How to Be an Ally
Toby Egbuna
September 21, 2021

How to be an Ally - Gender Identification

This is the third article in my How to be an Ally series in which I interview people that identify with different minority groups to understand how they define an ally, why it’s important to have allies in the workplace, and what people can do to become allies.

For the first two articles in the series, focused on allyship for the LGBQ community and for Black women, I was at least somewhat familiar with the experiences of the people that I interviewed because I either have people in my circle that identify that way, or I’ve consumed enough media to have a basic understanding. That was not the case with this article. Unfortunately, I don’t have any friends or family that identify as transgender or non-binary, and I haven’t done my part to read up on their experiences.

Below are the bios for the people that I interviewed for this article:

James Jurgensen — James is a Senior Analyst at Accenture, where he works in various industries. James is transmasculine, and his pronouns are he/him or they/them.

Alex Cross — Alex works as a Program Coordinator for the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan, a non-profit focused on building a more equitable future for the region’s LGBTQ community. Alex is asexual and agender, and their pronouns are they/them.

1. What does it mean to be an ally? What are the qualities of a good ally?

“A good ally is not just someone who doesn’t create harm, but someone who actively makes things easier. A better word to use is ‘advocate.’ It’s someone who is active in their support; a person who acts in solidarity with gender and sexual minorities to advocate for equity and justice.

Good allies have a few qualities:

They are honest with themselves and acknowledge that they have their own implicit biases, but they don’t let those biases stop them from engaging.

They are inviting. They consider the likelihood that the life experiences of many trans individuals have taught them that it isn’t safe to be open about who they are. So good allies make sure it’s clear through their words and actions that they want to be open and inclusive

They realize that being LGBTQ affects the way in which a person navigates and experiences the workplace, and they respect people’s comfort levels.”

- James Jurgensen

“A good ally is someone who listens and takes note of what you’re saying, but also someone who does their own research and isn’t afraid to not be a bystander. It’s someone that will assist you socially, professionally, and emotionally through your journey. Sexual identity is sometimes a squiggly process, and an ally is willing to say ‘I understand that you’re in the middle of your self-discovery process, so how can I assist and support you?’”

- Alex Cross

2. Why is it important to you to have allies in the workplace?

“When you don’t [have allies], it takes a toll. It impacts your ability to contribute to the work because you’re not thinking freely. You’re always having to monitor and rethink all of your words, actions, physical gestures, and articles of clothing out of fear that they’re too gendered, or gender in the wrong way, and that someone will use it as a reason to harm you. Those patterns of behavior don’t let you contribute at your full capacity. You have to play mental calculus and do extra work to make sure that you don’t say anything or do anything that will alert anyone.

When you have allies, casual conversations like ‘what did you do this weekend?’ can be answered honestly and without calculation of what can/can’t be said.

- James Jurgensen

3. Who has been a good ally to you? What specifically did that person do/say that made that person an ally?

“Before travelling internationally, a manager looked up LGBTQ travel rules for the destination country. She realized that my experience might be different from hers, and she was proactive about taking steps to mitigate risk for me since it might be dangerous for me to travel there as a masculine-presenting person who had “female” marked on their passport.

On another occasion, my team was pressing me asking why I wasn’t going home for the holidays. I didn’t want to explain the situation, as it required a lot of disclosure around my family’s response to me coming out, so my manager stepped in and said ‘I’m not going home either.’, which shifted the focus off of me.”

- James Jurgensen

“I had a fantastic supervisor when I was a union organizer. When I self-actualized in my own truth and came out to him, he said that he recognized how hard it was for me, and said, with my permission, that he would share my pronouns with the executive board. He also said that when we have conversations about performance reviews, he would protect my pronouns and make sure that they would be used.

Later, he started the conversation and asked ‘how can we make sure that another person doesn’t feel like they have to wait eight months before coming out?’ After that, we made some changes in the union hall, like putting in gender neutral bathrooms with urinals and stalls. We also started all team meetings with everyone introducing themselves with their pronouns. He made it clear that it’s the responsibility of the management team to create a space for people to feel comfortable sharing their pronouns.”

- Alex Cross

“Why would a child have to set up programs so they wouldn’t be bullied?”

4. Can you think of a moment when you felt isolated because of your sexual identification, sexual orientation, or both? What happened to lead to that? What could an ally have done to help?

“I have two stories, actually.

