It is no secret that we live in divided times. No matter what topic comes up, there is usually a very stark delineation between good and bad, right and wrong, us and them. You see it everywhere from Apple and Android to political parties. Sadly, you also see it within our own LGBTQ community. While you may think that you are standing up for the oppressed when you are shaming our allies—those who are truly trying to learn about our community and empower it—you are just creating a greater divide.
Why Allies matter
I am not one to ascribe to the idea that minority groups like the LGBTQ are victims and do not have the ability to stand up for what they want. You don’t need allies because you are poor, weak and helpless. That being said, we are still fighting for basic human rights in many places and there is strength in numbers when it comes to voting at the ballot box or with our dollars as consumers. We never want to be so ugly and mean about someone using the term “transgendered”* that we alienate someone who wanted to support us. We also need to return to the beginner’s mind every once in a while and realize that most of our terminology is “industry jargon” to a layperson. Every time you add another letter to the ever-expanding LGBT2SQQIAAP+ acronym you are putting up a barrier for the ally who wants to connect with you and understand you. Diversity and inclusion are wonderful. Let’s include well-meaning, humble cishet** friends. After all, they were just born that way.
I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to offend anyone.
I hear this comment regularly. Most often it’s from friends and acquaintances who know I have a transgender child and are struggling to use the right terminology so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. They don’t know what pronouns to use, or to refer to him as my son. I can tell that these people are trying. I can tell they are genuine. I go out of my way to make it clear that before my son came out three years ago, I also didn’t know what to say. I am only a few steps ahead on the path and happy to share what I know without making it sound like they are idiots for not knowing what AFAB stands for (that’s assigned female at birth which is the most appropriate way to refer to my transgender son before he came out).
What Allies need to know
Pronouns are tricky and can be a new concept to our older generations, but this is where you can make a huge difference in being a Super Ally: don’t assume someone’s gender by what they wear and how they style their hair. Ask, “What are your preferred pronouns?” BAM! It’s that easy! And, don’t be shocked if someone who presents as a woman or a man asks to be referred to as they/them and identifies as non-binary.
It’s also important for allies to understand why some people are less generous than others when it comes to forgiving your ignorance and slip-up. It may be your only mistake that day, but the person you inadvertently offended may have had that same thing said to them 40 times before you uttered the words. Mistakes and micro-aggressions accumulate. Also, people are all in a different place in terms of their coming out journey. Jody might be a super cool trans woman who lets a misgendering roll off her back while Jack is facing discrimination with his parents at home and financial insecurity with his job and the last thing he has energy for is to explain to a stranger the difference between transgender and transvestite. It’s not easy for an ally to know who is in the best frame of mind to help educate them to be a better ally. This is something, like pronouns, that you need to ask about upfront and be forgiving if it’s not the best time to ask.
It’s hard to hate up close
This is a quote I heard Michelle Obama say and it has become my anthem as an advocate for the LGBTQ community. I share our journey with my heart on my sleeve to bring people closer, to create a connection, and to spread love. Those of us who are in positions of privilege and not in the throws of struggling with acceptance, if we can all drop the divisiveness and assume good intentions from the people reaching out across the divide, we all win. Dare to be nice.
*As an aside, transgender is not a verb. For example, someone is not gayed or latinoed. By saying someone is transgendered, you are implying that it is something happening to the trans person instead of acknowledging that it is who they are. This slip of the tongue can be quite innocent but reaches back to the old thoughts that LGBTQ is a lifestyle choice.
**Cishet is the short form for Cisgender-Heterosexual. Cisgender means you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth (usually by looking at the sex of your external genitals) and heterosexual means you are attracted to the opposite sex.