Last year, at the start of (our awareness of) the coronacrisis, I read the story of anthropologist Margaret Mead being asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about hunting tools, the wheel, grinding stones, or clay pots. Instead, the anthropologist answered that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000-year-old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. The bone, which links hip to knee, had been broken and healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You become easy prey for prowling beasts. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone helped a fellow human and took time to stay with the one who fell, rather than abandoning them to save their own life. The message was that we feel more human when we help others, and that generosity and altruism are (or should be) key identifiers of human nature.
Over the past year, I’ve come back to this lesson from Dr. Mead as I’ve read and learned more about my trans and gender-expansive colleagues’ experiences in law and life. Being an LGBTQ ally isn’t just about celebrating the societal shift toward trans acceptance. I’ve learned that it’s not enough to list my preferred pronouns on my email signature line or to stake a “hate has no home here” sign on my front lawn. I’m not “woke” just because I’ve embraced the singular “they” (even though the Oxford English Dictionary dates it back to 1375) or because I know the difference between gender identity and expression. Rather, to be true allies means cis people need to be actively intolerant of any intolerance toward the trans community. It means we must support the “revolution,” as Laverne Cox calls it, “for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells [them that they] should not exist.”
An effective and committed advocate-ally must be aware of the conditions and the challenges facing a marginalized person or group. Cisgender practitioners must recognize the experience of our gender-expansive colleagues and assess how we may serve as genuine allies.
As an advocate, I was trained to speak for others so the world can know what it’s like to walk in their shoes. To work passionately to resolve and prevent harm. To speak truth to power. A common misconception is that advocates are the voice of the voiceless. In reality, those considered voiceless have had their resonance muted by life experiences and systemic oppression. An advocate-ally helps the buried voice emerge. An advocate should employ their power and privilege to speak for those against whom the system seems completely stacked and to help break down barriers on their behalf. Advocates may also have special access to the majority community and be able to confront its stereotypes and misunderstandings from “within.”
In all of these ways, it is the responsibility of cisgender practitioners to combat the subtle – and not-so-subtle – aggressions perpetrated against our trans colleagues in the legal profession. Cis practitioners must advocate against transphobia; cissexism; instances of misgendering; refusals to use a person’s preferred pronouns; interruptions of transwomen; unnecessary and invasive questions of transpeople; and the derogatory and hateful speech aimed at trans attorneys. In a phrase: “if you see something, say something!” Cis people must share the load. It should not fall squarely on the shoulders of marginalized populations to fight to be seen, to be heard.
To our trans and gender-expansive friends and colleagues, we see you and we stand with you. While a cisperson may never fully understand your experience as a trans or gender-expansive person, we respect, welcome, and embrace you as a member of this community. We recognize our responsibility to continue learning and growing; to be open to correction and to be part of a culture of understanding; to fight legislation systemically designed to disadvantage you; to invest in your leadership; to celebrate your history and history-makers; and to affirm your dignity and humanity as people who are more than welcome here.
We are at our best when we serve others. As Dr. Mead said, “Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
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