For the first story, I was part of a team where we were deciding who would be the 10 individuals chosen for a service scholarship. In general, they wanted to have more men involved in the program, but when we looked at the final pool of applications, the majority of the top candidates were women. I was advocating for a meritocratic approach, which would have meant selecting 6 women and 4 men. In response, a woman on the team who wanted to take an even 5 women and 5 men (even though she agreed that the women applicants had better credentials) said, ‘Well we need to get in a man in here to get his opinion.’ Everyone in the room aside from me was a woman, and I responded, ‘Well we do have a man in here.’ The woman responded, ‘Well we need to get a real man.’ Her response made it difficult for me to keep contributing to the conversation because it was like my trans identity rendered my opinion irrelevant in their eyes.

For the second story, on one project, all of the guys on the team were going out together, and they only invited men to join. We were in the room, and everyone got an audible invite except for me. I later got in an elevator with a guy that got an invite after the fact — he wasn’t in the room at first — and when I told him that I hadn’t been invited, the guy said ‘well, I’m inviting you.’ Even though I appreciated his invite, I didn’t go because I didn’t feel welcomed with the larger group. This kind of thing happens a lot — people inviting others based on gender (getting all the women or all the men together), and in both cases, they don’t consider me as part of their group. I wish we could just all get together based on something other than gender.”

- James Jurgensen

“Let’s jump back a couple of years to high school. The biggest joke that my partner and I had was ‘there’s only two lesbians in school, and you’re dating the other one.’

I grew up in Connecticut in a middle-class, suburban white neighborhood. I didn’t hear the word ‘gay’ until it was thrown at me, and we didn’t have any black or brown students in my class. It was a very isolated bubble. There was no education on LGBT history, LGBT health, or LGBT relationships. At our junior prom, the photographers automatically separated [my partner and me] and put us next to two guys in the group because he assumed that’s who we were with. So much of our school systems are heteronormative and heterostructured, so it was one of the most isolating times in my life regarding my sexual orientation.

We created an anti-bullying group in high school, and it’s upsetting to look back on because I had to do that work. It was great that this programming happened because the student community wanted it, but it’s upsetting because there wasn’t a structure already in place. It’s upsetting that a 14-year-old had to stand up and say ‘excuse me, I would like to not be bullied, please.’”

- Alex Cross

5. Is there anything people can do to self-educate on being an ally?

“Look at reputable sources. I suggest the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and Transequality.org.”

- James Jurgensen

“I personally don’t like having to do all of the emotional labor and research for people when it comes to sexual identification. A lot of people that are in the queer family don’t have the vocabulary to explain things, and it’s unfair to expect an oppressed person to have very clear, specific details on their oppression.

It’s easier now than it’s ever been before to find and understand information. You don’t even have to type words; you can just squeeze your phone and ask Siri or Google ‘what does LGBTQ stand for?’ It’s 2020; you can do some research yourself.

For people in the queer community, if they’ve grown up in a homophobic or transphobic household, asking them ‘what does it mean to be bisexual?’ just forces them to go back to their experiences in that household. It’s not your place as the privileged person to do that to another person, especially when you’re trying to be an ally. Trust that that person is telling you their truth. If someone is coming out to you via text message, you don’t even have to respond until you do the research yourself.”

- Alex Cross

“Why do straight people assume that every gay person is into them?”

6. What types of language should people avoid? Is there anything that people say commonly that they might not realize is offensive?

“Avoid saying ‘sexual preference’ and phrases like ‘what pronouns do you prefer?’ Instead, say ‘what pronouns do you use?’

Avoid saying ‘I thought that they were gay’ if you see someone dating a man one week and then a woman the next week. Don’t assign someone’s sexual orientation by one interaction.

Don’t say ‘James is a transgender’ instead, say ‘James is transgender.’ I wasn’t born transgender. I was assigned female by a doctor at birth, and that wasn’t right. The assumption is that if you have a penis or vagina, you’re assigned one of the other. But biological sex doesn’t exist in a binary and has many more facets beyond genetalia, and biological sex is not interchangeable with gender identity.

Both the words ‘queer’ and ‘transsexual’ are kind of complicated. The appropriateness of both depend on context…who is saying it and how they are using it. The word ‘queer’ is still not accepted by a lot of LGBTQ people. Some LGBTQ people use it as an umbrella term, others use it to describe their own identity, and others see it as a slur. It’s similar for ‘transsexual’…in some countries and for some generations, it is used interchangeably with “transgender.” But for other people, the words would never be used interchangeably. A general best practice is to only call someone terms you know they use to refer to themselves.

