How to be a better ally to transgender folks

This is a beautiful piece written by Jess Tam. They wrote this originally here but with their permission I can post it here as well. I think the message in this post is important. I’ve considered myself an ally for the LGBTQIA+ community, but this piece made me see how much more I can be doing! You can find Jess here on Twitter, they are also a brilliant scientist so I am sure we will be seeing much more of them!

Also a side note: as an evolutionary biologist specializing in sex and reproduction – let me blow your mind here – gender is a human concept, very few animals fit a “gender” role and many actually fluctuate between what some humans would refer to as “gender”; but that’s a story for another time.

This year marks one of the worst years so far for transgender1 (trans) folks. So far in 2021, violent hate crimes have taken the lives of at least 48 trans people in the US alone, while more deaths either go unreported or that individuals took their own lives. While our society has become more accepting, there is still strong stigma against those who challenge the existing gender norms. In addition to the lack of proper education, this stigma has led to a lack of support from family and friends of some trans individuals.

The idea that there are more than two genders might sound contemporary for some. On the other hand, many First Nations and Polynesian cultures have long embraced gender fluidity. For example, ‘māhū’ in Hawaiian culture represents someone ‘in between’, or someone of the third gender. The western concept of the gender binary was not introduced until colonialism, as foreign missionaries considered indigenous believes immoral. Since they were developed separately, indigenous believes of gender and the modern LGBTQIA+ framework are not identical to each other. However, both can help us describe and understand gender and its fluid-nature.

As a research student who is trans and non-binary2, I often find my identity being a source of contention among academics and graduate students. I have been a spectator of many debates surrounding trans issues, from whether or not J. K. Rowling is transphobic (she is, because she is a keen supporter of transphobic policies in the UK), to whether or not the ban on trans women, who have not undergone gender reassignment surgery, of McIver’s Ladies Bath is discriminatory (it is, because not all trans people opt for surgery). Although it is obvious to me where the problems lie within these debates, I often forget that some trans issues can be complex for those who are cisgender3 to fully understand them. Unfortunately, I find it quite jarring when these conversations are happening. To prevent myself from being emotionally triggered, I shy away from actively participating and thus failing to point out the transphobia right away.

In light of Trans Awareness Week (November 13-19) and Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20), I would like to offer some advice as a trans and non-binary person and hopefully spark meaningful conversations around LGBTQIA+ issues. However, my perspectives are likely to differ from others of the trans community since we all live different lives and have different struggles. This is therefore based solely on my personal lived experience4 in academia. Other forms of phobias, such as homophobia, and biphobia, will not be directly covered here today. Perhaps another time! The following are some tips on how to create safer spaces for your trans colleagues:

1. Share your pronouns. 
Even if you are someone in the gender binary, i.e. a man or a woman, it signals to us that it is safe to approach you without having to hide our identities. For example, adding your pronouns to your twitter profile and presentation slides is a good start.

2. Use our pronouns. 
Adjusting to someone’s new pronouns can take time, especially if you’ve known them for a while. If you have unintentionally misgendered someone, be kind to yourself and make efforts to correctly gender them in the rest of the conversation. There is no need to feel overly guilty about it. In fact, I misgendered myself a lot when I first came out as non-binary and am still learning.

3. Use gender-neutral language. 
For example, instead of saying ‘ladies and gentlemen’, try using ‘folks’, ‘friends’, ‘everyone’, ‘distinguished guests’, etc., to accommodate all crowds.

4. Do NOT ask us about our genitals, surgeries, or hormonal treatments without consent. 
Although not all trans people experience gender dysphoria5, mentions of genitals, surgeries, or hormonal therapies could trigger negative emotions towards one’s body. Discussions of surgeries and treatments can also be difficult for those who require them but are unable to access them. Having trouble accessing healthcare can be caused by financial hardship, living with transphobic family members, etc. If you are curious, the internet can be a very helpful resource. Only ask these questions if you have established a trusting relationship with said trans person and/or have their consent. Personally, I am quite open to share my experience, but would also really appreciate a heads up as I struggle with gender dysphoria.

5. Know the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’.
I have in the past come across numerous journal articles, books, and surveys incorrectly using the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. ‘Sex’ refers to someone’s anatomical makeup, or assigned gender at birth, i.e. male, female, or intersex. While ‘gender’ refers to someone’s gender identity – one’s internal sense of their gender. Some examples of gender identities include man, woman, non-binary, agender6, and bigender7. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ refer to different aspects of our identities and are not interchangeable.

6. Include gender-diverse peoples in addition to women when ‘addressing gender equity’.
I have, in 2021 alone, stumbled upon job listings of 2 respective ecology labs from reputable Australian universities that had set aside certain positions for candidates who identify as women, to ‘address goals for gender equity’. While we need more women in academia, including gender-diverse peoples is a nod to our existence. Being inclusive will also show your potential candidates that your research group is a safe space for members of the queer community.

7. Invite queer and trans colleagues into conversations on LGBTQIA+ issues.
As with all discussions surrounding social issues, it is vital that we listen to the concerns and needs of the targeted communities, e.g. actively listening to people of colour on their views towards racial issues and injustices. If you are cisgender, you are unlikely to experience active forms of transphobia. Include us in your conversations to gain new perspectives on issues that directly affect us.

8. Being an academic doesn’t mean that you must flex your academic muscles in all situations.
It might seem ‘fun’ or ‘challenging’ for you looking for evidence to validate our existence, but being constantly questioned and doubted can cause us unnecessary emotional stress. While discussions about queer issues are important, we must also learn to listen and understand. After all, knowledge and experience can be mutually exclusive.

9. Call out transphobia.
Although scientists are generally quite open-minded and accepting, academia isn’t immune to transphobia. While I have not personally experienced any active forms of transphobia, I have heard comments such as ‘that’s really weird’, or others discuss certain issues with a negative tone. It is therefore a good idea for us all to regularly challenge and unlearn our assumptions about gender and educate ourselves. Actively help one another and raise questions gently. If you have been called out for making transphobic comments, instead of taking it as an offence, actively listen and learn from the point of view of trans people.

10. Show empathy when a trans colleague has experienced transphobia.
Instead of listing all your Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) awards and policies, be human and express compassion. Receiving harassment for simply being our true selves is a very distressing situation. It makes us feel unsafe and rejected. Let them know that you will work on providing a safer environment, actively listen to their concerns, and take actual steps to improve existing policies to create a safer workplace.

This might seem like a long list of etiquettes, but with time and practice, things will come naturally. I’m sure if I think hard enough, I can come up with even more tips, but this will suffice for the time-being. Although Trans Awareness Week only lasts for a single week, it doesn’t mean that our education ends here. Even as a trans person, I find myself gaining new insights all the time. Transgender people experience transphobia everyday around the world. If we can comprehend complicated models and equations, surely, we can accept those who are different from us. Actively listen, learn, and lift each other up.

To end this article, please enjoy this lovely comic that my good friend Mira had shared with me, created by the artist Aaron Billings on Instagram (@dilings).

1  transgender – describes a person whose assigned gender at birth does not align with their inner sense of gender
2  non-binary – describes a person who identify as neither man nor woman
3  cisgender – describes a person whose assigned gender at birth is aligned with their inner sense of gender
4  lived experience – a representation of the experiences and choices of a given person, and the knowledge that they gain from these experiences and choices (Wikipedia)
5  gender dysphoria – emotional distress caused by a mismatch between one’s body and gender
6  agender – describes a person who does not have a gender
7  bigender – describes a person who identify as a man and woman simultaneously

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