Ally is a Four Letter Word.

This is an edited version of the talk I gave this past Sunday at The Unitarian Fellowship of Northwest Toronto. They were a wonderful group to speak to and the discussion was insightful, thoughtful, and a pleasure to be part of.

Do you consider yourself an ally for transgender people?

In one sentence, what does that mean to you and how do you show it?

When I say that the term “ally” is a four letter word, how do you feel? Uncomfortable?

When people call themselves an ally it frequently comes from a place of wanting to support those they know who are transgender. Other times it is because of a sense of social justice and wanting to improve life for those who are oppressed. For far too many, however, it comes from a place that is more about the person than about those they are claiming to support. Their actions and words come across, either explicitly or implicitly, as, “Look at me! See what a wonderful person I am because I am supporting transgender people by doing this thing!”

One of the classic ways in which people and groups try to say they are allies but fail miserably is in the area of welcoming and inclusion. How often do we walk by stores, community organisations, and some faith communities and see a rainbow flag and/or a trans flag on the door? How often do we see websites and materials that have these flags and an announcement saying that they are welcoming? They have become so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless.

When we delve a little bit deeper we find that the welcoming only goes so far. In businesses we find tat they are happy to take our money, but would never hire someone who is transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary. Or, they may hire people who were assigned or designated female at birth and are transmasculine or non-binary, but they won’t hire transfeminine people.

Faith communities may say that they are LGBT welcoming, but in practice they are only tolerant of LGBT people in their midst. They may ordain gay, lesbian, or bisexual clergy, but not transgender clergy. The sign on the door says welcoming, but they really are not. Within faith communities those who call themselves allies can be the most vocal about saying that the community is welcoming, affirming and inclusive. Yet, when transgender people begin to talk about their needs within the community and what would make it better, there are all sorts of reasons why that cannot happen. Those allies are paying lip service to their allyship and when it really matters they are silent.

In my own case I encountered this when seeking to have my new name affirmed in the community I was part of. There was an interim clergy person in place who said they were supportive and inclusive, yet found reasons why this could not happen in the context of the main service of the week. I was only part of the community to a certain point. My needs and the needs of other transgender members of the congregation were less than the needs of others whose milestones are recognised in the context of the main service.

The most insidious way in which allies behave poorly is when they claim to be allies, offer to to help, then make it all about their needs and preconceptions of what is needed. This is particularly common within LGBT or LGBT supportive organisations.

A current example of this is a gala being held by a PFLAG group in the Greater Toronto Area. They are having their annual gala later this month to raise funds for their work in the region where they offer services. They have a number of big name sponsors. They seem to be jumping on the transgender bandwagon and have a transgender keynote speaker for the evening. They did not, however, select a transgender woman or a transgender person of colour to speak. Instead they are paying to have a transgender man fly in to give the talk. The only representation that may remotely be considered as representing transgender women are two big name drag queens who will be performing at the gala.

This demonstrates allies behaving badly in a number of ways. The most obvious ways to me are:

  • Perpetuating myths that transgender women are drag queens
  • Appropriating drag culture as being exemplifying what LGBT culture is ignoring the history of drag culture as one that comes out of black gay and queer history
  • Focusing on the masculine and what cisgender gay men tend to want in a gala rather than broader LGBT people

The web site of this particular PFLAG group states, “Pflag is [the] Region’s LGBTQ support, resource and education network—bringing together all members of the community.” This Gala does not, in fact represent all of the community or provide any real education in its promotional materials.

This is only one example of this type of behaviour. In 2015 in a major Canadian city a group commemorating the transgender day of remembrance, TDOR, held a recognition event for allies rather than a vigil or other programming recognising the violence and oppression that transgender people face. When a friend who lives there told me about this I was gobsmacked and a tad annoyed. Yet, I was not surprised. This sort of behaviour is all too common.

This behaviour of taking over the struggle is seen elsewhere as well. When groups organise around support for promoting human rights, health care, achieving political goals, and supporting the work of transgender and LGBT people. It is all too common for those groups to start focusing on their own needs and desire for recognition. Even in groups by and for transgender people it is not uncommon for them to have unwritten expectations of what an ‘acceptable’ transgender person is and if one does not fit this then they are not supportive unless the person fits their expectations.

The people who are allies often take over control over the messaging of the organisation or group. Or, they speak above the voices of those most directly impacted by the policies and practices that need to be changed. The advocacy becomes about what they think that transgender people need rather than what transgender people actually say that they need.

Again, often this behaviour happens within LGBT communities even more than in cisgender communities. Because transgender people have been part of the struggle for LGBT rights from the beginning we are part of the LGBT umbrella. It was transgender women of colour who were at the core of the Compton Riots in San Francesco and the Stonewall riots in New York City. Two transgender women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were the first to stand up to the police at Stonewall.

Yet, for the past fifty years the wider LGBT movement have thrown transgender people, and especially transgender women, under the bus so they could get the rights that they wanted. Then, when the time came for the rights of transgender people to be fought for they were often silent.

When people get together in wider groups to support transgender and other rights it’s all too common for them to want to stop to advertise that they are being so supportive. The focus becomes on them because they are being such good people and thus deserve a cookie for being decent human beings and standing up for transgender or other oppressed groups.

Is it any wonder why transgender people are often frustrated with people who call themselves ‘allies’?

When it comes to the provision of health care and mental health services for transgender people providers often call themselves ‘allies’ of transgender people. Yet, they do not listen to transgender people who state what is needed in health care. Those who write policies, develop education for providers, and deliver the services are, almost always, cisgender people. When qualified transgender people speak up their voices are often ignored or explicitly silenced.

