As someone whose way of being as a human and as a scholar is rooted in anti-oppression activism, and as someone who identifies as genderqueer (and non-binary trans), I am often asked by cisgender educators how people can support trans and non-binary adults and children. I usually can’t give the answer in a 30-second elevator speech, or in a conference workshop, or even a day-long professional development, so I find myself telling people to do what I think is the single most important thing any privileged person needs to do: to center the voices of minoritized people.
Of course, that is no small feat, and it is my hope that in my answer, people go and do the ongoing work of recognizing and interrogating their own biases as they move to be anti-oppressive.
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that when I’m met with overwhelmed stares, it’s likely in part because the person asking knows how much important work is involved on their part. But, it’s also probably in part because most people have not had the opportunity to truly understand what it means to “center” minoritized voices.
Centering is about being in solidarity with others. It’s about listening to, believing (as in trusting, not as in believing in), and supporting the needs of minoritized people. This is much bigger work than a blog, but I’d like to offer a few ways people can get started on the important work of centering trans and non-binary voices.
- Acknowledge that cissexism happens every single day, in every single space.
The simplest way to understand privilege is to realize that if something doesn’t seem to be an issue for you, it’s probably because you have privilege. Cisgender people often don’t know how problematic not having all-gender restrooms is – not because they don’t care – but because they don’t have to think about it on a daily basis like trans or non-binary people do. This is called cisgender privilege.
Even if you can’t (or don’t) see cissexism happening, if you acknowledge that it is happening all around you, then you are actively working to dismantle silencing and create visibility.
- Be an educated accomplice (and educate others).
I like to use the word “accomplice” instead of ally because it implies active collaboration and solidarity with, not just being in passive support of, trans and non-binary people. And we need accomplices – educated ones. Some quick ways you can educate yourself:
- Know trans and non-binary history
- Recognize how cissexism is denied, minimized, and justified (and notice if/how you do these things)
- Notice who holds power and how it is (mis)used
- Use trans-inclusive language
- Know your own limits as an accomplice
Being an educated accomplice requires you to educate yourself. Watch videos, read books and articles, learn from experts. But don’t rely on trans or non-binary people to do all the work of teaching you. Be accountable to yourself and respectful of trans and non-binary peoples’ time and assets.
- Be aware of, equalize, and leverage power.
I often hear people talk about “giving” something to others when they talk about centering voices, whether it’s a spot at the table or the stage and a microphone that previously wasn’t available to them.
This is problematic thinking, though, because it implies that trans and non-binary people are powerless until cisgender people bestow upon them their powers. This upholds systemic oppression by reinforcing a hierarchy of identity (i.e., cisgender people have something that trans/non-binary people do not, and they are therefore valued better). The reality is that we all have the right to have power, but systemic oppression denies power to some individuals.
It’s important to remember this – that we all have the right to hold power – because centering trans and non-binary people means that cisgender people are aware of when they hold power, how they can share (not transfer, give up, or give away) power, and how they can use their power support, not oppress, trans and non-binary people.
- Remember your “why.”
To center trans and non-binary people is to be in solidarity with them, not to just help them. Work hard to interrogate your own motives for centering their voices, making sure to avoid the ever-oppressive “savior complex” that keeps the us-versus-them mentality thriving in harmful ways. A good “why” to have when collaborating with minoritized individuals is to maintain human dignity for all.
- Intentionally create space that fosters solidarity.
Spaces where trans and non-binary people are centered are those where they are able to share everything they want to share – their narratives, experiences, needs, wants, worries – and where cisgender people heed how much space they themselves take up in those places.
Listen. Ask questions. Practice humility. Listen some more.
If you’re going to be at the Conference on English Leadership, I invite you to join me for the Monday morning keynote where we’ll be taking this topic to a more in-depth level and talking about how English leaders (and leaders in general) can provide support and solidarity for their trans and non-binary faculty, staff, students, and families.
¹A cisgender person is one whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.
² Cissexism is prejudice or discrimination against trans or non-binary people. When these people are denied restroom access that matches their gender identity, for example, or they are asked to leave a restroom by others who believe they do not belong, this is cissexism. Though only one example, this happens every single day. Trans and non-binary people know this; cisgender people do not (because privilege).
by Dana Stachowiak
Dr. Dana Stachowiak is the Director of Women’s Studies & Resource Center and an Associate Professor at of Curriculum Studies at The University of North Carolina Wilmington.