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9 steps to being a good trans ally if you’re cis and flawed

When I was first involved in gay politics in the 1990s, the “T” was only just beginning to commonly be added to the letters LGB. The bisexual members of our community felt rightly discouraged that they had been positioned right at the end of the list.

Now, it is the trans community that finds itself at the symbolic end of the most commonly used acronym, LGBT. And, while bisexual erasure and over sexualisation sadly still occur, and the issues the bisexual community face are far from over, the current most visibly dismissed community under our colourful umbrella are trans folks, whose plight we have a social and moral responsibility to pay attention to.

Because, right now, transphobia is at fever pitch. The media, as well as individuals, seems to be taking the issue as a personal affront, as if it is some kind of threat to society. As if the kid who knows he’s not a girl or the woman who expresses herself are dangerous rather than endangered.

We are in a place now where we understand trans issues. Social media has made it easy to listen to trans people’s own words. There are sociological studies, there are psychological reports, and there are rare examples of positive media coverage. Primarily, we must listen to the authentic, original word of the trans men and women and the non-binary people who tell us about their reality, day by day.

So, when Travis Alabanza was refused access to the changing rooms in Top Shop, certain newspapers incited horror. But this is simply about people wanting to try on clothes in the place that is safest and most appropriate for them. To read the media reports, you would think that it was an unreasonable, even an outrageous request. One that endangered the very foundations of society rather than what it was: common sense.

It is like the toilet bans, designed to limit trans people’s freedom to go about their daily lives and to prevent them from feeling welcome and comfortable rather than to protect children who need the loo in a department store or supermarket.

This is where cis people come in. Given that we are the ones with the privilege, we are also the people who have a responsibility to fight transphobia everywhere we see it. Trans people are battling bigoted attitudes and discriminatory policies on a day by day basis. They are tired, they are under attack, and it is cis people causing the problem so it must be cis people who resolve it.

What is at stake?

It is well known that LGBT people are at higher risk of suicide than straight, cis people are. Amongst the overall community, trans people are particularly high risk and this is the direct result of the way they are treated by cis people. If the world was an accepting place, if coming out was met with positive responses – even enthusiastic ones – and if there was no discrimination in the workplace, out in society, and the harassment that trans people faced was non-existent, this would do a lot to reduce those devastating statistics.

What can cis people do?

Because we are responsible for making trans people’s lives miserable, we must also take responsibility for improving the situation. Just like white people have to end racism, non-disabled people have to end disablism, and straight people have to end homophobia and biphobia, cis people must end transphobic hate.

It is up to us to act, so here are some steps cis people can take to be a better trans ally:

1. Stop making assumptions, whether about somebody’s gender or their sexuality. If somebody wants to tell you, they will do so.

2. Stop with the obsession about what somebody was called before their transition, or what they looked like before. Newspaper reports are especially bad for this, liking to show side-by-side photos of somebody at different points in their life. Again, if somebody wants you to see that side of them they will show you, but most likely they want you to focus on them now, with their current name and appearance.

3. Don’t out somebody. If somebody is newly transitioning or if they haven’t started transitioning yet, and they confide in you that they are trans, this is not time to gossip. Just like with gay people, coming out must happen on an individual’s own timeline. As is evident every trans day of remembrance, being out and trans is actively dangerous. Let people make their own decisions about when and if that happens.

4. Stop tolerating transphobic humour. You are fully aware that making jokes about trans people is offensive and unacceptable. You don’t need me to tell you this.

5. Stop tolerating transphobic hate. Whether on Twitter, reading a newspaper, or listening to office chatter, challenge transphobic hate and abuse whenever you hear it. Speak to HR, email the editor, or report and block hate speech on social media.

6. Make sure the “T” isn’t just a token. If you’re in an LGBT group, and there is a suspicious lack of out trans people within that group, be clear about where you’re going wrong. Address these issues and make sure that trans people know they are welcome in this community.

7. Educate yourself. It is not the role of the trans people in your life teach you all about transgender issues. They have enough on their plate. Read everything you can find, especially trans people’s own writing.

8. Remember intersections. Trans-people of colour are more at risk than white trans people. Disabled trans people face more oppression than non-disabled trans people do.

9. Never assume that you are a great ally. Allyship is something we can aspire to but can’t declare about ourselves. It is not our place to state that we are a great trans ally! Instead, we must try our best and let trans people decide for themselves if we are safe to be around.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.