Stop Trying To "Get It Right": Cultivating humility as you become a trans ally

“I just want to know how to not offend anyone.”

I train hundreds of people every year, covering many aspects of competency around transgender issues. I teach people how to use gender-neutral pronouns, how to make it right when they’ve made a mistake, how to create bias-free classrooms… and more. But one of the most common and hard to answer questions I get is this:

How do I say the right thing all the time?

And I get the question. I really do. Before I publish a tweet or post a caption on Instagram, I always pause and think, “Who might this upset?” I’ve been on the receiving end of many call-out’s over the years, and have certainly used a wrong word or pronoun by accident. I, too, have found myself fixated on this question. How do I just NOT mess up?

Spoiler alert: YOU CAN’T.

Wherever you are on your journey towards become A Good Human (TM), you are absolutely going to bump up against someone else’s idea of what is the right thing to say. This happens for so many reasons, but I’ll distill them down to just a few:

  1. There is no such thing as “the right thing to say.” I know, this is a hot take. But truly— transgender people are as diverse and unique as, well, everybody else! We don’t all agree on the right way to ask for pronouns or greet a room or address a stranger. We don’t all agree on what language is acceptable and what is verboten. And we definitely don’t all agree on how to respond when someone steps out of turn. You’ll never get it right all the time because you can’t be inside of every transgender person’s head all the time.

  2. You’re going to hit on trauma. It can feel super confusing to have someone lash out at you when all you did was ask a question. And it’s hard not to get defensive when you feel embarrassed about saying something wrong. You may want to explain yourself or help the other person see why they shouldn’t be upset in the first place. But here’s the thing— it’s hard to be a trans person in America today, and most of us don’t have access to the resources we need in order to heal from those traumas. And trauma is like a bruise— it doesn’t have to be hit very hard for it to hurt. Your use of a wrong pronoun or awkwardly-worded question might be tapping into a much larger well of pain that is invisible to you but so very tangible to the other person.

  3. Language changes and evolves. Even if you know the most commonly-used words and phrases now, they are very likely to change in the coming months and years. And they are going to differ wildly between geographic regions. So attempting to learn every single thing that teenage trans people have posted on Tumblr is a fool’s errand. You just can’t do it.

So what should you do instead of trying not to offend anyone? What I teach in my workshops is an attitude shift. Instead of focusing on what NOT to do… focus on what you want to accomplish. My hope is that everyone who comes to one of my trainings is a person who wants to build strong, meaningful relationships with the trans people in their lives. And the best way to do that is to cultivate an attitude of humility. Here are a few phrases you can use along the way:

  • “Oh, interesting! Do you mind if I ask what that means to you?” This is helpful if someone shares an identity you’ve never heard before. Maybe one of your students says they identify as a “demi-girl,” or a legal client says they are “greysexual.” If it’s appropriate, show an openness to learning and invite them to share more about the identity. Don’t express judgement or confusion— just interest. And if they say they’d rather not share more, take no for an answer and keep moving forward in the conversation.

  • “I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.” If you use the wrong pronoun with someone and get corrected, don’t throw yourself an apology parade. Don’t make excuses and blame the person whose pronoun you got wrong. When you do that, you’re unconsciously shifting the power balance to put yourself in the role of victim— you’re asking for their forgiveness instead of making amends. Those are two very different things. Rather, take the feedback and integrate it right away, without an explanation or excuse.

  • “I never thought about it that way. Thank you for sharing.” This one actually comes from my father-in-law, who has truly perfected an attitude of humility. Whenever he says something I perceive as off-color (he’s an old-school dude), he’s great about hearing me out and changing his language accordingly. I also encourage you to make sure not to critique the way in which someone is teaching you. Remember what you learned about trauma a few paragraphs ago? Here it is again! If someone is hurt by what you’ve said, their correction may come out in a way that could feel messy or rude. That’s okay! Thank them for sharing anyway, and give them time and space to “de-activate” a bit before continuing the conversation (if it needs to continue at all).

TL;DR: You won’t always get it right, but hopefully you can be the kind of person who learns when you get it wrong.

I hope this was helpful as you work to cultivate an attitude of humility! Feel free to share if you found it useful, and let me know if you didn’t. I’d love to hear from you.