A reader writes: “I am avidly following your posts about how the T relates to the rest of the acronym. I’d like to bring up the A (or one of the A’s, as the case may be). Many people in the Queer community tend to alienate our Allies. I think this is abhorrent.
“I have seen cis allies of trans people get called out harshly simply because they didn’t know all of the proper terminology. I believe in education, but taking such a teaching moment and turning it into a bashing session is unacceptable. How do we as trans people (or queer people in general) help our allies? How do we help them learn and grow and support us how we need? How to we defend them from those who would rather not have them at all?”
This is a great question that I think will get a lot of varying responses from readers. I am of two minds regarding the education and support of our allies, and both of those minds get to say their piece in response.
First of all, I believe that we absolutely need allies, and this is not because we can’t get things done ourselves. Allies bring a different set of ideas, experiences, and viewpoints to the table. Allies can help educate those who would otherwise simply dismiss us. Allies can help turn the tide for those who are in the “teachable middle” – those non-trans people who aren’t sure how they feel about us or who don’t think they have to feel any way at all.
In addition, allies add numbers to our support base, and I believe that, the bigger the support base, the more clout we have, politically and otherwise. Allies are invaluable in any social or political movement, and I would hard-pressed to come up with a reason why we would not want them, although I’m sure someone has other thoughts on this.
I have seen allies torn to shreds over a simple misstep or slip of the tongue. I have seen allies dismissed out of hand because they asked a simple question, made an innocent assumption, or misunderstood what someone was talking about. I have seen them belittled or mocked for not knowing everything there is to know about one person’s trans experience (because not everyone’s experience is the same). This is unfortunate, because allies don’t have to stick around.
They can decide that the support they have to offer is not worth the grief they have to take for making a simple mistake or for trying to learn more. And they can let other people know, as well. So the minor offense has now turned into a pretty big deal for an ally who, in most cases, has other things to do with his or her time.
That said, I know that we get tired of educating. I know that it’s not our job to do so unless we so choose. And I believe that sincere and committed allies will not sit back with their arms crossed and say, “I don’t have time to do any self-education. It’s easier if I just sit here and you tell me everything.”
People who sincerely want to be allies to any particular group will do what they can to learn about that group – through books, films, websites, blogs, conferences, lectures, classes, and in myriad other ways. However, they can’t do all this at once and still have a life, so self-education takes time – years, sometimes, or even decades. In addition, if you decide to read ten books by ten different trans authors, you will get ten different situations, ten different histories, and maybe even ten different vocabulary terms for one concept.
And things change – language changes, what is acceptable changes, what is offensive and what is not changes. If you read Just Add Hormones, you will see that I use the term “transgendered” throughout. When I wrote the book, that was not considered an offensive term (at least not in my region and my social and political groups). It was, in fact, the standard (at least in my region and my social and political groups).
It is still my preferred term, but I no longer use it because so many others find it offensive. But if a would-be ally reads that book today, that person would have no way of knowing that the word has become offensive. And even if a person does not read that book, an English speaker who is aware that people are gendered might logically assume that people are transgendered. It’s an honest mistake, but I have seen allies verbally brutalized for using it (I have also been verbally brutalized for using it during the “changeover period” when it was going from being acceptable to offensive).
That is but one example. So while I completely understand the argument that true allies have a responsibility to educate themselves (and I agree), and while I completely understand the argument that we as trans people should not have to answer every little question we are asked or start at square one over and over again so that allies who are just testing the waters do not have to exert any effort on their own (and I agree), I also think that we need to cut genuine allies some slack.
There are some things that we can’t even agree on within our own community, so our expectations of others have to be realistic. I think that what we can do to nurture and respect allies is to welcome them into our spaces, gently correct any unintentional faux pas, answer questions when we feel like answering, and direct them to other information sources when we don’t.
I think we can treat them as we hope to be treated when we act as allies for other groups of which we are not members. We think about what we might want from those groups that would help us as allies, and then we turn around and do the same for our own.
We need only to look at some of our own personal attempts to be an ally to see how easy it is to screw things up. We all make mistakes, so we need to be kind, because a good ally is often hard to find.
Readers, what do you think?