Alice Domurat Dreger has been one of my favourite non-fiction authors for years. I credit her books on intersex people and conjoined twins as big influences on my work (my Micah Grey series has an intersex protagonist and False Hearts stars formerly conjoined twins) and she always came across as sympathetic to me in her work about people with atypical anatomies. When I saw this post she wrote on “How to be an Ally to Cis-Women,” my heart dropped.
I’m cis (she/her pronouns). I don’t feel trans women “owe” me any sort of allyship. In this article, Dreger is not speaking for me. I don’t need trans women to do these points for me. I’m going to respond to each of her points from the view of a cis woman. I have also reached out and have included quotes from Snow, a trans woman, and Sarah, who is genderfluid. My thanks to them and the other people who read this post.
- Don’t make us refer to ourselves as “cis-gendered” if it is irrelevant to what we are talking about. In other words, don’t require us to always label ourselves in opposition to your identity.*
Laura: No one makes people refer to themselves as cis-gendered, do they? It’s an easy way to differentiate from being trans. Some women seem to bristle at it and see cis as some sort of insult when it’s not. It’s a shorthand. It’s like saying straight woman and lesbian woman. It’s a descriptor, not opposition.
Snow: I’ve never made anyone refer to themselves as cis. I’ll ask what pronouns someone prefers, but that’s it. For me, I am a woman first, trans second. It’s how I’d actually prefer it to be listed. It seems less ‘othering’ that way, to me at least.
- Allow us to talk about our vaginas, vulvas, clitorises, breasts, periods, menstrual blood, birth experiences, hysterectomies, etc. without claiming that we are oppressing you because you weren’t born with the bodies we were. Allow us, without harassment, to write and perform plays, make jokes, sing songs, and work for clinics that are about women like us.
Laura: This is a hard point to respond to. Not many people do this, at least in my experience. I’ve never had a trans woman try to stop me from discussing my own body. I would think that they don’t want their experiences and their bodies to be discounted, ignored, or excluded. I wouldn’t call that harassment. Example: say I make a post talking about women and periods. If someone says to me: “hey, when you mention periods, just remember that not only women get periods. Trans men who haven’t had hysterectomies or aren’t on T can have periods too, but they’re not women.” then I remember that and try to keep it in mind. It’s not difficult for me to do so. There can be an emphasis of womanhood as being defined by motherhood. There was a transphobic piece about Caitlyn Jenner that popped up in my Facebook feed a few times. The entire article said she could never truly be a woman because she hadn’t experienced periods or physically given birth. That I take issue with; there’s more to being a woman than just giving birth and having periods. There are so many ways to be a woman and being trans is one of them.
Snow: Talk about your body all you want. It’s not oppressing me. In fact, I can probably empathise with some of the things you go through. One of my co-workers was talking about how she hated her period, and said I was lucky I didn’t have to suffer through having one. I started laughing, and told her that although I didn’t get the messy part, I still got the bad skin/acne breakouts, junk food cravings, and foul mood that seem to go hand-in-hand with having your period.
Sarah: Literally the only way this is an attack is if you think that asking to be part of a discussion is taking away your own voice. Which is gross, when you’re the louder party. It’s only an attack if you believe there’s only room for your story. Wanting to be a part of a narrative when you’ve fought – in varying ways and degrees – for the space to do that, as a transwoman (um, I’m obviously extrapolating here, but I think I’m safe to apply it) is natural. And yeah, sometimes other groups adding their ‘but this is my experience’ testimonies to a discussion feels like coopting, but transwomen are women, end of, and their experience is just as valid as any cis experience. And telling a less-heard person/ group to shut up is privileged grossness.
- Don’t keep telling us how we are failing specifically to work to further your rights when we are working on advancing the rights of some other group, including our own. We don’t want to oppress you, but we’re also not always working on your issues.
Laura: Feminism should be intersectional. It should not be exclusionary. To be a feminist, you should support all women, trans or cis, from all races, from all educational backgrounds, all abilities. It’s very telling that the phrasing in this has “including our own,” or “we’re not always working on your issues.” It’s distancing and divisive. In the first point it says “don’t require us to label ourselves in opposition” and yet that’s exactly what this point does (Snow & Sarah agree here).
