Being an ally to the transgender community
If you would like to do your part to be an ally to the transgender community, here are some practical steps you can take!
Be informed about issues and concerns facing the trans community
One of the first steps is education – understanding what it means to be transgender as well as the challenges that we face globally and here in Singapore. If you are new to this, we have put together some 101 articles where we also address common questions and concerns around trans-related issues:
- Glossary of terms
- Frequently asked questions
- What is gender dysphoria?
- Guidelines for trans-friendly employers
Having a better understanding of transgender issues can help you discern fact from fiction and speak out against misinformation online and in real life.
- Familiarise yourself with the latest academic and scientific research so that you can recognise and question claims that do not seem accurate.
- If you read or hear a claim that is especially shocking, do some fact-checking. Often, the reality is much more mundane. For example, social media posts might claim that young children are being sent for sex-reassignment surgeries, when the reality is that transition for children with gender dysphoria only involves changing their clothes, hairstyles or names to something they are more comfortable with.
- Be especially wary of emotionally-charged headlines. These often knowingly misinterpret or exaggerate facts in order to drive clicks.
- Acknowledge when you do not know enough to contribute to a discussion. Many of these topics are complex, and difficult for most people to understand, especially where niche medical issues are concerned. It is fine to say that you don’t know, and to suggest that others in the discussion may likewise not know enough to give informed opinions.
Many of the ongoing debates around transgender rights are also taking place in the West within social, cultural and legal contexts that cannot always be neatly transposed to Singapore and the Asian region. Read up on the experiences and perspectives of local trans people and the specific challenges they face here.
Prioritise listening and building human connection
Transgender issues can seem abstract, but they affect real people in deeply personal ways. Trans people are a very small part of the population, and many people do not personally know a trans person – which can make it easy to dehumanise and fear us. It is easy to be afraid of an unknown trans person in the darkness. It is harder to be afraid of a friend.
Listening to and forming relationships with trans people will also help you share that perspective with those who may not know any trans people themselves.
Whether you’re speaking to a transgender person or a cisgender (non-trans) person, prioritise listening – hear out the other party’s perspectives and concerns. Focus on building connections and relationships based on commonalities and a recognition of the other person’s humanity.
Don’t out trans people without their consent
When sharing about your trans friends and relatives, check with them first if they are ok with you talking about them. Some may prefer to remain anonymous, or not to be mentioned at all.
If a friend shares with you that they are transgender and plan to transition, treat this as private information. They may not be out to all their friends or family and may have good reasons for not telling some of them. Check with your friend if this is something you should keep to yourself, or who else they have told, and how they would like you to refer to them in different social situations.
The same applies when a friend shares with you that they transitioned some time back. This is sensitive personal information that could have many consequences in the wrong hands, so check with your friend on how open they are about their trans status. Some trans people may be openly trans in some situations (e.g. advocacy work) but keep this private in others (e.g. regular work).
In both cases, don’t probe for more information if they say they are uncomfortable sharing, especially if it involves their body and what medical interventions they have had or wish to have. Respect their personal and bodily boundaries the way you would with any other friend.
Avoid pressuring trans people to be openly trans
Being openly trans can serve as an inspiration to others and help to humanise trans people, but it can be deeply nerve-wracking to the trans person, especially if they are an introvert. Going public could mean becoming a target of anti-trans harassment, which can get extreme and sometimes turn into real life violence. Many people are not prepared to deal with that risk and should not be pressured into sharing their story in a public space.
Avoid pressuring trans people to disclose their trans status
When someone comes out as gay, lesbian or bisexual, they experience freedom in no longer having to live a lie and getting to be who they truly are.
This is one reason many cis LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer) people assume that transitioned trans people who wish to keep their trans status private are also closeted or ashamed of who they are, and assume that they too should be encouraged to come out and live their truth.
However, those trans people have already done so – when they first came out as trans, stopped living a lie, and transitioned to be who they truly are. Wishing to keep their personal life private in some contexts does not mean returning to the closet. Being openly trans comes with many challenges, while others may just not want anyone other than close friends knowing something so personal about them.
An analogy would be a happily married gay man with a supportive community who nonetheless does not wish his conservative workplace to know that he is gay. It would be inaccurate to say that he is still in the closet or ashamed of who he is.
