Guest Blogger

Trans Allies and My Treaty of the Heart

Filed By Guest Blogger | January 26, 2015 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: allies, being a better ally, Diego Sanchez, guide, personal stories, PFLAG, straight allies, trans allies, transgender allies

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Diego Miguel Sanchez is Director of Policy for PFLAG National. A native of Augusta, GA and long-time Massachusetts resident, Sanchez was most recently Senior Policy Advisor to Congressman Barney Frank. Diego made history with that appointment being the first openly transgender person to work as a senior legislative staff member on Capitol Hill. Prior to his years in government and the nonprofit sector, Diego worked in corporate global public relations, marketing, and diversity management at numerous Fortune 500 companies.


I am a 57-year old adopted transsexual Latino man. I was born female in Germany and transitioned to male in my 20s, 30s and 40s -- socially, medically, and legally. I grew up as an Army brat around the world, spending my most formative years in the Panama Canal Zone's Fort Gulick.

Growing up in the tropics was wondrous and overflowing with nature. I stealthily peered from my second-floor bedroom window nightly watching anteaters dig. I cherished the daytime sky as it filled with orange and black monarch butterflies on their annual flight. Shirtless at the beach, playing with walking sticks, chasing iguanas and watching for spider monkeys, sloths and snakes in the jungle's trees enthralled me.

diego-sanchez-headshot.jpgI felt lucky, and my parents said that being close to nature was a gift. Everything in nature made sense to me -- except for me.

In 1961, at age five, I told my parents I was born wrong -- that I felt like a boy inside, and it was scary. I told Mom first, and when I did, she said nothing and left the room. I thought, "I am going to get a spanking," and sat quietly with my heart pounding. I was wrong; Mom returned, holding a magazine that she had saved for years with Christine Jorgensen on the cover.

She told me, as she flipped pages showing more photos, that she didn't know if there were other people like me -- girls who felt like boys -- but this woman was born a boy, felt like a girl, grew up as a man, and was able to become herself, a woman, later in life. Mom told me that by the time I grew up, it would be okay. That evening, we both told Dad; he said we could talk about it.

From that time, my parents dually socialized me, gently and privately. But it was our secret, and they did their very best to embrace me and keep me safe in a dangerous, ignorant world. Mom prepared me for life as girls are expected to be, and Dad taught me lessons that boys needed to become men. It was rough.

As I testified before Congress in 2008 at the historic transgender employment discrimination hearing, I had as many tutus as Tonka trucks, and I survived the former because of the latter. My parents always gave me hope -- and my positive outlook on life, despite painful hardships, is the fruit of that loving labor. Mom was mostly right; it's okay for me these days.

While I didn't have clear language to describe my childhood self, neither did I have a worthy description of my parents. My mother was an East German orphan and a World War II concentration camp survivor, and my father, a career U.S. Army and World War II veteran, was in the unit that freed Mom and delivered her to safety, saving her life.

Today I realize that my parents, who chose me in a German orphanage because I was the infant closest to death with measles, saved my life more than once -- first in diapers, later as a five-year old, and over and over again for the rest of their lives. They were my first allies, the ones who always had my back, who taught me to have courage, to honor my convictions and to celebrate joy in everyday life. I am alive today because of their love and allyship.

Realizing this made me think about when I first learned the word "allies." It dates back to grade school, learning about World War I's Allied and Associated Powers, and World War II, when the U.S. was among the Allied Powers (Allies). These were nations drawn together by various treaties, committed to protect themselves and each other against nations attempting to harm any of them.

For me, the link between how the World War Allies bonded and how my own allies and I bond calls out for something that I have never heard discussed: the commitment to accept familial support in a Treaty of the Heart.

Helping People Become Trans Allies

What inspired me to think of this is the guide to being a trans ally, a new publication from PFLAG National's Straight for Equality™ project. This gentle, effective, detailed guide helps aspiring and current allies to trans people -- whether LGBTQ folks themselves or their parents, partners, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, mentors, neighbors, or service providers -- learn how to become or improve as an ally of trans people across the spectrum of gender identity or expression.

trans-ally.jpgIt is true to PFLAG's decades-long approach to meeting people where they are, and honors the instructive model for which Straight for Equality™ is so valued by so many. The guide to being a trans ally isn't called a treaty, but after reading it, I am making it mine.

This kind of treaty among allies grants people wiggle room to make unintended mistakes on the path to learning. It carves out space for allies to correct errors when the intention was to be an ally. Unwritten though, is that I hear it call for me, as a transman, to honor allies back with respectful understanding when they are learning and sometimes make unintentional boo-boos.

When this is my promise to allies, then they can feel confident and comfortable as they learn. The alternative is to surround myself with allies who must walk on eggshells during instructive opportunities. I don't want that.

I'm not saying that my parents or other allies always got it "right," or that growing up was painless. I can't forget the time that Mom said her pet name for me while I was trying on a suit in a department store. When I heard "Little Mama, how is that suit fitting?," I hid in the dressing room for 45 minutes to make sure the crowd recycled before exiting. My blood pressure rose and my heart dropped, but those actions didn't erase the intended love. They just unintentionally upset me, and I survived.

seed-sprouting-growing.jpgI became a collegiate scholar and athlete, successful corporate executive, celebrated legislative appointee, and accomplished community leader because my folks and other allies walked with me, stumbled, got up, and tried walking again, just like I did and do. We all had to give each other a second chance, and sometimes a third.

It seems to me that placing an imaginary interrogation light on allies as they seek to learn risks closing off their hearts while they engage only their brains to get every word, query, remark, and action perfect the first time. I learn best when free to absorb without fear of retaliation for erring on occasion.

I want allies to feel that same freedom, so I grant them space to learn. I keep my heart open so that I can teach from a place of love, exercising and honoring my Treaty of the Heart with allies.

It might require a "time out," but it takes time and trust to enact and honor a Treaty of the Heart among allies, even between my allies and me. And for the moments in between, I'll stay ready to share the guide to being a trans ally because I'm confident that all allies -- whether prospective, new, or improving -- will treasure this gem as I do.

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