The White House at night, lit up in rainbow colors.

Showing up for Trans Rights

The White House at night, lit up in rainbow colors.

Remember when this was how the White House responded to LGBTQIA+ issues?

A lot has happened in the last week. However, the most significant thing that happened—at least as far as LGBTQIA+ issues go—was Donald Trump announcing, on Twitter, a ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. Military.

There’s a lot that was wrong with this. However, looking on the bright side, a lot of great things happened as a result. Support for trans veterans and servicemembers came from multiple directions, including some very unexpected places. In addition, the trans community was, for the first time, truly present in the media.

For once, a conversation about trans rights directly involved actual trans people—and not just the one or two trans celebrities to whom society has granted token trans person status. A variety of trans veterans and servicemembers were given the opportunity to speak directly to audiences, readers, and viewers nationwide. A friend of mine, Emma Shinn, was one of them.

Emma is the founder of the Colorado Name Change Project, a US Marine Corps veteran, and has an ability to put her thoughts into words in a way that is both clear and compelling. Her Facebook status in response to the ban reached thousands of people and resulted in her speaking to multiple news organizations and advocacy groups over the following days. Through the support of numerous allies, her words had reach.

There’s a lot for the trans community and our allies to be proud of in moments like this. In the face of what is undoubtedly a regressive and discriminatory policy, trans folks stood up—with support from our allies—and were heard in a way that would have been unfathomable even five years ago. In this way, our community scored a huge win in the face of what may still end up being a crushing loss.

Inspired by the strong representation the trans community had in the media, this last week was one of the few times I have allowed myself to read the comments on articles about trans issues. Reading online comments always carries a risk, and reading comments about trans issues when you’re trans yourself amplifies that risk quite a bit. However, what I discovered was—at least on the sites I was on—better than I expected.

Sure, some individuals were saying horrible things, but a significant number of allies showed up for trans rights and helped ensure that bigotry did not go unchallenged.

However, not everyone who made a show of being an ally actually showed up for trans rights. In fact, many of the “allies” that were present in the comments were frustratingly bad at being allies.

It wasn’t all that uncommon for someone to attempt to make a “supportive statement” in a way that was either couched in bigotry, completely ignorant, or tone-deaf. Now, this wasn’t all that unexpected. For many people, it seems as if trans people have suddenly popped up out of the woodwork in the last five years (nevermind that society put us under the floorboards to begin with). So it’s understandable that there might be a bit of a learning curve for some people when it comes to terminology, and general etiquette.

No, what made this frustrating is that when many of these “allies” were called out on the inherent bigotry, ignorance etc. of their comments, they wouldn’t listen. Instead, they would often lash out—regardless of how politely they were corrected or informed that their comments were problematic.

For example, in the aftermath of Trump’s tweets, a few “allies” posted pictures of a cis male character from M*A*S*H, Corporal Klinger, wearing a dress. This was done in the name of “standing with trans service members.” However, this sort of thing is emphatically not the same as “standing with trans service members.” By using an image of a cis man in a dress, these “allies” were equating trans women with cis men in dresses—which is a longstanding trope that continually works to delegitimize trans identities and rights.* Imagine someone posting Jim Crow era illustrations of black people to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and you’ll understand why many trans folks were angered by these pictures.

A flag based on the straight ally flag but with trans colors (blue, white and pink).

I couldn’t find a good trans ally flag, and the normal ally flag implies heterosexual. So… I made one.

Now, if having the problematic nature of these sorts of actions pointed out had been a learning moment for these “allies,” I’d still call it a win. But instead, they almost always got defensive and started shifting the blame. They’d say that trans people are too picky, that we’re too focused on “political correctness,” and that we ought to understand the intent behind what they did—as if intent makes up for perpetuating damaging stereotypes and ideas about trans people.

This response to being called out was not unique to cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) people. Some cisgender queers responded in similar ways to being called out. However, their responses came across as especially callous given that they came from people who theoretically experience similar bigotry and insensitivity in their lives.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get it. I get why someone might lash out when called out. Being caught doing something bigoted or insensitive when you didn’t mean to is hard. It has happened to me a number of times throughout my life, and is bound to happen again in the future. So I understand that when it happens, people feel ashamed and want more than anything to be able to shift the blame off of them—after all, they didn’t mean to.

However, trying to shift the blame only makes it worse. Shifting the blame, instead of listening, means not actually showing up for trans rights. If you find yourself in a situation like this and choose to shift the blame, you are making it clear that you care more about yourself than the person—or people—that were hurt by your actions.

Actually showing up for trans rights—as opposed to just bandwagoning—means listening to trans folks, and actively engaging with them.

The good news for people who want to be allies but are struggling with this, is that the trans community is used to being told, “all this is so new” and “this is hard.” Many of us deal with the difficulty others have with us on a day-to-day basis. We understand. We don’t expect perfection overnight. However, if you’re going to show up for trans rights, you have to at least be willing to listen to us, and adjust your actions when necessary.

*It also ignores the existence of trans men, but that’s par for the course, right?

About Galen Mitchell

Galen is just this gal, you know? She's also a philosopher, a writer, a musicer, a designer, a brewer, a cycler, a gayer, and a transer.

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