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How can I ask questions and make mistakes without being labelled as transphobic?

Note: This is not a question that was submitted directly; instead, it is a version of a question that comes up frequently enough that it seemed worth addressing. We're also working on a post about how to learn about trans and gender diverse people, so this one won't go into great detail on that topic but we'll cover it soon.

Q: I want to learn about trans issues and inclusive practices, but I'm worried that people will judge me for not knowing and for making mistakes. I don't want anyone to think I'm transphobic, and being called that would make me feel defensive. So how can I learn without feeling judged?

K: To start with, I think it is really important to understand that when someone is told they are being transphobic (or racist, etc.), it is less so a statement that this person is always transphobic all the time and they actively and intentionally hate trans and gender diverse people, and more so a descriptor of what is happening in that moment. What is happening is that someone is participating in upholding or perpetuating structural and systemic oppression against trans and gender diverse people, whether or not that is their intention. It isn't a value statement on who you are as a person, and it doesn't automatically mean you can't ever be an ally. Everyone starts off not knowing things and making mistakes. The issue with not knowing things and with making mistakes, however, is not that people might think you're a bad person. The issue when people make mistakes when it comes to systemic oppression is that it hurts marginalized people (you know, the ones you're trying to be an ally to).

The problem with allies worrying about being called transphobic while they're learning is that it centers the person causing harm over the people who are being harmed. Allies need to work on distress tolerance skills and acknowledge that they're going to be uncomfortable a lot while they (un)learn and practice allyship. They need to be able to step outside their feelings when they're told they're being harmful, thank someone for telling them, name the impact of their behavior, and then take steps to not repeat it. Mistakes made out of ignorance are still harmful, but they don't define who you are as a person.

That all being said, if you continue to knowingly make the same mistakes, or if you get defensive every time someone points out harm you've done, then being told you've been transphobic is less about a single situation and more about who you are as a person. Patterns of behavior define who we are.

S: I agree with all this. When we're talking about transphobia, it's important to identify what that actually means, so here are two working definitions:

  1. Hatred and/or fear of trans and gender diverse people.

  2. Actions, inactions, and/or language that harm trans and gender diverse people.

So the good news is that by the first definition, you're presumably not actively, intentionally transphobic if you're asking good-faith questions about how to learn. That said, you probably are somewhat transphobic in that you haven't yet done the work of dismantling what you've absorbed of the anti-trans messaging that is incredibly common in the world today. (I suppose the exception would be if you happened to be raised in a completely gender-inclusive environment and have never ever absorbed any of the gender essentialism that permeates mainstream US society and so many others. This seems wildly unlikely, but if it does describe any readers, I'd love to hear about that experience.) So was I before I did any self-education, and I probably still haven't gotten rid of all of my internalized transphobia. Literally everyone I know is and/or has previously been transphobic in some way, regardless of their gender and regardless of whether they're trans or cis or neither. It's also regardless of intent: cis people who I do genuinely consider to be allies say and do transphobic things all the time, because the unlearning needed in order to stop is such an enormous and ongoing amount of work. Hell, trans and gender diverse people say and do transphobic things all the time! We're not exempt from needing to do the learning and labor, especially when it comes to genders and experiences that aren't our own.

By the second definition, you're almost certainly engaging in transphobic behavior and language as it is. So if your hope is that you can find a way to learn that will somehow allow you do dodge any actual or perceived transphobia...well, you can't, because you are already living in a state of, at best, ignorance and passive harm to trans and gender diverse people. Most people are, but that doesn't make it at all okay.

Since you're stuck on the concern that exposing your ignorance will make someone think badly of you, you've got two options.

  • One (the bad one): keep focusing on this to the point where you can't move past it enough to actually do the work of learning and growing. You're not in a state of neutrality: as K pointed out above, the mistakes that you're currently making probably have and will continue to cause harm to trans and gender diverse people. And this option doesn't actually prevent what you're concerned about, because refusing to learn and improve will definitely make people judge you. (I don't think this is what you should be concerned about since it's a very self-centered way of approaching the topic, but I want to point it out in case it's a deciding factor.)

  • Two (the better one): accept that learning about this stuff is difficult but necessary. You'll make mistakes, but ideally they'll be new ones instead of the ones that you're already making, and eventually you'll make fewer and less harmful ones.

If you're so worried about perception that you can't move out of your comfort zone, I can almost guarantee that you're currently doing and saying transphobic things. The only way to move past that is to recognize it and commit to improving. If someone calls you transphobic, it probably is about the harmful impacts of your words or actions, not your personal worldview. You need to realize that it's about the impact (which matters) rather than the intent (which doesn't). And your words and actions are the things you can change--you've just got to do the work, which will be uncomfortable. But your discomfort during that process will be less than the harm that your refusal to learn is causing the people you're hoping to support.

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