I hurt someone recently.
A stranger, yes, and unintentionally, definitely.
But I cannot stop thinking about it.
I was in a coffee shop, working, and trying not to be distracted by the wildly irate person sitting a couple of tables away. It was impossible not to hear him hiss into the phone he had goaded the cashier into handing over, “Listen to me! My phone is not working! What are you going to do for me. You need to fix this right now.” His face turned puce, saying, “Do not call me sir. Do NOT call me sir!”
He hung up furiously, and then spotted my own phone out next to my laptop. He pushed away from his table and beared down on me, holding his hand out. “Is your phone working? How many bars are you getting? Can I see it?”
I removed the phone out of his reach and answered, “Mine isn’t working either. It’s frustrating isn’t it? Hopefully they get service working again soon.”
“Can I just see your phone – how many bars?” he repeated again.
“Sir,” I said firmly, “I am actually trying to work and can do so without my phone, so if you don’t mind….”
“Ok, ok,” he huffed. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“And I’m not a sir. I’m a ma’am.”
And with that she turned her back to me.
I apologized hastily: “Ma’am. I didn’t know and I do apologize. Thank you for correcting me.”
She said nothing.
And I felt horrible.
I am someone who is careful before making assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation and gender pronouns. I appreciate the difference between sex and gender, with the latter assigned at birth and not always experienced by the individual as a true identity. I will argue in both public forums and at my parents’ dinner table in defense of a transgender person’s right to exist any way they identify. I am open to the idea that my daughter may or may not continue to identify as female someday. I’ve even told my husband that if he decided, one day, that he wanted to live as a she, I could work the situation, because I’m certain we’re meant to be together as partners, regardless of what that looks like in terms of gender and sexual orientation.
In short, I consider myself an ally to the gender non-conforming community. However, as my interaction with the woman at the coffee shot made jarringly salient–I still have a lot to learn regarding how to best put that alliance into practice.
Rebecca Chapin, founder and former program manager for the Transgender Initiative, as well as a key volunteer and board member at the LGBT Center of Raleigh was open to counseling me around the unintentional microagression I had committed. She has been profiled by Q-Notes for her advocacy, workshops, and lectures on the issues, definitions, and rights of the gender non-conforming community. in addition to hosting the blog “msneversaynever” and the YouTube channel “sneverheart,” which follows her transition, Rebecca is also the author and illustrator of the children’s book “The Youngest Finds Joy.”
My conversation with Rebecca clarified that there are many ways cisgender persons can be allies to the transgender community. Here are four ways to support your transgender family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues:
- Familiarize yourself with the challenges today’s transgendered persons face here in the United States.
Rebecca directs me to the most recent study available provided by the NCTE (National Center for Transgender Equality) showing that 1 in 2 trans identified youth are ejected from their home, 90% of gender nonconforming individuals experience some form of harassment at work, and it remains legal in 35 states to be fired for being trans.
I pause to reflect on what that means. A teenager turned away by his parents. A colleague afraid to use the restroom in the office. Living between two worlds where you either feel like you are in the wrong clothes or body or lifestyle so as not to upset your family, friends, and co-workers, or, a space where honoring your true identity means possibly losing loved ones, your home, and even, in some cases, your life.
- Language counts
In the course of conversation, I erroneously referred to persons as “transgender” and “cisgender.” Rebecca gently and graciously corrected my language, explaining, “transgender” and “cisgender” are adjectives, not nouns. Accordingly, refer to members of the transgender community as a “transgender person.”
Rebecca suggests an alternative to a strict cis or trans binary when it comes to gender identity. Upon meeting someone, she asks, “How do you identify?” giving other people the opportunity to present themselves by gender, but also perhaps by race, ethnicity, occupation, or even hobby.
I loved this idea. If someone asked me, “Jessica, how you identify?” I might say, “I’m a mother” or “I’m a writer.” In some settings I might say, “I’m a military spouse,” “a member of the Cherokee tribe,” or even “a cat lover.” But, as Rebecca so astutely captures, my first impulse is to present myself according to how I want others to interact with me – an attempt to connect that goes beyond and operates independently of gender.
- After misgendering a person, the best thing to do is simply apologize.
Rebecca points out, “the important take away is that if you make a mistake (as even I often do) simply apologize.”
Even if you want to explain why you made the error, resist the urge to explain your mistake. Lengthy justifications might make you feel better, but in the meantime, you risk making the person feel more uncomfortable.
To avoid misgendering others, practice asking persons how they identify or what their preferred gender pronouns (PGP) are – and use this language with everyone you interact with, not just with persons you believe to be gender nonconforming.
Editor’s Note: Some folx would rather you not ask what their “preferred” pronouns are…since a person’s gender identity is not a preference or choice–it is who they are. Doesn’t hurt to just ask: “What are your pronouns?”
- The best way to be an ally is to communicate.
Using gender neutral language is one way to communicate your inclusivity and support for all persons. You can also attend a support or social group, participate in local LGBT programming, and stand up each year on November 20th, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, in memory of those who were murdered for living as transgender persons.
If you are an adult and know young persons who are struggling, direct them to resources so they can learn how to become confident in their decisions to live as gender nonconforming persons. If you are the colleague of a transgender person, make sure they feel safe in your work environment. If you are the family member or friend of a transgender person, assure them that they are loved, supported, and respected.
My conversation with Rebecca helps me understand that I can be a good ally to the transgender community. I understand now that I did the right thing with the woman from the coffee shop – I apologized for my mistake. The real error would be if I let that single incident put me off from attempting to further engage with transgender persons. Not knowing how to proceed is not an excuse – it is an opportunity to educate myself on how I can improve my show of support.
Or, as Rebecca put it: “Each person’s experience and journey is different from the last and the only way we can support each other is by learning about journeys that we ourselves have not taken.”