Dear Cisgender Person,
Someone you know recently came out as transgender, and you wanted to show your support. “You’re so brave!” You say, and instead of the positive response you were expecting, the person isn’t delighted with your reaction. “What gives?” you think “I was trying to be supportive”. While there are certainly worse ways to react, there’s a reason many trans people do not like this response.
Imagine you are trying to pull a boulder up a steep hill. Each time you tug on the chain the rock moves, but it’s clear you’re struggling. People can see this, and some try to help you move the boulder, or break it down into smaller pieces that can easily be transported. Then there are those who try to stop you from moving the rock at all. Then there are those who stand by and cheer for you, even as they cause you to trip or impede you in other ways, but at no point do they offer sincere assistance.
That latter scenario is where you are, potentially, and many transgender people see it this way. Some might be thrilled with you comment, but there are plenty who aren’t because transgender people face a large amount of resistance. That boulder is a metaphor for the institutional barriers that hurt transgender people, societal prejudices towards transgender people, and just the very nature of being transgender can be difficult. To say “you’re brave” is to acknowledge that there is risk a danger in doing something.
Transgender people can face barriers to getting much-needed treatment and care, and access to things that you as a cisgender (non-transgender) person take for granted. For example, some health insurance firms don’t cover certain aspects of transition-related care. States like North Carolina have passed laws that force transgender people into bathrooms that are opposite of their gender identity. In Kentucky, Henry Brousseau, a transgender teenager, testified against one of these bills. While he was praised for his bravery by the representatives he spoke to. Some of those people voted to move the bill forward.
That is a perfect example of why many transgender people are skeptical of those kinds of praises. People can say the support trans people, call them brave, but actively work against them or be completely indifferent to their struggles. As comedian John Oliver noted “That dynamic of praising a transgender person’s courage and then not actually supporting them speaks to the fact that we are weirdly comfortable celebrating transgender people while simultaneously dehumanizing them at the DMV, pinning awards to them as we drum them out of the military, and constantly quizzing them about their genitals.”
Transgender people face a wealth of discrimination issues. Transgender people face a higher murder rate than non-transgender people, one out of every 2 transgender women have been sexually assaulted, transgender people are 4 times more likely to live in poverty than the general population, the unemployment rate for transgender individuals is double that of the general population, 57% of transgender people experience rejection from their family, and according to a match dot com survey only 12% of heterosexual individuals would be willing to date a transgender person while 48% of LGBTQ individuals would be willing to date a transgender person.
There is a wealth of negative media portrayals of transgender people, as well as smear campaigns to paint transgender people as predators. As more states debate whether transgender people should have access to public facilities, and the current U.S administration’s cutting of protections for transgender people make this an incredibly scary time for many transgender people. When you say that transgender people are brave, you are acknowledging that being a transgender person can be dangerous.
So, unless you’re willing to put support behind your words, you cannot expect transgender people to be exact as anytime someone says something with good intentions. As shown in the case of Henry Brousseau, that words of support are rarely backed up with action. Often they are backed up with the reverse. So, well-meaning cisgender person who got directed here, here’s what you can do about this.
For one thing, if you live in a state that doesn’t already have protection laws for transgender people, call your state representatives. Write them letters to encourage them to do so. If you here co-workers making jokes about transgender people that are mocking them for their gender identity, like saying “I identify as an attack helicopter”, call them out for it. Offer to help transgender people afford care or volunteer with organizations that do that. There are a plethora of things you can do to support the transgender community so that one day you don’t have to say “you’re so brave”.
A transgender woman.