Recent news reports have been filled with stories about people who are transgender becoming more visible, telling their stories, and revealing the challenges that they continue to face. From the history-making Time magazine issue featuring Laverne Cox on the cover and Amazon Studio’s hit show TRANSPARENT, to less positive, more difficult stories of the violence that people who are transgender can encounter—sometimes from others, sometimes, sadly, self-inflicted—the prominence of people who are transgender has never been greater.
This visibility has opened up a new conversation about understanding what it means to be transgender and, for those focused on inclusion, how to become more educated and active advocates for the community.
To be a trans ally is powerful and necessary—especially in the wake of the above-mentioned stories of violence—but not a role without its own challenges and journeys. Here are a few ways to get started in your efforts to become more actively inclusive of people who are transgender:
1. Accept that people have the right to define their gender, regardless of sex. This is a simple statement, but not at all simple when we consider the rigid—and often damaging—gender roles that society still confers to men and women. In spite of progress, much of how we see the world continues to be, in some ways, driven by our ideas of what men and women do, and who they are. While we’ve made remarkable progress in shattering many of these ideas (see the revolution against pink toys for girls as just one example) the idea that people can be something other than what biology conferred remains a challenge for many.
This is the very heart of understanding what transgender means: biology_ isn’t_ destiny. The sex that people are assigned at birth isn’t necessarily who they are. And being open to the concept that people who are trans are, and were always meant to be, the sex with which they identify is a significant leap of understanding for some people. Working towards thinking about and shifting those perceptions—and talking about that shift with others—allows us to examine and identify our own biases, and then take action to better understand (and, hopefully, change) them.
2. Respect people’s gender identifications, pronouns, and names. For many D&I practitioners, this might seem just to be basic good manners. (And it is.) But for some people in the workplace, being asked to use new terms to refer to a person with whom they have worked in the past can be uncomfortable and even unwelcome. At work, setting the expectation that people who have transitioned will be called by their proper names and identified by their correct gender is at the very bedrock level of respect.
But we also need to recognize that education is a huge part of this process for those who have not had the opportunity to learn about what it means to be trans or to transition. Provide employees with learning and discussion opportunities to learn core competencies around trans issues, and make the case as to why their shift in their behavior isn’t just important, but required to ensure that everyone is respected in the workplace. Also, accept in advance that unintentional mistakes can and will be made—and provide ways for people to correct their missteps without shaming them, but in constructive, real-world ways. Becoming a strong ally is rarely an overnight transformation for people, but a journey of learning, understanding, and change. Support the journey without judgment, but offer plenty of resources to help new and existing allies thrive.
3. Challenge anti-trans and sexist remarks, jokes, and comments through personal conversations. Few people are happy to concede that these behaviors emerge in their workplace, but based on research, we know that they occur—and often at an alarming rate. One survey revealed that 90% of people who are trans have experienced discrimination at work.
However, just telling people to intervene isn’t sufficient. If you really want to empower employees to speak up, providing education and coaching on how to appropriately and inclusively respond to the situation is a must. Offer examples of how to use conversation, not confrontation, both to help people identify negative comments and then leverage one-on-one discussions to become more aware of the impact and the benefits of a behavior change.
4. Listen to the stories of people who are trans to better understand their experiences. Across all diversity dimensions, the peril of going from being a fierce ally, working alongside marginalized communities and following their guidance, to becoming a paternalistic ally, dictating what the path to inclusion looks like is real. Great allies need to constantly remind themselves (and other allies) that there’s a fine—but tremendously critical—line between being an active supporter and taking on the “I know better” approach, even when the best intentions exist. (No need to look further than the discussions of the allyship of white people in a post-Ferguson world to see a clear example.)
No matter how much cisgender (meaning, people who do not identify as trans) allies want to do good, the moment that they stop listening closely to the endlessly diverse voices of people who are trans to hear their stories and truly hear how they want to be supported is the moment that great allyship falls apart. The bottom line is that being an ally means constantly practicing the Platinum Rule: treat people as they want to be treated. But this will never happen when allies feel like they’ve got the issue covered. There is always more to learn, and making listening (and asking) part of your trans ally DNA is essential.
5. Say that you’re an ally—and why. There’s been plenty of discussion about the push against “labeling” people. Some argue that we shouldn’t have to designate who is the ally and who is part of the group being supported; we’re all in this together.
And while that is a lovely and valid goal, the bottom line is that there is still tremendous discrimination faced by people who are trans, and the power of the ally voice specifically as a person who is not a member of the community but who accepts the issue to be one for which they have some responsibility is tremendous. In our publication guide to being a trans ally, we clarify that when allies take the time to explain why they’ve taken on an issue which is not “theirs” (e.g., not personally part of one’s identity), a phenomenal inclusion opportunity develops. It is the space where discussion about our responsibilities to support each other because of (and not in spite of) differences can happen—and this is where change occurs.
Engage people to identify as allies, but also provide them with chances to go beyond the personal identification and the language to talk about why they are allies, how they behave as allies, and—most importantly—how they can support other allies in becoming engaged, too.
Looking for a place to start? The guide to being a trans ally, and its many web resources (found at straightforequality.org/trans) were specifically created for people who are— or may become—allies to the trans community, offering details on core competencies around the topic, discussions of what being an ally (and the expectations around behavioral changes) means, the voices of both trans allies and people who are trans talking about what their own journeys and connections have meant, and accessible suggestions for action.
The momentum on this topic has never been stronger. In the workplace, it’s now up to D&I leaders to use this momentum to bring the conversation to their organizations to ensure that respect and dignity in the workplace truly means respect and dignity in the workplace for all.