Let’s begin with a story:
Someone in our life—maybe a friend, family member, or colleague—reaches out to us and tells us they’re transgender, non-binary, or genderqueer. “Ooh, I got this!” we think to ourselves. “I need to be an ally for them.” Then doubt starts to creep in. “But I don’t know how…How do I know what they want?…”
Wary, we step forward to be an ally. We say things that sound supportive and validating. Meanwhile, on the inside, the doubt and uncertainty rages on, “Crap! I messed up [her/his/their/zir] pronoun again! Why can’t I get this? Why are they asking me to do this for them? This is hard!”
This is an important moment in many of a trans person’s relationships. That moment when your friend, colleague, family member messes it up and feels that sting of guilt or annoyance. The next choice is pivotal.
We turn to the person we want to support and say, “Thank you for your patience with me. I want to acknowledge I’m having a hard time. I want you to feel supported. And I keep messing it up. And I feel frustrated because I feel like I’m messing up. I know it will take time. But please know that if I look frustrated it’s not about you—it’s about me.”
This is the kind of honest response we might hope for—appreciation for our patience, an affirmation of support, commitment to keep striving, and owning that their emotions are getting the better of them. Most importantly, an acknowledgement than their emotions are not our fault.
What more commonly happens is the following:
We turn to the person we want to support. We say nothing. Our frustration with ourselves is brimming at the surface. We might even feel frustrated with the other person. We think to ourselves, “Why do they have to make it so difficult?” We continue on, never directly addressing our inner frustration or shame (or secret annoyance with them) because we know we shouldn’t feel that way.
And so the relationship starts to deteriorate…
I often wish allies would ask clarifying questions when they’re not sure how to be supportive. There’s a lot of misunderstanding around transgender experiences and especially non-binary trans experiences, and for fear of appearing rude or insensitive, people tend to err on the side of not asking. So, I’m writing this post to share my personal experience of gender dysphoria and what has and hasn’t felt supportive for me. This is not to say that I have a magical formula for how how to support all trans folks. My experience is my own and will undoubtedly differ from that of other non-binary identified folks, and certainly from the experience of ‘binary’ transgender folks (transmen and transwomen).
This is not a post about how bad people are that they “don’t think” and misgender people. People are people. They make mistakes. I make mistakes. I misgender people too (hell, I still occasionally misgender myself!). This post is not about being perfect. It’s the opposite in fact. This is a post about acknowledging how each and every one of us will mess it up. And what we can do moving forward to learn, grow, and become more supportive of our non-binary, trans, and genderqueer friends, family, and community members.
My hope is that this post can help people seeking to be allies to trans and non-binary folks start a conversation and learn how to better support someone whose experience of gender is different than theirs.
My lived experience of gender dysphoria
I happened to have been assigned female at birth, but my internal sense of gender is that I am agender. For me that means that I do not feel as though I am either male or female, man or woman, boy or girl. Some non-binary people experience themselves as somewhere along the middle (if you imagine a spectrum). For me, it’s as if the gender binary (and the spectrum!) are in a different foreign country that I’ve visited many times—after all, most of my friends and family live there—but I don’t fully understand the culture there, and I definitely don’t feel at home there.
For me, being misgendered (gender dysphoria) feels like rubbing your skin against a rug or carpet. The first time it happens, it’s uncomfortable, but liveable. But over time, rugburn HURTS. It’s intense!—intense enough that being misgendered in the opposite direction (assumed to be male) is actually a relief, even though that for me is misgendering as well. Whether it is a pronoun (he/she/they), or whether it is other gendered language (such as “Hey ladies!” or “women’s [rest] room”), the impact for me is the same.
Imagine living your life with a giant rugburn on your back. And everytime sometime bumps into you—usually accidentally—the pain is so intense, you have to remind yourself that they (probably) had no clue you have that rugburn there. For some of you reading this (people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, people living with mental illness, or cognitive or physical disabilities), this—or something like it—may feel familiar. For others of you, this may be a new experience to imagine.
This is not to say that every trans, non-binary, or genderqueer person (or other minorities) experience microaggressions as a rugburn. Some folks are less affected by pronouns than myself (and others are more affected!). We each have our own experiences—I can only talk about mine. But what I believe we all share in common in the consistent experience of feeling invalidated, or feeling “other.”
What’s a supportive way of responding to someone coming out?
So let’s jump back to the part of the story when someone first comes out in your life. Maybe it’s a colleague or employee at work, maybe it’s a friend or family member. How can we better support trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people in our communities? How do we truly support authenticity and inclusivity in our spaces for these folks?
- Thank the person for sharing. It’s REALLY hard to be your authentic self, to let people in and open yourself up to rejection and criticism from those around you. Affirm that person by thanking them for their courage and the gift of their story (if they choose to share it).
- Ask clarifying questions. It’s common for people of older generations to believe it’s rude to ask the person questions directly. My experience, and that of other folks with similar experiences is that we prefer you ask questions rather than assume. Ask that person how you can best support them. When it’s an employee, ask if there are things you can do as a leader to make the environment more welcoming or supportive. One exception: it is not appropriate to ask clarifying questions about medical treatment (including hormones or surgery). It’s just rude. You don’t need to know what’s in someones pants or under someone’s shirt unless you’re in an intimate relationship with them, in which case they’ll probably let you know. If they offer this information to you, thank them for sharing, because they made the choice to trust you with this information.
