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'It’s unforgiveable to not be woke to the issues facing the people we work with'

Felicity Allman
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I would like to preface this piece by being clear that I am a cisgender female, and speak as an ally, rather than a member of the transgender community. 

I supported a close friend to transition against the wishes of his family over 10 years ago, so this a cause dear to my heart.

As nurses, we are instructed (and expected) to empathise, to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we’re working with.

Sometimes they are experiencing something that you can relate to, but sometimes we must be honest and admit that we have no idea what they’re going through, but we will stand alongside them and advocate for them regardless. I have frequently found that that stops when it comes to trans matters.

I understand that new terminology can be difficult to adopt, and that people worry about using the wrong word: is this person non-binary or gender-fluid, and is it offensive to mix those up? Is asexual the same as agender and, if it is, why do we need two words for it?

“It’s okay to be unsure, and often the best thing to do is to ask”

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I have a few words of advice from friends and patients for whom these issues directly apply:

It’s okay to be unsure, and often the best thing to do is to ask. Mislabelling someone is likely to cause far more offence than asking how they identify – I would like my veterinary surgery to take note of that, the next time they send a letter to Mr Felicity Allman.

Sexuality and gender are not the same thing. They are related, but being attracted to a given gender does not change your own gender. This conflation is a troubling side effect of awareness courses and leaflets that include terminology relating to both gender and sexuality.

There is no jumping on the bandwagon happening here. If the words are new to you, it doesn’t mean they are new to everyone and certainly doesn’t mean the phenomena are new. 

Ignorance is not an excuse. If you don’t know the words that someone uses to identify themselves, that does not mean their identity is invalid. As nurses we work with people, and some people are trans.

I have challenged nurses when trans people have been admitted and they’re giving handover: ”He or she presents with…” or ”I don’t know if they’re a trans man or a trans woman”.

Trans terminology 101: however the person identifies, that’s the word you use. My schoolfriend who was born female but transitioned to become male is a trans man. Or just a man, because does it really matter what his genitals looked like in childhood?

Deliberate ignorance around transgender matters smells like fear to me. And if that’s fear of making a mistake, please take some time to educate yourself.

I recently attended an event run by the brilliant organisation Not Alone Plymouth and, even though I considered myself fairly knowledgeable on the subject beforehand, I learnt so much. It was intensely liberating to be given permission to ask any question, but most trans people I know or work with are pretty happy to answer genuine questions.

As nurses, for whom empathy is an enormous part of our own identities, it’s unforgiveable to not be woke to the issues facing the people we work with. So go out and get woke to trans matters, because trans people matter.

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