The Trans Working Group

Limitations of Cis Allyship

Anger, egos and emotional labour

Within the current political climate of increasing hostility towards transgender people living in the UK within the mainstream media, electoral parties across the political spectrum, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission the necessity for explicit support for transgender people from cisgender comrades only increases. However, in the face of such hostility and overt transphobia, the requirements for what classifies as allyship are minimal. In comparison to the obsessive rate and obnoxious volume at which trans exclusionary ‘gender critics’ spread their hateful ideology, the mere acknowledgement of trans people as human beings can appear as progressive. Whilst encouraging to see, and necessary within certain capacities, these simple statements do little, if anything at all, to improve the material conditions of transgender people in Britain. It is possible for someone to make such declarations of support whilst doing nothing to aid the cause of trans liberation. Furthermore, one can present themselves as a trans ally whilst continuing to perpetuate social and political violence against trans people by failing to confront their own internalised transphobia or question the cisnormative structures that underpin our current society’s understanding of gender.

The unwillingness to confront one’s own complicity within the institutionalised oppression against trans people halts any progression towards a society that embraces trans liberation, continuing the cycle of harmful gender structures. Without challenging the seemingly small incidents of cisnormative behaviour, the offhand exclusionary comments, we can never build a world in which trans people are not merely tolerated but embraced. Conversations about oppression can often lead to allies focusing on their own feelings and centring the discussion about how oppression impacts them. This can manifest in the form of guilt, defensiveness, anger, or a desire to detach themselves from the topic entirely. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed explores the politics of emotions within her work and the ways this relates to marginalised groups and oppression and these concepts can be applied to interactions between trans people and cis allies.

Defensiveness – the need to sustain the ego

Confrontations surrounding acts of oppression are generally met with an incredibly defensive response; so-called allies often show more aversion towards accusations of being harmful than the (unintentional) harm itself. The ally is so intent on viewing themselves as such that any criticism from a member of the group they claim to wholeheartedly support is immediately received as a personal attack. A common response to such criticism, no matter how mild, is something along the lines of “are you calling me transphobic? I’m not transphobic”. The ego takes over any intent of support, accountability, or growth as maintaining the label of ally and ‘good person’ eclipses actual acts of allyship. These conversations threaten to shatter the ally’s illusion of themselves as the perfect ally, innocent of any harm and are therefore scarcely well received. As noted by Ahmed in The Promise of Happiness (2010), unhappiness is not created from conversations about oppression, but rather these conversations expose unhappiness that was already present. This can lead to anger from those who do not wish for that unhappiness to be exposed and would rather remain unaware and unattached to the extent of injustice interweaved in societal structures. As an ally, one may be inclined to believe they know all they need to know about a social issue and that they are no longer a part of the problem but instead part of the solution. They are therefore unwilling to accept the role they unintentionally play in another person’s oppression as this clashes with their self-designated title of ally. Jumping to cries of “but I’m not transphobic!” when met with criticism is entirely self-serving and egocentric as it does nothing other than act as a reminder of their ‘goodness’, as if that alleviates them of any guilt. Allies are so desperate to let people know they care that they sometimes fail to actually care. There are other ways these ‘allies’ avoid accountability, deflect the focus from the feelings of the marginalised person, and detach themselves from the issue entirely.  

Tone policing – invalidating anger

Too often people who face oppression are labelled as angry and confrontational, the most common occurrence of this being the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’. An ‘ally’ often draws focus away from the topic at hand to the anger of the marginalised person and the language they are using. They centre the conversation around their own feelings by placing emphasis upon how the conversation, and more specifically the tone of the conversation, is making them feel. This draws attention away from the issue being discussed and instead the conversation becomes trivial. When someone is talking about discrimination, how they are speaking is never more important than what is being said, yet anything other than friendly, polite conversation is met with resistance; expressions of anger are perceived as a direct attack and an excuse not to engage with that conversation. Cis people see trans rage as an excuse to render a complaint invalid as they are unable to ‘properly’ express themselves, rather than evidence of the deep emotional impact that oppression has on daily. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014), Ahmed builds upon Audre Lorde’s notion of anger as visionary and a useful tool for tackling oppression and moving towards liberation: ‘If anger pricks our skin, if it makes us shudder, sweat and tremble, then it might just shudder us into new ways of being; it might just enable us to inhabit a different kind of skin, even if that skin remains marked or scarred by that which we are against’.

