In my competency trainings and consultations for health professionals, I often get asked a flurry of questions about how best to work with transgender and nonbinary people. The tone that accompanies these inquiries is generally one of authentic concern. But sometimes it also shows a lot of underlying anxiety.
Naturally, as healers, yoga teachers are very invested in not harming their clients. With the swift rise in awareness of trans people and trans social issues, many professionals have become acutely aware that they lack the expertise needed to succeed with this population. This general lack of knowledge also means that harm could be caused without intent. They may fretfully wonder, “How many times have I already messed up?” And they hope that I, the trans and nonbinary “expert,” can tell them exactly what steps to take in order to never (ever!) hurt their clients again.
Unfortunately, there are no cookie-cutter answers. In each healing profession there are so many variables, so many unique situations where the gender binary appears, that it would be impossible to catalog each. On top of that, no two trans people are alike. What’s beneficial for one person or community may unsettle another. For example, the name “goddess” pose may be quite affirming in some contexts, and in others, an unhelpful essentializing of femininity.
That scope may feel overwhelming, but don’t let it turn you away from the work. The number one, most important way you can become a transgender and nonbinary ally is by educating yourself. Take the time to follow transgender issues in the news, read books authored by trans people, learn trans history, and connect with your local advocacy organizations. To help you on your journey, I’ve provided a list of 11 questions you can ask yourself (as well as your colleagues, studio, and community) about your relationship to transgender and nonbinary people. May this investigation be a starting point—a guide and an opening to a vision for a safer practice space for all.
1. Does the physical place where I teach provide safe spaces for transgender and nonbinary people to change, drink water, and use the toilets?
Let’s get back to basics! Are the changing rooms and/or bathrooms gendered “male” and “female”? Some folks don’t identify within the gender binary, so “male” and “female” labels automatically exclude them from the space. Can you create or advocate for gender-neutral areas? Studios and yoga spaces that are not able to degender bathrooms are sometimes able to make gender-neutral change areas (not ideal, but better than nothing). If you have binary gender areas, clearly indicate that these spaces are welcoming of transgender people (for example, “You are welcome to use the restroom that best fits your identity ⚧.”). Be sure that water is available outside of any gendered zones.
2. Are there any clear indications that my studio/practice space is LGBTQ2S+ friendly? What about my classes? What will my clients encounter upon arrival?
While it’s important to show your allyship with queer and trans people, only hang flags if you have assessed that the studio is actually a safer space. Are your front desk staff trained in LGBTQ2S+ issues? For example, might they look at someone and, assuming their gender and pronouns, tell “him” or “her” where to find the “male” or “female” bathroom? If so, it doesn’t matter how trans-friendly your personal class is! Beyond stickers and flags, having books, images, magazine, and workshops that reflect the interests of transgender and nonbinary people, as well as other excluded communities, can be affirming and shift away from a cisgender focus.
3. Do I actively advocate for LGBTQ2S+ people at work and in my everyday life? Do I read and educate myself regularly on experiences that are different from my own?
When you educate yourself, you are better equipped to be an effective and active ally to marginalized people. Speaking up against prejudice or challenging ciscentrism—which is the everyday favoring of cisgender experience and invisibilizing of trans people—takes practice. Take time to learn about the trans people who are disproportionately affected by violence and exclusion, such as transgender women of color. Be humble and step outside of your comfort zone.
4. Am I aware of the way that gender and bodily sex characteristics come into my cueing? Do I use language that is binary gendered, and when I do, am I making sure it’s not transphobic or focused on cisgender experience?
There are so many unexpected ways that gender and sex appear in cueing. For example, I have had teachers erroneously explain that bandhas (energy locks) are different for women and men based on genital shape. It's most useful to think critically about how gender may uniquely appear in the ways that you speak. Some common things to avoid when teaching yoga are referring to the class as “ladies” and/or “gentlemen,” assuming students’ pronouns, stereotyping masculine and feminine energy, assuming certain poses are easier for men or women, and referencing gendered items (such as “the bra strap”) as a bodily cue.
5. Am I able to easily ask others for their pronoun and easily provide mine? Can I use gender neutral pronouns like “they/them” without getting flustered?
