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How to Stop Being Performative and Genuinely Help Trans People
Focus on the medical, legal, and economic disparities trans people face — not the pronouns in your bio.
Focus on the medical, legal, and economic disparities trans people face — not the pronouns in your bio.
Recently, I was dismayed to read this article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, examining how companies benefit when their employees list pronoun in their bios. The paper really encapsulates the disjoint between trans folks’ medical and economic needs, and cis folk’s vested interest in turning trans allyship into a personal and corporate branding effort.
Study authors Johnson, Pietri, Buck, and Daas found that when employees at an organization listed their pronouns in their bios, cisgender participants felt more positively toward the organization, and were more likely to believe it was a safe place for LGBTQ folks. In two follow-up studies that included trans participants, this effect was found to hold regardless of whether the company merely encouraged employees to list their pronouns, or required them to do so.
I saw a lot of cis people spreading this study around online, presenting it as proof that listing pronouns is a meaningful act of trans inclusion. But there are several massive problems with the paper’s methodology, and with how people have interpreted its conclusions. And examining these problems really gets to the heart of a widespread issue in social justice circles today: allies devote far too much attention to signaling that they are safe, rather than taking concrete steps to help marginalized groups in a material way.
The first and most glaring issue with this paper is that in the first study, the attitudes of transgender people were not measured at all. Only cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were recruited. In other words, the study found that pronoun listing, a symbolic act of trans inclusion, made non-trans people view a company more positively. This is the equivalent of asking straight employees how they feel about a company’s same-sex domestic partnership benefits. Who the hell cares? Why would you even ask? If these interventions are genuinely intended to help trans people, trans people should be the respondents you recruit. So right out the gate, the authors of the paper have unwittingly shown their hand: they care about how symbolic acts of trans inclusion make cisgender people feel, rather than the safety of trans folks themselves.
Second of all, the outcome measures in this paper are focused solely on optics — how favorably someone views a company from the outside. The experiments examine how safe and LGBTQ affirming a company appears, not what its actual policies or relationship to its trans employees are. I think it’s actually downright irresponsible for researchers who care about transgender rights to focus on this. They’ve essential given corporations a guidebook on how to perform inclusivity and brand themselves as trans-friendly, without actually having to invest in the wellbeing, safety, or health of trans employees. We already know that companies love to rainbow-wash themselves, using Pride month marketing campaigns and warm and fuzzy symbols of queer acceptance to drum up brand loyalty, even while mistreating their actual LGBTQ employees.
Finally, this paper tested the effects of companies requiring employees to list their pronouns in their bios. Now admittedly, the researchers found no difference between encouraging employees to list pronouns and requiring them to. But there was really no good reason to even draw that comparison at all, because no transgender rights organization in the world has ever suggested that pronoun listing be mandatory. Simply put, requiring employees to list their pronouns would actually be a transphobic policy. It would force closeted trans workers to either out themselves before they were ready, or to lie about what their pronouns are, misgendering themselves constantly.
If the authors of this paper had centered the needs and wellbeing of trans folks in their work, or consulted with any trans advocacy groups, they never would have even considered testing a mandatory pronoun condition in their paper. It’s not a policy you would ever want to recommend, nor is it a policy any trans people have ever asked for, so there is no benefit to testing it. Yet these researchers chose to test it, and found that just like optional pronoun listing, mandatory pronoun listing helps boost an organization’s public image. I know this was not the researchers’ intention, but the impact is the same: they have created an incentive for corporations to push a transphobic policy onto their employees. All because they presumed to know what would be best for us, as trans people, without centering our perspectives in their work.
Allies are obsessed with adopting the right words and symbols. They fumble around naming disparities that make them uncomfortable, calling Autistic folks like me “differently abled” or “special” rather than acknowledging we are disabled. They rebrand women-centered events as being for “womxn” or “women and femmes” rather than actually centering trans women in a meaningful way. And they load up their social media bios and email signatures with signifiers of inclusion — pronouns, a rainbow flag emoji, the statement that “trans women are women,” — without examining how they embody (or fail to embody) those values in their lives.
