I’ve struggled to finally write this for a couple of months now for the most obvious reason – I’m not a trans woman nor a trans man. My perspective will always e limited as a result of the lack of immediate access that I have to the actual experience of being trans in a predominantly cisgender world. But given that it’s Pride Month, and queer people and allies everywhere are living their truth in their respective circumstances, spreading awareness, fighting for rights and celebrating their queer identities, this is a good a time as any to have a share some of the lessons I’ve learned about interacting with people who are trans.
I would hope that none of this is interpreted as cisplaining because I do believe that cis people need to talk more about the issue of misgendering. A lot of people don’t want to talk about it and it ends up treated like an elephant in the room – also the basis for some unacceptable errors of ignorance to arise. Not only is it unfair to expect trans people to sit through tedious, triggering tutorials about their identity as well as basic courtesy around engaging with trans people on the topic.
The first step to trying to have any kind of interaction about people who are transgender or transexual is the acknowledgement and understanding that it’s not all about you. This does not come from a malicious place or any attempt to bully anyone – it’s simply a precaution that will prevent you from hurting people. If you’re confused, that’s okay but your confusion does not give you a pass for saying insensitive things or hurtful things – regardless of your good intentions. I must also flag, after a conversation about this with one of my friends, that it’s never a good time to flex your brain muscles and try to play intellectual ping-pong where people’s livelihoods and experiences are at stake. Hold back before throwing combustible hypotheticals into the fireworks, let’s chat about the reality at hand since we’re all here already and we have more than enough scenarios to deal with.
The second important lesson I learned is that we need to upscale the EQ as cisgendered people. Before you even get your tights in a knot trying to fit “what being transgender” means into your established worldview about sex, gender, gender roles, religion etc., start with the fact that whoever you are engaging with (assuming they are trans) is human. If someone says (or you can see) that they are hurt by a particular issue and that a particular experience is traumatic for them – it is not for you to decide whether or not those feelings a plausible or valid. Those feelings exist. That reality exists for them. By virtue of you not being able to experience this on their behalf is because you’re already biased towards the lived experience that you know and that you have been exposed to (which is incredibly shielded from half the experiences trans people must endure).
Th final thing invaluable lesson I learned is that cisgendered people need to do a lot more actual labour. The recent times we live in where there’s an increasing pressure on the usage of the correct legal and political terms for people’s identities calls for all of us to do some drastic unlearning – because the status quo as we know has done a good job of crystalizing injustice and erasure into our everyday lives. From clothes, physical attributes, pronouns, generalizations, jokes, idioms, and occupations (and the list goes on) – all of this is gendered in our minds from an early age. And so this makes assuming someone’s gender an ‘unconscious’ act which is almost unavoidable. This is the point in the conversation where most cisgendered people feel it is justified to give up or be lazy.
We have to do the work because, at our expense, people get hurt. And the spectrum of cisgender ignorance is broad – it ranges from ‘benevolent’ subtle errors, malicious subtle errors, to not subtle errors terrorising and all the way to homicides – all of which are FELT. And to expect trans people to wait patiently before discerning where on the spectrum your “misunderstanding” of their identity lies is violent and for many people traumatic. Especially to ‘open-minded, accepting, benevolent’ allies – we are not exempt from this. No one owes us trust that our intentions are good even if you have the credentials, groundwork to prove it or whatever (also do not frantically try to convince a trans person of this), remember the “But some of my best friends are black” line that we scrapped a while ago, yep, same rule applies.
If you want to learn some more about trans rights, advocacy work, people’s stories and support – lots of organisations are out there doing amazing work…
Feel free to visit – all South African: Gender DynamiX, S.H.E, Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa and their blog Transfeminists.com, GALA , Sonke Gender Justice.