The Challenges of Allyship: Why Engaging Difference is Difficult, but Necessary

Source: CNN

Janet Mock made her major media debut this February by appearing on the CNN prime time talk show, Piers Morgan Live. With a sparkle in her eye and a fierce, determined voice, the charismatic 29 year old writer and activist had an important goal in mind: to be a positive role model for trans women like herself. In her recently published book “Redefining Realness,” Mock describes her journey from girl to woman and how she, as a trans woman of color, was able to fully establish, accept, and love her identity in a world that told her she was wrong. On the other hand, Piers Morgan is a self-proclaimed trans ally, and though the initial interview ostensibly ran smoothly, he has received backlash and criticism from Janet Mock’s supporters due to problematic language used on the show. Common themes of the interview were that surgery validated Mock’s identity as a woman, and that Mock’s sexuality was the most important focal point of her journey. Morgan invited Mock for a follow-up interview, not to use his mistakes as an educational moment to learn to become a better ally, but rather to relentlessly interrogate Mock and blame her for not bringing up her concerns during the first interview. He complained about being “abused” by Mock’s supporters, to which Mock coolly exposed a fact that Morgan and many other Americans overlook: trans individuals face constant abuse in their everyday lives. It is positive and crucial that people with privilege are realizing the importance of allyship, but Morgan represents the fact that many Americans are still unable to confront their privilege and create safe spaces for those around them. The United States as a whole is becoming more accepting toward the trans community, but we have a long way to go before trans individuals will stop facing discrimination.

Piers Morgan’s assumptions in his interviews demonstrate that self-proclaimed allies may only be in the discourse for their own benefit or entertainment. For example, Morgan proclaimed that “Janet was once a boy” at the opening of their primary interview, and beneath the image of Mock’s face read the line “was a boy until 18.” Though Morgan stressed that becoming a woman was an ongoing process, with surgery being just one component of her complex journey, Morgan seemed to hold true the assumption that surgery validates Mock as a woman. After the interview, Mock’s angry supporters criticized Piers Morgan on Twitter, and a confused Morgan invited Mock back to the show. Janet Mock made clear the issues with the portrayal of her identity, emphasizing that she never identified as a boy and felt female from the moment she had control over her choices. Morgan was unable to understand what he had done wrong, stressing the vilification and abuse he had gotten from the trans community despite being a supporter. “Maybe you don’t get it because you’re not a trans woman,” Mock said to Morgan. Allies must recognize that even if they are well intentioned, it is necessary to not overstep their bounds as the privileged counterpart and allow the person they are allying with to construct the conversation. Allies must be challenged and should avoid taking a defensive position. Yes, Morgan’s heart was in the right place, but it is absolutely crucial for allies to recognize their mistakes. An ally cannot understand what it’s like to be a trans minority, which means that the ally should have respect for their trans counterpart’s requests, even if they can’t initially fathom what they did wrong. Morgan shows us that calling yourself a supporter is not enough to be an ally; allyship is a learning process that requires the person with privilege to apologize for and correct inevitable mistakes.

Allyship in itself can be a strange idea. How can someone who has no idea what the life of an oppressed person is like use another’s struggle as part of their own identity? However, allyship is important, and it is the only way to make others feel safe. Janet Mock appeared on Stephen Colbert’s talk show and offered constructive ideas on how to be a trans ally, including establishing preferred gender pronouns before having a conversation, and defaulting to the singular “they” to avoid making assumptions. The gender neutrality of the singular “they,” though grammatically incorrect, allows for individuals in a conversation to either express how they identify, or choose not to unnecessarily gender themselves or the conversation. Allies should not assume that the people they speak to are like themselves and align with gender norms, else they fall into the trap of reinscribing harmful accepted beliefs. Marc Lamont Hill, a later guest on Piers Morgan’s show, offered insight on how we should interact with people of difference. “This is one of the challenges of being an ally,” he says, “It’s like when white people point to the amount of black friends they have and men talk about the binders full of women they’ve hired. It’s really important for us to take critique and then think about it.” Morgan did the opposite, so we can learn from his near embarrassing defense of his actions that allies need to accept that they cannot have a trans perspective and should do whatever they can to be neutral, unassuming and supportive if they don’t understand someone else’s position. Until assumptions stop being made, we cannot have productive discussion about how to alleviate concrete issues facing the trans community.

The United States has undeniably shown improvement; ironically, a prime example is that openly trans activists now appear in mainstream media. Even Facebook recently expanded its gender options for users from “male” or “female” to over 50 possible identifiers. Users can pick up to ten identifiers and can choose options including “non-binary,” “gender questioning” or “asexual.” This allows for both deconstruction of gender and the opportunity for people to not only publically affirm their unique identities, but for people with privilege to be exposed to other people’s realities. But the United States has progress to make. Trans individuals throughout the country have daily problems with accessibility, employment, medical care and harassment. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey reveals that 90% of the trans community has received some sort of employment discrimination. Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill that would allow trans individuals to change their birth certificate information without having surgery. These identity documents are crucial for people to obtain employment, housing, and medical care, and many trans individuals choose not to undergo surgery for medical, financial, and personal reasons. Christie’s attitude represents a common assumption: that physical biology determines sex and gender, and that surgery validates a trans person’s identity. Christie would likely not identify as an ally, but for Americans with little knowledge about the lives of trans individuals who might unintentionally discriminate, allies can bridge the learning gap to help trans individuals who live in unsafe spaces.

Allyship is difficult because it, too, is a learning process. The goal is not concrete, and allies cannot fundamentally understand what they are supporting. But without allies, it would be impossible to create widespread awareness. It is difficult for trans individuals to interact within a societal framework that revolves around those who are cis gender (identifying with the sex and its corresponding gender roles assigned at birth.). Trans activists like Janet Mock are clearly powerful, courageous, and influential, but their cis counterparts also need to take action and promote these interests. Those with privilege need to understand why they are privileged as well as realize what they can do to challenge those who choose not to ally. An ally chooses to be an ally, but a trans person does not necessarily choose to be a minority.

When you are an ally, it is not about you. Allies need to apologize for incorrect word choices, realize their mistakes, and allow the trans counterpart to direct the conversation. Careful allyship can go a long way in creating safe spaces. Listening to experiences that aren’t ours is the only way to create societal change.