Supporting Marginalized People as an Ally or Outsider

August 1 2015

Originally published on Medium


This is a post based on recent correspondence with Eve, an editor for a yet-to-be-published website “to help trans people present themselves however they wish”. This may be well-intended, but there are some problems with the approach I see being taken so far. I’m looking to publicise the problems here, but not to pile-on or attack Eve for her actions. I’m hoping this information is useful on many fronts:

  • Allies who would like to take an active role in the liberation of marginalized people,
  • Marginalized people who would be pulled into such projects without sufficiently informed consent,
  • Eve in making decisions about how she moves forward.

I’m not saying do or do not support her project but these are my own concerns as a transgender woman.

I found the original posting on social media via Sophie Labelle, creator of Assigned Male. She had just received this message from Eve and was passing it along to anyone interested:

Calling all writers! I’m looking for people to write original articles about body appearance and clothing, specifically about topics that trans people would be interested in, e.g. how-to’s on binding/tucking and what clothing styles work best with different body types. If you are interested, please e-mail REDACTED.

I’d be more interested in writing about the social expectations and perceptions than specific advice guides, but as I’m looking to get more into writing I was intrigued. I followed up via e-mail.

After a little bit of back and forth, I asked outright if the site would be trans-run. Eve’s response was disheartening. Emphasis is my own:

I am currently the only organizer of the site and I am cisgender. Everyone writing content is transgender and I’m hoping that as the site grows, my position might be lessened to just an administrator as others really take over. I would really like it if you have any advice for me or any input (about anything!) on the site. As I explored current websites (I studied gender in college), I noticed that most were for mtf or ftm and I thought there might be a need for a site for anyone exploring gender appearances instead of just those specific needs.

This is an important issue as there is a fine line between supporting a community outside your own and exploiting it. I had to know whether my contribution would be part of a trans-directed effort, and if part of a non-trans project whether it would be exploitative of its writers and audience. I responded as follows, again with emphasis added:

I’d suggest teaming up equally on administration / article decisions, etc. with at least one trans person so that there is more of a sense (and reality) that the resource is being provided by our own community. While outside help is great, and you are providing a platform, it bothers me that you’re directing the theme rather than asking trans people to direct the theme and providing your input and insight to them.

I’m glad you welcome advice and input, but that would be my input. Put trans people at the helm and support them in the message they want to send.

I did not receive a direct response to this email, though I did receive the followup Eve sent out to multiple people who had contacted her:

Thanks so much for your interest in writing about trans/non-binary body appearance and clothing! Right now I’m building and stockpiling content to be used on the website I’m starting. It’s overall goal is: To give trans* individuals safe and affordable access to and knowledge about body appearance.

I’m looking for articles that are in any way related to the above goal. It sounds as though all of you have different ideas and I’m really looking forward to seeing them develop. Since I am stockpiling to avoid an empty website, I appreciate any editorials that you have or are interested in. Once the site is actually running, I’m hoping that some writers will want to be regular contributors and some will be occasional contributors. For now, if you e-mail me your articles, I can start organizing them in broader categories.

If you have any thoughts on this, or anything at all, really, please let me know! This project is only going to succeed by a huge group effort and I would be thrilled if you shared any thoughts or advice with me.

I can’t pay anything now, but depending on how much traffic the site generates, there may be future compensation.

This statement does not seem to account for my suggestions.

In summary of the aspects which are an issue for me, and I suspect would be for many others if they were aware:

  1. The site is to be directed, operated, and edited by a cis person,
  2. The target audience for the site is not necessarily just trans people (a term I use inclusively), and
  3. Writers for the site will not be compensated.

Regardless of Eve’s intent, between those three points, I’m having a lot of trouble viewing this project as anything other than exploitative.

Edit: Eve responded to my last message to her with the following, so I’m hopeful this project can do more to involve trans people in its organization. I still read her intentions as well-meaning:

Thanks so much for your advice! I’ll definitely start looking for trans people who are interested in having stronger roles in the site’s development. If you have any other thoughts, please don’t hesitate to reach out.


Doing It Right

If you exist outside of a marginalized community and have the privilege and resources to launch a new venture in support of that community, you need to tread carefully to ensure your help is actually helpful. Below are some points I’ve thought up or have been shared with me on twitter (with credit). Eve may well be doing all of these to some extent, but these are all things she and others should continuously keep in mind when trying to be of service. I’ve linked relevant articles where applicable:

Listen

This point can’t be emphasized enough (@deirdresm brought this up threefold on Twitter). This goes beyond reading and appreciating what marginalized people have to say on a given topic. If you want to actively support them, you need to find out what their needs are from them. You need to find out from them how you can best serve their needs.

