Preferred Pronouns: Becoming a Good Cis Ally to your Trans Friends

March 31st recently marked this year’s Transgender Day of Visibility, a celebration of the community as a whole and all the individuals in it. But for those outside of the LGBTQ+ community - and including many who are in the L, G, B, Q, or + parts of that community - the day itself and the concepts as a whole might be outside your radar. What does it mean to be transgender? Why is it so important for it to be visible? And what did half of those words in the title mean?

I have been very blessed to be involved with and informed about the transgender community for a number of years, with many of my closest friends and loved ones identifying as trans. I cannot speak firsthand about the experience of being transgender, I’ll leave that in the talented hands of transgender speakers, educators and activists. But I, as a cisgender person, can introduce you to the basics of proper allyship so that more people can provide the transgender community with the visibility, support and respect it so rightly deserves.

So first and foremost, let’s start with a vocabulary lesson that will make this article, and the language of the trans community as a whole, much less intimidating to the uninformed.

Trans rights rally in Washington. Photo courtesy of Flickr, labeled for reuse.

Transgender (adj.) - Identifying with a gender other than the one a person was assigned at birth. Often shortened to simply “trans”, ie. “A trans woman”. May be modified with the chosen gender if the person chooses, ie. “A transgender man”. Note that the gender used in this case will be the person’s chosen identity, not their gender assigned at birth; that is, if a person refers to themself as “a trans man”, they identify as male and should be referred to as such. Do not use the term as a noun, ie. “He’s a transgender,” which is incorrect usage and can come across as demeaning. (1)

Cisgender (adj.) - Identifying with the gender a person was assigned at birth. Often shortened to simply “cis”, ie. “A cis woman”. Certain extremist and trans-exclusionary groups claim that the term is a “slur” against non-trans people, which is decidedly untrue. Instead, its purpose is to help facilitate discussion of trans vs. non-trans experiences, as well as to remove perceptions of being cisgender as the “norm” or “default”. (1)

Gender (n.) - A person’s presentation and interpretation as masculine, feminine, or somewhere in-between. Sex may be used interchangeably, or used to differentiate between gender identity/presentation and biological sex (which is, in and of itself, complex and varied, determined by a combination of external genitalia, internal biological structures, gamete production, hormone levels, phenotype, and so on). (1, 2)

Pronoun (n.) - The terms used to describe gender, ie. He/him/his for men, she/her/hers for women, or they/them/theirs for nonbinary people. Other alternative nonbinary pronouns also exist, such as xe/xim or ze/zim. “Preferred pronouns” are exactly as they sound, the pronouns preferred by the person in question, and are especially important to transgender and nonbinary people who may otherwise be misgendered. (1, 2)

Gender binary (n.) - The concept of gender being a strict binary; that is, you are either male or female with nothing in-between. From both a scientific and societal perspective, this concept is reductive at best and completely incorrect at worst, as not only do a number of biological genders exist between and outside of the male-female binary, but gender identity and presentation do as well, and have throughout recorded history. Gender instead exists as more of a spectrum, with both biological sex and personal identity able to lie within one or more of many points between or outside of strictly male and female. (1)

Nonbinary (adj.) - Identifying as a gender or gender(s) outside the male-female binary. Nonbinary persons may take on one or more of several different gender identities, such as agender (possessing no gender), genderfluid (shifting between different genders), and more. Nonbinary persons may or may not consider themselves trans in addition to nonbinary, and use a wide range of pronouns (such as they/them, xe/xim, ze/zim, and more), including traditionally gendered pronouns. (1)

GNC (abb.) - Stands for “gender non-conforming”. A catch-all term for individuals whose gender presentations do not conform to general societal expectations, including trans and nonbinary people. May also be referred to as "gender-variant" or "gender-diverse". (1)

Intersex (adj.) - A person whose biological sex is not strictly male or female. They may be determined as such due to ambiguous genitalia, deviations in internal biological organs, hormone levels, and so on. Current rough estimates claim that about 1.7% of the population is intersex in some form, sometimes in ways obvious at birth, other times in ways that cannot be seen until after puberty, if they become obvious all. The 1.7% estimate may, in fact, be far lower than the reality, due to these “invisible” forms of intersexuality.

