In the age of increasing social media presence, we can often denote activism with ‘slacktivism,’ passively supporting an issue without actually taking efforts to make a change. In general, though, to truly strive for allyship with a marginalized community, it involves staying aware and supporting the community through actions instead of declamatory statements. Besides asking for a difference, ‘allies’ need to make a difference and also not ignore those voices they support.
On Wednesday, April 19, and Thursday, April 20, Spencer Garcia ’18 hosted the Trans Allyship Workshop, which has been held for the last several years. With the guiding maxim of “Move up, move up,” the workshop created an affinity space for participants to learn about their roles and how they can better support the trans community.
The workshop’s curriculum began by establishing basic principles about allyship for participants to understand. An example of the principles covered was the need to respect the pronouns of trans and non-binary people.
Charlotte Varcoe-Wolfson ’19 attended the workshop on Wednesday [Disclaimer: Varcoe-Wolfson is the Editor-in-Chief for The Miscellany News]. Explaining why she believed attending was important, Varcoe-Wolfson said: “I’m an intern at the RSL Office and we usually have our meetings at that time. Instead of having our weekly meeting, all eight interns were encouraged to attend. The Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and the Interim Interim Rachlin Director of Jewish Life attended as well.”
Varcoe-Wolfson continued: “Especially as I was sitting in the workshop, I realized that the way I see myself as a trans ally is in a passive way. One of the things I saw the handout was: “Don’t add the T without doing work.” Because I see myself as a ‘progressive’ Vassar student, it’s easy to let myself off the hook as a trans ally without taking the active steps.”
The Trans Allyship Workshop permits members of the Vassar community of all identities to get informed and ask questions, no matter what previous knowledge participants have.
In addition to modifying the workshop’s curriculum to reflect feedback from last year’s event, Garcia also altered the event’s phrasing: ìI moved from the language of ‘training’ to ‘workshop’ to emphasize the continual self and community work present in trans allyship.’
Garcia expanded on the workshop’s new features: “This year, I added the ‘Challenging Constructions of (Cis)Gender’ section in order to push workshop participants to examine their own ideas of gender and how they understand themselves in relation to these constructs. There are also more interactive elements of the workshops, and they now include more small group discussions and activities.”
Besides general principles, Garcia’s presentation addressed Vassar-specific transphobic situations. For trans students that haven’t come out at home but have changed their names through AskBanner, accessing mail can be impossible. Likewise, the Office of International Programs doesn’t always provide sufficient information to trans students who are planning on going abroad regarding the country’s culture and laws.
For part of the workshop, members-which included Vassar students, staff, faculty and administrators-broke off into groups and discussed ways they could integrate the action tips into their daily life for being supportive allies to the trans community. Teachers, for instance, discussed how to address students’ pronouns during the first week of class in a safe and comfortable manner.
“The handouts given out at the workshop are simply starting points to learning about trans vocabulary and trans allyship. There’s so much information on how to support trans and non-binary people, and it all can’t be covered in an hourand-a-half workshop.” Garcia acknowledged the limitations of the workshop.
They further elaborated on further actions attendees and people in general can take: “I think it’s important to recognize that not all trans and non-binary people are the same, and as a result, trans allyship oftentimes takes an individualized form. It’s necessary to do your own research on how to best advocate for trans and non-binary people, but you also need to listen to and respect the trans people you’re supporting. Recognize that the approach you may want to take or what you think allyship ‘should look like’ may not be helpful to the trans and non-binary people you’re seeking to advocate for.”
One of the important points presented in the Garcia’s handouts “Trans Vocabulary” and “Action Tips for Trans Allyship” was how consequential even little actions can be: “Trans people’s pronouns are not “preferred,”, they are mandatory… [‘Trans’] is an adjective, not a noun… It’s also important to be aware of a trans person’s ‘out’ status, since this may not apply uniformally in every circumstance.” Also there are boundaries for questions. “Do not ask about a person’s genitals or surgical status…Do not assume you can tell if someone is transgender or cisgender… Do not assume pronouns.”
During one of the group discussions, attendees considered how they would plan to apply tips from the workshop into their daily life. One of the participants in the workshop, Katie Nordstom ‘18, hopes to put the workshop’s tips into action: “I am going to work towards introducing myself with my pronouns when in a group as to help take that burden off of trans people.”
Nordstrom found attending the workshop to be very educational and enriching experience: “Spencer Garcia did a fantastic job leading the workshop, and my knowledge of trans allyship has increased dramatically since attending the workshop, and they made sure we had access to additional resources to continue to become a better, more active ally.”
Garcia finished the workshop by providing different trans organizations around the country to support. On campus, there is the Vassar Trans Clothes Exchange (VTCE). VTCE collects clothes and provides them to trans and non-binary students who might not feel safe going out to buy them. VTCE has various donation periods year-round, and students can email vassartransclothes[at]gmail.com if they wish to get involved.
The workshop is only a starting point for allyship, though. Garcia expanded on what they hope attendees pursue: “I hope that the workshop participants left with concrete ideas of how to support trans and non-binary people inside and outside of Vassar, and with an understanding of the importance of questioning their own gender, gender biases and societal constructions of gender. I also hope that they see the workshop as a starting point for their trans allyship, and that they commit to pursuing further research on trans issues and activism.”
While people can and should take these measures to move towards trans allyship, it is fundamental for them to listen to trans voices to better understand their experiences.
Garcia’s handout reinforces this: “The best way to practice allyship is to listen with an open mind to trans people themselves. They are the experts on their own lives! Be mindful of your activism to ensure that you don’t erase trans voices in your attempt to support trans people. Do not ignore other systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, ableism, classism and homophobia, all of which affect trans people to varying degrees.”