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How To Be A Good Trans Ally - Learning About Gender

Dr. Joti Samra

June 04, 2020

Relationships

How To Be A Good Trans Ally – Learning About Gender

We’ve talked generally about How To Be A Good LGBTQ+ Ally but let’s talk more specifically about to be a good trans ally. For those just learning about the LGBTQ+ community, learning about gender and the proper use of pronouns may be slightly more challenging, particularly when it comes to identities that fall outside of the binary.

This article was written by our copywriter, Emory, who identifies as a trans man.

The Importance of Using the Correct Pronouns

When a person first comes out as transgender, one of the first things they’re likely to explore themselves (and/or request of you) is the use of a different pronoun.

I’m a transgender male and use the pronouns he/him/his or they/them/theirs. I’ve been out as transgender for five years and started my medical transition three years ago (when I started testosterone). Accurate pronoun use is always important, but it can be particularly important during the first few stages of transition because it helps a person feel validated in their gender as well as accepted.

When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (often all of the above).

One of the first questions cisgender people generally ask when the topic of pronouns is brought up is; how am I supposed to know which pronouns to use?

(If you don’t know what the term cisgender means, or dysphoria, or some of the other terms I may be using throughout this piece consider checking out our article on LGBTQ+ terms).

How To Be A Good Trans Ally

1) Start by educating ourselves about the use of pronouns. 

In school, we’re taught about the use of pronouns in a binary manner: he/she for individuals, and they/them for plural. But this language needs to be updated to include the use of singular they/them pronouns. They/them pronouns are used for individuals who identify as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid or whoever chooses to use them.

2) Do not make assumptions about what pronouns a person uses.

Just because someone presents a particular way, doesn’t mean they use the pronouns we assume they do. It can be helpful to practice using they/them pronouns and defaulting to using they until you find out what pronouns a person uses. Alternatively, you can default to simply using the person’s name. 

3) If you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, ask. 

Try one of these options: “Hey, what are your pronouns?”, “What pronouns do you use?”, “I was just wondering how you’d like me to address you.”, “I just want to make sure I’m using the correct language to refer to you.” 

Note: Avoid language around preference; pronouns are not a preference, they’re a requirement. 

Also note: Only asking people who appear to be transgender can in itself be problematic so get in the habit of asking everyone.

4) Start with yourself. 

An even easier way to start a conversation about pronouns is to start with yourself. Do this by introducing yourself with your name and pronouns, then give the other person the opportunity to do so as well. For example, I would say, “Hi, I’m Emory, I use he/him pronouns.”

Doing this in a group setting where everyone states their name and pronouns, regardless of gender identity, can help to make the experience less tokenizing for trans people. 

It’s a good approach to give pronouns first, so it’s not required for others to ask or make the wrong assumptions. 

5) Names are incredibly important. 

Not every trans person has legally changed their name but that does not mean you have the right to call them by their birth name (even if you know it). Respect the name they told you to call them by. If you’re struggling to make the change practice in the mirror or with another friend. 

6) Be aware of gendered language. 

Pronouns aren’t the only important aspects of gendered language. Some examples of regularly used gendered language include “Good Morning, ladies!” or “you guys”. Even using phrases we may think are more inclusive like “ladies and gentlemen” can be problematic. It’s important to be conscious of language and the assumptions we are making based on that language. Often the language we think is inclusive isn’t, due to the fact that it doesn’t include anyone who falls outside of the binary. 

Here are some examples of more gender-inclusive language: 

  • Instead of “you guys,” try “you all,” “y’all,” “folks,” “friends,” “everyone,” “people”. 
  • Instead of “dude,” “man,” and “bro,” well, how about just ditch those, no replacement necessary? 
  • Rather than “ladies and gentlemen,” try “everyone,” “folks,” or nothing at all. 
  • Instead of “men and women,” try “people,” “employees,” or “workers”. 
  • Rather than “sir” and “ma’am,” try nothing at all.

Other Important Things to Note About Gender

Gender and pronoun use is an important part of being a good trans ally. Here are some other things that may come up as you learn about gender identity and appropriate pronoun use so you can avoid some simple mistakes.

  1. Trans people aren’t required to disclose information about their identities. And even more importantly, they’re not required to do the labour of educating people on the shortcomings of their understanding of gender. Depending on your relationship with them, it can feel tokenizing and exhausting to trans people to constantly have to answer questions about their gender identity. Remember it’s important to educate yourself first. 
  2. Don’t ask them to speak on behalf of the entire community. Every voice in the trans community represents an entirely different experience from the next. I cannot speak for all trans men, I can only speak to my personal experience with being trans and my personal process with transitioning.
  3. Don’t make mistakes about youIt’s OK to make mistakes, and mistakes will happen. But make sure to immediately recognize and acknowledge you used the wrong pronouns (or name) and correct it. Don’t get upset or overly apologetic. The most respectful thing to do is to acknowledge the mistake, fix it and carry on. For example, “Max was riding her bike- sorry I mean his bike to work when I saw him”. 
  4. If you see someone else misgender a person, don’t stand idly by. Politely correct them and move on.
  5. Never argue with someone about the grammatical use of the singular they pronoun. They is grammatically correct and we are required to learn how to use it appropriately.

Final Thoughts

Learning to be more gender-inclusive can feel daunting because it seems like there’s so much to learn. And for many, the learning process must begin with unlearning ideas about gender and the gender binary. But using the correct name and pronouns is a huge part of being a good trans ally and can make a huge difference in trans peoples lives. So, it’s important to educate yourself and continue to practice with inclusive language. 

I hope now that you know how to use pronouns correctly, doing so isn’t as scary or as challenging as you originally thought. All it really takes is good intentions and breaking down your assumptions about gender.

Remember: Presentation doesn’t equal gender identity. And that it’s a privilege to not have to think about pronouns or have to correct people on your pronouns.

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