Intersex people with visible signs at birth, such as ambiguous genitalia, may receive surgical intervention to assign them to one binary gender or the other, which can cause both medical and personal complications later in life. This has caused many activists to advocate against surgical intervention until the intersex person is old enough to make an informed decision regarding their gender identity. Many intersex people, both surgically reassigned and not, may identify as transgender later in life, or identify outside the binary altogether. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Gender assigned at birth (n.) - The concept and practice of determining an infant’s gender at birth, usually based primarily or exclusively on external genitalia. Not only can this cause numerous problems with regards to intersex individuals, it disregards personal identity and societal interpretations with regards to gender. Transgender activists may use this in place of or in combination with the concept of biological sex, as it emphasizes that the gender was assigned without their consent or input, and thus may not properly represent their identity.

As a subset of this, one may see discussions of AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) and AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) individuals, though one should never point out, discuss, or ask one’s gender at birth without explicit permission. (1)

FTM (abb.) - Stands for “female to male”. Describes a trans man whom was assigned female at birth. Note that this term should only be used by the trans person or with their explicit permission, as pointing out their “original” gender can be insensitive or hurtful, or even out them.

MTF (abb.) - Stands for “male to female”. Describes a trans woman whom was assigned male at birth. Note that this term should only be used by the trans person or with their explicit permission, as pointing out their “original” gender can be insensitive or hurtful, or even out them.

Misgender (v.) - To identify a person by the wrong gender. The action can range from accidental and innocent to actively malicious, especially against transgender and nonbinary people, whose chosen genders and pronouns are often disregarded in favor of enforcing their assigned gender. (1)

Deadname (n.) / To deadname (v.) - Many transgender people will change their name as part of their transition, usually to better represent their gender identity. Their former name is considered their “deadname”, as it represents them as an incorrect gender, and using it may cause dysphoria. As such, to deadname someone - that is, refer to them by their former, incorrect name, either accidentally or maliciously - can be extremely offensive and hurtful, and risks outing the person. (1)

To out / come out (v.) - Identifying publicly as a LGBTQ+ person. This can be done by the queer person themselves, usually intentionally (which is “coming out”), or by someone else, often unintentionally (which is “outing someone”). Coming out tends to be an extremely personal, sometimes dangerous process which must be navigated and repeated throughout the person’s life, and outing a person without their permission can put the individual at very real risk. (1)

Dysphoria (n.) - Usually manifesting as body or gender dysphoria, this is the discomfort or even disgust a transgender person may feel while living or being interpreted as the incorrect gender. For example, a transgender woman may feel dysphoria if a stranger refers to them as “sir” at the store. Some may also experience euphoria, either in place of or in combination with dysphoria - that is, when presenting and interpreted as their chosen gender, they may feel an overwhelming sense of rightness and elation.

Though dysphoria has historically been considered a requirement for someone to be medically or legally considered transgender, the fact is not all trans people will experience it. Every person is different, and an individual will always have the best sense of their own mind, body and identity. (1, 2)

Transition (v.) - In the context of the transgender community, this is the process of shifting, publicly or privately, to life as one’s chosen gender. This may involve surgical or medical intervention (hormone injections, gender affirmation surgeries, etc.), lifestyle changes (new hair, clothing and makeup, the use of items like binders to non-surgically alter one’s perceived gender, etc.), or simply asking others to begin using a new name and/or pronouns. The specifics of transition will vary between individuals and tend to be extremely personal. (1)

Transsexual (adj.) - A somewhat outdated term, sometimes used to describe a transgender person who undergoes gender affirmation surgeries as part of their transition. Nowadays, “transgender” is far more common and used as a catch-all term. (1)

Transvestite (n.) - An outdated and occasionally offensive term, sometimes used to describe a cross-dresser who does not actively identify as the presented gender. I would personally recommend not using the term. (1)

Tr*nny, Tr*p, etc. (n.) - Slurs used against transgender, nonbinary, and GNC individuals. Do not use. Never. There is no reason to do this, especially as a cis person. I’m serious. Don’t be a jerk.

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) (n.) - Exactly as the name implies, a fringe group of supposed feminists whose main defining feature is the rejection and abuse of transgender women. They frequently misgender, deadname, and out transgender woman in their crusade against them, exclude them from female spaces, and generally employ transphobic rhetoric framed as feminism-slash-concern for women.

