What I learned at a Trans Allyship Workshop

Image credits: Em Travis

Image credits: Em Travis

CN: allyship, cis privilege, structural transphobia/transmisogyny/non-binary erasure, mention of TERFs, mention of medical gatekeeping

When I first read about Trans Awareness Month 2015, I was excited by the prospect of participating in activities that would allow for growth, interaction, and education. Selfishly, perhaps, I wanted to enhance my knowledge of the world around me – but more than anything I wanted to experience, for the first time in my life, a safe space in which discourse would facilitate, not dictate, learning about allyship.

The workshop was split into two different parts: first, we were asked to discuss ten questions in small groups. These questions were framed in the context of people asking us (allies) about trans people, and led to discussions about topics such as the difference between trans and drag, the relationship between transgender identity and the gender binary, as well as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs).

Although I did learn a lot from discussing my preconceptions about these ideas with my smaller group, I found that it was only when I kept silent and listened to representatives from the Trans Awareness Campaign speak that I began to understand the importance of flipping questions on their heads and reflecting them back to the asker. For example, if someone had asked me about whether or not trans people reinforced the gender binary prior to the workshop, I probably would have botched my answer by a) using the umbrella term “trans people” as a general monolith and ignoring the diverse experiences of individuals located at different intersections of identity, b) neglecting to clearly articulate the fact that being trans is an identity, not necessarily a choice, and c) failing to demand of the asker why they were asking such a defensive question. With this question in particular, I reflected on my own cis identity, and questioned why there would be a problem if a trans person did “reinforce the gender binary”, given that I could be seen to do the same. I also learned about what medical gatekeeping was (the reality that many trans people must conform, whether they want to or not, to stereotypes about their gender in order to receive medical treatment) and was confronted with the issue of safety and the pressure that is exerted on trans people to conform to binary stereotypes, which I had previously not considered due to my cis privilege. This learning could not have taken place, with such effect, in a lecture theatre or even internet forum, without discussions with my peers.

The question of representation was another question that allowed me to gain a better understanding of trans experiences. In particular, discussion about the palatability of tragic and/or inspirational trans narratives over more diverse representations of trans individuals (that don’t represent transness as a monolithic set of ideas) highlighted to me the importance of trans representation behind the scenes, as well as affirming the diversity of trans people’s experiences in the media. Good allyship, I learned, is not simply bemoaning the problems associated with depictions of transness – it is actively trying to pass along the microphone to those whose voices need to be heard most loudly.

The second part of the workshop was probably my favourite part. Instead of dictating to us the do’s and don’ts of allyship, the leaders of the Campaign showed us three different articles, each written by a cis person about trans issues, and asked us to exercise our critical thinking to observe the good and bad aspects of each one. As a group, we pointed out the tone-policing of one of the articles, the shift from a generalized to an imperative tone when another article switched from addressing a general cis audience to addressing trans people, as well as the problematic victimization of allies, among other issues. This was a particularly revealing exercise as it helped me better understand the problematic aspects of my allyship, and revealed to me my own biases: I know now that my allyship must be more cognizant of the diversity of trans experiences, and more reflexive in terms of realizing when I should forward questions to those who know better: trans people. Although I don’t think I’ve ever complained about the ‘difficulties’ of allyship, I am definitely guilty of taking a patronizing tone towards those who have asked me about trans people, without recognizing the extent to which – because of my privilege – my voice would be louder than that of trans individuals. Guilt with regard to past actions is useless, but this workshop allowed me to correct my perceptions, thereby ensuring that I will, in the future, not aim to be merely a “good person” by pointing out other people’s bigotry, but a good ally by fighting in solidarity with, not on behalf of, trans people. Good intentions amount to nothing if they are not substantiated by critical reflection on personal privilege.
Ultimately, I learned that allyship is more than just asking people about their pronouns, rolling your eyes when someone makes a transphobic statement, and patting yourself on the back for retweeting Laverne Cox. Allyship is a process of unlearning ideas about the gender binary and critically and respectfully seeking out answers – it is active resistance tempered with the acknowledgement of privilege and the possibility (inevitability!) of getting things wrong, the understanding that we are in no way entitled to personal explanations, the recognition of the importance of listening rather than speaking, and the knowledge that there are no more powerful voices than those of trans people. The workshop allowed me to come to terms with my own ignorance, and to discuss complex ideas with trans people who know more than I will ever know – I came in expecting to learn, and I came out mind-blown and incredibly grateful; I was and am not and will never be entitled to an explanation, and so I am lucky to have had this opportunity. Thank you, Trans Awareness Campaign, for helping me deconstruct my privilege and learn to use it effectively, as a real ally.

Jun Pang, Get Real. contributor 

If you would like to know more about any of the Trans Awareness Month events in Cambridge this November, head to the Trans Awareness Month event page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/810523649065005/

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