I’m very weary of it. It seems that every time I bring up structural issues such as ableism or transphobia, would-be allies ask me not what they might do to help, but what words and symbols they should adopt to make themselves look safe. Should I list my pronouns in my bio? Should I say that sexism happens to “afab people”? Should I describe you as neurodivergent, or neurodiverse? It feels like so much rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Trans athletes are getting banned from playing sports throughout the country. Trans kids in the UK have had their access to transition related healthcare restricted. Every day it seems TERFs find a new trans woman to spread vile rumors about, and target with abuse and threats of violence. We have real problems to worry about.
I find that all too often, discussions about “correct” language and inclusive personal branding only serve to distract from more meaningful battles for justice. And I view surface-level gestures of allyship with a whole lot of suspicion. I’ve been misgendered by plenty of people with “she/they” or “he/they” in their social media bios. I routinely get invited to events for “womxn” despite being vocal about not being one, while the trans women who do have the right to be there are systematically excluded. And quite frequently, when I talk with vocal, proud cis allies about actual policy concerns, I get a blank stare. Often they have no idea most women’s health clinics fail to provide reproductive banking to trans women, for example, or that in many countries, changing your gender marker requires you be sterilized. These problems loom large in trans peoples’ actual lives, yet allies’ minds are occupied with pink and blue flags and pronouns in email signatures.
Allies want to feel good. They want a quick fix for their guilt. They want to be viewed as good people by fellow allies around them. I don’t think any of this makes them evil or craven. They’ve just been convinced by our individualistic culture that justice is a personal brand you can wear, rather than a collective push we have to work towards all our lives. And I do want to help allies keep their eyes on the prize, and empower them to fight alongside us for actual justice, rather than fretting about more superficial matters.
To that end, here is my quick list of steps actual trans allies can take, if they wish to stop being performative, and start really improving trans people’s lives:
1. Examine your company’s policies regarding trans employees.
If you are a cisgender person with a job, crack open your company’s HR documents and health insurance booklet. Does your company make it easy for an employee to change their name in the organization’s online systems? Is gender identity listed as protected category in anti-discrimination materials? Does your employer-provided health insurance (if you are lucky enough to have it) cover transgender surgeries, gender therapy, and hormone replacement therapy? Are there any gender neutral bathrooms on the premises?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, congratulations, you have work to do! Go to your HR representative and cheerily start some trouble. As a cisgender person, you have the power to put trans-inclusive policies on an employer’s radar without placing a target on your own back. Ask if transgender healthcare is covered, and if not, why not. When maternity and paternity leave policies come up, ask about medical leave for people who have had gender confirmation surgeries. Suggest that a single-stall restroom be converted into a gender neutral space. When new positions in the company are posted, ask what your employer plans to do to ensure gender minorities feel welcome to apply.
You should bring up these concerns with a happy, curious, no-nonsense energy, as if it’s a given that all reasonable people care about such things. You are doing fellow cis people a favor by bringing this up! The more you act like trans inclusion is an obvious factor to consider, the more you help shift institutional norms towards including us. If you have trans coworkers, follow their lead as well. Notice what makes them uncomfortable, and cut in when people make unfair gendered assumptions or refer to them incorrectly. Keep it breezy and light, but be relentless.
2. Fight to Expand Transgender Healthcare Coverage
If you live in a country where health insurance is provided by the government, or a U.S. state with a healthcare marketplace, do a quick Google search to figure out which transgender healthcare needs are covered. If your area doesn’t require that trans healthcare be covered at all, it’s time to call up your representatives and start asking questions, complaining, and being benevolently annoying on our behalf.
