By Cheong Wen Xuan
A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with two newly-met acquaintances – girl A and girl B. We ate, chatted about school, and laughed about life… y’know, typical girly things. Halfway through the dinner, in the midst of asking questions about our modules and our studies, girl A asked girl B: “So… do you identify fully as female now?”
And that was how it was accidentally revealed to me that girl B was, in fact, assigned male at birth, and therefore transgender. The whole atmosphere shifted after that, and she was visibly uncomfortable and kept mostly to herself for the rest of the meal.
No one wants their trans friends to have a hard time, and even though you may not intend to, there are times when you might accidentally put them in a tight spot through actions and words that you are unaware of. So, here are some ways in which you can be an effective trans ally, and help protect your trans friends.
1) The first rule of being a trans ally: never, ever paotoh
It is dangerous to be a publicly trans person, and unless you have your trans friend’s direct permission, to ‘out’ them would be the ultimate act of betrayal, and a huge invasion of privacy. If you go around indiscriminately telling the whole world how they’re trans, it could potentially compromise their safety, as there are many transphobes out there who could pose a threat. Sure, while girl A may have felt that I would ‘surely be okay with it’, can you imagine what it would have been like for girl B, had I been a transphobe? There are still many conservatives out there who would react badly to such a revelation.
Overseas, violence against trans people is not uncommon – in the first four months of 2014 alone, there were 102 recorded acts of violence against transgender people in America, including murders. Just across the causeway, in August this year, a Malaysian trans woman was viciously attacked by a group of men, and there’s no denying that hate crime, violence, and discrimination is still rampant. Even if you feel that this wouldn’t be the case in Singapore, and that no one is going to physically harm your trans friends, there are still many people who would have a negative psychological reaction to them.
Exposing a trans person doesn’t end at endangering their safety or subjecting them to harassment, you potentially risk their jobs, their social position, their housing, and their relationships as well. If you don’t want people staring and probing with curious eyes, and if you respect your trans friends and don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, threatened or objectified, just. don’t. paotoh.
2) Understand what you’re talking about before starting a conversation
The amount of ignorance some people have regarding trans issues is appalling. If you don’t want to offend your trans friends, educate yourself before opening your mouth! For instance, many Singaporeans have yet to understand the difference between being effeminate, being gay, being trans, and being in drag, and tend to lump them all together as one – ‘ah gua’. This is ignorant and offensive, and you should always ensure that you truly understand what gender dysphoria is and all the nuances of what being transgender means, before starting a conversation, during which you should be well informed and respectful.
Basically, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, you are in no way qualified to lecture a trans person about it.
3) On the flip side, don’t show off how much you know
Props to you for being well informed, but no trans person wants to hear you ramble on about how knowledgeable you are about trans history, how many trans people you know, or hear you go into gory detail about gender reassignment surgery.
Excessive flaunting is awkward, and frankly, downright annoying. If all you do when you meet your trans friends is talk about their ‘trans-ness’, it reinforces a stereotype, objectifies, and focuses on only one aspect of their identity. Rather than making them feel accepted, understood, and included, it in fact posits them as an ‘other’ or worse, an ‘object’, widening the divide between them and your cisgender world. You know what will never go wrong? Treating them as (any other) human!
4) Do not use offensive or derogatory terms
This is pretty self-explanatory… Why do people think it’s okay to say ‘tranny’, ‘ah gua’ or ‘she-male’??? Stop, just stop.
5) Respect them by using their preferred pronouns
When referring to their trans friends, many people tend to go “she? he? it?” Pronouns are important and speak volumes, and by not using their preferred pronouns, you disregard, invalidate, and disrespect your trans friends’ own gender identification. It makes it seem as if you don’t take their gender seriously, and that, despite their efforts, you refuse to accept or legitimise the gender that they identify as.
If you’re unsure what pronouns to use, LISTEN. Listen to how they describe themselves, and listen to how their close friends and family refer to them. If you still don’t know what pronouns to use, you can use third-party pronouns or gender-neutral pronouns such as they/ their/ them, or even ze/ sie/ hir, etc.
6) Do not assume their sexual orientation
Many times, the biggest fear of transphobes is that the trans person in question will get too close and end up ‘liking’ them or sexually harassing them.
Firstly, gender identity and sexual orientation are two entirely different things. Identifying as a certain gender, or anything outside the gender binary, does not have any correlation to what gender they’re sexually attracted to. A trans person could identify and express him/herself as a male/ female/ etc, and on an additional, unrelated layer, they could be gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ asexual/ straight!
And secondly, even if a trans person who was assigned male at birth now indeed identifies as a straight female, and you happen to be one of those “no homo” males, unless women have been falling at your feet and literally chasing after you your entire life, what makes you think that trans women will ‘like’ you, much less be sooo irresistibly attracted to you that they sexually harass you?
7) Don’t ask invasive questions about their surgical status, sex life, or genitals
Sure, you may be curious, but as Orange Is The New Black trans star Laverne Cox puts it, “The preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people.” Trans people are not oddities for you to wonder and marvel at, and certainly not a circus act for you to gawp at, so why do people make it seem so by asking such questions?
If you find it inappropriate to ask a cisgender woman about her boob job, or if you know it’s rude and invasive to ask a cisgender man questions about his penis, or how he has sex, it’s equally unacceptable to pose these questions to a transgender person. Make it clear that you are open, and if they want to tell you about it, listen. But never probe!
8) Understand that there are many different ways that trans individuals can choose to transition; to each their own
Everyone should be entitled to their own choices, and trans people could choose to transition in the following ways:
- Socially (self-identification and pubic recognition, dressing, pronouns, etc)
- Legally (changing your gender marker officially on passports and ICs, etc)
- Medically (hormone replacement therapy)
- Surgically (top surgery/gender reassignment surgery)
However, none of these should be an indicator of, or rather, a requirement or expectation for trans people to be socially and legally recognised. Never think that just because a trans individual has not undergone any one of these, means that s/he has not ‘fully’ transitioned. Not everyone has access to, privilege of, means to, or desire to go through all the aspects of transitioning. They can be painful, harmful, risky, very expensive, and even life threatening. Everyone has their reasons for wanting or not wanting to go through different aspects of transitioning, so never question their transition status or the ‘legitimacy’ of their ‘trans-ness’! Simply accept that if someone tells you they’re trans, they are.
9) And lastly but most importantly… show support
Many trans people feel alone in this battle between them and their bodies. They are commonly rejected by their friends, partners, and family members, and a 2014 report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention showed that 41% of all trans people had considered suicide, which vastly exceeds the 4.1% of the overall US population, and is much higher than the 10-20% of the gay, lesbian, or bisexual adults who attempt suicide.
Being a trans person is lonely, depressing, tiring, confusing, and hugely difficult, and even if you can’t fully understand or relate, the least you could do for your trans friends is to show support when you can, and to be there for them.