- Listen for the experience of the other person and accept it as true for them. What you personally think or believe—whether it’s about gender, about biological sex, or even about grammar—is irrelevant to the experience of the person experiencing gender dysphoria. If someone says something feels disrespectful to them, you don’t have to understand it, just accept it as valid. Accept that you may not be able to fully understand the other person’s experience (because you haven’t had it yourself!).
- Stop looking for ways to avoid using pronouns. You may think you’re being sneaky, but you’re not. We notice. People notice when our friends or colleagues’ speech patterns change. When you avoid using any pronouns, it sends the message that we’re a burden. It’s much more respectful to make mistakes, correct yourself, then move on.
You also don’t have to agree with the other person. You get to keep your own experiences of gender. Another person’s experiencing something differently doesn’t imply that your experience is wrong—it’s just different. And likewise, even if someone else’s experience seems similar to your own, it doesn’t mean it is the same. Thankfully, understanding or agreement aren’t required for empathy or compassion. As podcast and TedTalk personality Dylan Marron has (somewhat) famously said, “empathy is not endorsement.”
Listen for what they tell you about their experience and their understanding of themselves. Listening and accepting their experience as true regardless of your understanding is essential for showing support as an ally. When we assume we know someone else’ experience better than them, we risk dismissing, minimizing, or otherwise invalidating their experience. Ask clarifying questions with the intent to learn how to best show them support and respect, not to decide whether or not to believe their experience.
One mistake people commonly make is to assume that when someone comes out, that means the person has “changed.” We think to ourselves that they are no longer X and are now Y. The problem with this assumption is that it rarely matches the experience of the person coming out. And based on this assumption, people often say things that come across as invalidating. Most commonly when someone comes out to you as trans, it is something they have been experiencing for a very long time, possibly all their life. The moment at which they come out to you might be the moment that they were able to put who they are into words. But more likely than not, the moment of coming out is simply the moment they felt safest telling you who they are. They were likely not a “different” person in the past. You just understood them differently. This comes back to asking clarifying questions. Ask them how they would feel most respected when you are referring to them in the past. More often than not, the person coming out will have strong feelings about what pronouns and gendered language to use about their past. Accept that their experience of gender in the past might not match up to how you understood of them at the time or assumed them to be at the time.
- When you make a mistake (yes, when, not if), correct yourself, then continue with what you were saying. You can include a brief apology, if desired. (Example, “ ….he…. sorry, she….”) If someone corrects your gendering or pronoun usage, a respectful response is, “Thank you for the correction.” Then you continue with what you’re saying. Over-the-top apologies and self-flagellation send the message that we’re a burden. Outward frustration can send the message that we are an inconvenience. Showing gratitude for other’s corrections—even when it’s uncomfortable–sends the message that you can be trusted. You’re not going to get it right every time. Perfection isn’t the point. The point is to show this person (and other people like them) that you care enough to step-by-step create a more welcoming place for them.
- Face your blind spots with courage. A lot of people hear the word privilege and think it’s some nasty thing, that somehow it makes them a bad person to have it. A useful way to reframe it is to think about privilege as having personal blind spots. We all have things we assume to be true about the world but don’t notice until someone else points it out. Gender is no exception. Challenge your own assumptions about gender, about biological sex, and about grammar. Challenge the assumptions you’ve made about the person who just came out to you. Simply calling yourself an ally, calling yourself ‘progressive’ doesn’t make you one. You can intend to be supportive all you like, but until you face those blind spots and challenge those assumptions, you will continue to be experienced as either (at best) unsupportive, or (at worst) possibly a little transphobic. And when someone helps you see your blind spots, no matter how uncomfortable it is for you, thank them. Because they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone—and possibly their safety zone—to do you a favor. Be kind to yourself in the process and be even kinder to the person who’s taken the risk to come out to you. Trust me, it’s harder for them than it is for you.
For those who are looking for language around asking pronouns and the etiquette around apology, this sheet that I and a colleague co-wrote when we were on the board of the NWMAF (National Women’s Martial Arts Federation) is a useful start.
For those who want to learn more about implicit social cognition (the reason we have “blind spots”), check out Harvard’s Project Implicit
Building cultures of safety that include and welcome marginalized folks
When Amy and I founded Culture of Safety, we thought a lot about what our founding values should be ( and how we would live them! ). Amy has already written about integrity, a value that is especially important to her. For me, the values that emerged as important are those that would have enabled me to feel welcome and accepted when I was coming out as a non-binary transperson:
- Authenticity We cultivate the courage to show up with our whole selves
- Inclusion We welcome everyone, especially those who are different than us
When I was coming out, I wanted and needed a place that prioritizes these values. Sadly, I didn’t have it. As part of Culture of Safety, I commit to creating that space for others. I hope you all will help support me along the way whether it’s by creating the change in your own communities or by joining and supporting Culture of Safety, or both.