See trans people’s lives and experiences as of equal worth and value
As with any minority group, trans people are often subconsciously viewed as inferior, incompetent or less worthy of protection. This frequently leads to double standards when considering the needs and safety of trans people vs. the general population:
- Transgender people’s perspectives are rarely sought when forming policies that directly affect us, based on the assumption that other people know better about our own lives and what is good for us.
- A 5 year old cis girl who says she is a girl is not questioned. A 5 year old trans girl who repeatedly insists she is a girl (perhaps in a boy’s body) is often told she is wrong or too young to know, and forced to look and act more like a boy even if this causes her immense distress; most people would consider it abuse to treat a cis girl in the same way.
- When a young cis woman regrets masculinising HRT and is devastated that the permanent changes (e.g. deep voice, facial hair) cause her to be seen as a man, she is met with an outpouring of grief and sympathy. In contrast, the many more trans women desperate to avoid the same masculinisation through feminising HRT are instead met with scorn and mockery. Likewise, cis men who lose their penises are treated with far more sympathy than trans men born without them, who are instead questioned for wanting one or told it is no big deal.
- Subjecting trans women to actual harm is considered more acceptable than exposing cis women to potential harm. A common example are policies that require trans people to use public toilets or sex-segregated spaces in accordance with their legal sex or sex at birth, even when this is clearly discordant from their current appearance. Trans women overseas consistently face high levels of repeated physical and sexual assault when forced to share spaces with men, especially in confined contexts like incarceration; this is not treated with anywhere near the same degree of horror that would occur if a cis woman was forced to do the same and assaulted as a result.
Seeing trans people as equal means recognising that our lives, comfort and safety matter as much as anyone else’s, and our gender identities are just as strongly experienced. Policies should take everyone’s safety into account when drafting solutions, and not treat trans people’s wellbeing as expendable.
Creating safe spaces
The smallest gestures can help trans people know that they can feel safe around you.
Depending on what’s appropriate for your age and comfort level, this could take the form of trans-ally stickers or badges, correctly gendering trans celebrities and public figures (do avoid outing trans people you personally know, unless you are certain that they are okay with this), expressing concern around anti-trans rhetoric, including your gender pronouns in your email signature, raising questions about how certain policies may harm trans people, countering transphobic comments you hear, speaking up against anti-trans misinformation online, donating to trans charities and sharing about them on social media, and so on.
If you find it difficult or unsafe to stand up for others, such as if you see your boss insulting or misgendering your trans colleague, just checking up on your colleague after the incident (and accompanying them to HR if appropriate) could mean a lot to them.
Take the lead with pronoun sharing
While a common recommendation is to ask everyone for their pronouns, this can sometimes lead to discomfort or offense if the other person is closeted, does not wish to share this with a stranger, or is dismayed and frightened at the thought they were so easily identified as trans.
A better approach is to introduce yourself with your pronouns (or include it in your email signature or social media bio) and leave it open for the other person to do the same if they wish. Do not push for it if they do not. Pronouns are personal and sharing them can be hard, especially for trans people who are not yet ready to come out, or whose gender identity is more fluid.
In some cases it makes sense to ask, such as if a friend just came out to you and you want to know how to refer to them. Even then, pay attention to context – if someone named Jessica has just given a long speech about the difficulties in coming out as trans and being accepted as a woman, it would be rude and not very intelligent to ask what her pronouns are.
Actively include trans people in gendered spaces and terms
Making everything gender-neutral is sometimes abused as a way to avoid correctly gendering trans people, such as referring to a trans woman as a sibling rather than sister.
Gender-neutral terms are most appropriate when addressing or referring to large groups of people whose genders you do not know and do not wish to assume – hence examples like “hey everyone” rather than “hey ladies”.
This should not be the case within smaller groups of friends, or when you do know the genders of the people involved. Like other men and women, trans men and women often find it powerfully validating to be included in gendered spaces and contexts:
- Inviting a trans woman to be a bridesmaid at a wedding
- Offering to help a newly-out trans woman with clothes and makeup
- Referring to a group of cis and trans men as “brothers”
- Inviting a trans man to help out at a men’s support group
(As with all invitations and offers, respect it if they say no. Some situations can be daunting for newly-out trans people, while others may not be interested for other reasons.)
For non-binary people, inclusion should aim to be specific and not generic:
- “This event is open to all women and non-binary people”
- “Our sisters, brothers and non-binary siblings”
- Many non-binary people feel most comfortable in mixed gender groups. In cases where gender segregation makes sense (e.g. sexuality-related discussions), if you have enough non-binary people present, ask if they would like to form a separate group, or else consider forming mixed-gender groups in addition to the gendered ones.
