Lessons in Diversity: Being an Ally of a Marginalized Group

Ten years ago I was a professor of Gender in the Sociology Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Almost every semester, I taught a course in Sex, Gender, and Society and several times during that course I invited a M2F post-operative transgendered person, “Terri,” to discuss transgender issues with my students.  I had several conversations with Terri outside of class, and she told me about feeling like a woman trapped in the body of a man, who went through counseling, cross-dressing, hormone replacement therapy, and costly operations to become the woman she perceived herself to be.  I used to joke with Terri that she was more female than I, which meant that she wore stilettos, clothes that showed her curves, and talked in a high voice, none of which I did.  From Terri, I learned about being transgendered from a person, not a textbook.  She told me about family, work, and personal relationship issues that she faced in her transition and about her daily decisions whether or not to tell people she encountered about her “secret.”  Terri also told me about the danger and fear she lived with daily as a woman who passed, but whose secret might be revealed to someone who perceived her as a threat. As a woman and an intellectual, I was well-informed, I thought, about being transgendered.

Then Cameron came into my life.  He called me that summer and asked me to supervise him in an independent study so that he could read extensively in the area of transgender issues.  When Cameron walked into my office, I was expecting a F2M transgendered person (he had already told me that much on the phone) who looked, sounded, and acted “manly.”  Cameron, however, was short, skinny, and smooth-faced.  He was pre-operative who had never taken any hormones.  He could have passed as a young boy or a young girl; in truth, he was more androgynous than stereotypically gendered.  I quickly realized that I had a lot more to learn about being transgendered.

Since that day, Cameron and I have read and discussed gender and all its permutations.  I supervised him in his research in which he interviewed young gender variants about their understandings of gender, and worked with him in writing a series of papers (still yet unpublished) about his research.  I watched him take leadership roles around campus by counseling transgendered students who were dealing often unsuccessfully with significant others, family, and friends during their transitions. He also worked with campus administration to create a safer environment on campus for transgendered students; he was instrumental in uni-sex bathrooms being available around campus, for instance.  I taught Cameron everything I knew about gender intellectually, and he taught me everything he knew personally about living in a gendered world as one who didn’t fit neatly into a gender category.  In the past ten years, I have remained a woman and an intellectual, but through Cameron became an ally of transgendered persons.

Being an ally of any marginalized group is a rewarding and frustrating experience.  Marginalized people, whether because of race, class, sexual orientation, age, or gender often have a deeper understanding of their society than those of us who live in the mainstream.  As a sociologist and academic, I am fascinated by the stories of those who live on or outside of our gender boundaries. They help me understand better the processes and structure of our society.  This is the rewarding part, for me, of being an ally of transgendered people.  But transgender stories are not just interesting, they require a decision about whose side I am on in this society. This is the frustrating part for me, because the boundaries of gender and other social categories create an us and  them.  The “us” are those who fit, no matter how well or poorly inside, the gender paradigm, and the “them” are those for whatever reason who do not.  Society rewards those who can successfully stay inside gender boundaries with privileges.  As a gender normative, albeit not stereotypically, female, I can continue to revel in the privileges I receive for not stepping outside the gender boundaries. Or as an ally of a marginalized group, I can use those same privileges to speak up for and insist upon equal treatment for those who are marginalized.  That is what it means to me to be an ally of Cameron, specifically, and other transgendered people more generally.  As best I can I intend to share Cameron’s story with those who live inside gender boundaries and have never met a transgendered person.  I intend to work within whatever social structures I am a part of to ensure more equitable treatment for people like Cameron.  I intend to speak out  about media injustices about the portrayal of  people like Cameron.  But most importantly, for me as an ally, I intend to continue to learn about the gender variant community from Cameron and his cohorts, about its ever changing variety, and continue to be open by them to the many ways gender is expressed.

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