Transphobia (n.) - The transgender equivalent to homophobia, this is hatred and discrimination against transgender people. A person who is transphobic may be referred to as a transphobe.

Okay, are you still with us? Great! Because that glossary is the first of many steps towards becoming a good ally to the transgender people around you; as with learning most new things, familiarizing yourself with the language and concepts are hugely important. So now that we’ve gone through the most important terms, let’s go over some of the big myths, misconceptions, and general “please, don’t do this” items...

A trans activist emphasizing one of many important points to remember as an ally. Photo courtesy of Flickr, labeled for reuse.

  1. Trans people aren’t “born in the wrong body”. This statement has been used as a bare-bones introduction to the trans experience so often it’s become cliche, and besides being overly reductive, it’s often not true. While dysphoria can go hand-in-hand with being transgender, as described above, many trans people experience gender euphoria instead, or neither. This perspective also completely glosses over the many trans, nonbinary, and GNC people whose discomfort is not with their body, but the way society perceives it and subsequently assigns an incorrect gender.

  2. Trans doesn’t mean gay - gender identity and sexuality are separate. While there is certainly significant overlap, it’s hardly a given that a transgender person will also be gay. A number of trans people even identify as heterosexual, which leads to a related point - a heterosexual person in a relationship with a transgender person is not “secretly gay”, as many less-than-open-minded folks will presume. And this is because…

  3. Trans men are men, and trans women are women. They are not a “lesser” version of their cisgender counterparts, nor “secretly [insert misgendering here]”, and they are especially not confused. They know themselves, their bodies, their minds and their identities better than any outside source, and all they ask is for their identities to be respected. Furthermore, transgender people tend to face all the same struggles as their cisgender counterparts - trans men may become victim to toxic masculinity, and trans women to misogyny - but with the added complications of transphobia in all its forms, making it all the more important to respect their identities and offer them inclusion in their chosen spaces, especially traditionally-gendered spaces. And on that note...

  4. Trans and nonbinary people are not predators or “invading” gendered spaces. This is an argument you’ll frequently see used by transphobes and TERFs, especially towards trans women. They will bring up images of grown, cisgender men claiming to be trans to gain access to women’s bathrooms for purposes of harassment and assault, or doing the same to invade other women’s spaces to take advantage of their resources. This is, of course, nothing but transphobic fearmongering (and I’ll take this moment to link to a fantastic article discussing why the “bathroom panic” is a baseless misdirection overflowing with harmful implications for all - surprise, surprise, it's rooted not just in transphobia but in misogyny and toxic masculinity). As many transgender people - including one of my personal contacts - can attest, all they want is to pee in peace, and they’ll often seek out gender-neutral, single-stall or consistently empty bathrooms specifically to avoid being misgendered or perceived as “invading” a space not meant for them.

Photo of the We Won't Be Erased rally in Washington. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, labeled for reuse.

Got it? Okay, great! Now then, we’ll head to the big one: the things you can do, as a cisgender person, to provide allyship to the trans community.

 

Trust in people’s ability to know their own identity, and respect it

I’ve mentioned this a few times already, but it always bears repeating: no one is going to know their own mind, body, feelings, and identity better than themselves. It’s why doctors rely so heavily on you being honest and descriptive about your symptoms to reach an accurate diagnosis. It’s why therapists need you to discuss your feelings in detail in order to properly help you through your problems. And it’s why there is absolutely no reason for you to doubt or invalidate anyone who chooses to tell you that they are transgender.

Coming to terms with being trans can be difficult, and even if a person’s known for ages and is entirely comfortable with it, coming out can be even more troublesome, as there’s no guarantee that the people one chooses to share this with will be accepting. Imagine taking that risk and being met with, “but you don’t seem trans,” or, “are you sure you’re not just confused?” or, “well, I’m still going to call you [insert deadnaming and misgendering here].”

It doesn’t matter if you have doubts, or are confused, or don’t entirely understand - it’s not about you, after all, and you’ll never know the person quite as well as they know themselves. So when a person in your life suggests they’re unsure about their gender identity, or asks you to use a new name or pronouns, the best response is simply to offer your support, to use the names and pronouns you’re given, and to generally respect the person’s identity in whatever form it takes.