Many cultures have specific terms for people whose gender identities fall outside of the binary. If this is the case for some people you know, they may prefer those terms.
Avoid unnecessary differentiation of cis and trans people
Dividing people of the same gender into cis and trans is typically only relevant when discussing trans or LGBTQ issues or matters of reproductive and sexual health. In other contexts, especially social contexts, it is often clunky, inaccurate, and makes trans people feel not truly accepted as their gender – even where that exclusion is well-meaning, such as someone ranting that they hate men, except trans men.
Many trans people have life experiences, biological characteristics and social behaviours that are more closely aligned with others of our gender identity rather than birth sex. For many of us, gender dysphoria also influenced how we experienced, internalised or responded to gendered socialisation. When it comes to medical issues, HRT changes a trans person’s biomedical profile to more closely match that of the target sex, with the accompanying health risks and considerations. Continuing to give them medical advice as per their birth sex could have health consequences.
Consider if it is necessary and accurate to use the terms cis or trans when writing or speaking about gender.
See trans people as individuals
Trans people come from all kinds of backgrounds – of diverse races, cultures, ages, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, personalities, education levels, careers and political beliefs, rich and poor, married or single, at different points in their transition and different degrees of openness about it.
Just as how people of the same race may be very different people with very different experiences, trans people may not share any commonality beyond being trans. There is no one common trans experience even among trans people of the same gender. A wealthy, married trans woman who transitioned at 60 in a supportive family in is going to have a very different outlook on life than a teenage trans girl who was just kicked out of her home.
Trans people may also have different experiences with gender dysphoria or euphoria, our relationship with our bodies, navigating our sexuality, and so on. Cultural, religious and family expectations further shape those experiences.
Be aware that trans people may have differing stances on issues. Seek to understand where each of them is coming from, and consider if their views are true for most trans people or perhaps unique to them.
Be mindful of situations that may be risky for trans people
Trans people who are visibly trans, non-binary, or have not been able to change their gender marker face considerably higher risks in gendered spaces. Examples would be going to a public swimming pool or to a gym, staying in gender-segregated hostels, or visiting an onsen in Japan.
However, such situations could also be potentially very affirming and validating for binary trans people further along in transition whose bodies are consistently seen as their gender. It is best to check if you are unsure, and consider alternatives if needed.
At other times, it might mean a lot for you to accompany them, such as if you have a trans female friend who is scared of using the women’s toilets for the first time.
Considerations when travelling
A large majority (~90% in our 2020 survey) of trans people in Singapore have not been able to change the gender marker on their NRICs. This poses a danger when travelling to countries where being trans (or “cross-dressing”) is illegal, such as Indonesia.
Many countries in the Middle East have harsh penalties for trans people. Many parts of the United States have also grown increasingly hostile and violent with a sharp rise in anti-trans rhetoric and policies. Even in countries known to be more progressive around LGBTQ issues, attitudes vary within the population and violence can still occur, and trans people could still face issues at immigration or when seeking accommodation – especially when staying in other people’s homes such as in Airbnb.
While trans people in Singapore have nonetheless travelled safely to those locations, caution is still necessary, especially for trans women, and non-essential travel should be avoided.
If travelling with a trans friend who has not changed their gender marker, try to avoid situations where they will need to show their passport. This includes bars and anywhere requiring identity or age verification. Where possible, use your passport instead and be the main point of contact with tour agencies, accommodation and so on.
Remember who this is all about
As an ally, you may find people who are willing to listen to you but not to trans people. Use that as an opportunity to raise trans people’s concerns to where they will be heard, or even to get trans people involved.
Take care not to speak over or silence trans people who are talking from their own lived experiences, and find opportunities to amplify trans voices to tell their own stories.
Provide support to families of trans people
Many partners, parents and siblings of trans people struggle in silence, especially in a more conservative country like Singapore. They may not know anyone they can talk to, and may be surrounded by friends and relatives making negative remarks about them or their trans loved one. They may have many questions, anxieties and fears of their own that they have no outlet for.
They too need support. This helps trans people as well – trans people often end up bearing the brunt of these negative remarks or having to explain that the sentiments that their parents, partners and siblings have heard are negative. If you know of any friends in that situation, reach out to them so they don’t feel so alone.