Confession Time: When Trans Allies Screw Up
My wife Lauren and I were in a Best Buy the other day, since my step-daughter was anxious to spend birthday money on a new iPod. What transpired during that visit is something Lauren asked me to share with you. It’s because of the lesson she learned, and her hopes that my readers can learn from her absolutely unintentional yet highly embarrassing (to her) faux pas.
We’d been at Best Buy for a while when a friendly and knowledgeable associate was beckoned to answer our iPod questions. At one point my step-kid mentioned to him that she liked to watch Netflix on her old iPod and wants to do that on her new one, to which he answered, “Oh, my better half does that all the time, you two would have a lot to talk about.”
By now it’s second nature to me to subconsciously note when someone uses a phrase like “better half” to describe their partner because of how often I would use it (and sometimes still use it) instead of “wife,” and I somewhat assume they are using it for the same reason (i.e. not knowing yet if you are speaking to a safe and receptive participant in the conversation).
Eventually I grew weary of the tech-y talk and wandered off, only to be found my Lauren a few minutes later. I could tell she was bursting with news.
“His spouse is transgender!”
Lauren is the perfect spouse-of-a-gender-therapist. She’s not faking her excitement one bit with this revelation. She’s excited and eager to help our new friend.
Apparently the associate (we’ll call him Todd) and his spouse had recently moved from a big city that had lots of trans support in it. Now that they live in Southern Colorado, they haven’t been able to find any resources or a community to connect with.
“My wife’s a gender therapist! I’ll go get her!”
We head back to the iPod department, Lauren’s hand clasping mine as she does her best to keep from barreling into the other customers.
We breathlessly arrive. Todd and I smile at one another, as if we’d just discovered we’re both members of the same secret club.
Lauren gently places her hand on his arm, which is what I’ve come to know as her genuine gesture of affection that she demonstrates with strangers she likes. She gathers her thoughts, takes a breath, and begins to share with me what she’d found out from Todd so far.
“So, he was saying that his wife…”
Todd grimaced. “Ooh, he’d hate it if he heard you say that.”
I could see Lauren squeeze his arm, her eyes widening. “Oh God, I’m so sorry!” She looked back at me and I knew what she was thinking. “What kind of wife-of-a-gender-therapist am I??”
Todd seemed to shake it off and got me caught up. He referred to his partner as “FtM” at one point, which Lauren later told me he had said to her as well but she wasn’t sure what that meant. Todd had also mentioned that his partner was 6’1,” so she took that as a clue that this person was born male and transitioned to female.
Todd and I continued to talk for a time, exchanged business cards, and expressed our delight in having met each other in the most random of circumstances.
As Todd left to tend to the next customer I noticed Lauren had her arms folded and was looking at me with her sad face – droopy eyes, pouty lip, hunched brows.
“I did it wrong!”
“It was an honest mistake, baby, it’s okay.”
“No it’s not! I should have gotten it right. I just got confused…” She lowered her head and shook it with a significant amount of remorse. I could see how distraught the whole thing had made her, so I offered what help I could.
“Next time you’re not sure, just say ‘partner.’ Then see what they say next and follow their lead.”
“You’re a really good trans ally, I promise.”
“Yeah…” That was when she had the idea. “Hey, you should talk about this in your blog.” She realized there was a lesson or two she learned from the experience and wanted others to gain from the knowledge she had gained.
If you are a trans ally (i.e. someone who is not trans but who supports and stands up for the rights of those who are trans), remember there is a lot to learn about the transgender experience. Therefore you will probably “screw up” now and then. Apologize as quickly as you can, and take note so you can remember it for next time. The more time you can spend getting to know people who are transgender, the more you’ll be able to avoid the accidental error. Even if you don’t know anyone personally who is transgender, you can gain information from podcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, Facebook groups, etc.
If you are transgender, keep in mind there’s a learning curve that many trans allies have to ride for a while as they increase their understanding of your experience. I know it can be a challenge at times to determine whether or not someone is being disrespectful or just honestly confused and/or curious. Try to feel out their intention and, if you can tell it’s the latter, gently let them know what they said that was incorrect. More than likely they are going to feel embarrassed, so move on as naturally as you can while getting them back on the correct track.
Additional watching: Bad Questions to ask a Transsexual by Calpernia Addams
Confession Time – I learned about Calpernia’s video about two years ago from a client who, in response to me asking if I could see a picture of him when he was pre-transition, use great tact in suggesting I watch this video. Let’s just say I came to our next session, sheepishly, with a picture in hand of me when I was twelve years old with braces and a perm.