A common reason ‘allies’ disengage with discussion about oppression is the mindset of “if you’re not going to be nice to be I’m not going to listen to you”. This attitude is problematic on multiple levels. Firstly, tone policing prioritises the feelings of the ally over the person expressing their suffering, as well as neglecting the important issue being discussed. It also shows that they have failed to consider that the person they are talking to has likely had the same, or similar, conversation many times and their impatience may stem from past experiences discussing the topic. It is important to remember that a marginalised person does not need to cater to an ally’s feelings or ego when it comes to discussing their oppression. They do not need to remain calm or be polite; their language and tone does not need to be palatable. Additionally, an ally who chooses to focus on ‘niceness’ and personal emotions must consider how ‘nice’ it is and how it feels to not only be subjected to harm, but then to have the severity and validity of that harm minimised or completely denied by someone who claims to be supportive. If an ally is only willing to have a conversation about a social issue if they are spoken to ‘nicely’ then it must come into question how much they actually care about that issue. This attitude suggests that basic respect and compassion have to be earned – that a cis person will only be fully invested in tackling transphobia if that particular trans person is first nice to them and continues to talk to them in a friendly and polite manner. In fact, the inverse should be the case. Politeness and friendliness from someone who is trans should be earned through proof of genuine allyship and dedication to fighting their oppression, as anything else disrespects their existence as a trans person. True allyship means unconditional support and dedication to fighting transphobia, meaning that even if a trans person has committed harmful acts themselves their gender identity must be respected; no matter what a trans person has done they do not deserve to be subjected to discrimination on the basis of being transgender. 

Much like the overly defensive reaction, aversion to anger is linked to the denial of any guilt and the desperation to maintain the ally title. Accepting the anger directed towards them would be an admission of wrongdoing and aligning themselves with oppression. Allies like to see themselves as ‘the good guy’ and completely detached from the cause of oppression. Cis allies associate transphobia only with those who are openly and overtly bigoted, rather than viewing it as a much wider issue. As it is entire societal systems that harm trans people, members of that society who are cisgender are likely to partake in or contribute to the upholding of harmful behaviour. This harm is not always deliberate and it is possible for someone with good intentions to accidentally or indirectly contribute to another person’s oppression. However, once again drawing upon the importance of the ego, an ally is unwilling to admit to any harmful behaviour or associate themselves with transphobia on any level as they are afraid of losing their precious ally badge. 

Apologies as harm – insincerity and over-sincerity 

Whilst over-defensiveness and tone policing are harmful acts employed to avoid apologising, apologies themselves are not always helpful and an apology does not equate to a resolution. In fact, as Ahmed noted apologies can themselves be an act of harm (2021). Apologies are not always sincere, they can be made without fully recognising the harm caused simply as a means to end the conversation; ‘[a]n apology can be another way you are told to go away’ (Ahmed, 2021). Furthermore, a marginalised person is not obligated to accept the apology, yet when they do not it is often a source of conflict: “I’ve apologised, what more do you want from me?”. Reactions such as this pass on the responsibility of resolution to the person who complained and poses them as the problem. Ahmed noted that when oppressed people are required to accept an apology they are also required to overlook harm. It reduces oppression to a trivial problem that only exists within the realm of that particular conversation. If a problem only exists within the conversation to the ally in question, they believe an apology is a total resolution to the issue, or more importantly, an excuse for them to stop thinking about it. 

