How to tell someone you know they’re being transphobic

person wearing a trans pride flag

Transphobia is the fear or dislike of a person, or a group of people, because they are non-binary or transgender (or are perceived to be so.) 

Transphobia consists of three main parts: stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. This means transphobia manifests in a range of behaviours, such as:

  • Making derogatory jokes
  • Deliberately and repeatedly ignoring an individual’s identified pronouns 
  • Calling a transgender or non-binary person their birth name or name they used prior to transitioning (this is known as deadnaming)
  • Denying or disputing the validity of a trans or non-binary person’s experience
  • Not allowing a trans person to use a changing room designated for their gender
people hold pro-trans rights signs

Risk to human rights

However it shows up, the consequence of transphobia is that trans people are less free to live openly and comfortably in society. This means transphobia is a risk to human rights.

Amnesty International stands with trans and non-binary people around the world to help protect their rights and freedoms. In 2017, we celebrated the passing of a new law reforming the legal recognition of gender identity in Greece. In 2022, we stood with transactivists Yren and Mariana in Paraguay as part of Amnesty’s annual Write for Rights Campaign.

We all have a responsibility to stand up against transphobia if we want to build a more inclusive society. But it can be hard to know how to respond when someone you know says something transphobic or behaves in a way that could harm trans people.

Here are five tips for trans allies to call out harmful actions and attitudes in a constructive way.

people hold pro-trans signs

1. Clarify their stance

Sometimes people say things they don’t mean, or in a way that miscommunicates their intention. If someone says something that you think is transphobic, ask them to first explain their perspective. See this guide from Gender Minorities Aotearoa for more advice on how to spot transphobia.

2. Have a private conversation, not a public confrontation

Putting people on the spot in public can make them more defensive. It is often better to call someone into a constructive conversation than to call them out publicly. Try taking them aside or talking to them later if you are in a group context.

3. Use ‘I’ statements

Rather than saying, “you’re being transphobic!”, start by expressing how their comments make you feel. For example, “I feel uncomfortable about that sentiment”, or “I don’t think that is a respectful thing to say.” 

Then, try explaining why their words or actions might be harmful. Try, “I think that joke is discriminatory” or, “I don’t believe your actions uphold the rights of that person.”

people carry trans rights flags

4. Share experiences

Amplifying the voices of transgender people is a key part of being a good ally. Personal stories are also the best way to build empathy towards a group or individual. Try: “I read a great essay by a transgender person. They said that...”

5. Think about language

Remember that your words have the potential to dehumanise people, even if you’re trying to combat someone else’s harmful speech. Referring to groups with collective nouns, like “trans people” or “Boomers”, can risk reinforcing stereotypes and obscure the personal experiences that help us relate to one another.

Try focusing on individuals in your language. For example: “How do you think that person would feel about being excluded?”

Keep these points in mind when trying to address transphobia:

  • Check if they’re really being transphobic by clarifying what they meant.
  • Call them in, don’t call them out.
  • Speak from your perspective using “I” statements
  • Read, watch and share stories of lived experience from trans and non-binary people.
  • Choose your words carefully and avoid making generalisations.