My feelings about “allies” to the transgender community are complicated. Sometimes this "ally" concept seems really powerful to me, and other times, it just seems like another shallow label.
Sometimes the way we talk about "allies" feels insightful and important. Sometimes our language feels rigid and inadequate.
In transgender communities, allies are very important—hugely important.
No one transitions alone: we bring along our families (of origin and of choice), our co-workers, and our communities, including our churches. Transition is both intensely personal and profoundly social as we make visible what we know about our innermost selves—often at tremendous risk.
In the face of such vulnerability, we need people who can fiercely journey with us as we come to feel what it's like to speak in our most authentic voice. That kind of companion is important, not only because of the particular vulnerabilities of gender transition, but because it gets at the heart of our becoming and unfolding as human beings in this world.
I was recently out to dinner with a friend—someone who has known me more than a decade. As we reflected on the length of our relationship, it hit me that my friend is not an "ally" in the political sense of the word. This is not someone who blogs about transgender issues, not someone who remembers to ask about pronouns, not someone who works for inclusive policies, and not someone who has read books or watched films or attended conferences about transgender "issues."
As a result, my friend is also someone who does not tell a self-congratulatory story about being an ally to trans* folk.
But this is someone who has known me and embraced me and encouraged me for years in my own unfolding as a person, beyond any labels or political aspirations. This is someone who works everyday to understand me better and invites me to be more myself.
There is something profound about that kind of listening, respecting, inviting—something that is at the heart of being an ally to people in transgender communities. In many ways, that openness to hearing someone else's story, someone else's truth is so much more important than learning vocabulary or etiquette.
Now, I am very much in favor of education. On the Transfaith website, we have resources like transgender basics, tips for allies, resources on vocabulary and language, study guides, and much more. We also offer an online course in transgender suicide prevention and workshops on pastoral care.
I spend my days (and some of my nights!) trying to figure out how to help people become more knowledgeable about transgender people and the issues we face. But one open heart willing to listen deeply is worth fifty well-educated experts any day.
An ally with an open heart can (and likely will) always learn more and find new ways to be supportive.
Once we think we have the "answers," it can become much more difficult to challenge ourselves to keep listening deeply for the new truths that present themselves in relationship.
I don't think the need to be seen and heard is unique to trans* people. We all need to be recognized. We all need for our personal truth to be respected, even (and especially) if it challenges those around us.
I know that there are lots of ways I need to keep opening myself to the experiences of people with different kinds of bodies—people with fat bodies, people with brown bodies, people whose bodies have physical challenges or chronic illness, and so much more. Certainly survivors of trauma need to be heard when they choose to speak the truth of their experience.
In my own work as a multi-faith organizer, listening deeply beyond my own pre-conceptions and worldview is essential.
There are so many ways we need to be listening deeply to one another—and these are all essential parts of being an ally to transgender communities. Our gender experience is only one part of who we are.
I have wrestled with Christian tradition most of my life. One of my most foundational beliefs from that wrestling is that we are all made in the Image of God. So I understand this kind of deep listening to one another as search for God; this is a search for God as God is uniquely manifest in each one of us.
To step outside of our own experience and worldview to embrace the challenge of the "other" is exactly what it means to embrace Immanuel (God with Us), breaking into our lives in new ways. At its heart, this is a profound call to authenticity in community.
I believe that this invitation to deep, world-changing authenticity is one of the great gifts of transgender communities to the world.
It's also worth saying that living authentically and inviting others to do likewise is a bit different than the gift of truth-telling—the taboo-breaking, silence-overcoming power of "coming out" stories. Living authentically is less about shouting from the roof-tops and more about quietly integrating our deepest knowledge of ourselves into our daily lives.
When we talk about being allies, sometimes we seem to lose track of how important and basic it is to be present, day after day, listening and building relationship, and honoring someone else's truth. It is all too easy for being an "ally" to become a performance that is detached from listening, from inviting, from opening. If this happens, then what is the purpose of being an ally?
So, it is important to educate yourself, to become familiar with resources and language and literature. It is important to figure out how to be an advocate for others without letting yourself become the center of the conversation. It's important to think about where you have power and influence to change perceptions. All of that is key.
But for me, it is most important for allies to be fully present as open-hearted witnesses.
Show up and be open to finding the Spirit moving in the life of someone with different life experience, a different worldview, or a different self-understanding. This ally week, I invite you to set aside your agenda and make a new commitment to listening.
The asterisk in trans* is used by some advocates and allies to make the term intentionally inclusive.
Photo via flickr user deep_schismic