How To Be an Ally to Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People in the BU Community
Important tips about how to be a supportive ally
“Transgender Awareness Week is a week when transgender people and their allies take action to bring attention to the community by educating the public about who transgender people are, sharing stories and experiences, and advancing advocacy around the issues of prejudice, discrimination, and violence that affect the transgender community.” (GLAAD)
With Transgender Awareness Week now in full force, here are some important tips about how to be a supportive ally.
Tips for transgender allyship:
1. Learn the terminology
Transgender terminology can be confusing, and that’s okay. However, it is not okay to intentionally remain ignorant of it because you feel that it does not directly apply to you. For your convenience, here are the main terms and their definitions that you should know:
- Transgender (adjective)
- Describes a person who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Often shortened to “trans.”
- Cisgender (adjective)
- Describes a person who does identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
- Nonbinary (adjective)
- An umbrella term that describes a person who does not identify with the gender binary of “man” or “woman.”
- Transition (noun or verb depending on context)
- Step(s) a person takes to affirm their gender identity. This can be in a social context and/or a medical context. Note: do not ask prying questions about what point someone is at in their transition and do not assume their “surgical status.” Not every trans person will socially and/or medically transition for a variety of reasons.
- Biological sex (noun)
- Refers to the gender someone was assigned at birth based on chromosomes and external genitalia. In other words, biological sex or birth sex. Note: sex is often conflated with gender identity (e.g., saying “men” when you mean “males” or “women” when you mean “females” and vice versa), but these terms are not the same.
- Gender identity (noun)
- The internal sense of one’s own gender. There are many different gender identities.
- Gender expression (noun)
- The way that a person outwardly presents their gender, such as through clothing choice, speech patterns, and overall style. Note: gender expression does not have to equal gender identity and vice versa (e.g., a nonbinary person can have a feminine gender expression, but that does not mean that person identifies as a woman).
- Sexuality/sexual orientation (noun)
- A person’s identity based on the gender(s) to which they are attracted. You should not assume a person’s sexuality based on their gender identity and vice versa—the two are not the same.
2. Normalize introducing yourself with your pronouns
Pronouns are such an important, often taken-for-granted aspect of one’s identity. Using people’s pronouns is an easy way to respect and validate a person’s gender identity, and can be a great first step to trans allyship. Cisgender people rarely have to worry about being misgendered or referred to with the wrong pronouns, because it is very common for their gender expression to match their gender identity. However, for transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people, being misgendered with the wrong pronouns is unfortunately a very familiar experience for many.
If you accidentally address someone with the wrong name or pronouns, make sure you correct yourself, take accountability (don’t make excuses), and commit to getting it right next time. Here are some more tips on how to do better at getting new pronouns right, and what to do if you make a mistake (it happens).
Help dismantle the idea that gender expression always equals gender identity by including your pronouns during introductions. For example, say: “My name is Sam and my pronouns are he, him, and his.” Adding your pronouns when first introducing yourself to someone normalizes publicly acknowledging that not everyone’s pronouns are easily discernible. This additional information may feel unnecessary to you if you normally do not get misgendered, but it is especially important for cisgender people to do. With regard to social media, put your pronouns in your bio. It’s really simple and helps to create a safe environment for TGNC folks to share their pronouns and be correctly gendered as well. To learn more about pronouns, check out this resource on personal pronouns.
3. Be mindful of phrases or terms that are inherently gendered
Both American society and the English language itself are heavily rooted in the gender binary. However, many common phrases are exclusive of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people. Try to make your vocabulary more inclusive by using gender-neutral terminology. For example, rather than saying “men and women,” say “everyone” or “people” or “folks.” Another example is instead of using “he or she” when speaking about a person with an unknown gender, you can say “they” or “that person.”
You can also find more tips on using gender-neutral language here.
4. Educate yourself on the history of transgender people, especially trans women of color
What is Transgender Day of Remembrance?
“Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) was founded by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor her memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman whose life was lost due to anti-trans violence in 1998. The vigil commemorated all the transgender people lost to violence that year and began an important memorial that has become the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.” (GLAAD)
TDOR is especially important this year, as more lives have been lost to anti-transgender violence in 2020 than in any other year on record.
It’s important to better understand the struggles that transgender people go through to better understand why trans allyship is so important, and that transgender people are not a “new thing.” Transgender people have always existed. In fact, Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman, was one of the founders of the queer liberation movement. To learn more about historical figures from the queer liberation movement, watch this amazing crash-course video narrated by Laverne Cox: A Trans History: Time Marches Forward And So Do We.
It’s also important to use resources to self-educate rather than relying on your trans friends to educate you. Not only is this tokenizing, but not every trans person feels comfortable speaking about their personal experiences. It can feel very tiring and burdensome to have to constantly explain and justify your identity.
Granted, not everyone has the means to do this, but if you can spare a few bucks, consider donating to organizations that support transgender people. Transgender people experience greater rates of unemployment than the general public due to bias and workplace discrimination, especially transgender people of color. Transgender people are also at higher risk for substance abuse and chronic diseases like cancer and HIV, but face significant barriers to receiving adequate healthcare, such as discrimination. The BU Queer Activist Collective (“Q”) would like to highlight the following organizations that support transgender people of color to which you can donate:
- Black & Pink Boston
- Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective
- Black Trans Travel Fund
- Boston GLASS
- Brave Space Alliance
- Marsha P. Johnson Institute
- Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project
- TGI Justice Project
- The Okra Project
If you have additional questions or would like to learn more, check out a non-exhaustive list of allyship resources that the BU Queer Activist Collective (“Q”) has compiled here. If you want to take your trans allyship even further, you can also familiarize yourself with LGBTQ+ wellness resources by checking out Q’s official guides to BU and Boston LGBTQ+ resources.
Finally, email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, concerns, or if you would like to get involved with Q, Boston University’s LGBTQ+ student organization. Q is dedicated to promoting awareness, visibility, well-being, and full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community at BU. Check out our Instagram @bostonuq to learn more.