Growing up, I used to hear people say, “I don’t see color.” When I was young I didn’t question it. At the time, it seemed like a useful way to convey that I like people for who they are, not what they look like. But as I reflected on my life and experiences over the years, and as I had more in-depth conversations with people of color, I began to see just how dismissive and invalidating comments like that feel when you’re on the other side. Similarly, since I came out as non-binary trans, I’ve heard a lot of folks say, “I don’t see gender.”
I wish it could be as simple as you’re either “supportive” or “unsupportive” of someone. As if it were an electoral system, we could either vote YES or NO for LGBTQIA+ rights; we’re either transphobic or we’re not. But like most human interactions, support is not experienced as a binary; rather, it’s a spectrum.
Some ways we act and speak are more supportive, and some are less. The point of this piece is that in order to be a good ally, intending to be supportive isn’t enough. As we say in our classes, “Assume positive intent, but know that impact matters more than intent.” People who intend to be allies can do just as much harm as those who don’t even intend to be supportive in the first place. How? There are two pitfalls I’ve seen even would-be allies slip into, both forms of passive resistance.
What is passive resistance and why does it happen?
Simply stated, passive resistance is a way most of us behave initially in response to other peoples’ behaviors or identities when they challenge our assumptions about the world. This can come from either unconscious or conscious bias. Sometimes these behaviors come across as passive-aggressive; sometimes they come across as well-intentioned but invalidating.
One example is the way we might respond when we’re trying to sound supportive to an LGBTQIA+ friend or colleague: “I don’t care who you sleep with,” or — especially in work contexts — “what you do in your free time is none of my business.” Similar phrases come up when people come out as trans, “Ok. Well, whatever gender you are makes no difference to me,” or the cruder and ruder “It’s not my business what’s in your pants. ”
There are two main problems with these kinds of responses and the beliefs that inform them:
One, while we may think we’re being supportive– after all, we’re not rejecting the person, or threatening them, or calling them names—these phrases all convey indifference, which never feels supportive to the person hearing it. When someone shares something about their authentic self that feels important to them, indifference pushes them away. Being color-blind or gender-blind isn’t possible. To claim that we are is just plain invalidating and dismissive to the person coming out to us.
Two, being an ally requires you do some work to shift your view of the world. When you make these kinds of statements, you’re communicating clearly to trans people (or people of color, or other minorities) that you haven’t (yet) done that work. Because when you encounter a transgender person or someone of any minority category for the first time, your beliefs and assumptions about other peoples’ experiences of gender and/or sexuality (and/or race) should be challenged. How could they not be? This is part of why it has taken so long for LGB folks to get any kind of legal protections– because in all honesty, being LGBTQIA+ is a challenge to societal norms. And being an ally requires that we challenge those cultural norms. And that’s scary to a lot of folks.
Now, maybe this person who came out to you isn’t someone you feel close to, such as close friend or family member. Maybe instead, they are a colleague at work, an employee, a student at school, or a distant relative. If this isn’t someone you’re close to, why should we invest any time or energy into questioning anything?
Because when we encounter someone whose very identity or experience challenges any of our beliefs or assumptions and we don’t do the inner work to question our assumptions about another person’s gender or sexuality, we will cause harm through passively resisting and denying the validity of another’s experience. And, whether we feel close to that person or not, whether we intend to cause harm or not, we’re still responsible for the harm caused. My experience is that passive resistance shows up in at least two distinct ways (two pitfalls!), which I call (1) indirect invalidation, and (2) pernicious invisibility.
#1 – Indirect invalidation
The first form of passive resistance is indirect invalidation. This is partly because it is the more common form of passive resistance. An example of this is as an ally we say, “I haven’t had the chance to practice [your pronouns]”… five minutes after we’ve misgendered the transgender person in front of us. Another is when a transgender person introduces themself to us for the first time with their pronouns and we immediately misgender them in the very next sentence we use, without noticing or correcting ourselves. Other examples are when we assume which bathroom someone will feel safest using.
I think of these as indirect responses because they are unconscious. These behaviors are the natural consequence of us not challenging our own assumptions around gender. In these situations, we may not consciously believe that the trans or non-binary person’s experience is invalid, AND we may sincerely want to be an ally. But because we have not (yet!) done the internal work to challenge our assumptions, we continue to perpetuate gendered assumptions.
Indirect invalidation can subtle; it can also be quite overt. The clearest example of indirect invalidation from my life occurred at my workplace about 2-3 months after I came out. I approached someone in leadership about some workplace gender-division practices that I experienced as unreasonable.