- Don’t get upset with straight, bi, and lesbian cis-women who tell stories of having been gender nonconforming as children, and don’t suggest when we tell these stories that we would have turned out transgender if only society had been more accommodating.
Laura: I haven’t come across this before, so I won’t touch on it too much. But it happens the other way, too. People explain away “tomboys,” even if it is trans men early identifying. Or they’re told “you’ll grow out of it” or “it’s just a phase.” It’s a familiar refrain. Sometimes people do, and sometimes they don’t because they are trans. In my opinion, if society were more accommodating, then clothes won’t be as gendered, and people can express how they feel the most comfortable whether they are trans or cis (or nonbinary!). (Snow hasn’t encountered this)
Sarah (in response to the statement about being told they may grow out of being a tomboy etc): Yuuup. All. The. Time. I haven’t seen much of this happening the way that it’s used above (except in very specific conversations) but I’ve definitely experienced the inverse. Also been told that I must be a girl because I do X, or must be a lesbian because of Y. There are so many reasons that people do or don’t conform, and again, one experience doesn’t negate the other.
- If you hit on us and we’re not interested, don’t tell us we are transphobic. Who a person is or is not attracted to is generally not under her control. Also know that the absence of attraction may have nothing to do with your bodily history or body type.
Laura: If a trans man or woman hit on me, and I wasn’t feeling it, it wouldn’t be because they were trans but just because I wasn’t attracted to them. If I smile and say “I’m flattered but no thank you,” then I can’t really see them turning around and going “you transphobic hussy!” And even if they do, there are many reasons they may respond that way. It’s not always about me. (Snow and Sarah agree here).
- If you start a romantic/sexual relationship with one of us, with you identifying as straight men, and then you come out as lesbian women, don’t tell us that if we leave the relationships, we are transphobic. A cis-gendered woman’s self-identity as a straight woman deserves as much respect as anyone’s self-identity.
Laura: Again, this is a tricky thing that a lot of the time comes down to the individuals. Many relationships do survive transition, some change to become less sexual but still very close (as described in the memoir She’s Not There), or sometimes the relationship ends. Sometimes, it’s transphobic, sometimes it’s not (the relationship might already have been on the outs). It’s a large and complicated issue.
Snow: Was technically in this situation. Started to medically transition a few months after we got together. My partner stayed with me for nearly two years. She was there for me through all of the rough parts of my transition. There were many reasons why it ended, and none of them were transphobic. In fact, she is in a happy relationship with a trans guy now. Each case has to be treated individually. No two couples are ever alike.
- If you want advice on make-up, nail polish, or any other typically feminine-identified accoutrement, pick a woman who is into the same stuff as you. Don’t ask those of us who aren’t into those things to get into them.
Laura: I can’t really imagine a trans woman going up to someone who’s not into “feminine” things and going “let’s go get a mani-pedi!” I mean, is this a thing? And honestly, if I had a close friend who was transitioning and wanting to try out these things, even if I wasn’t into it, I’d probably give it a whirl to support them, and I think seeing their joy in discovering who they are would be worth a bit of nail polish or makeup I could wipe off later.
Snow: Why would we ask our friends who we know aren’t into makeup for help? We jump on social media and make a post about needing help with makeup, and get help from those who answer.
Sarah (on my point that I’d go to a salon to support a trans friend): It’s probably the only reason I would ever ever enter a salon for those things, but I totally would.
- Don’t tell us you know what it is like to be subject to a lifetime of sexism because you may be experiencing sexism since your transition. While we appreciate you testifying to the reality of sexism, we also feel like we should be believed when we talk about it without you having to add your testimony.
Laura: I think it must be hard for trans women to suddenly confront sexism when they hadn’t had it before in the same way (though they wouldn’t have been oblivious to misogyny then, either–sexism is pervasive). Women should be believed, including trans women. In many arguments, I think it would add validity to discussions of the harmful aspects of the patriarchy for a trans woman to say “I did this thing before my transition, then I did the exact same thing after and had a very different result thanks to sexism.” Women should be believed when they talk about sexism, and they should also be believed when they talk about transphobia and transmisogyny (Sarah agrees).