What we don’t need is a saviour. Melissa Harris-Perry covers this in point 5 of her ally primer (listed here by Zerlina):

Don’t see yourself as the Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. Or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. You are not the savior riding to the rescue on a white horse. Do notice that you are joining a group of people who are already working to save themselves.

Building a site that focuses on guidelines to gendered appearance may be what trans people want to write for. It may be of use to trans people. However, when someone on the outside is looking in to assess our needs and conceives of an idea to meet our needs that needs to be a collaborative undertaking. Without trans involvement in the concept and operation, you’re just marching in and opening up a mission. You might get local volunteers, but the mission is operating on your own bias and agenda, even when altruistic.

As an editor, you’re also playing the role of gatekeeper to the stories that may be told, and how and when they’re presented. There’s a very problematic power relationship at play when a venue ostensibly standing in support of a marginalized group is moderated by a member of a traditionally oppressive group on that intersection.

Boost the Signal

As an editor or operator of a site intended to support marginalized people, there is an imperative to relay the message of that group, unmolested. An editor who is not a member of that group may have blind spots due to privilege that prevent them from accurately distinguishing a message’s signal from its noise.

Simplified examples of this might be the science journal that is edited by a non-scientist, or the Jewish community newsletter edited by a Pure Land Buddhist. These are not perfect fits to the situation, but demonstrate a similar gap of knowledge and experience with the subject matter. This is not to say it’s an impassable void or that a bridge couldn’t be erected to allow for easier passage, but that it puts the editor at a loss each time they are confronted with a concept outside their experience.

In relation to trans issues, while an approximate understanding of our experiences through a cisnormative lens may be sufficient, editorial decisions still run the risk of silencing us and refactoring our narratives to suit a cisgender perspective. This is an enormous problem in the mainstream press, but should not be something we need to face in media that is built for us.

An example of gatekeeping of trans narrative from mainstream media is seen in this breakdown of Janet Mock’s interview with Piers Morgan in February 2014. Emphasis added:

People like Piers have dominated the news since news reporting came into existence; people like Janet have been continually marginalized structurally and live under constant threat of physical and psychological violence. This is a moment in television where the historically powerless are now taking power back and seizing control of their own narrative in order to benefit the audience (and specifically, as Janet puts it, to help girls like her growing up). However, Piers frames the interview not as a privilege on his behalf, but as a “gift” he has presented to Janet–as though by granting someone 20 minutes of airtime, he is the sole owner of their story…

…He acts like he’s trying to create spaces for marginalized people to speak out, but in reality, he’s limiting their ability to control their own narratives. What a hostile, exhausting environment for any transgender person who has dealt with other people’s assumptions about their identities their entire lives.

Keep the Focus on the Marginalized

In addition to making sure marginalized voices are involved in administration and editing, make sure you are not appropriating the platform or the work of marginalized people. The linked article by Julie Pagano explains this in depth but in short, do not speak for the needs of marginalized people and do not take credit for their efforts.

If a project sincerely exists to support a group of marginalized people, its director needs to ensure that they (singular) are not using the site to profit from the ongoing oppression of those people or their stories. Yes, it’s okay to earn an income while people are marginalized, but it’s not okay to earn an income from the efforts of that group while not offering them agreeable compensation. Future site profit structure and/or non-profit plans need to be wholly disclosed so marginalized people can fairly assess the value of their efforts.

Transgender people are counted among those who suffer the highest rate of un-/under-employment and generally live below the poverty line. It is critical that trans people be compensated for their effort and time (thanks to @Brynnhilda for the reminder).

I also have some hesitation about a site that encourages or allows the appropriation of uncompensated trans stories to the benefit of cis people. It’s not clear that is what’s being proposed, though it was unclear to me in our correspondence where Eve states “I noticed that most were for mtf or ftm and I thought there might be a need for a site for anyone exploring gender appearances instead of just those specific needs.” Later on she states, “It’s overall goal is: To give trans* individuals safe and affordable access to and knowledge about body appearance.” so perhaps in the first case she simply meant transgender people in and out of the gender binary.

Disclose Your Bias

It’s important when you are allying yourself with a group of marginalized people that you identify your status as an ally and ensure you are not misrepresenting yourself as an insider (thanks to @NireBryce who made this clear as day). As described above, appropriation is bad and this includes any credit where one is likely to assume you are speaking as a member of that marginalized group when you are not.

It’s a problem for me that I needed to ask Eve whether her site for trans people would be trans-run, but for many trans people that presents an impasse to their participation, and many who responded to her may not be making their decision to be involved with informed consent.


There are many more tips and tricks for being a good ally, but there is an enormous number of general-purpose allyship listicles online. Here are a few worth review: