10 seriously easy things cis people can do…

January 24, 2014 § 30 Comments

…to make the world a better place for trans people. And, ultimately, everyone. Because that’s how it works.

I have a lot of wonderful cis people in my life who care desperately about equality and justice for trans people – and one of the most common things I’ve heard from them, when just starting to find out about transphobia and cissexism, is “I never knew it was this bad.” Swiftly followed by “what can I do to help?”

So. This is what you can do to help – I’ve asked a number of trans people I know, and this is what we came up with. Small things, most of them – but if every cis person with a trans person in their lives did them then we’d be living in a kinder world than the one we live in now. Please spread the word. And do your best.


    “Never, ever use the phrase “a man in a dress” again”Evil Felicity
    Same goes for “she/he”, “tranny”, “she-male” etc. – some trans people will choose to use these words in reclamation – you don’t get to do that. You’ll cope. Promise. And while you’re at it, take a look a phrases such as “sex change”, “third gender”, “sex change operation” – there are a lot of really good reasons why trans people debate the language we use, and the majority of words and phrases used by the mainstream media to describe us are neither friendly nor accurate.
    “Ask people what their pronouns are, and honour the choice with no microaggressions no matter what the answer”Alice
    “Accept the title someone chooses for themselves”Quinn
    “Don’t use phrases like ‘All you girls’ when you don’t know the genders of the group. It feels very isolating.”Elliott
    You so often can’t tell by looking – what our pronouns are, what our histories are, how we’d describe ourselves – so don’t try. Making assumptions is generally a rubbish way of interacting with other humans, truth be told.
    Whether someone is ‘out’ as trans (or having a trans history) or not can genuinely be a matter of life and death – you don’t get to make that call.
    “Privacy uber alles. Above all else you must respect a trans person’s privacy. Their business is not yours to share.” – Joey
    “Not outing us to people before we meet them. I’ve had too many friends try and be considerate by warning their friends i’m trans and use male pronouns before they meet me. It’s just ‘I get you’re trying to be nice and make it so I don’t have to deal with being misgendered but stop it.'”–Sam

    “I think there’s something important in the way that cis people engage their empathy with trans people. I guess it’s to do with privilege gradients and recognizing that, for example, a cis person being misgendered and a trans person being misgendered are two very different experiences.” – Anon
    “Not playing ‘devil’s advocate’. “But if someone thinks they shouldn’t have a right arm, should we cut it off? What I’m saying is are you SURE you need top surgery to be happy?”” – Quinn
    It’s not helpful when a cis man tells a trans man “but I’d LOVE to have boobs”. I don’t want to hear about how you consider yourself so so so post gender that you could have any kind of body and be happy – that’s great for you, but useless for me. Maybe you wouldn’t mind being called ‘Miss’ in a shop – that doesn’t take away from my pain when it happens to me.
    “Don’t make any assumptions about what medical interventions (surgery in particular) I might or might not want, and don’t ask about that stuff immediately after I come out to you! I might want to discuss it at some point, but if you want to talk about it, please check if I’m OK with that discussion first.” – Anon
    A trans person’s veracity does not rely on what they may or may not have done with their bodies. If there’s a genuine reason why you need to know our medical histories and medical plans then we’ll tell you.
    “Not giving ‘tips’ on how to ‘pass’ or ‘complimenting’ me on how ‘masculine’ I look today.” – Quinn
    You are not the authentic version that we copy – we don’t need lessons on how to be ‘real’ men or ‘real’ women or ‘real’ anything. Though I wouldn’t personally object if you told me how glorious I look in a frock coat – not because I need you to ‘affirm’ my gender, but because I do and I like compliments.
    Did you know that 24 European countries still require trans people to be sterilised in order to be legally recognised as their correct gender? That trans Women of Colour are disproportionately at risk of contracting HIV – and are usually not given the correct medical care? That trans people are at greater risk of domestic violence, homelessness, suicide? Don’t let ignorance be your shield – educate yourself, and then educate those around you. Gendered Intelligence and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project are great places to start. Don’t act like we’re a taboo, shameful subject – bring trans issues up – share articles on social media, recommend writers that you like – email your bloody MP – but don’t just shake your head at how awful something is and do nothing. Oh, and remember – trans issues are for all ages.
    “Educate your children to be broad minded” – Susan
    “Using me as a teaching example! Like, for serious, a concrete thing cis people can do to make my life (& life of other genderqueer etc folk better) is, when talking about me to other people, gender me correctly, and explain if necessary. (Provided you can, you know, explain competently rather than offensively. >_>)” – Alex
    Never without permission – but if someone is happy for you to use them as an example to spread awareness, then it can be a powerful thing to do. I prefer it when my friends and loved ones explain about my pronouns before I meet new people – and I’m happy for them to explain a bit about how I see myself in terms of sex and gender, and the kind of work I do in trans activism. But never, ever assume it’s okay to do this without checking.

    “Speak up when they hear people being cissexist/transphobic. Too often people stay silent because they’re afraid of what other cis people will say if they are challenged.” – Quinn
    Don’t just be supportive to our faces – real support is standing up for us when we’re unable to defend ourselves.

    I know that there’s precious little money around at the moment – but if you have any going spare, do please consider donating to a trans organisation – every donation matters. Trans groups and charities often operate on a shoestring budget, achieving incredible things with very little in the way of monetary support. Here are a few ideas, but do please look up organisations local to you, and see if you can give back to people who give so much to us as a community.
    Scottish Transgender Alliance


Do please leave any further suggestions in the comments – and, really, it all comes down to this:

 “Sit back, listen, and understand that you don’t know everything. That might be more than one thing but it goes together under the rubric ‘humility'”. Claire


§ 30 Responses to 10 seriously easy things cis people can do…

  • Marta says:

    I hope that I’m not rude, but since this is a (beautiful and useful) lesson… here’s that annoying student asking the follow up question to the teacher.

    (1) Suppose that I refer to someone using the wrong pronoun. What’s the best way to say you’re sorry? I suppose that “sorry” and no further comment is the best, but I’d like to be sure.

    (2) What could a polite way to ask someone what his/her/* pronouns are? I want to avoid something as in (1), but I don’t want to be snooping into other people’s sex life…

    (3) Since I’m not a native English speaker, how rude it is to ask if I understood the right words (especially in a noisy room, or if the pronouns of choice are not his/her but something else)?

    Thank you very much!

    • cnlester says:

      Not rude at all!

      1) Sorry and then moving on seems to be preferred, though I kind of like it when someone buys me a drink 😉 That might just be me though. I think it’s the sincerity of the apology that counts? And not doing it again?

      2) I tend to say “can I just check which pronouns you use?” or some variant. If it’s a big group we all do the name/pronoun thing to get it out of the way at the beginning.

      3) It wouldn’t seem rude to me at all?

      • Marta says:

        Thank you again!

      • Marta says:

        Oh, two more questions. Sorry…

        (1) Trans or trans*? (A long discussion at my LGBT society, made longer by the fact that there wasn’t a trans(*) member.)

        (2) Is the phrasing “until [date], [person] used to live as a man/woman” a good way to express the idea? I guess that it’s rude to cut it down to “until [date], [person] was a man/woman” or to “[person] became a man/woman” – am I right?

        [I was thinking of Ben Barres’ story, which I love to tell: it’s an amazing case study of sexism in science. Ben Barres is a FtM trans scientist; after his transition he kept on hearing colleagues saying “oh, but Ben Barres has always been much better than his sister Barbara”. Guess who is (or better: was) Barbara Barres.]

        • cnlester says:

          1) a contentious one – we had a panel discussion on it here: https://cnlester.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/question-twelve-is-trans-the-preferred-term/

          2) I think it depends on the person? Some people seem comfortable with it, others not. Personally, I prefer ‘was perceived as a man/woman’ or ‘appeared to be a man/woman’ as many people will feel that even though outsiders read them one way at that time, that didn’t reflect who they felt/knew/suspected themselves to be.

          I LOVE Ben Barres’ story – thank you for reminding me.

          • Steph says:

            Could one say “before their transition”? I’ve heard that phrase used a few times by trans people but I imagine it’s a case by case basis?

            Also sorry if we’re just grilling you here, I know it’s up to me to seek information, not for you to educate me. Please do tell me to sod off if you want to.

          • cnlester says:

            No sodding off required! I think it varies on a case by case basis?

          • Steph says:

            And also thank you for the education you have already provided! A most excellent list.

        • Talia says:

          another way to refer to someone’s gender before they transitioned is ‘__ was assigned ___ gender at birth, but they are (actual gender).’

