Solidarity 201: Strategies For Cisgender Folks Committed to Gender Justice

Since the 2014 Time Magazine cover with Laverne Cox, “The Transgender Tipping Point,” there has been unprecedented visibility for the transgender community. Despite anti-trans sentiments from some journalists, we have had a year of stellar clapbacks and teachable moments, most powerfully from Black trans women and trans women of color like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox.

But this has not translated into greater safety or increased opportunities. Domestic and street based violence for many trans people is lethal — with the most Black trans women murdered on record this year. We need a cultural paradigm shift to transform the current climate.

Tiq Milan likes to talk about potential allies as the “movable middle”: people who are willing and open to address injustice in themselves and their communities if given the opportunity — partners, family and community members who are invested in changing this culture. Solidarity is one of the ways that we practice both love and justice with each other. Apart from the basics like respecting people’s pronouns and creating gender-neutral washrooms, here are Strategies for Solidarity 201:

Imagine that your ‘allyship card’ expires at the end of the day, every day. Allyship is not an identity; if anything it’s a series of actions that are accountable to an individual or a group.  They expire and they are not transferrable. More than once the case has been made against allies, whereas solidarity is grounded in a shared commitment to transform the system we are in. Trans folks don’t get to take a break from their lived experiences, so as cis folks we have to be committed to solidarity on a daily basis in a number of different ways. Relationships to trans folks do not erase privilege or exempt actions and investment from critique. Always be open to being checked. Take the time to listen, acknowledge your actions and their impact, and work to make amends.

Invest in arts and culture. Learn about the many different facets of trans community by engaging and investing in arts and culture. With nuanced work like HerStory by Jen Richards, or the LogoTV series Beautiful As I Want to Be produced by Geena Rocero, seek out work both starring and created by trans folks. There is no lack of talent, but there is a lack of resources. Funding for transgender community initiatives remains severely lacking receiving less than one penny for every $100 awarded by foundations, according to a study produced by Funders for LGBTQ Issues.

Guilt is not useful; solidarity is. It’s not useful to wallow in guilt or self pity, especially when there is work to be done. Keep learning about the way that your privilege impacts others and find opportunities to leverage it. If you have power, it’s your job is to empower somebody else.

Naming is powerful. I’ve noticed a lot of other cis folks struggle with the term “cisgender.” Cisgender is a term that aims to create equity: trans describes some genders and cis describes others. It names and contextualizes a power relationship in which we as cisgender people determine, impose, and benefit from the structure of gender. Describing non-trans people as just human and trans folks as ‘other’ is dehumanizing — just as ‘sister’ or ‘neighbor’ are terms that not only describe an individual but also their significant relationship with another human, it’s important that we respect the rights of trans folks to name themselves and to describe these power relationships.

Layers not fractions. I got this concept from genius femme Yumi Tomsha. She used it in reference to the experience of being mixed race. So often we are asked to quantify the exact percentage of each ethnicity as if we are physically divided into parts. But intersectionality is real. We all are in complicated possession of privilege and experiences of oppression. For many folks involved in trans advocacy, their work comes out of necessity and does not mean that they aren’t living with daily experiences of violence while trying to live their dreams. Janet Mock said during a talk for OWN’s “SuperSoul Sessions” speaker series:

“We create and hold up tokens, rare examples of marginalized people who have made it, who we applaud, who alleviate us of our guilt and our shame and our burden,” Mock said. “And I know firsthand of what it means to be a token. To be reduced to one aspect of my identity and never fully seen.”

That’s all anyone everyone wants, she added: to be fully seen. However, it’s an emotional, uphill battle for many who are simply viewed as “other.” And within this realm, the playing field is not equal.

“The great irony of my success is that it deludes many into believing my success is possible for all those girls,” Mock said, her emotions surfacing. “The reality is, it is not. Just because I clicked my heels and I made it out of Oz doesn’t mean everyone can.”

For those who are trans, immigrants, disabled… safety is hard won for those who live at multiple intersections. As Audre Lorde reminds us,  “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We have to create space for folks to show up as their full and complex selves.

Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed artist, educator and writer.

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