Throughout this very painful meeting, this leader repeatedly implied (but never directly said) that I am unreasonable for asking for others to accommodate me. They promised they would think more about what I say, but that they will lead how they “think best.” At the end of this meeting, they state that the best option for me if this situation happens again is to just pick one [gender] and go to that side of the room when this happens again or else exclude myself from these group activities. They then add, “I mean, I hope you’ll choose the [your sex assigned at birth] side. But whichever one you want is fine.”
This leader never directly told me they didn’t support me. And almost a year later, when I spoke more candidly with this person about that meeting and the impact their words had on my trust in their ability to support me, it became clear to me that not only had they never seen the harm it caused me, but they don’t even remember their resistance! They had rewritten their own history to support their belief that they had in fact been supportive to me because that is the narrative that best fits the person they want to see themselves as—an ally, someone who is, in their words, “progressive.”
Through indirect invalidation, this leader sent the message to me and all other trans folks at this organization that our identities were invalid, and that when we ask for accommodations to make the space safer for us, we can expect to be doubted, unsupported, and resisted before any hope for changes can occur.
#2 – Pernicious invisibility
Another common method of passive resistance is pernicious invisibility. One common example of this is when we avoid using all pronouns in order to avoid using the wrong gendered ones. This is primarily a strategy of avoidance. If I ignore it—either the pronouns or the person—maybe it will go away. After I came out at work at my former employer, several staff members tried to avoid using any pronouns whatsoever to refer to me. You’d be surprised by the kinds of convoluted sentences people can create to avoid using pronouns. Pronouns exist in languages for a reason—so, unless someone tells you to only call them by their name and to not use pronouns for them, just use their pronouns. It’s disrespectful otherwise. It takes practice, but after a week or two of consistent practice (yes, we have to practice!), it will become more natural.
Avoiding the use of pronouns is a pretty low-level form of the pernicious invisibility response. What is damaging about this is that the message we convey is that the person’s pronouns are inconvenient, and hence they are inconvenient. As you can see, this is much more subtle than indirect invalidation and thus much harder for either the recipient or the giver to notice.
A more harmful form of the pernicious invisibility response is avoiding the person themself. This is among the most emotionally harmful and damaging ways of responding to someone who has recently come out. Unfortunately, I lived through this as well.
It helps to know that before I came out at my former workplace, I was one of the “favorites”, especially with senior leadership. That was when I was assumed to be female. Not long after I came out, it became clear to me that leadership was uncomfortable around me and was ignoring me in more public settings. While their body language made it clear they were considering speaking to me, they would look away and avoid eye contact as if making me invisible rectifies their mistake or saves them from the embarrassment of experiencing a growth opportunity. It became clear to me that they would see me and notice my presence. Sometimes they would interact with me, continuing to misgender me without making any apologies or self-corrections, whether or not I pointed it out. Soon, invisibility became the more common method of dealing with me, or rather of avoiding having to face their discomfort with who I am, their fear of messing it up, or their fear that they might not be as progressive as they think themselves to be. It’s as if overnight I changed from a favorite to a pariah.
Who can feel safe in a work environment where you are rendered invisible because of some aspect of your identity?
So how do we avoid this kind of harm?
People cause harm, often without any intent to harm. And, even when we don’t intend to harm someone, we are still responsible for those actions, both ethically and legally. After all, it’s not as though we can say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to steal that money,” or “But I didn’t mean to break that person’s arm. I was just angry.” Whether it is passive (unconscious) resistance to someone’s identity, or whether it is intentional, the harm is real.
In my previous post, I described 6 ways for folks to be more supportive of transgender and non-binary people. The last one, “ Face your blind spots with courage” is the most relevant here.
As I said in that essay,
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. As allies, we need to challenge our own assumptions about gender, about biological sex, and about grammar. We are required as allies to challenge the assumptions we’ve made about the person in front of us. We may intend to be supportive, but until we face those blind spots and challenge those assumptions, we will continue to be experienced as either (at best) unsupportive, or (at worst) possibly a little transphobic.
The best way to avoid falling into the traps of either indirect invalidation or pernicious invisibility is to take the opportunity this person is providing to challenge our own assumptions about their experience of gender.
When we encounter a blind spot, a stuck point, an assumption we didn’t even know we had, we will feel a little defensive. That’s only natural. But it is only when we choose to move past that defensiveness—with curiosity and kindness towards both ourselves and the other person—that we can begin to see that the pitfalls even exist, let alone avoid stepping in them. Resisting our own defensiveness is hard. But it is important. It is only through facing our discomforts—with compassion and kindness to both ourselves and others—that we will successfully build a culture of safety for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.