It is not only insincere apologies that are unhelpful, but apologies that are overly emotional and guilt laden can also sometimes prove to be counterproductive. A common example of this is when a cis person uses incorrect pronouns and responds to being corrected with something along the lines of “oh my god I’m so sorry! I feel terrible! I can’t believe I did that! I’m usually so careful! I feel so awful! I’m so sorry! I’ll never do it again!”. The intentions behind such a reaction are positive and well meaning: there is an admission of harm and responsibility as well as a commitment to avoid the same harmful act in future. However, it redirects the focus onto the feelings of the person who committed the harmful act and how bad they feel. This often results in the trans person feeling obligated to comfort them and minimise the damage caused in order to protect their feelings. It also means trans people are unable to correct misgendering or point out other forms of harm without drawing unnecessary and unwanted attention, meaning they may feel less inclined to do so in future instances, continuing the cycle of unchecked transphobia and cisnormativity.

Emotional labour – difficult conversations should be difficult

In recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on emotional labour: how our interactions make us feel, setting boundaries, and considering what we owe each other. This is not a negative trend; it is always important to consider our own mental wellbeing and ensure that we don’t allow ourselves to be manipulated or exploited. However, to assume we don’t owe anyone anything neglects the fact that we owe one another basic respect and decency, and that this is the basis of humanity. Furthermore, ‘emotional labour’ is never an excuse to completely detach ourselves from the privilege we hold. Personal issues are real and valid, and during the pandemic problems such as loneliness and isolation, as well as feelings of sadness and worthlessness are increasingly prevalent; it is important to take care of our own mental health but it cannot be used as a reason for a cis person to disengage entirely from the issue of transphobia or to shut down conversations with trans people about the struggles they face and the harm they are subjected to. 

It is not that the personal problems and feelings of cis people are unimporant, it is that they are irrelevant to the issue of transphobia. This attitude often reduces the issue to isolated conversations or instances and neglects the wider context. It fails to consider that trans people are more than their gender identity and are likely going through similar personal issues, but are subjected to institutionalised transphobia on top of any private matters. This fact does not invalidate a cis person’s personal problems, this is not a matter of ‘who has it worse’, rather it demonstrates that these separate personal matters are not the focus of a conversation about transphobia. Not only are the feelings of trans people unacknowledged with such attitudes, but there is a lack of understanding as to how these problems are only intensified by institutionalised transphobia. Being misgendered, struggling with gender identity and being exposed to transphobia can be incredibly isolating, particularly when surrounding by cis people who cannot relate and do not fully comprehend such issues and direct attacks from the government and press that demonise trans people, or worse attempt to erase their very existence inevitably worsen mental wellbeing and self image. These feelings are again heightened if cis people refuse to engage with conversations about trans people about these issues, or respond in a defensive or deflective manner. 

When a cis person chooses to not engage with transphobia because it is too emotionally strenuous for them, they must ask themselves when will they engage? If that situation makes them feel bad, why? How do they think the situation makes trans people feel? To pick and choose when to engage with transphobia is not a luxury granted to trans people, they cannot choose to disengage because it is an issue that affects them daily in a multitude of ways. Discussions of trans people and transphobia are often based upon distant hypotheticals that are completely detached from cis allies’ day to day lives, making conversations centring around personal lived experiences and the emotions, notably the anger, that comes with them shocking and uncomfortable.

Much of the ‘emotional labour’ and negative feelings that cis people experience as result of conversations surrounding the oppression trans people face stems from the realisation they are complicit in that oppression; it is a shattering of illusion that exposes harm which cis people find upsetting. For that reason, these conversations should be uncomfortable; deconstructing long-accepted social systems is not an easy or quick process and it involves questioning beliefs and behaviours in a way which is a difficult and uncomfortable, but necessary process. When allies discuss the emotional labour of supporting the oppressed people they claim to be allies for, the emotional labour of the people discussing their oppression is rarely considered. 

