Op-ed: What Not To Do, When Calling Yourself a Transgender Ally

By Jeff Krehely

Originally published on Advocate.com February 07 2014 8:00 AM ET

The first thing an ally needs to know is that listening comes first. Following the recent controversy around Janet Mock’s appearances on Piers Morgan Live, this is the one message I hope self-professed allies can take away.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure they are.

Here’s what happened. Morgan hosted Mock, an incredible transgender advocate, on his show Tuesday night to discuss her autobiography, Redefining Realness. In the course of so doing, Morgan focused a good deal of the interview on her gender confirmation surgery, and the disclosure of her gender history to her boyfriend. Text on-screen said she "was a boy until age 18."

To Morgan, the interview went off without a hitch. But Morgan, while an advocate of legal rights for transgender people, doesn’t seem to have a whole heck of a lot of understanding around the lived experiences of transgender people. Twitter, on the other hand, does. And transgender women of color and allies spoke up.

Mock reappeared the next night. And it just got worse.

In the follow-up interview, Morgan and a panelist essentially boiled it down to this logic: she talks about these subjects in her book; we talked about it. She was biologically male at some point, so calling her a boy is fine.

As Mock so astutely noted, sometimes well-intentioned and good people can be really offensive. And many of you reading this right now may still not get how offensive Morgan’s line of questioning, and lack of inquiry about other parts of her life, really is. But keep reading.

Being good, well intentioned, or liberal doesn’t mean you get it. And it doesn’t make you an ally. I know something about this myself — having worked in social justice for more than 15 years, I’ve had to do a whole lot of work to get to the ally point.

I was a 27-year-old openly gay man when I first met someone who openly identified as transgender. He was the boyfriend of a colleague of mine. And he was incredibly forthright about his journey and provided me with my first opportunity to understand what “gender identity” was all about.

I felt supportive, but I didn’t get it. And I wasn’t all that inclined to believe that his challenges were particularly wrapped up in mine. At that time, what are now known as LGBT organizations were very much about the L, the G, and sometimes the B.

Most white gay men like me — even liberal ones — didn’t have much incentive to pressure LGBT groups to expand their agenda, especially as the right-wing led efforts to outlaw our right to marry. Because of my own privileges, that was my main cause and my sole source of oppression in 2004 America.

A couple of years later, I stumbled into a professional LGBT job. And even though I could be hired with very little cultural competency when it came to transgender people, things suddenly came to a head. In 2007, gender identity was dropped from the House’s version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and the LGBT movement declared war on itself.

I didn’t yet understand how keenly transgender people needed workplace equality. But the political wonk in me saw the fissure that had happened. And I knew if we couldn’t come together as a movement, we might as well surrender to the far right.

I was an advocate, but I wasn’t an ally.

But in the course of my work — directing research at the Movement Advancement Project — we decided to do a deep-dive on transgender issues. That meant a partnership with National Center for Transgender Equality and the Transgender Law Center.

We approached this research as we did all other projects, which meant that the first step for us was to interview and listen to advocates, researchers, and others who were squarely in the issue space. We spent several weeks reading pretty much everything that had been written on what transgender people go through in our country, including many first-person accounts of the struggles, strengths, and resiliency that define the lives of so many transgender people.

Mara Keisling at NCTE and Masen Davis at TLC were both incredibly patient with my learning curve, and it was clear to me they had had spent many seconds, minutes, and hours explaining transgender issues to other people like me. I was also struck by how effortlessly and sincerely they supported and understood LGB issues.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point in doing this research, I finally understood what it meant to be an ally. I could suddenly see the common connections among the LGB and the T, as well as appreciate the stark differences and the many gradations in between. I also naturally felt a responsibility to treat transgender issues with as much — actually, probably more — passion as I did LGB issues.

Which is not to say that I’m an expert on all things transgender, or that I can ever really understand what it means to move through our culture as a transgender person. But I do know that almost every transgender person has to fight to be seen for who they truly are. And that transgender people — especially transgender women and even more so, transgender women of color — face harassment and violence in living authentically.

So back to that line of questioning. When CNN chose to label Mock “a boy for 18 years,” the network was complicit in denying Mock’s own truth — that she never identified as a boy. When Morgan dwelled on her disclosure to her boyfriend — without the addressing the fact that many transgender women have a legitimate fear they’ll be beaten or killed at the point of disclosure — they perpetuated the transphobia that fuels this violence.

Today a reporter wouldn’t think to ask my husband and me, “Who’s the wife?” But a network can still continue calling Mock a boy without blinking an eye.

I was an advocate for legal rights long before I was an ally. And being an ally is a continual process. As the conversations between Piers Morgan and Janet Mock are endlessly debated on Twitter, it strikes me that self-proclaimed transgender allies — which Morgan consistently asserts he is — need to step back and make sure they’ve done their homework.

It takes time and it doesn’t make for great ratings. But it’s the kind of work that creates change and — ultimately — liberation for all.

JEFF KREHELY is the chief foundation officer of the Human Rights Campaign. Interested in becoming a better ally to the transgender community? Check out HRC's FAQ, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Transgender Law Center, and the Trans People of Color Coalition.