How To Be A Good Trans Ally in 2016
The Debrief: Let’s be clear - transphobia has no place in 2016. Prejudice, ultimately, nearly always stems from fear, from self interest or from a lack of knowledge. The Debrief spoke to Charlie Craggs of Nail Transphobia to find out how you can be the best possible ally for trans people in 2016.
Earlier this year Maria Miller, the former Culture Secretary, said she was taken aback by what she called the ‘extraordinary’ backlash after the Women and Equalities Committee published its transgender report.
Who was behind this hostility to a report which called for a sea change in attitudes to transgender people? Women ‘purporting to be feminists’, as herself Miller put it. One of the key criticisms levelled at Miller was that she was failing in her duty to protect women but since when did ensuring the minority of one group limit or preclude the equality of another?
All people, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic situation, race or religion deserve to be equal; surely that’s a given?
What’s not a given, however, is that all people are, in actuality, equal. Women around the world, even in the UK are still not treated how they should be. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland and can be punished with jail time. Women still don’t get paid as much as men. Sexism is still, regrettably, a thing in 2016. And, sadly, so are homophobia, racism and transphobia.
With this in mind The Debrief caught up with 24 year-old Charlie Craggs, activist and founder of Nail Transphobia. We met Charlie near her home in West London. The basis of her activism is simple: imagine you’re a cisgender person who’s never met a transwoman or man before. You’re not completely sure what it’s all about, you’re a bit confused and maybe unsure about whether you’re a trans ally or not. You might have read mixed things in the media, maybe you know about Caitlin Jenner or you saw Germaine Greer running rings around herself on Newsnight. Well, Charlie believes that once you meet her you’ll realise that at the end of the day she’s only human, just like you. Hers is a ‘hearts and minds’ approach to activism and acceptance.
‘It’s ok to not be sure about stuff’ says Charlie, ‘especially if its something you don’t come across every day. Trans issues are still a relatively new thing for a lot of people. But, there’s a difference between being confused in an ignorant or malicious way and being uneducated.’
Ask questions, get to know and be open.
If you’re unsure about how to address someone, it’s OK to ask
One area where many people come unstuck these days is over gender pronouns, how people want to be referred to: he, she and they.
‘If you use the wrong pronoun’ Charlie says, ‘just say sorry and move on. People make mistakes, that’s how you learn not to do it again. It’s like yes, once upon a time it was OK to call Caitlin Jenner 'Bruce', but now it’s not. You might slip up, just say sorry if you do.’
‘If you’re with someone it’s ok to ask them what pronoun they prefer. If you’re not sure, forget or don't feel you can ask, just refer to a person as 'they'. If I’m not sure I use that term, it’s safe.’
‘Asking the question, checking’ she says, ‘means you’re half way there already. If you’re switched on enough to ask a question that can only be a good thing.’
Don’t ask a transgender person what their ‘real name’ is
‘Gender in our culture is all about outward appearance’ says Charlie. ‘So, if you aren’t clearly giving off either femininity or masculinity people are uncomfortable.’
‘We should think about gender more personally, it’s so policed. Especially with trans people, perhaps it’s because we don’t conform. Perhaps that's because femininity itself is so policed.’
Your ‘real’ name is whatever you choose it to be and wish to be called. As Charlie points out ‘if Beyonce wants to be called ‘Sasha Fierce’ everybody just gets on with it, it’s the same as when Jennifer Lopez decided she was called ‘J Lo’…it’s not hard. If you can do it for J Lo…’
Don’t ask a transgender person you don’t know well something personal you wouldn’t ask anyone else…
Charlie and I discuss Caitlin Jenner, perhaps one of the problems with Caitlin Jenner is that, while she has used her platform to try and do something good, she is still, ultimately, a reality TV star. And, like all reality TV stars, she has made us feel like the intimate details of her life are our business. They are not. Hands up if you know more about the Kardashians than you know about your own family?
You wouldn’t ask someone you’ve only just met about their sex life, would you? Perhaps you might if they offered up details and info, but otherwise I’m guessing it’s not standard small talk material. Equally, you wouldn’t ask them about their genitals? Their sexual preferences? What kind of surgery they've undergone recently? What sort of medication they're taking? I’m going to go with no…
Some words that seem harmless are offensive, get to know them and don’t use them
Today the word ‘tranny’ is generally seen as a very particular insult – it’s an abusive term for transgender people. Often it is used as a comment on transwomen who do not ‘pass’ as female according to the norms of femininity as prescribed by our society.
‘My friend used the word 'tranny' on the phone to me last night’ Charlie says, ‘I should have corrected her, but I didn’t. I thought this just shows you how much work has to be done - when my friend uses the word 'tranny' and doesn’t even realise how offensive it is. People hear this word in the media…they’re conditioned to think it’s acceptable.’