  • miadotcom says:

    I think school changing rooms and showers should be refitted with individual cubicles. I feel the gender separation model assumes everyone is heterosexual and cisgendered. Having to expose body parts of a gender one does not identify with can be very traumatic as spoken about in this blog http://miadotcom.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/how-being-forced-to-use-communal-changing-rooms-at-school-affected-me/

    • Marta says:

      [Disclaimer: I’m cis trying to be an ally, not trans.]

      I was thinking yesterday about this, and I had a (possibly silly) idea that I would bring forward in case I had to debate the introduction of gender-neutral toilets.

      The silly idea: in my experience, women’s toilets are overcrowded, whereas men’s toilets aren’t. Would it help the case for gender-neutral toilets to point out that they would avoid long queues for *every* woman? This way the case would have on its side not only people concerned with trans issues, but also (most) women.

      I know that doing things because they’re right is better than to do them by (almost) tricking people. But “done is better than perfect”… and once you have what you want, people will most likely forget why they were so much against it.

      (Also: In my university, gender-neutral toilets were opposed mostly by Muslim women, on grounds of religion (“I might have to take off my veil to check my hair in the mirror, and I cannot do it if there’s someone who I perceive to be a man”). But in case a problem like this would emerge, there could be female and gender-neutral toilets – the argument above would still hold.)

      (The idea came to me when someone reminded me how at the Metropolitan in New York half of the “male toilets” become “female toilets” – or “gender neutral”, I cannot remember – in the second half of the intermission.)

  • Lee says:

    Love it.. Absolutely fantastic and so relevant. I’ve just been training and so many of these points came up in discussion. I will definitely be sharing it. Thanks for taking the time to put it all together and share it with the world.

  • JD says:

    Mostly a great article. I have one major issue though – there is nothing wrong with the term third gender! I get so sick of transsexuals ignoring and making invisible those of us who live in the middle. Transgendered used to apply to only those who lived in the middle and transsexual to those who have a gender opposite to the sex they were born with. (and transgendered were denied any treatment open to transsexuals at gender clinics around the world). Third gender, blended gender, androgynous, non-gendered, and other terms that have been chosen by those of us who live in the middle need to be respected and honored. I get why transgendered has become the umbrella term that encompasses all of us – but quit ignoring, negating and erasing our existence and our realities. We need to be included in all discussions regarding trans experience. I hate that when I choose to tell someone in my life that I am trans I then have to explain that I am not transitioning from one sex to the other and that I do not identify as male or female because the general public believes that transgendered means having the gender opposite to your birth sex. Please, please please start including us in trans discussions.

    • cnlester says:

      Hi JD – I myself am androgynous/genderqueer as well as transsexual, and write and campaign widely on trans rights for all trans people – so please don’t assume otherwise. I’ve included ‘third gender’ as a term not to use, as it’s widely used incorrectly and harmfully in the UK media – particularly in a colonialist/racist way. Obviously, if someone feels that that’s a term that accurately describes who they are then it would be fine to use.

    • Anna G. says:

      As a transitioning MtF transsexual, I can assure you that I explain “transgender” in the umbrella context, and emphasize that while all transsexuals are transgender, not all transgender people are transsexual. I expect that some of the frustration you are experiencing is because of the general lack of public knowledge, perhaps tempered with transsexual people who are either tired of or embarrassed to explain the difference when asked. I see education as the answer, either way.

  • David says:

    Thank you for this. Very helpful!

  • This is great, I made sure to share it 🙂

  • Other Becky says:

    Every semester, I debate adding a question about pronoun preference to my start-of-class icebreakers. I haven’t done it yet because I’m concerned that effectively asking folks to out themselves to a roomful of strangers would make the space feel less safe instead of more. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this.

    • cnlester says:

      I think it’s a really tough one? Personally, I think what I would be tempted to do is to add a few sentences to the start-of-class icebreakers: “I don’t want to make assumptions about your genders, or what pronouns you’d like me to use – so please feel free to email me in private to let me know”?

  • Motley says:

    Thank you very much for providing a clear, concise, and easily accessible primer! I really appreciate it, both for reminding me of how I can be a better ally, and as a handy tool for helping those around me learn/remember, too. 🙂

  • Rochelle Karina says:

    Thank you for one of the most clear, concise and friendly pieces I’ve seen on this topic. I’ve seen quite a few writers do more harm than good when it comes to education.
    I’ve had my fair share of saying something ignorant, and a gentle correction is always appreciated! I simply treat everyone I meet with courtesy, and if I make a mistake, offer a sincere apology, act to correct it and move on.
    Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy, and not everyone is as eloquent and understanding as you have been here. So again, thank you.

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