You’ll also need to expand your understanding of what transgender healthcare entails. Trans people don’t just need hormones and surgeries on our genitals or chests: many of us need facial surgeries, laser hair removal or electrolysis, breast augmentation, voice therapy, or psychological care. Transgender women typically lose the ability to reproduce after starting hormones, and so if they wish to have genetic children, they have to store their reproductive material in a cryopreservation bank. This costs thousands of dollars. Most health insurance plans do not cover this kind of women’s reproductive care; even many women’s health clinics and reproductive justice nonprofits completely ignore this topic. It’s a massive source of injustice, and yet another way in which medical sexism hits trans women uniquely hard.
As a cis ally, you can help change this conversation! Ask your insurance provider to cover facial surgery for trans people, as well as hair removal and genetic banking. Question assumptions people make about which health interventions are “necessary” and which ones are optional. Speak with your political representatives and bring these issues to their awareness. Reach out to women’s health clinics and organizations, and emphasize the importance of including trans women in that conversation. Loudly affirm that all trans people have the right to any medical interventions they need, without apology or explanation. It’s rare to hear cis people saying such things — but so politically powerful when they do.
3. Oppose the Legal and Medical Gatekeeping of Trans Identity
In most parts of the world, transgender people have to be sterilized before they’re legally permitted to change the gender marker on their IDs. This is quite literally a eugenicist approach to trans “acceptance.” Under laws like these, we only get to live as ourselves once we have been removed from the gene pool.
In many places, trans patients still have to submit themselves to therapy for an extended period before they can access hormones. Many health insurance plans require trans patients provide extensive documentation (gathered over the course of years) in order to access surgery. If a trans patient is fat, Autistic, or gender non-conforming, they may be turned away from such trans healthcare, because doctors don’t trust them to be competent about their bodies or identities.
Changing gendered legal documents still frequently requires surgeries, hormone replacement treatments, and signed letters from a trans person’s doctor and psychiatrist. This means that getting legal recognition can take years and cost thousands of dollars. That’s if it’s accessible at all. Until earlier this year, it was impossible to change the gender marker on my Ohio birth certificate, no matter what I did. In the United Kingdom, trans people still cannot legally get married. Throughout the world, trans people of all ages are gatekept from from public gyms, sports teams, dormitories, pools, and spas.
If you are a cis person, it’s vital you speak out against medical and legal gatekeeping measures like these. Look into your state’s laws regarding name and gender marker changes. Ideally, the process should be quick, simple, cheap, and require no approval from a doctor or therapist. That is currently the case in Illinois, where I live: you can walk into a Secretary of State facility and change your gender on your ID at any time, for any reason, no questions asked. This policy was championed by our current governor J.B. Pritzker, whose sister is a trans woman. Few of us wield as much political influence as the billionaire Pritzker clan, but even still, when cis people stand up for trans folks’ right to self-determination, it can make serious waves.
Make sure you are aware of what steps trans people must take to access medical care and legal recognition in your area. Do a search online for “informed consent” clinics around you — these are the places that provide hormones to trans people without requiring a doctor’s letter. Throw some money toward their work if you can afford it. Support legal aid organizations that help trans people change their documentation, such as the Transformative Justice Law Project, too. Educate the cis people around you about how gatekeeping of trans identities and healthcare renders us unsafe and unfree. And if you know for a fact that it’s prohibitively difficult to be trans where you live, speak to your political representatives and demand they make a change.
Trans people know who we are, and we know what we need in order to remain healthy and safe. We shouldn’t have to appeal to cisgender structures of power in order to get it. But so long as we live in a violently cissexist world, we need cis allies in our corner, loudly fighting for our rights.
4. Resist the Coercive Gendering of Children
Every child has a gender forced on them at birth. While for trans people, being assigned the wrong gender label can be uniquely traumatic, coercive gendering really is unfair to everyone. It limits us, boxes each and every person into an unfair system of restricted expectations and options. So if you really wish to push against cissexism, you shouldn’t just add your pronouns to you bio. You ought to begin where the trouble really starts, with the gendered, binary assumptions people make about kids.