One common tactic, and this goes beyond the health care providers, is to seek “input” and “consult” with transgender people about what is needed. The implication is that the input and consultation will be used to improve services. What happens, however, is that those who ‘consult’ go and do what they were planning to do anyway and claim that it comes from having consulted with the community. When they do listen they use the knowledge and emotional energy provided by transgender people, usually without adequate compensation for the work involved.

When organisations request training on how to support transgender people it is common for the cisgender people in an organisation to take over the responsibility even when there is a transgender person in the organisation who could provide the training and consultation.

Organisations that claim to be allies often display the ‘best’ examples of poor organisational allyship.

When people in the general public claim to be allies they often do not want to do the work required to educate themselves on the needs of transgender people and the issues that directly impact their lives. It is common to hear from people that they consider themselves allies, but then when they engage in behaviour that is disrespectful, discriminatory, or downright insulting, that they couldn’t be doing so because they are allies. “I have a transgender friend, I can’t be transphobic!”

There is an assumption that all transgender people want to be continually educating people on what it means to be transgender. We are expected to be educators all the time, even if that is not what we are skilled at or desire to do. Most transgender people only want to live their lives and be left alone.

Some of the most common ways in which this plays out is in the type of questions transgender people are asked. Examples of this are:

  • What is your “real” name?
  • Show me a picture of what you looked like before you transitioned.
  • Have you had “the surgery”?
  • Do you plan on having “the surgery”?

These questions may come from a place of genuine curiousity, yet they are highly invasive and inappropriate. A primary reason why people feel justified in asking these questions is that most stories one sees in mainstream media refer to the transgender person’s name prior to transition and include before and after photographs of the person the article is about. When a transgender person runs for political office media asks them for this information. There is an assumption that anyone and everyone has a right to know extremely personal details about us regardless of how well they actually know us.

These are just a few examples of why I, and many others, consider “ally” to be a four letter word. All too often people claiming to be allies behave poorly and disrespectfully.

This often leaves those of us who are the ones with whom the people are supposedly ‘allies’ where we usually find ourselves getting frustrated and not wanting to interact with our so-called allies. The underlying feeling is along the lines of, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” The behaviour of so-called allies is such that an inordinate amount of our energy goes toward dealing with their behaviour rather than working toward helping improve things for other transgender people.

Therefore, I do not like to use the term ally at all. As my friend Cait said in a recent guest post on my blog No Cookie for you. she would rather be supportive and not use the term ally. She would act rather than claim to be an ally. She would be supportive.

This brings up the question of what it means to be supportive and not one of “those allies”?
What do you think some of the ways to be supportive are? Some ways of being supportive include:

  • Take the lead of transgender people when being supportive
  • Do not ask the invasive questions mentioned above. If a transgender person brings it up themselves and invites questions, then take the lead from them.
  • Ask what you can do to make things a bit easier for transgender people you are working with. This could be as simple as offering to buy the person a meal if you are able. The median income for transgender people in Ontario is $15,000 per year with those below that level being disproportionately transgender women.
  • Act when you see transphobic and discriminatory behaviour toward transgender people. This means challenging people when they are not respecting a transgender person’s name and pronouns. This is particularly important when the transgender person is not present.
  • When there are educational events and other events focusing on transgender people examine the event and ask if transgender people are taking the lead. If they are not, why are they not in lead positions?
  • Point out when there is a privileging of masculinity and work to change it. All to many orgnaisations, and especially LGBT organisations, privilege masculine presenting people, transgender men and others designated female at birth. Do not leave it up to transgender women to point this out and seek change
  • Do not seek cookies when being supportive. This means not trying to take centre stage and demanding the spotlight over transgender people
  • If you are in a position where you are making hiring decisions for work that is specifically about transgender people, ensure that transgender people are hired to do the work, particularly transgender women as we are usually underrepresented.
  • Insist that when there are consultations that seek input from transgender people that their time is compensated. All too often there is an attitude that we ought to be grateful that we are being consulted and our time and knowledge is not worth anything.
  • Stand up when someone is acting to seek glory for themselves and stroke their own ego rather than being a supportive person and putting the transgender people in the fore.

While all this sounds pretty depressing and like there is a lot of work to be done, there is hope. A lot of people over the years have been supportive without seeking a lot of glory for their work and making it about themselves.

I have had the pleasure of working with people for whom the work is something that must be done. Not something that is for their own personal glory and ego.

It is not always easy to put one’s own ego aside and work quietly for change. In my own work, particularly when it comes to supporting other marginalised and oppressed groups, I continually remind myself to act in solidarity and support. I ask myself, “Am I doing this for the right reasons?” These are questions I ask you to consider in your own work, whatever that may be, when you are in situations where you are tempted to be an ally rather than a supportive person who is working in solidarity.

We are all, as far as I know, human. We all make mistakes and screw up from time to time. We are not perfect. When we act in ways that hurt others and are not supportive, when we are being “that ally” we can, and should, take the step back and examine our own behaviour. All too often when someone’s poor behaviour is pointed out the reaction is defensive and the person closes down. I’m pretty sure that at some point every one of us has reacted that way when challenged.

If your behaviour is being called out or pointed out as being problematic I challenge you to take that extra breath, listen to what the person is saying, acknowledge your mistakes, and commit to striving to do better.

When you are pointing out someone’s behaviour to them I ask you to do so in a way that will help them to hear and improve. Talking to the person and pointing out their behaviour does not always have to be public. “Praise in public and admonish in private” often yields better results. That said, however, there are times where someone’s behaviour or comments must be challenged in the moment. This is particularly important when there is active discrimination happening or the person is spreading false or misleading information. Not making the corrections or challenging the behaviour leads to perpetuating the behaviour and sends an implicit message that it is okay.

As I close, I ask you, what are some of the ways that you will strive to be supportive moving forward?

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