How to Stop Being Performative and Genuinely Help Trans People
Focus on the medical, legal, and economic disparities trans people face — not the pronouns in your bio.
Recently, I was dismayed to read this article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, examining how companies benefit when their employees list pronoun in their bios. The paper really encapsulates the disjoint between trans folks’ medical and economic needs, and cis folk’s vested interest in turning trans allyship into a personal and corporate branding effort.
Study authors Johnson, Pietri, Buck, and Daas found that when employees at an organization listed their pronouns in their bios, cisgender participants felt more positively toward the organization, and were more likely to believe it was a safe place for LGBTQ folks. In two follow-up studies that included trans participants, this effect was found to hold regardless of whether the company merely encouraged employees to list their pronouns, or required them to do so.
I saw a lot of cis people spreading this study around online, presenting it as proof that listing pronouns is a meaningful act of trans inclusion. But there are several massive problems with the paper’s methodology, and with how people have interpreted its conclusions. And examining these problems really gets to the heart of a widespread issue in social justice circles today: allies devote far too much attention to signaling that they are safe, rather than taking concrete steps to help marginalized groups in a material way.
The first and most glaring issue with this paper is that in the first study, the attitudes of transgender people were not measured at all. Only cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were recruited. In other words, the study found that pronoun listing, a symbolic act of trans inclusion, made non-trans people view a company more positively. This is the equivalent of asking straight employees how they feel about a company’s same-sex domestic partnership benefits. Who the hell cares? Why would you even ask? If these interventions are genuinely intended to help trans people, trans people should be the respondents you recruit. So right out the gate, the authors of the paper have unwittingly shown their hand: they care about how…