‘The word 'tranny' is bad, period. Some trans people are okay with it, but just because some are okay with you calling them a tranny, it doesn’t mean we all are. It’s a bit like the word faggot or the N-word, just because a proportion of the community are okay being called it, it doesn’t mean we’re all okay being called it- especially by people outside of our community.'
Perhaps, in part, this could be because seems to be some conflation in popular culture of being transgender and performing. The word ‘tranny’ is sometimes used by drag queens to refer to themselves. But, let’s be clear – one is performative, it’s roots are in performance, anyone can take part and the nature of the performance really depends on the identity of the person doing it. The other, crucially, is a way of being.
‘People are taught that it is ok to say ‘tranny’ - by the media and by porn’ Charlie says. ‘Even by transpeople themselves sometimes, some are ok with it - but this just teaches people that it’s ok to use the word and we shouldn’t encourage cis people to refer to us like that.’
‘You don’t always see how bad something is until it affects you.’
Sometimes we just absorb words or appropriate them, but after a while, if you keep saying something that’s offensive it is your fault.’ Ultimately Charlie says, ‘you might have been conditioned but uncondition yourself, honey. Take responsibility for the language you use.’
‘I had a friend, for example, who is not homophobic but sometimes she would say ‘that’s so gay’ so I corrected her. I told her it wasn’t cute and I found it offensive. She stopped saying it and has never said it since- simple. She didn’t know she had been doing it.’
‘It’s not hard to stop saying a word. If you realise it’s not ok, just stop saying it.
Do stand up against prejudice
Trans Media Watch told The Debrief ‘if you do encounter transphobia out there do speak up about it. It's not always safe for transpeople to do that and you can make a stand’, just as you would with any other kind of prejudice. And, if you don’t feel safe stepping in yourself, you can report it to the Police.
Finally, listen, be supportive and be inclusive
This is a good rule in general for going about your life, regardless of who you are speaking to. Listen, with an open mind, to people and try to imagine realities beyond the limits of your own experiences.
‘This might be confusing for some people’ Charlie says, ‘but, the responsibility lies with you to educate yourself. There are videos on YouTube, lists online - that will help you find out what it is and isn’t ok to say to a transperson. It's not hard, there aren't loads of rules - I'd say the mains things to watch out for are:
- Don’t call people ‘trannies’
- Don’t ask about surgery
- Check how someone wants to be referred to
But, know your limits and respect them
Trans Media Watch also point out ‘allies can end up speaking for transpeople. The best thing you can do if you're not sure about something, or you see something that you might think is wrong is to ask a transperson their opinion.'
It’s OK to be honest about your own limitations. We can’t all know all there is to know about everything. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something – don’t be afraid to ask questions. Admitting that you’re unsure is a way of showing that you’re interested in knowing more, in being better and, ultimately, is much better than making an assumption about anyone else.
Admitting that you, like anyone, are flawed and have limitations, asking questions to fill in gaps in your knowledge or experience – that’s how you expand, learn and move forwards.
Consider questions, reflect on criticism and try to be the best you can be
What’s interesting is that those who are being ‘no platformed’ and being accused of holding ‘transphobic views’ do seem to be of an older generation - they’re in their 50s (Peter Tatchell), 60s (Julie Bindel) and 70s (Germaine Greer).
You rarely hear anyone under the age of 30 questioning the rights of transgender people to equality and privacy in the mainstream media. In fact, quite the contrary, they write in defence of this. Perhaps that’s because young people today take a more fluid approach to gender, perhaps it’s because, of all the generations living at the moment, they’re the least traditional in their views when it comes to gender and sexuality. Whatever the reason, these attitudes reflect how things should be going forward.
It’s not hard to get it right, it’s not hard to say sorry if you do say the wrong thing or ask a question to clarify what you should have said if you aren’t sure. There’s a difference between having a question, wanting to know something and being wilfully ignorant.
At the end of the day, Charlie says, 'the most important thing for me is just that we are treated like humans. If you get that bit right' she says, 'then everything else will fall into place. For me, it’s just about getting a change to sit down with someone and talk to them, because most people don’t know a transperson, they don’t meet transpeople in their everyday lives so they often have a lot of misconceptions about us or just don’t understand us. At the moment we are such a small proportion of the population.’
Let’s be clear - transphobia has no place in 2016. There is no room for bigotry. Prejudice, ultimately, nearly always stems from fear, from self interest or from a lack of knowledge. If somebody is living their authentic life and that’s bothering you, perhaps you need to ask yourself why do you care so much about the specifics of it?
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