 

Normalize gender nonconformity, exploration, pronouns, and more

One more huge thing you can do as a cisgender person is to use your position to help normalize many aspects of trans culture. Preferred pronouns are a simple and easy way to do this - if you’re a cisgender person using social media, put your pronouns in your bio (ie. Max Eastman - she/her/hers)! This helps to normalize outright stating one’s pronouns, rather than simply letting people assume based on appearance or stereotypes, and thus makes it safer and more accepted for transgender people to do the same and avoid being misgendered.

On a larger scale, encourage making it normal and accepted to experiment with and explore one’s gender identity-slash-presentation. Consider trying out different pronouns among a few close friends or even just in your own head, just to see how they feel. Wear colors or clothes that tend to be associated with a different gender. Maybe pick out something stereotypically expected of your gender to temporarily stop doing (like wearing makeup if you’re a woman) or something stereotypically not expected of your gender to temporarily start doing (like wearing makeup if you’re a man).

There’s a number of benefits, on a number of levels, to doing these seemingly little things! On a personal level, you might find that you hate something you only did because it was expected of your gender, or that you love something that you were afraid to try because it wasn’t. Or maybe you’ll even find that you’re not as attached to your current gender identity as you expected! On a wider scale, the more people see others experimenting with gender identity and presentation, the more it will become normalized. This means more people who wouldn’t otherwise risk it stepping outside the gender box and discovering that they’re transgender, and current trans people’s lifestyles being questioned and singled out less.

 

Use your privilege as a tool

The concept of privilege can be difficult to talk about, especially when it comes to intersectional identity. For example, I am a queer, lower-middle-class woman, which means I lack privilege in comparison to rich heterosexual men. But at the same time, I am white, and able-bodied, and cisgender, which means I have privilege in those spheres that POC, disabled, and transgender people lack. It’s crucially important to remember this, and acknowledge the privilege one does have even when they lack it in other areas of life.

The reason I say all this is because, as a cisgender ally to the trans community, you have the power - and in many ways, a responsibility - to use your privilege as a tool to fight for transgender rights, whether that’s defending a friend from being misgendered to full-on marches and campaigns for better laws. But this also leads to another, extremely important point...

 

Listen to and amplify trans voices - don’t talk over them

This can be a difficult thing to remember as an ally, especially if you’re passionate about the cause. Though you may have nothing but good intentions, and legitimately want your transgender friends and loved ones to have rights and respect, the fact of the matter remains - you are still a cisgender person, and thus, an outsider. You will never fully understand, from a firsthand perspective, what it is like to be transgender, and what feelings and struggles and experiences that entails.

Because of this, it’s crucial that you monitor yourself to ensure you’re not speaking over the voices of trans people - inserting your own opinions in place of theirs, or arguing that your opinions are superior to theirs, or taking opportunities to speak away from them. Rather, use your knowledge and your position of privilege to direct attention to activists and speakers who are themselves transgender, and don’t be afraid to simply be quiet and listen when the trans people in your life speak about their thoughts and experiences. (As a cis person myself, I’ll take this opportunity to link to a few trans activists: Janet Mock’s speech at the Women’s March is an inspiring read, Laverne Cox continues to advocate for trans people, and I’m personally a huge fan of transgender cartoonists and artists like Julia Kaye.)

A good way to remember this and monitor yourself is to think of it this way: as an activist, you can talk about the topic and raise attention to the issues and people, but you cannot talk about the experience of being trans unless you are trans yourself. So when the conversation turns to, "what is it like to be transgender?" or "what do trans people think about [insert any number of subjects here]?", step back and provide those with actual firsthand experience the chance to speak.

 

Remember: Trans people are still people

At the end of the day, as important as it is to fight for and generally support the transgender community, don’t lose sight of the most important thing: trans people are people. They’re not a nebulous, abstract cause to fight for. They’re not flawless or tragic figures. They are people, with all the complexity and imperfection and variance that implies. At the end of the day, the most important thing you should offer as an ally to trans people is the same thing you should offer to all people - respect, kindness, and compassion as another human being just trying to make it on this crazy earth.

Trans activists at the We Won't Be Erased rally. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, labeled for reuse.