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What Does It Mean to Be An Ally?

When I transitioned, I quickly learned that being an ally isn't just about defending the oppressed. It is also about making them feel welcome and valued.

We need allies.  They are essential to us in so many ways.

If I stand up to defend myself, my audience is almost certain to discount anything I say. I am a stranger demanding something of them.  But when an ally speaks on my behalf, it isn’t about me. It is about what the ally wants their audience to stand for. Allies make the world a larger place by their advocacy. They and their audience reach beyond themselves. And they invite me into their circle.

If I must demand something for myself, I almost certainly trade away what little goodwill I may have. I might succeed in a world without allies. But, oh the cost!  I would succeed at the price of being alone – publicly tolerated but silently resented. Authentic, yes, but traveling the world in isolation.

Isolation is especially painful for us. You see, we have lived all our lives apart from the world. We don’t transition in order to select or celebrate a gender. Our gender is part of who we are. We no more understand where it comes from than you do.

We transition because we can no longer endure the pain of being walled off from the human race. Hiding our gender is about the loneliest feeling imaginable. Think about it: when you hide your identity, your parents, children and friends don’t know who you are. You walk the earth never having been known by another soul. You die never having known what it feels like to experience someone’s declaration of love. When you mother says, “I love you”, she isn’t talking to you. She is talking to the person she sees.

Being a trans ally is about more than defending our gender.

It is about welcoming us into the world – and into your lives – as a human.  Alies do three important things for us:

  • They defend us.  They defend us because they are aware of our label and the prejudice that comes with it.
  • They make us feel welcome and valued.  They make us feel welcome because they choose to ignore our label.
  • They connect to the person inside us. They do so by placing their own vulnerability (and their own label) alongside ours. We each grow beyond our labels and laugh at life.

An ally isn’t an expert in gender. They aren’t necessarily a political activist. The

An ally comes to understand that my reason for “transitioning” has nothing to do with selecting a gender identity. I neither control nor understand my gender. I don’t celebrate or choose it. It is simply who I am.

An ally comes to understand that, when we attempt to live in a gender not our own, we wall ourselves off from the rest of humanity. Our parents, children and friends do not know who we are. We will die never having been known. We will die never having known what it feels like to experience someone’s declaration of love. After all, they are declaring it to someone who isn’t us.

Being an ally is also about welcoming us into the world, and into your lives.

We don’t understand our gender any more than you do. We don’t choose it. It is the only way we know to process the world around us – whatever that may mean.
Most of us have tried to adopt the gender we were assigned at birth. I tried for fifty years. For most of that time, I didn’t know any better.
Living in the wrong gender isn’t painful because you have to dress differently. It is painful because, when you live as someone not you, you wall yourself off from humanity. There is no lonelier feeling in the universe.

When I was growing up, my mother often told me how much she loved me. I hated it. And then I hated myself for hating it. And then I hated her for making me feel so hateful. What was going on?
My mother was saying “I love you” to a little boy. She obviously didn’t see or love the real me. How could a mother do that to her child?
That little boy stole all the love and accolades. I was left alone and invisible. I was visible only to him. Every “I love you” he received felt like a stinging rejection.
In fairness to him, he was living inside a bubble of confusion. He clung to those I love you’s as his only source of affirmation.

It only grew worse. As I got older, I wanted to love my mother. But I could not speak for myself. Only the little boy could. And his feelings, though strong, could never plumb my depths. I always had to declare my feelings for the world through a translator.

Something was always lost in the process. It was as though I was buried alive. Nobody was aware of me. Nobody could hear me. I was present for every wedding, birthday and family occasion. And yet I wasn’t.
There isn’t a feeling more lonely.

SO ALLIES: don’t overcomplicate this. You needn’t become an expert in our gender. You needn’t worry if you sometimes use the wrong name or pronoun. If you are trying to love and welcome the person we really are, we ask for nothing more.

But equal rights, a job, and a lower murder rate would be nice.

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Tina White

Tina White

Tina White is the Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Pride Center, in Asheville, North Carolina, and a member of the board of directors for the Human Rights Campaign.

Tina spent 35 years consulting to and working for global corporations. Her specialty was large-scale business transformation: redesigning companies to pursue new strategies and improve performance. She has since shifted her focus to activism, writing and speaking. She speaks and writes on issues of diversity & inclusion, organization transformation, social justice, and personal identity.

Tina is the author of Between Shadow and Sun. She describes her 50-year struggle with gender and her wife's efforts to embrace her revealed identity. She holds an MBA in Strategy, Marketing & Finance from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an AB in Economics from Princeton University. She and Mary live in Asheville, North Carolina.

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