Lately Sig Fig (total star of the week; read the post below) and I have been talking about the dangers of speaking for instead of with when trying to be a good ally. We’re concerned specifically about being trans allies, though I think it’s a question that should come up in trying to be a good anti-racist ally (as white folks), as a good feminist ally (if you’re a dude)… really any kind of ally. Here are my thoughts:
1. As a first step, always STFU&L. (I’m quoting Renee here, because that’s where I saw this first.) If you want to be an ally, you have a lot of learning to do. Especially in anti-racist circles, where I often can’t see my own white privilege (which is, in fact, a big part of having white privilege), I always have to remember to listen first, and listen long.
This step is also important just from a practical standpoint: if you want to advocate for any group of people, you have to know what those people want, need, feel and think. And this is hard, because we’re not talking about homogenous communities. So listen to what lots of people have to say.
2. Sometimes, people will only listen to “their own kind.” Just as there are white people who will only ever listen to other white people on matters of race, there are cis folks who will only ever grasp trans issues if they can hear about it from some other cis folks. It’s shitty, but it’s true. Being an ally can mean you’re the only one who will reach some of these people–and once you do, it’s vital to make them understand that it shouldn’t have taken an ally to make them listen. They should have been listening all along.
3. Your privilege gives you freedom to speak that oppressed groups don’t always have. It’s not always safe to be out (as queer or as trans), to speak up if you’re a woman or a person of color, or to be visible as a member of any marginalized community. When I was in college, as trans issues were just filtering into the consciousness of larger queer groups on campus, many trans folks in the community felt the need to stay anonymous. And given the rampant ignorance and transphobia we often felt, I can totally understand why.
I ultimately severed ties with that particular college queer community, but while I was still active I found that any time I tried to bring up trans issues on the group email list a major flame war would break out on-list–and I’d get a swell of support off-list. People thanked me for speaking out, and admitted they didn’t feel like they could.
4. It’s not the oppressed’s responsibility to educate the oppressor. I’ve noticed all too often that white folks–even in progressive or feminist circles–more or less demand that people of color prove that racism exists. I see the same thing in queer spaces–prove to me that your gender identity is valid, or authentic, or worthy.
While it’s certainly true that, say, trans folks might have more insight on gender identity or theory and probably know a few places to look for good information, why are we making them do all the work? Just as I spend my life justifying my sexuality and explaining being a lesbian to straight people, trans folks spend their lives defending and explaining their very existence. Can you understand why a woman who gets asked multiple times a week whether she has a cock might not be so inclined to hand-hold every cis person (even those with the best of intentions) who wants to learn more about gender?
[Please see also: Gays and Lesbians Know the Meaning of the Word Attack. The last paragraph in particular is crucial.]