August 12, 2013

How To React When You’re Called Out For Transphobia

If you’re reading this and you’ve never been called out for transphobic language, please prepare yourself in case you ever do slip up. Even the fiercest transgender allies can say some suspect things. Reading through this article will help you manage your reaction to future call outs.

If you’re reading this because someone just called you out for a transphobic comment and sent you a link to this article, close everything else now. X out of all your IM windows. Turn off Twitter and Facebook. Better yet, print this article out, shut down your computer and turn off your phone.

If it will help you stay off your electronic devices, pretend like you’re on an airplane. Whee! I’m Samantha — but that’s Sky Samantha to you — and I’ll be your flight attendant. I’ll let you know when we’re back below 10,000 feet but, for now, please direct your attention to me for an important safety presentation.

Why should you listen to me? Apart from the fact that I’m wearing this fetching uniform and sporting a stylish updo, I have your best interests at heart. I have called people out for transphobia many times. Some people have taken it well and others haven’t. I know how this works; I’ve seen what happens when people react badly.

Please trust me when I say that if you don’t handle this situation smoothly, things can go horribly wrong for you. I’ve watched people implode their own social networks over a single comment. I want you to learn from the mistakes that I’ve witnessed far too many times. Don’t close this article. What you’re about to read could save your friendship. Here’s how you should react when you get called out for transphobia:

1. Stop talking and start listening.

Now is not the time to find out how much of your foot can fit in your mouth. Stop talking. Someone is angry with you right now and you might want to fight back. Don’t. Take a deep breath instead. The more you talk right now, the worse it will go for you. For now, trust me that your friend’s anger is justified even if you don’t fully understand the reasons behind it.

Here’s an easy rule: at first, you should not say anything to the person who called you out unless it’s in the form of a question. Act like you’re playing a game of Jeopardy in which you save face instead of saving money. Rather than saying, “I don’t really see what I did wrong,” say: “Can you please tell me what I’ve done wrong?” Instead of saying, “Quit being so angry,” try this: “How can I correct my behavior so I don’t anger anyone else?” Don’t get cute on me by asking catty rhetorical questions. Only earnest and open-minded inquiries are allowed.

Keep on asking questions until you understand what you did. After you ask something, listen attentively to the response. Learn from this. Don’t be surprised if your friend is still a little angry as they begin responding to your queries. The longer that you are in a position of deference and humility, the more their anger will wear off but you don’t get to decide when they calm down; they do.

2. Repeat after me: “This is not about me.”

Do you know a transgender person? Great. Me too! But that has no bearing on this situation. Sometimes people who know me (in the Biblical sense, even) have said some mildly transphobic things. You’re not immune.

Do you know in your heart of hearts that you respect transgender people, that you wish them nothing but the best? I appreciate that, truly. But I can’t see into your heart, I can only hear what’s come out of your mouth.

This is not about you. This is not about who you are as a person. This is about taking responsibility for your actions. That’s all. Don’t make it about you.

3. Intent doesn’t matter; actions matter.

This year, the president of Emory University wrote a column praising the three-fifths compromise as an example of two parties setting aside “ideology” to work toward the “highest aspiration.” It was absolutely inexcusable, especially at a private school in the American South with slave labor in its own past.

But before issuing a concise, sincere mea culpa, the president decided to explain how he intended his remarks to be perceived. This did not go over well. Despite all the good he’s done in the past, his reputation is now in tatters.

Learn from this story. When you say something inexcusable, no one wants to hear what you meant by it. Trying to explain yourself will only make things worse. Now is not the time to provide context. All anyone wants to hear right now is an apology.

4. Apologize for your actions, not just for their effects.

If I tied your hands up, dropped you into a bathtub full of honey and unleashed a swarm of angry bees into the bathroom, you’d be pretty upset with me. Now imagine that, after this horrific experience, you’re lying in a hospital bed, covered in bee stings, an IV slowly dripping into your arm. I come in the room with my hat in hand and say, “I’m sorry that those bees might have stung you.” Does that apology ring true for you?

Similarly, if you say, “I’m sorry if my words may have offended you,” I’m not going to buy it. This is what we call a non-apology. You get to posture as if you’re apologizing but, in reality, you are acting smug, denying wrongdoing and taking no responsibility for your actions. Don’t do that; everyone can see right through it.

Apologize completely. If you’ve said the word “tranny,” for example, an acceptable apology would look like this:

I apologize for using that term. I sincerely regret my actions. I have since taken the time to learn more about the transgender community and I understand now that ‘tranny’ is an offensive slur that is used to bully people who already lead difficult lives. I promise to never use that language in the future.

Admission of wrongdoing? Check! Demonstration of understanding? Check! Promise to do better? Check! You’re good to go.

5. Acknowledge your privilege.

On the show Kitchen Nightmares, culinary legend Gordon Ramsay attempts to save ailing restaurants from financial ruin. Ramsay knows what he’s doing; he’s been awarded cooking’s highest honor, the coveted Michelin star, no less than fifteen times. And yet, in episode after episode, amateurish restaurant owners act as if they know better than Gordon and refuse to accept his counsel.

I’m a lot like Gordon Ramsay and not just because we’re both fiery blondes. He has twenty-five years of cooking experience and I have twenty-five years of transgender experience. If the person who called you out was transgender then, like me, they have likely spent years learning firsthand about gender norms. Transgender people have knowledge and experience that you lack.

The term privilege — among other things — refers to the way in which people feel entitled to speak authoritatively about experiences they know little about. You wouldn’t tell Gordon Ramsay how to run a restaurant; you shouldn’t tell me or any other transgender person what we should and should not be offended by.

Because privileged people are not used to being questioned, they are often allowed to feel like they know best in all situations. Fight that feeling. Acknowledging your privilege is admitting that your perspective is partial, that there is nothing magical about being, for example, a straight, white, cisgender man that grants you access to everyone else’s lived experience.

You need to demonstrate an awareness of your privilege that runs deeper than a token admission. Don’t say, “I know I’m a straight, white, cisgender man but…” Say: “I’m unqualified to speak authoritatively on transgender issues because I’m cisgender. Please help me understand.”

6. Educate yourself.

If you knew more about transgender people, you might not have gotten into this mess in the first place. Read a few Transgender 101s. I’ve written an Ally 101 here and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Trans 101 is a great resource. Poke around and find some more.

Read them before you return to the conversation you’re having. You shouldn’t expect your friend to have the emotional resources to give you a thorough education singlehandedly. You have to do some work on your own.


We’ve landed and the captain is about to turn the fasten seatbelt sign off. It’s time to dive back into that conversation but remember everything that I’ve taught you. Ask honest questions until you understand what you’ve done. Don’t make it about you and don’t try to explain your intent. Admit your privilege, apologize sincerely and demonstrate a willingness to continue your education.

Go on. Do it! The boarding doors are open and you’re free to disembark. Thanks for flying with us and enjoy your stay. This is Sky Samantha, signing off. TC mark

Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. …