Learning how to be an ally to transgender and non-binary people takes both time and effort. And despite all that you do, you might never feel that you are a perfect ally. That’s okay, because the trans community is diverse and allyship can mean different things to different people. Stay committed, keep learning, and keep going.
Here is a checklist of things to do, from beginner steps to some that are more involved:
Transgender and non-binary people of all ages exist…from 3 to 99 or beyond. Because of this, it’s acceptable (and should be encouraged) to talk to others of all ages about gender identity and trans people. Even very young children are able to discern society’s rules about what it means to be a boy or girl, and when someone is breaking those rules. The preschool years are a great time to talk to children about curiosity and creativity about all forms of play: toys, books, role playing, dress-up and clothing styles, and more. It’s also a great time to talk about differences, respect, kindness, and compassion towards people we know and people we don’t, those who are like us and those who are different.
For older children and family members, talking to them about the differences between sex and gender, and that we all have a gender identity…an innate sense of who we are that isn’t influenced by our body parts or who others think we are. We know ourselves better than anyone else can. Transgender people are no different, and know themselves — who they are on the inside — better than anyone else does. That’s why it is so important to respect another person’s identity.
Don’t feel like you have to flounder through these conversations alone or stumble around concepts that you might still be trying to understand. Use books or videos to anchor your conversations. The Human Rights Campaign has a YouTube channel full of videos that can be your starting point or help you learn about more complicated ideas directly from trans people themselves. They also have a complete book list of titles that support transgender and nonbinary youth. Reading books together, watching videos, even watching tv shows with trans characters can all be easy entry points into bringing the subject of trans identities and trans rights into your home.
Familiarize yourself with different pronouns, introduce yourself with the pronouns you use for yourself, and ask others for their pronouns. Using the correct pronoun for any person shows respect for their identity and personhood.
“He” and “she” are not the only pronouns we can use to refer to an individual! Many nonbinary people prefer the pronoun “they,” and it is grammatically correct to use they when referring to one person. Other pronouns, sometimes called neo-pronouns, feel more accurate for some nonbinary individuals and with a little bit of practice, their use becomes second-hand. Still others might not feel that any pronoun is suitable and will ask you to always use a proper name when speaking to or about the person.
Mistakes are bound to happen as you practice using different pronouns, especially if you knew a person by a different name and pronouns before, or if you are getting familiar with a neo-pronoun. It’s best to quickly correct yourself and move on. Lengthy apologies aren’t necessary and shift the focus to your rather than to the person who was misgendered. The best apology acknowledges the error without making the other person feel the need to comfort or reassure you that they are ok.
Practice using inclusive language that acknowledges and supports various gender identities, including those who are nonbinary. Instead of addressing a group of people as “ladies and gentlemen,” refer to them as “guests” or “colleagues” so that no gender is assumed. Update language around gender roles and stereotypes so that a fireman is a firefighter, a mailman is a postal worker, and a waitress is one of the waitstaff.
Be mindful of microaggressions and backhanded compliments. These are statements that cause emotional damage to a trans person even if the person saying them thought that they were being supportive. Microaggressions can be more harmful than more obvious acts of bias or discrimination and have been described as “death by a thousand cuts.” They are harmful because they tend to reduce a trans person to a few body parts, give them a perceived value based on how well they conform to cisgender (non-transgender) beauty standards, or tokenize them.
Some examples of microaggressions and backhanded compliments are:
As you move through the steps needed to become a better ally and learn about inclusive language, you will probably start to notice transphobic language happening around you. It’s important to use your voice to interrupt that kind of casual or intentional transphobia. Whether it was a “joke” a dismissive or hurtful comment, intentional misgendering of another person, or derision about the transgender community, call it out. Your speaking up can become the catalyst that causes others to speak up as well.
Do your own research rather than asking a trans person uncomfortable, inappropriate, or intrusive questions. There are thousands of resources available to you — content created by trans people and trans educators, that you can turn to for information. Educational books and autobiographies, videos and podcasts, or articles written by trans teens and adults for major media outlets allow you to hear directly from a trans perspective without putting the emotional burden on one person in your life to speak for a community.
Become familiar with current language and terminology used about and within the transgender community. Language is evolving rapidly, as some terms fall out of favor and become offensive, others (like “queer”) are reclaimed from being a slur to being a point of pride, and others are added to expand our understanding of the variances of gender identity and gender expression.
Understand that intersectional issues affect a large portion of the transgender community. Racism and xenophobia is persistent in the United States and wreaks havoc on the ways in which people of color can access healthcare, employment, housing and so many other things many take for granted. These are the same systems that also fail transgender people -- and for transgender people of color, these challenges are compounded. In short, being a transgender person of color can mean struggling with even greater disparities while trying to cover basic needs. You can show your allyship by recognizing your privilege and using it to advocate for those who are experiencing greater struggles than your own.
As more transgender people come out and seek to live openly rather than hide their identity, we can all do our part in ensuring they have welcoming spaces. That means seeking transgender-inclusive training for places like schools, businesses, and hospitals, that will teach educators and staff how to treat trans people will curtesy, respect, and professionalism.
Explore workplace policies to see if they account for and support different gender identities and expressions. Update forms and documents that ask for information about gender; it is often a default question on many kinds of paperwork even though that information is not pertinent and will never be used. Rethink dress codes that reinforce gender stereotypes or that might cause a nonbinary person stress while getting dressed for work each day. Read through your healthcare offerings and policies to see if transgender healthcare and mental health services are covered or if exclusions for those have been written in. Update your nondiscrimination policy to offer explicit, enumerated protections for transgender people and to specify punitive policies for those who are disrespectful. For more tools, visit HRC’s Corporate Equality Index and look up the employers in the database to see how they treat trans employees.
Creating a welcome space also means that everyone has access to restrooms and gendered facilities that are private or gender-neutral so that all people can feel safe and comfortable (including our nonbinary friends).
The world has become a more tolerant place over the last few years when it comes to recognizing that trans people exist and are a part of our society. But true respect is about much more than tolerance. It’s important that we continue to move forward to acceptance, inclusion, and celebration. You can help make that happen!
Support organizations that support the transgender community. Because of a history of discrimination and systemic oppression of trans populations, many services that we use and take for granted every day still seem unaccessible or unsafe for our trans loved ones. From mental health facilities, suicide prevention, low-income housing or homeless shelters, social services, public transportation, and public safety…show support for the organizations that have done the work to become educated on trans issues and needs. Encourage those who haven’t to update their policies and receive training.
Work to get your policymakers to pass nondiscrimination laws at the local, state, and federal level. While we had a recent Supreme Court ruling that affirmed employment nondiscrimination rights of trans people, those rights have not yet been solidified in other public accommodations, housing, finance, or education. And only 17 states and the District of Columbia offer some of those explicit protections. Sadly, many laws are proposed each year or policies are revised within government organizations that actively harm and allow discrimination against transgender people. Get involved to stop or undo these changes by calling elected officials, writing Op Eds, testifying at hearings, collecting signatures for petitions or ballot initiatives, and voting.