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Learning how to be a trans and non-binary ally

Updated: May 13

At The Unmistakables, we’re always learning - because we know that DEI is less of a journey, which feels like a passive meandering, and more of an active quest to continuously seek out knowledge. So as part of that quest, we spent an afternoon dedicated to understanding what it means to be a trans and non-binary ally. Here’s what we learned.

A few statistics

Our trainers, who themselves were trans and had extensive corporate and legal experience, offered us some statistics to set the context of what it’s like to be trans in the UK. While just 1% of the UK population are trans or non-binary:

  • 60% of trans and non-binary people have experienced harassment or mistreatment in the workplace (Total Jobs Employee Experiences Survey 2021)

  • 63% reported experiencing transphobia while seeking employment (Trans Lives Survey, Trans Actual, 2021)

  • And 99% have experienced transphobia on social media (Trans Lives Survey, Trans Actual, 2021)

What struck our team the most was the staggering discrepancy between the small proportion of the population that is trans and non-binary, compared with the high prevalence of discriminatory behaviour they experience. We wondered why exactly this was. And while there are a variety of reasons, some of the biggest learning we had as a team was on how media and politics influence the narratives on the trans community, and the subsequent negative changes in attitudes around the globe. 

As part of our regular news and social media round ups, we often see media headlines with trans and non-binary people in the crossfire. Just this week, we saw JK Rowling openly writing transphobic content in response to Scotland’s new hate crime law. This kind of coverage is likely to be contributing to negative narratives around trans and non-binary people. 

The charity Mermaids published a study into newspaper coverage on trans issues, with some stark findings. For one, the British press has more than tripled its coverage of stories about trans people between 2012 and 2018-19.  And trans people generally are increasingly written about in negative ways - from being described as having a propensity to be offended or be involved in conflicts or trouble (up to 586 times in 2018-19 compared to 8 times in 2012). They are also described in the context of being demanding or aggressive (up to 334 times in 2018-19 compared to 5 times in 2012). And they are more likely to be described in the context of crime, either as criminals or victims of crime (up to 608 times in 2018-19, as opposed to 3 times in 2012). 

When they’re described as such, it’s no surprise, then, that over 70% of trans and non-binary people felt that media transphobia impacted their mental health (Trans Lives Survey, Trans Actual, 2021). And when these are the kind of portrayals we see regularly in the media, it’s also no surprise that the rate of hate crimes against transgender people have gone up, or that transgender people are more likely to experience threats of physical or sexual harassment or violence compared with the LGBT community as a whole (National LGBT Survey, Government Equalities Office).

These kinds of statistics made us reflect on the deep responsibility the media has had–and continues to have– in shaping portrayals of, and our attitudes toward, trans and non-binary people. 

Trans and non-binary experiences 

We also learned about the ‘admin’ of being trans and non-binary, such as the long wait times to access gender-affirming care. One of the real jaw-drop moments for us as a team was learning about the staggering process required to actually change your gender marker in the UK. It can take years, and so much of it involves relying on people who never actually meet you to make decisions based on reports from doctors who have spent very little time with you. 

There’s also the extraordinary length of time that exists to get a first appointment for gender-affirming care, such as hormones or surgery. Wait times are currently 60 months, or five years, in London, to 87 months, or over seven years, in Exeter. Many trans and non-binary people resort to crowd-raising funds to get private care, or even go to another country to receive the gender-affirming care they need.

Then there’s the litany of inappropriate questions trans and non-binary people are wont to receive, from ‘what’s in your pants’ (a wild question to be asking anyone, ever!) to ‘how do you have sex?’ (deeply intrusive, not any of our business!) to ‘what was the name you were born with?’ (irrelevant and nosy, because it’s not their name anymore!). 

Our key takeaways 

There are some straightforward, helpful tips we learned that we’d like to share as a starting point for those who are also on their quests to be allies to trans and non-binary people:

  • Don’t get bogged down in terminology - focus on people as people first. Start with someone’s name!

  • Given the anti-trans media bias in the UK and elsewhere, it’s important to do your own research to fact check what you’re reading. Complain to IPSO if you see transphobic or misleading content. You can also cancel media subscriptions to anti-trans outlets - and be sure to write to them and tell them why you’re cancelling.

  • Promote positive trans and non-binary stories on social media to help counter the overwhelming negativity we see online.

  • Challenge shops, suppliers, and services where you see exclusionary practices, such as only having two genders or no options for non-binary titles like Mx. on their forms.

  • Write to your local politicians and let them know why trans and non-binary issues matter to you.

For those considering how their organisations might be better allies to trans and non-binary people:

  • Consider how trans inclusion aligns with your organisational values, commitments to inclusion, or LGBT+ inclusion model if you have one ( the ‘When in Rome, Embassy or Advocacy’ model is a good one to start with)

  • Do some soul searching and decide on where you stand on trans & non-binary inclusion

  • Consider making a public statement (either active or reactive) on government proposals. If you’re not ready for this, make internal statements of support for trans & non-binary rights.

  • Check whether you’re sponsoring or advertising in a media outlet that publishes antic-trans rhetoric and consider whether you’re happy for your brand to be displayed there.

The bottom line 

Our session ended with a powerful sentiment, which we’ll leave with you to reflect upon:

“There is a time to stand behind trans & non-binary people to promote them and let them speak. There’s a time to stand beside trans & non-binary people to support them. And there’s a time to stand in front of trans & non-binary people to protect them.’ 

As part of our allyship we're partnering with other inclusion businesses to host Allies Coming out for Trans+ (ACT+) - an executive briefing for leaders in the marketing industry. The initiative has been written up here.


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