Snow: You make a very good point here, about the whole “I did this thing before my transition, then I did the exact same thing after and had a very different result thanks to sexism.” I may use that in the future.
- If we express confusion when you say “I have always felt female” because we haven’t“always felt female,” understand we may have different concepts of what it means to “feel female,” or we may just have had very different experiences.
Laura: Of the list, this is not terribly controversial to me. Some women haven’t always felt female. Some have, including trans people. Everyone has different experiences. It’s also not a trans woman’s duty to educate cis people about what it’s like for them to be trans; if they’re telling you, it’s because they want you to understand.
Snow: The last time someone asked if I had always felt like I was female, I told them no, that I had always been female. This seemed to answer their question, because they didn’t ask me to clarify anything. I think most of the ‘I have always felt female’ stems from what we have to tell Dr’s in order to get access to HRT and the like. I know in my city, when we find out someone is going to a certain Dr for the first time, we coach them on what to say, so they don’t encounter any issues, or get told no. So when people ask, we trot out the same lines, so they don’t ask awkward questions, or judge us as not being trans enough if we said that we felt like we were female when we were 25, as opposed to 5.
Sarah: I think it’s maybe less controversial/less of an issue (because obviously everyone experiences gender differently, and the original comment is simply asking for understanding of that rather than anything…more excluding/gross). But that ‘I have always felt female’ (or not) is often used as a key determining factor in a person’s transition or in having their ID otherwise recognised, and in working it out on a personal level. Which makes it feel really important/ like something you have to defend.
I’ve had to stop myself defending random parts of myself a lot lately, and I think it’s because there’s this animal-brain part of me that fiercely wants to assert the newly-public parts of my identity now that they have a name. It’s weird. And I imagine it’s a whole lot stronger for some people.
- Stop labeling as “TERF”s (“trans-exclusionary radical feminists”) every cis-woman who asks for these kinds of things.
Laura: Well, if people are consistently doing TERFy things, they might be called a TERF. Perhaps, instead of telling trans women not to call them TERFs, cis women could examine what they’re doing and see if there are ways to be more welcoming.
Snow: If you are going to do dumb things, I’ll call you and idiot, and tell you why you shouldn’t do them, so you know not to do them. If you are going to do TERFy things, I’ll call you a TERF, so you (hopefully) realise, and stop doing them.
Sarah: Also, maybe instead of being on the offensive all the time, cis folks should stop and think about how transfolks are treated a lot of the time and like, create the (safe, open) space for them to be part of conversations, and maybe some of the having-to-assert-ourselves stuff would lessen… why do transwomen have to understand the cis perspective here, but it isn’t extended the other way in return?
All in all, this is a lot of “do nots.” Altogether it reads like the only way to be a “cis ally” as a trans woman is to shut up and sit down. Another cis reader I sent this to said, “What really bothered me personally about the list was that it felt like a ‘how not to be an asshole’ list but directed solely at trans people, which in turn felt like the assumption was that *trans people are assholes.* The framing is insulting.”
As a cis woman, I have a lot more privilege than trans people. My chances of getting beaten or murdered are lower. As a cis woman I have a high risk of being sexually assaulted or raped, but it’s still higher for trans people. I’m at a lower risk of suicide. Let’s say this together: cis women are not oppressed by trans women.
Once more for the people in the back: cis women are not oppressed by trans women.
So no, trans women don’t owe me allyship. I owe them allyship far more, and will keep doing my best to support them and listen to what they are telling me.
Another good article:
Let’s Stop Exercising our Gender Anxieties on the Backs of Trans People by Stephanie Zvan (this specifically makes good responses to some of the issues raised in the original points. A particularly good quote: ‘“People are being silenced!” Yes, trans activists are silencing cis people just like black activists are silencing white people just like feminists are silencing men’).