I appreciate all the cis people in my life who have worked hard to learn about trans issues and become better allies to me and people like me. Despite their sincerity and hard work, there are a few habits that are so deeply engrained into our culture that I notice cis people have trouble remembering to step out of them. So I put together a list of a few things I notice my cis friends forgetting, either out of ignorance or culturally learned habit, in the hopes that it will help us move forward into a more respectful and inclusive world.
1. Not everyone you meet is cis.
In my experience, cis people tend to assume that they will be able to tell that someone is trans — that we will look a certain way, with certain “in-between” characteristics that will give us away. This assumption can be harmful in numerous ways. Some trans people “pass” as cis, but not all trans people pass, or pass all the time. People who pass can be put up on pedestals, provided as examples of what trans people “should” look like — or, at least, aim to look like. It can also lead to transphobic and exotifying remarks like “I would never have guessed you were trans!” or “She looks better than I do!” Remarks like these rest upon surprise that someone we find normal, or attractive, could possibly be transgender. It places transness as something outside of the norm, something that people should not be.
Conversely, trans people who don’t pass might also be assumed to be cis but constantly misgendered. For myself, no one ever assumes I am trans unless I am in trans spaces. They look at me, and they see a girl. But it’s not my job to dress or act a certain way to get them to attribute gender differently to me. For one thing, there’s only one direction for me to go in if I want to be gendered differently – masculine – and it’s not one I want to go in all the time. For another, no matter how masculinely I dress, I can’t control what people will assume my gender is, and the stress of trying or failing to pass is a stress I want to live without.
Furthermore, having to pass or being outed as trans can be extremely dangerous for trans people. As Janet Mock put it, “the moment of forced disclosure is a hostile one to experience, one in which many trans women, even those who have the conditional privilege of ‘passing’ that I have, can be victim to violence and exiling” (Mock 247). She continues:
“What people are asking is ‘Why didn’t you correct people when they perceived you as a real woman?’ Frankly, I’m not responsible for other people’s perceptions and what they consider real or fake….It is not a woman’s duty to disclose that she’s trans to every person she meets. This is unsafe for a myriad of reasons. We must shift the burden of coming out from trans women, and accusing them of hiding or lying, and focus on why it is so unsafe for women to be trans” (Mock 257).
The moment of outing (and indeed the concept of passing altogether) comes from the root assumption that everyone is cis, and that, if they are not, it will be obvious. The negative reaction comes from views of transness as something wrong or bad. Both root viewpoints need to be undone and understood by all as false.
2. Use gender-neutral language when talking to people you don’t know.
Because not everyone is cis, it is important for cis people to remember not to use gendered words about strangers — all strangers, not just people who look visibly gender non-conforming to you. It can be difficult to know when it’s a proper time to ask someone their pronouns, and it’s important to take into account that it can be dangerous to ask for pronouns in certain situations. But as much as you can, use gender-neutral pronouns and terms for everyone until you know what an individual prefers.
Even as a trans person, I mess this up. It’s very culturally engrained to draw a conclusion, just from a glance, about the gender of a person based on their body, hair, clothes, and other markers. It’s much easier to say, “I chatted with this woman at the supermarket today” than it is to say “I met this person with long blond hair at the supermarket today.” The first gives a basic sketch of what the woman probably looked like (although this mental image is problematic in other ways, as the default human image is often assumed to be white, thin, abled, heteronormative, and so on), while the second is more vague. But I’ve put my foot in my mouth before by taking the shortcut and using whatever gendered words I thought appropriate, only to find out later that the person I was referring to was non-binary. It’s a difficult shift to make, but if we’re serious about not assuming that everyone is cis and that the world is divided into two genders, it’s a step we have to take.
3. Stay positive and refrain from making jokes about trans people.
It’s highly likely that cis people know people who are trans but who are not out to them. This scenario can lead to things like making jokes about trans people in front of trans people, assuming that everyone in the room has the same view as you. Obviously, making jokes at the expense of trans people is the larger issue, but I think the two are connected.
Trans people are assumed to be an “other” — something that exists but is weird and freakish, something that certainly doesn’t exist in your circles, something that is culturally and socially acceptable to joke about. With attitudes like these out there, it’s no wonder that many trans people don’t come out to their cis friends, family, coworkers, or acquaintances. And when trans people hear cis people they know joke about trans lives, it only reinforces the reasons we are hiding in the first place.
This past Christmas, I was visiting my extended family. My extended family is very nice, but rather conservative. I have not felt comfortable sharing my gender with them yet, but I daydream about a time when I might be able to. We were sitting around a table, visiting my grandmother, when someone joked about Bruce Jenner turning into a woman. Everyone laughed, the kind of laugh that conveys how ridiculous the idea was. I had been having a good — if awkwardly pleasant — time, but when that moment came out of left field, I had to retreat to the bathroom to recover.
I stared at myself in the mirror and thought, “I hate being the trans cousin.”
That is a very mild experience of contact transphobia, but it hit me like a hammer nonetheless. Assume that trans people are around you. Assume they are included in your loved ones. Do not forget this fact, and work to change your view of and relationship to trans people to one of understanding, respect, and support.
More Radical Reads: I’m Gender Non-Conforming – And I Need People to Stop Pressuring Me to ‘Pass’
4. Use a person’s preferred pronouns all the time.
Finally, to round this short list out, I want to gently remind anyone who might have forgotten: Use a person’s pronouns all the time. This includes:
- When they’re not around
- When you’re referring to them in the past tense
- When you’re telling a story before they came out
- When they use pronouns that you don’t like
The only time it is acceptable to not use a trans person’s pronouns is when they are in a situation where they are not out to the people around. It’s a good idea to talk with your trans friends about potential situations like this ahead of time. Sometimes, when I am being misgendered, I like having my cis friends step in and stick up for my pronouns. Other times, I don’t want to come out as trans, or I just can’t be bothered to deal with the whole process of explanation.
Ask what your friends prefer. Then, make sure you use the pronouns and identifiers they prefer. Many trans women are degendered by people using they/them pronouns even after they find out an individual prefers she/her. It is a subtle but serious way of ignoring/invalidating a person’s gender identity and of perpetuating transmisogyny.
By working to internalize these reminders and form new habits, we can all work towards making our relationships and communities safer and more respectful places for trans people. Understanding, respect, and love from the people around us, including our families, friends, coworkers, and classmates, helps spread radical self-love by making the world an easier, better place to be trans in. I look forward to a world in which I never need to hide my transness and can love myself openly, knowing the people around me will reflect the same love back.
Mock, Janet. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. New York: Atria Paperback, 2014. Print.
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