Let me give you an idea of what it’s like to be a transgender woman. A few months ago, I decided to try watching Conan O’Brien’s show again. Maybe his 2012 apology for telling an anti-trans joke had been sincere after all. It would be safe for me now, right? But in the opening monologue, he told this joke: “DC Comics introduced its first-ever transgender character. The character is called Wonder If It’s A Woman.”
Two months ago, a friend took me to see Janeane Garofalo at the end of a long day. I had already spent the afternoon crying about a difficult experience of transphobia. Janeane Garofalo was an openly leftist comedian so we’d be fine, right? Wrong. We were forgetting about the opening act. Thirty seconds after we sat down, the opener joked about “hiding her dick in her panties.” I spent the rest of her set in the bathroom, realizing that everyone in that club who had just laughed at that joke was also laughing at me, at the very idea of people like me.
Last week, I turned on the television. I heard the word “tranny” within ten seconds. I don’t turn on the television anymore. I don’t see many movies. I don’t go to shows. My experiences amount to more than mere coincidence; transphobia is everywhere.
As my friend Jill says: “We are the joke you reach for when you can’t think of anything better.” People can make transphobic jokes and comments because transgender people make easy targets. I’m scared to be around people who aren’t vocal allies because these kinds of comments are even more common in casual conversation than they are in the media.
That’s where you come in. If you’re listening for it, you will hear people you know making transphobic remarks. How should you react when that happens? If you want to do your part to make the world a slightly more tolerable place for transgender people, here are my five steps to calling out transphobia:
1. Prevent and prepare.
It’s always easier to be proactive than reactive. If your friends know that you are an ally and if you discuss transgender issues with them, they will be less likely to ruffle your feathers. They might still vocalize transphobia around other people but you won’t have to deal with their messes firsthand.
Part of being an ally, too, is developing your own personal Spidey Sense for transphobia. To help put an end to transphobic culture, you need to recognize it. When friends use words like “tranny” or “shemale,” that’s not okay. When friends joke about how “a chick looks like a dude” or vice versa, that’s not okay.
For more on how to be a good ally, check out my previous piece on Thought Catalog. Once you know more about transgender folks, you’ll be surprised how often your Spidey Sense tingles: people say transphobic things at an alarming rate. Get ready to notice it everywhere and…
2. Gather courage to speak out.
One of the holiest social contracts we operate under is that you always tell someone when they have a piece of lettuce stuck in their teeth. It’s embarrassing to say something but you know that they would be mad if you didn’t. Our commitment to lettuce-spotting is universal. It transcends all rules of decorum as we tell lovers and strangers alike: “Hey, you’ve got a thing!”
If you let a transphobic remark slide by but you treat a piece of lettuce like it’s life-threatening, you need to put things in perspective. Transphobic comments help to perpetuate a culture of exclusion and marginalization for an already vulnerable population. Lettuce caught between your teeth just makes you look silly in front of your boss for a few seconds.
It can be daunting to call someone out, I know. You might be worried about damaging a friendship. You might be concerned about how your anger will make you appear to others. Or you might be so worried about how to handle the subsequent conversation that you don’t say anything at all.
To these understandable concerns, I would say three things. First, transphobic friends are not friends worth having. Second, anger is an appropriate response to an unjust world. And third, prepare yourself to have that difficult conversation by reading the rest of these steps.
3. Be firm.
“That’s not okay.” “That’s transphobic.” These are the two most direct things you can say when someone says something transphobic. They are clean, simple and efficient phrases. Just pick one and use it! But once you take the plunge, don’t yield in order to placate them or to save face with your friends. Stick with it. Explain why you’re not okay with what’s been said.
Tell them that transgender people, like any other marginalized group of people, should not be the butt of a joke. If they protest, tell them sobering facts about the difficulties that transgender people face and explain that, by making these kinds of comments, they are validating the sort of bigotry that makes transgender lives almost unlivable. “You are part of the problem.”
No one likes to be called out. They will try to cut the tension in order to dodge responsibility. “C’mon! I was just joking.” Don’t give in. Whatever you do, keep that poker face on. It’s better to be a killjoy than to deal with the guilt of letting someone off the hook. Words are serious business; treat them that way.
4. Keep the focus on what they said, not who they are.
When you call someone out for any form of bigotry, it is crucial that you talk about what they said and not about who they are. Watch this video by anti-racist activist and hip hop commentator Jay Smooth:
Watch it again. Memorize what he says. Get it tattooed on your forearm. This is the best way to manage conversations with people after you call them out: Repeat their comment back to them, explain why it is hurtful, tell them to stop and ask them to educate themselves further. Keep the focus on the comment, not the person.
When I call people out for transphobia, they inevitably try to shift the conversation to be about who they are because they don’t want to take responsibility for what they did. Like clockwork, each of them will locate some trans person that they are vaguely aware of — a cousin, a coworker, a coworker’s cousin, a coworker’s cousin’s dog walker — and they’ll say, “Look! I know a trans person therefore I can’t be transphobic!”
Around these parts, we call this the “I have a trans friend” trump card. It is a close relative to the “some of my best friends are black” card and the limited edition “my sister’s roommate is a lesbian” card. (These are not cards you want to collect.) When these cards gets thrown down on the table, play it like Jay Smooth and shift the conversation back to what they did: “This is not about you. This is about what you said and why what you said was wrong. I never said you were transphobic, I said your words were transphobic.” Make it absolutely clear that non-transphobic people can still say transphobic things.
5. Demand responsibility but know when to bow out.
What you’re looking for when you call someone out is for them to sincerely recognize their error and to commit to changing their future behavior. There’s no magic way to bring this about but, when it happens, you can hear it in their voice, see it in their face or decipher it from their written tone. Something clicks and you can tell that they feel awful about what they did. This is a moving moment for all parties. It’s an opportunity for you to educate them and an opportunity for them to think reflexively about their own privilege.
But some people need more time after they’ve been called out in order to realize what they’ve done. And sadly, some people will never change. Know when to let go. If the conversation is going nowhere, make like a mohel and cut it off. At the end of the day, you’re not personally responsible for changing the hearts and minds of everyone in the world. It’s okay to walk away, save your strength and fight another day.
If you were scared to call people out before, I hope that now you’re better prepared to confront folks head on. Next week, I’ll be back with an article about how to react (and how not to react) when you get called out for a transphobic remark.