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Becoming Willing to Tell Our (Tragically) Unflattering but Still (Super) Effective Stories of Trans Allyship

I've been asked to write about my own journey as a gay woman who is an out-and-proud trans ally, and I feel not brave but kind of useless. Let me explain.
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At PFLAG we spend a lot of time telling our personal stories. (If you've ever met a PFLAG parent, you know they're pretty quick to offer an explanation for why they now have more LGBTQ-friendly bumper stickers on their car than their LGBTQ kid has.) And at the heart of these stories is the tale of "getting it" -- the transformative moment when people go from not-OK to OK with finding out someone they know or love is LGBTQ, or the point at which they suddenly feel inspired to become advocates. The important part of these stories is what came before this "getting it" moment: the journey they had to take through their own barriers to get to the point of being allies.

People who tell these stories often do so bravely: They openly reveal their missteps, share harsh feelings they may have had about loved ones or friends, or show biases. In doing so, they demonstrate tremendous courage and deep trust, accepting that they may be judged as harshly as they previously judged others. This is a big part of what makes PFLAG so powerful: these brave living testaments to the fact that it takes a lot of work to be a good ally, including a willingness to openly disclose what it took to get there. In sharing these testaments we validate other people's journeys and develop constructive compassion for the struggles they personally experienced along the way.

I've been asked to write about my own journey as a gay woman who is an out-and-proud trans ally, and I feel not brave but kind of useless.

Let me explain.

Picture this: It's the early 1980s, and my 4-year-old brother and I, at maybe 5 or 6 years old, are sitting in front of our parents. Their mission for the day? Explaining to their small children why, when they visit their grandparents in rural Pennsylvania that summer, one of the neighbors they loved visiting is no longer going to be around. That's because this neighbor didn't feel like God had put him in the right body, so, during the winter, he'd had an operation, and now he was in the right body. But we'd no longer talk about the person as we might remember; instead, we'd call our friend, who would look different but be the same person, Sylvia.

Neither my brother nor I recall being confused by what we were hearing. But we both remember the first time we saw Sylvia walking down the driveway toward the front door of our grandparents' home. I remember thinking she had the most beautiful red hair I'd ever seen. (I've never been deep.) She entered the house, and even if people may have been feeling awkward, everyone kept acting like she'd always been there.

And that's my story.

Seriously. That's it.

And my story is in fact the worst, least intense how-I-got-to-be-comfortable-with-people-who-are-trans story ever told. My parents told us to be OK, so we were OK. My parents were teachers. They modeled what they wanted, and we followed. (Note: This may have been the last time my brother and I heeded their instructions.)

So when I try to tell the story of the starting point of my big ally journey, I feel like I'm kind of a failure. There wasn't a time that I can recall having to learn to accept anything, except that not everyone's experiences have been that simple or gentle.

But let me be clear: I don't think my childhood experience made me a good ally. In fact, I'm deeply un-proud, slightly ashamed to say that I think I was a terrible ally for a while.

So picture this: Fast-forward to the early 2000s. I'm learning the LGBTQ-legislation ropes as a newcomer to D.C., and along comes the old sexual-orientation-only version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and I go into "get it done" mode. In other words, I thought, "Let's get it reintroduced, passed, and signed, and we'll deal with whoever or whatever is missing later. I'm gay. I'd like to be protected at work. Sorry if this isn't good for everyone in the acronym, but we'll handle details down the road. Let's do this."

And then I found myself sitting next to a well-known transgender woman who spends a lot of time speaking in corporate workplaces about what it means to be trans and her personal experiences. I pushed back on her belief that ENDA should be delayed until everyone could be protected, and then she started to tell me her story of how scary it was to transition at work, and how difficult it was to come to terms with knowing that being who she was -- certainly a theme any person who is gay, lesbian or bisexual can understand -- was also the reason that she thought she'd likely lose her job. And then she started telling me one story after another of people who are trans who had lost their jobs after being at organizations for 10, 20, 25 years -- and even more.

And it clicked. By listening to her, I learned that while I was accepting of people who were trans, I wasn't yet an ally. "Being OK with things" wasn't enough; I had a lot of work to do. I had to listen to stories like hers to truly understand the experience. And I would have to keep listening... and I still am. I had to recognize our parallels and, more importantly, understand our differences and see them as issues for me to care about too. I needed to broaden my view. I needed to be uncomfortable. I needed to get off my bottom and do something, which meant recognizing that I did in fact have an ally journey. And it wasn't over. And I needed to talk about it.

Was that an overnight transformation for me? Well, actually, it was. My parents had taught me enough about recognizing my privilege for me to realize that I had been wrong on ENDA, and my position changed quickly. Was it easy to admit to people that I'd been wrong? No. (I like being right all the time. Ask my co-workers. Or my family. Or my wife.) By 2007, when we started talking about ENDA again, I was working at PFLAG National, and I was a different person who longer accepted incrementalism as an argument. And I was proud to be working for an organization that, since 2001, only supports workplace policies that are fully inclusive of gender identity and expression alongside sexual orientation.

I can't lie: I'm not proud of the barrier I had to overcome to become a real trans ally. But the experience helped move me along to become an even better ally. And when I started working on PFLAG's newest publication, guide to being a trans ally (part of PFLAG's signature Straight for Equality project), I was excited to draw on that experience and hear about other people's experiences from their journeys. It made me see that working on ourselves to become better allies and then being willing to speak honestly about that work can inspire others, and it can help them see their own paths to doing something powerful.

I was incredibly privileged to meet not one but two people who are trans, first at a young age and then again later in life, when a personal story was much-needed to put me on the right path to allyship. Like I said, that's a privilege. Most people won't get that lucky twice in their lives. And it's that experience that puts me on my soapbox today.

For those of us active in the movement for LGBTQ equality, we can't simply sit around and wait for people to get to know someone who identifies as or happens to be trans and hope that the encounter will put them on the path to being an ally. Equality can't be patiently waited for. It is our role to initiate conversations about equality and inclusion for people who are transgender, now. We need to share our stories so others will see why equality must include people who are trans, and why that it is everyone's issue. We need to concede that there are challenges for many people along the way -- the vast majority of which don't make people bad but simply people on their way to a new place -- and commit to helping them work through those challenges; we can't delegate the work to someone else.

There are lots of ways to get started. Naturally, I'm going to point you to PFLAG's new guide to being a trans ally as a place to start. (It's free. It's made for allies. And it's kind of pretty too. Like I said, I've never been deep.) But don't stop there. Read it, then share it with someone else. Talk to someone new; opportunities to share on this topic are all over the news and media these days. And then, most important? Keep listening. Two stories -- one early in life, one later -- changed it all for me. Share your story; invite people to tell you theirs, and, most important, listen when they do.

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