Rain Khoo
Mar 8, 2024

Perspective: Why being trans is not the reason I'm a male ally

Rain Khoo, a former creative at Proctor & Gamble, shares his transition journey and what it means to be a male ally.

Perspective: Why being trans is not the reason I'm a male ally

As the father of two teenage daughters, I am acutely aware of the numerous places globally where my daughters may not be safe walking alone, could be burdened with an unequal portion of domestic responsibilities, or might encounter pay disparities stemming from unconscious biases.

Yet, my role as a dad is not the sole reason I advocate as a male ally.

I am a trans man who transitioned from female to male at 35. Following my transition, I noticed instances of male privilege, where individuals presumed competence in specific areas from me, necessitating reminders that these assumptions were made on the basis of unrelated expertise. 

Nevertheless, experiencing male privilege is not the underlying reason I support male allyship.

We have heard it so often it’s become numbing; the UN Women's 2023 report states that achieving gender equality will take an additional 286 years, with The World Economic Forum estimating a 132-year wait to close the global gender gap. As a practitioner in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) and a transgender advocate, I am especially conscious of other marginalised communities facing even greater barriers to equality.

However, competing over who has a more significant problem gets us nowhere. We must work towards equality—equal access to safety, healthcare, education, and decent work.

Which is why the reason I am a male ally is quite simple: It is the right thing to do when the majority of power still resides with men.

In the marketing industry, we significantly contribute to setting and maintaining beauty standards. This responsibility extends beyond beauty brands to include our decisions in casting, the celebrities and influencers we collaborate with, and even the flattering angles emphasised by photographers or makeup artists.

Although there has been increased representation across ethnicity, skin types, sizes, age, and gender expression in recent years, it is still insufficient when it’s not a de facto modus operandi (in fact, the standard way of operating).

Brands such as Fenty, Dove, and Mac Cosmetics that challenge conventional beauty norms are still in the minority. The prevailing promotion of unachievable beauty standards leaves many behind. Consider the individuals who only gained access to beauty products later in life and now have pockmarked skin, or those wondering if they must resort to lightening creams or laser treatments for aging pigmented spots to be deemed beautiful. 

Whitening products too, can reinforce societal discrimination in countries with darker-skinned populations by upholding the notion that lighter skin is more desirable, contributing to a hierarchy based on skin color. This can exacerbate social divides and foster internalised racism. Although we might not all have the capacity to affect the research and development process directly, we can identify and discuss these issues, thereby sparking important conversations around the subject.

Well-meaning ads featuring trans women perpetuate cis-normativity standards of beauty, which are inaccessible for most trans women. A cis-normativity standard is one where you can’t tell the trans woman model in your ad was assigned male at birth. When brand owners and marketers don’t reflect beauty as it naturally and healthily exists, it can create a desire for self-harm when you don’t see your authentic self being affirmed.

A trans woman may undergo multiple surgeries such as facial hair removal, tracheal shave, bottom surgeries, and facial feminisation—which includes cheek augmentation, rhinoplasty brow-lifting, lip-lifting, and breast augmentation—before they receive a mark of being “passable” as a woman.

Much of what we like or know is conditioned by our upbringing. If a child grows up experiencing diverse expressions of women and femininity being validated by society, such harmful expectations of female beauty may not arise. This includes the whole spectrum of female gender identities and expressions—cis, trans, gender-fluid, non-binary, intersex, agender, bigender, genderqueer—and those evolving alongside.

There are multiple unhelpful social expectations of the ideal woman, but this article is too short to cover more than one aspect. Our industry has the skills to tackle harmful systems of thought and perception seriously, creatively, and positively.

My mum is now in her mid-70s but remains in her forties in my mind’s eye. I don’t believe she needs make-up to be beautiful, even though she insists on spending an hour getting ready before leaving her home. I love her in a way that only Asian children might understand, and I am grateful to experience her love every weekend.

This nearly universal sentiment of loving our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends as they are could perhaps inform our industry’s role in gender equality: A vision of enabling our audience to see the ither as their own—or, in other words, to recognise kinship despite differences.

Rain Khoo has worked in design, branding and e-commerce for two decades and was the youngest design director at Procter & Gamble Asia at one point. He now runs his own consultancy, Dignité Brands.

Campaign Asia

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