This week, the American Medical Association issued a statement recommending that sex no longer be listed on birth certificates. This move acknowledges that binary sex is a gross oversimplification of biology, one that damages transgender and intersex people alike. You can’t actually know someone’s genetics, hormonal profile, interior anatomy, or gender identity by looking at genitals of their infant body. And in order to uphold binary views of sex, doctors have long resorted to forcing “corrective” surgeries onto the bodies of infants who don’t conform. There’s no good reason to permanently tie a person’s legal status and medical documentation to the gonads a doctor first observed on them. It’s as violent as it is unscientific.
It’s wonderful to see doctors speaking out against the binary assignment of sex. Cisgender allies of all stripes should join them in taking up that mantle. Try to disrupt the forced gendering of children wherever you see it. Refuse to attend gender reveal parties. Question your friends and family members when they assume a baby “girl” is going to be a flirty heartbreaker, or a baby “boy” is going to be brilliant and tough. Use neutral language for children, and don’t make assumptions about who they are or will grow up to be. If you are a parent, question arbitrarily gendered events. Why have a Girl Scout troop that doesn’t include all kids? Why separate children’s sports into boys and girls, long before puberty has hit? Is there any reason to tell your loved ones the sex of your infant, or to have sleepovers exclusive to kids of one sex?
Right now, it’s basically impossible to raise a child in a fully gender-free way. Our legal structures, educational systems, relationship models, and professional norms are just too powerfully gendered. However, that doesn’t mean you as an adult can’t question cissexist thinking and fight against the binary where you see it. Join your local school board and advocate for gender-expansive policies and protections for trans kids. Provide an oasis free of gendered judgements to the children in your life. Push back when people speak about what being man or a woman must mean.
The binary has been with us for a very long time, so this is not a battle that will be easily won. It’s a war, one that will take decades to win — but we need every earnest cis foot soldier we can possibly get.
5. Question Feel-Good Gestures That Are All About You
I understand the urge to broadcast that you are a good ally. I’m not immune to it. As a white person, I know for a fact I have taken steps in the name of racial justice that were shallow, performative, and all about me. I’ve gotten swept up in self-involved, guilty feelings and scrambled to make myself feel better about damage I’ve done in the past. I’ve also come to learn that ally isn’t a status I’ll ever really arrive at. It’s not something I can claim for myself, put in my bio, emblazon on a t-shirt.
The less I dwell on my own feelings and identity as an ally or an accomplice, and the more I put focus on the white supremacist structures I can tackle, the better off I am. It actually does feel better to make a concrete difference. Plus, my continued growth and learning is much easier when I don’t have my ego wrapped up in it. On good days, I can accept I’ll never be a perfect anti-racist, and that it isn’t my job to convince the Black and brown people around me that I am “safe.” That’s up for them to judge. All I can do is alter my own behavior, and find injustices I know how to fight. It’s not like I’m ever going to run out of white supremacist bullshit to confront.
As a trans person, I encourage cis allies to take a similar view. The work of trans allyship isn’t about convincing any of us that you are safe. It’s not an identity you can claim. It’s a thing you do. And for the most part, the work of supporting trans people will involve being a well-meaning thorn in the side of other cis folks, and cisgender systems. It has nothing to do with you, or trans people’s view of you.
This can be a humbling thing to realize, but it’s also quite liberatory, too. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to know all the right words. You don’t have to put any energy into trying to look good. You can just search for transphobia to fight head on. You’re never going to run out of places where you are needed.
So go sit down with a friend who has questions about this whole gender identity thing. Research some of the legal and medical policy issues I outlined in this piece, then sit down with other cis people to have conversations about what you’ve learned. When our wellbeing is overlooked, remind people to consider it. When our autonomy is denied, speak out. Look outward, beyond yourself. Abandon your concern for the optics. That is enough. That’s everything, really.