- James Jurgensen

“What’s specifically stuck out to me lately is using ‘transgender’ as a noun, because it is an adjective, just like cisgender is an adjective. When you ‘other’ someone by taking an adjective and making it a noun, you start spreading the seeds of transphobia, and you see that people who have been raised or taught to be transphobic use it as a noun. Anytime you use a noun version as an adjective where the adjective should go, that is structurally a transphobic sentence.

The word ‘trans’ itself has gone through a lot of iterations, but it’s our duty as allies to pay attention to how we use our words and how we structure our sentences.

People with diverse genders or diverse sexual orientations deserve to be people first, and anytime we strip away the personhood form an oppressed group, we give permission to dislike or to hate. We need to show people in power that this is what we want, and that they need to use their power. Our sentence structures are not designed to put people first.”

- Alex Cross

“Being an ally is the bare minimum.”

7. How can people recover from missed opportunities to be an ally?

“It’s never too late to become an ally. It’s never too late to educate yourself. Acknowledge that you might have messed up in the past, whether that be because you didn’t know anyone that was queer, acknowledge that and try to be better. We don’t have a lot of time for straight fragility, just like we don’t have time for white fragility. We get it, you messed up. Acknowledge that and move forward.

In that same vein, don’t expect people to forgive you. If you pushed someone down in the playground, they don’t have to ever forgive you. You have to be patient because being an ally is the bare minimum. We aren’t going to thank every person with a card for coming to a rally. This is the least that you can do. Let’s go from being an ally to being an advocate, and then we can talk.”

- Alex Cross

8. How do you feel about people apologizing for other’s behavior?

“You need to remember that it’s not the LGBTQ person’s job to make you feel better about your guilt. Don’t apologize to me. Instead, talk to that person and take action.

If you come over and ask ‘hey, by the way, are you good?’ and I respond by saying that I’m good, then take that. It’s good to make yourself available to talk, but don’t make someone talk to you about it. Realize and acknowledge that whatever the experience, it was harder for the LGBTQ person than it was for you as an observer.”

- James Jurgensen

Takeaways

  1. For many transgender and non-binary people, the home isn’t a safe place

For most minorities, home is the one place that we can go and know that we are fully and completely accepted for who we are. Unfortunately, for some members of the LGBTQ community, that just isn’t the case. James grew up in Louisiana, a deeply southern state where transgender people just aren’t socially accepted.

As allies, it’s possible that the LGBTQ people that we interact with are in similar situations, and it’s our job to create and foster those inclusive environments, because there’s a chance that might be the one of the few safe places our LGBTQ friends have.

2. Sexual identification/orientation isn’t a switch that one can just flip on and off

I’ve made the mistake of saying the exact phrase James has told us to avoid — “what pronouns do you prefer?” That makes it seem like people can choose certain pronouns today and, on a whim, use different pronouns tomorrow.

3. Words matter. A lot.

Both Alex and James pointed out that we shouldn’t use the word “transgender” as a noun; rather, we should it as an adjective. “They are a transgender man” and not “they are a transgender.” During our conversation, Alex made a timely comparison to the way we discuss slavery, pointing out that we should use “enslaved people,” rather than “slaves,” because the latter strips personhood and draws attention away from the fact that this horrendous crime was committed towards a group of people.

4. Don’t ask the oppressed to fix their own oppression

Don’t ask the oppressed to fix their own oppression.

DON’T. ASK. THE. OPPRESSED. TO. FIX. THEIR. OWN. OPPRESSION.

Alex described their experience setting up LGBTQ programs when they were in grade school. “Why would a child have to set up programs so they wouldn’t be bullied?”

Too often, minorities are asked to set up programs to make the work environment more comfortable for them. LGBTQ people have to arrange pride events, or Black employees have to plan for Black History Month. In addition to doing our day jobs, we’re asked to find the mental energy to create diversity programs and openly talk about our experiences so the oppressor can begin to understand and (maybe) support us.

Nah. Keep it.

According to GLAAD, 90% of Americans personally know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but only 8% of Americans personally know someone who is transgender.

Many of us don’t regularly interact with transgender people, but that is no excuse for not being aware of their struggles for equality. We cannot cheer for equal rights for Women, for Black people, for Gay people, or for any other minority group without including the transgender and non-binary community. Let’s make sure that we go just as hard for them as we do for ourselves.

P.S. — if you like this article, share it with someone! I think that we can all benefit from the perspectives of the interviewees, and hopefully we can take this insight and work to help the Transgender and non-binary community in their fight for equity and equality.

Toby Egbuna
Toby Egbuna is a Co-Founder and CEO of Chezie. He is also an aspiring movie buff, an Ed Sheeran stan, and a mediocre cook.

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