In the summer of 2015, at a family event I was attending, a family member brought up a recent debate over the right of transgender people to use their bathroom of choice. She said she didn’t understand why transgender people were so unhappy about identifying with their birth gender; she added how much she loves being a woman and takes pride in her gender identity. It only took a few minutes of conversation for us to understand she didn’t know what being transgender meant, and it only took a short time after that to help her understand transgender identity and to shift her attitude on the subject. Her ignorance was much of the problem.
Such ignorance regarding gender identity is not uncommon. Transgender identity tends to make many cisgender people uncomfortable–even once they hear the definition. As with my family member, transgender identity might not make sense to them. Doesn’t everyone identify with their birth gender? Female body parts, female brain, right? The idea that it doesn’t always work that way, that something they had once assumed was a universal truth was false for an estimated 1.4 million people in the United States as of 2016, can be disorienting and alarming. These emotions may be experienced by cisgender heterosexual people who don’t understand transgender identity. Moreover, in another way, individuals who do not identify with their birth sex may have difficulty recognizing at first how the word “transgender” may apply to them.
Resources such as Terri and Vince Cook’s Allies & Angels: A Memoir of Our Family’s Transition are invaluable to helping those who are even the slightest bit perplexed, uncomfortable, or confused by transgender experiences. The book, which followed the Cook family supporting their son, Drew, through his transition, holds very little back from the reader in honestly communicating everything about their lives. They are open about trials and victories alike, challenges from outside, Drew’s personal struggles, and those within their family. But most importantly, they are honest about their learning process.
While much of the book reads like a memoir, it frequently breaks from their family’s narrative to explain things they learned through their experience. The style could be characterized as a conversational textbook. For example, in the chapter “Converging on the Truth,” the authors conclude by explaining the intricacies of sexual and gender identity. Frequently, anyone who identifies as non-heterosexual and non-cisgender usually gets lumped into one umbrella group defined by not aligning with these two identities. They explain that they see four elements to sexual and gender identity: sex (biological organs), gender identity (how you define your gender), gender expression (to what societal norms you present your gender), and sexual orientation (to whom and how you are sexually attracted to others). None of these are fixed or determined by any other element, meaning there are millions of unique combinations that may make up a single person’s sexual and gender identity. The Cooks take the time to explain each one to the reader, speaking to them directly using “you” language.
The Cooks also make certain to explain that this book is not meant to present a singular transgender experience or sole resource for people and families going through their own transitions. Drew’s experience is unique to him, and while there may be many similarities to others’ experiences in finding their identities, others’ stories may be very different. There is no singular “transgender experience,” but they hope, by telling their story, to invite the reader to be humbled and learn to build a bridge of understanding and affirm to people that they are not alone in their fears, questions, and emotions, whether they be transgender themselves, supporting someone in transition, or someone who wants to learn to be a better ally.
I, personally, am not transgender. I don’t know anyone that is openly transgender to me. I would be lying if I hadn’t asked some of the same questions the Cooks did over the course of their journey and hadn’t thought or said things I wish I hadn’t in retrospect. I haven’t always been the best ally I could be. The Cooks address allies directly in their conclusion, telling them fear and ignorance are natural and understandable, but not an excuse. They explain:
And so we’ve shared our fears, hoping it will be a step toward ending both the real and imagined things we fear. It is frightening and uncomfortable to be so vulnerable, but we, as parents, are getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Transgender people and other marginalized groups have been unjustly uncomfortable for far too long.
They ask for the compassion to understand that the discomfort a non-transgender person has experienced regarding transgender people will never compare to the fears, confusion, and discomfort experienced by transgender individuals. They implore the reader to remember that when becoming an ally.
The authors’ honesty and openness about their transition is a gift to the reader, who can learn compassion and empathy through their experience. The humility to listen, learn, and respect the experiences, journeys, and identities of those you meet is essential to supporting groups being oppressed because of ignorance.
 Bill Chappell, “1.4 Million Americans Identify as Transgender in America, Study Says,” NPR, June 30, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/06/30/484253324/1-4-million-adults-identify-as-transgender-in-america-study-says
 Terri and Vince Cook, Allies and Angels: A Memoir of Our Family’s Transition (Marcellus, NY: Hallowed Birch Publishing, 2013), 88-95.
 Cook, Allies and Angels, 191.