A conversation about oppression will always be emotionally draining for the person who experiences that oppression. In a conversation about transphobia, it is the trans person who carries the emotional burden of opening up about a difficult topic that deeply affects them personally, and subsequently often has to deal with instances of defensiveness, tone policing, empty apologies and complaints from cis people about how transphobia makes them feel. Cis allies also fail to consider the longlasting affects once the conversation ends, the impact of not only transphobia but the way that it is spoken about. For a cis person once the conversation ends it is over and they either carry on with their lives or learn from it and become a better ally, but for trans people conversations themselves can be a source of harm and a bad experience may prevent them from opening up or defending themselves against transphobia in the future. Allies are there to lift up those affected by oppression, not shut them down or attempt to invalidate their experiences. 

Social media and acceptable activism

To deconstruct the cisheteropatriarchy would be uncomfortable, not only because of internal guilt but also because of the disruption it would cause to the status quo in which they currently belong. It is far easier to instead construct a false vision of equality in which trans people would simply slot into society as it currently stands, without the need for any difficult structural changes or notable alterations to their own lives. In this “ideal” reality nothing would need to be altered beyond acknowledging their trans friends’ new pronouns. 

Social media, when used correctly, can be a useful tool for facilitating education and important discussions with the capability of reaching wide audiences and allows marginalised comrades to build communities through online spaces. However, current trends in online ‘activism’ only fuel the watering down of social justice movements that is pushed by capitalism, through performative activism in the form of empty hashtags and decontextualised infographics. This is a huge obstacle for social progression and community change. People feel less incentivised to be active within their communities or contribute to mutual aid resource distribution if they can feel they have already done their part and affirm their own sense of goodwill by sharing an occasional post. Another aspect of this self-serving approach to allyship is the tendency to show one’s disapproval of transphobia by publicly denouncing instances they come across online. This is a chance to publicly show that they disagree with transphobia, that they are on the right side of this issue and usually make a joke at the bigots expense. Though usually all this accomplishes is the amplification of transphobic comments, that would otherwise go unnoticed, to the screens of trans people. Cis people are able to remain detached from the situation, whilst trans people suffer the emotional reprecussions of being exposed to hate-filled comments. 

Clean, palatable forms of social justice movements are not only accepted but often adopted by powerful corporations and media outlets. Neoliberal capitalism co-opts these movements to create an illusion of progressiveness whilst ensuring any progression that does occur remains within the confines of the societal status quo. Struggles are separated from the socio-economic context, creating a surge in depoliticised activism that aims to end oppression through kindness rather than dismantling the root cause of these oppressive social structures: capitalism. Envisioning equality within the existing framework, such as considering cis ablebodied queer people achieving marriage equality as the end goal of LGBTQ+ liberation, will lead to considering the struggle for liberation as too demanding. The desire to not be misgendered is acceptable, but wanting to disrupt the current societal understanding of gender entirely is simply too much for the neoliberal ally. In their eyes, trans people should be grateful for the allyship they receive, anything less evokes the ego-guarding defensiveness outlined above. 

A call for solidarity

So what can be done? How can we move towards a meaningful form of support? We must look beyond current conceptions of allyship and instead strive for solidarity. 

Trans people must be given the space to talk about their experiences and the full extent of the oppression they face whilst expressing the anger, sadness and frustration that comes with it. We should not be expected to remain calm and collected whilst navigating a society that neglects us and actively works against us. There is much learning to be done, harm can occur without intent though it does not negate that harm has taken place. Understanding and recognising complicity in structural violence is difficult but it is only through this that the violent structure itself can begin to be dismantled. 

Solidarity entails discussions, education and self improvement but it must also extend beyond these into material support. To create a world where trans liberation is possible it is necessary to improve both the identity based and material conditions of trans people simultaneously. Social oppression cannot be treated as an isolated struggle, it must be understood within the socio-political framework of capitalism. Any meaningful activism towards trans rights must hold anti-capitalism at its core. The fight for trans liberation must stretch beyond the clean neoliberal vision of “equality”. Trans liberation is a radical struggle that demands an end to the status quo, destroying gender as we know it and we will not settle for anything less.

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