans person may be uncomfortable because you don’t want to accidentally say something offensive or because you don’t understand all the issues involved in transitioning. Do not let that fear keep you from connecting. If you misstep, apologize and ask for guidance, then commit to not making the same mistake again.

Take the initiative to learn: It is not a trans person’s responsibility to teach us what it means to be transgender. The national chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG) offers a guide to being a trans ally at www.straightforequality.org. It offers suggestions on discussing trans issues in a thoughtful and caring way.

Don’t assume: Understand that every trans person is at a different point in his, her, their or zir’s journey. You cannot tell whether someone is transgender by looking, and you cannot assume their sexual orientation by their gender identity. This is especially true for those who identify as gender-fluid, like the student who spoke in my class.

Respect confidentiality: Simply because a trans person discloses to you does not grant you permission to disclose to others. Disclosing one’s non-conforming gender identity is risky, especially in work situations. A gay man or lesbian takes a risk in disclosing her or his sexual orientation. Recognize the risk that a trans person took in sharing this essential part of who they are.

Practice empathy: As lesbians, gay and bisexual individuals, we want the straight community to understand and appreciate our experience. The trans community should expect the same from us. Be patient with those who are questioning their gender identity, and give them space to explore. Respect their choice of pronouns and do your best to honor it.

Even with the increased exposure of the trans community in the media and society in general, it can be a struggle to appreciate the challenges that trans individuals face. However, we can also use that struggle as an opportunity to gain understanding, expand our worldview and support others in our community.

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