The more we normalize giving and asking for pronouns, the less strange or clunky it will feel. Be sure to ask everyone for pronouns, not just those you perceive to be gender different. Avoid asking for “preferred” pronouns—most people don’t just prefer their pronouns. It’s a big part of identity! A great strategy is to start by offering your own pronoun. For example, “Hi, I’m Tobias and I use he/him pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”
6. Does my studio/practice space have a clear policy on transgender and nonbinary inclusivity? Is it accessible?
If you don’t have an inclusivity and equity policy, you can always advocate for trans and nonbinary people by requesting one be written. This policy can address many pertinent issues, such as the physical space, training for staff, language, hiring, and policies regarding exclusion and discrimination. Policy is a starting point for conversation, a commitment, and a standard guide for workplace decisions and outcomes.
7. Do transgender and nonbinary people come to my classes? Do they teach any classes at my studio/where I teach?
Representation matters and acts as a mirror for the studio’s internal culture. Take a look around. Ask yourself who’s present and who is in a position of leadership. That said, while you make this assessment, you must keep in mind that many transgender and nonbinary people will not be visible by appearance. Targeted offerings, such as queer and trans BIPOC classes or workshops, are one way to challenge the stereotypical yoga studio demographics.
8. Do I teach any classes that equate people’s bodies to their gender identity (for example, prenatal classes “for women”)? Does my studio/practice space have these offerings?
This is another example that has too many variations to fully document. I have seen menstrual classes for women, birthing classes that center heterosexual couples, pelvic floor workshops that assume all women have vaginas and all men have penises. Remember that someone’s gender does not necessarily line up to the shape of their primary and secondary sex characteristics, nor with their reproductive capacities.
It can be wonderful to design a workshop specifically for women or men, but you need to ensure that space includes trans people. Ask yourself: Why am I creating this gendered space? Am I creating exclusions based on my own comfort level or knowledge? For example, if your workshop is about menstruation, it could be a workshop “for people who menstruate.” If your workshop is about creating a meditative healing space for people who face gender inequity, it could be a “meditation workshop for women (trans women included), transgender, and nonbinary people.” That said, each situation is unique, and doing your research or hiring a consultant will garner the best results.
9. How are my students able to establish consent around touch and hands-on assists? Are there any barriers to their communication?
Teaching trauma-informed, consent-based yoga classes can build trust and safety with communities that face continued oppression—which is a form of “everyday trauma.” Make use of consent cards, be consistent in your communication, and be nondirective in your approach. You can learn more about my thinking on building a culture of consent on the Yoga Talk Podcast.
10. What happens when I receive hard feedback—for example, if I am told that I used the wrong pronoun for someone? Am I able to remain calm and nondefensive?
Self-regulation is key when approaching a difficult conversation where we might be asked to take accountability for harm caused. If you misgender someone, take a breath, apologize, and move on with the conversation using the correct pronouns. When we feel guilty, there is a tendency to unintentionally monopolize the conversation: “Oh my gosh, I am sooooo sorry…I really didn’t mean to…I’m usually really good about pronouns…I hope I didn’t hurt you…will you ever forgive me? (!!!)…I have a good friend who is trans…” Use your feelings as good information for personal growth, but don’t expect more labor from the person you harmed.
11. How do I respond to my student’s difference from myself? How do I feel about it internally? How do I express it externally?
This one is related to number 10. Do your internal homework. For example, you may take a moment to notice how you reacted to different sections of this article. Did you become defensive, fearful, excited, bored, angry, or relieved? Become very curious about your feelings, naming them and studying their layers.
The more accountable you hold yourself in your inner life, the more you will be able to make mindful decisions regarding your outer words and actions. Defense mechanisms function as a part of our unconscious, aiming to protect us from perceived threats—and those “threats” can simply be something we don’t quite understand (or that society has taught is a threat). When we haven’t worked through those internal conflicts, they can be expressed without our knowledge through behavior, microaggressions, avoidance, perceptions, and emotion. Taking personal responsibility is a huge, and completely attainable, step.
Lead image via The Gender Spectrum Collection. Photographer: Zackary Drucker