Author: Alexis Paul, M.A.
In order to be an ally, it is important for you to educate yourself, so congratulations on taking this first step! Identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming can be a difficult experience for people no matter what age. As social media has expanded, it has allowed people to find others who align with similar gender identities or experiences as themselves. This has allowed younger children to become more aware of gender identity, which has resulted in more youth identifying as transgender and nonbinary. Understanding your child’s gender identity is fundamental to understanding your child as a person. Refusing to validate your child’s experiences could result in dangerous and negative consequences. Recently, there was a study that showed transgender youth who were able to express their identity in terms of their chosen name and pronouns in all areas of their lives (school, home, work, social activities) had reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior compared to transgender youth who were not able to openly be themselves.
This guide will help you take the first step in understanding what gender is and how to be an ally to transgender and nonbinary youth.
Sex vs Gender
Sex is categorized into three classifications in US: male, female or intersex. Sex is assigned at birth solely based on the presentation of our genitals. However, sex involves much more than what our genitals look like (i.e., hormones, chromosomes, internal organs, etc.).
Gender is our internal understanding and experience of our own gender identity. There are many different genders, such as:
- Cisgender: one’s gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth
- Transgender: one’s gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth (It’s important to note that though transgender people usually transition their gender expression to match their gender identity, one does not need to in order to be transgender)
- Nonbinary: one’s gender identity is outside of the man-woman gender binary (Other words used that are similar are, genderfluid, genderqueer, polygender, bigender, demigender, or agender—however they are not interchangeable or synonymous with nonbinary, as there are nuances that make each identification unique)
- Two-Spirit: This gender identity is only used by Native American/First Nations people whose gender and/or sex challenges the colonial constructions of the gender binary
Gender Expression vs Gender Perception
Gender expression is how we present ourselves to the world. This may include our physical appearance, clothing, hairstyle, makeup, behaviors, etc. We have control over some elements of our gender expression and can express ourselves in fun, creative, and gender-affirming ways. To be an ally, it is also important to refrain from making assumptions about one’s gender solely based on how they present physically. Be aware of your expectations and biases towards your conception of gender expression and try to support others by validating their experiences.
Gender perception is how others perceive our gender expression based on our physical presentation. Unlike gender expression, we cannot necessarily change someone’s gender perception of us. People will often perceive gender based off a variety of social cues such as gender expression, secondary sex characteristics, or the social role they play relative to the expected gender of that role.
Names and Pronouns
Names and pronouns are a way to communicate one’s gender. By honoring someone’s name and pronouns it shows respect and acknowledgement of their gender identity and expression. We cannot assume someone’s pronouns the same way as we cannot assume someone’s name. Respecting the language that youth use to self-identify with is not only polite but it can actually save lives.
It’s best to introduce yourself with your own pronouns when you meet someone, as this can give them the opportunity to also share their pronouns without pressuring them to disclose them by directly asking. Some transgender or nonbinary folks may not feel ready to disclose their pronouns; disclosing your own pronouns first can be helpful in creating a safe space that allows them to share or not share their pronouns.
Labels or No Labels?
It can be liberating to label your gender identity as a way to express yourself and find others who relate to your experiences. Gender is complicated—it is okay if you don’t understand all the words being used to identify gender. However, it is not okay to invalidate others for using labels that are unfamiliar to you.
It is also okay to not label yourself. For some people, it may feel more liberating or comfortable to not label themselves in terms of specific pronouns. Some people may still be exploring or questioning their identity and may not want to commit to a label just yet, or they may be in an environment where labeling themselves could be dangerous. Do not tell others how you think they should or should not label their gender. There is no right or wrong way to define your gender.
Refrain from sharing anyone else’s story. If someone identifies and self-discloses to you, it does not necessarily mean that they feel comfortable identifying themselves to others. Disclosing someone’s identity without their consent could compromise their safety as some environments can be dangerous for transgender and nonbinary folks.
Transitioning *does not* = Surgery
There is no one “right” way to express gender. Some may medically transition, and some may not. This can be due to personal gender expression, lack of access to gender-affirming healthcare, medical conditions that prevent certain procedures, or other reasons.
Transitioning can take place over several years and can involve social, medical, and/or legal aspects. Transitioning does not equate to having gender-affirming surgery. In addition, some transgender people may not physically transition at all; this could be due to lack of a supportive community, risk of safety, or other reasons.
Under no circumstances should you ask unprompted questions about transgender/nonbinary folks’ bodies, genitals, medical history, plans for procedures, previous (“dead”) name, or any other invasive details about their life prior to transition.
There is also no “right” age to understand one’s gender identity. Some people know when they are very young, others transition later in life, and others explore their gender identity over the course of their lives.
“Passing” is a term used to describe whether a person is perceived as cisgender. For some trans folks, being able to “pass” as the gender they align with is important for their sense of well-being. In addition, “passing privilege” can allow a person to move safely throughout an environment where being perceived as transgender may be dangerous.
However, this term can also problematic as it implies that being perceived as cisgender is the ultimate goal. The word “passing” also implies that a person has to “convince” others of their gender rather than just being able to simply express their true self. In addition, “passing” is not every transgender/nonbinary person’s goal in their gender expression.
Misgendering is when you use the wrong name, pronoun, or form of address for a person’s gender. Misgendering is very hurtful and can put someone’s safety at risk, regardless, if it was an innocent mistake or a malicious attempt to invalidate someone.
If you misgender someone by accident, apologize swiftly and do not make any excessive show of the mistake, your guilt, or your frustration. This may cause more discomfort for the person being misgendered as it puts the onus on them to make you feel better for misgendering them. If you are nervous about making mistakes, then practice with someone other than that person. A few mistakes are okay, but if they are chronic and consistent then it shows that person their gender identity is not valid or important to you. If you hear someone misgendering a person who is not there, still correct them.
These are everyday comments and questions that can be hurtful or stigmatizing to marginalized individuals. These are usually subtle and the person committing it may have no idea their comments are hurtful. A common one used towards transgender/nonbinary folks is, “You don’t look trans!” While this is phrased as a compliment, it implies that being transgender is negative and that all people want to be perceived as cisgender. If you notice something you said hurt someone’s feelings, take the time to understand and learn from the experience so as not to repeat it again.
What to do if you offend someone?
1. Listen—It is common to avoid listening to people we hurt, as it brings uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame. Stay in the discomfort and be willing to listen and self-reflect.
2. Be accountable— Take responsibility for your actions, privileges, and experiences you hold that could contribute to your bias’. Do not dismiss what the person is sharing with you, do not try and justify your behavior, and do not defend your intentions. This shifts the focus away from the person you’ve harmed and onto your own personal feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness.
3. Commit to do better—Treat it as a learning experience. We are human. The most authentic apology is the change and commitment to do better and not make the same mistake in the future.
Social Media Accounts to Follow
Continue to educate yourself by following trans/nonbinary folks on social media! Some accounts on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter you can follow to continue your education allyship growth are:
@mx.deran @mia.mingus @arm_and_hamel
@alokvmenon @aaron__philip @hopegiselle
@jazzjennings_ @glennondoyle @tjlucasbox
@imara_jones @chellaman @iamelevenxx
@basitcom @asiakatedillon @pinkmantaray
A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth. The Trevor Project (2021, March 26). https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/trevor-support-center/a-guide-to-being-an-ally-to-transgender-and-nonbinary-youth/.
Olsen-Kennedy, J., Okonta, V., Clark, L. F., & Belzer, M. (2018). Physiologic response to gender-affirming hormones among transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 62(4), 397-401.