Trans*forming the Dialogue: the DO’s and DON’Ts of talking to trans* people

I am participating in Transforming the Dialogue, Simmons College’s Online MSW Program’s campaign to promote an educational conversation about the transgender community. By participating in this campaign, I will be offering my perspective on what TO ask and what NOT to ask transpeople.

 


First off, what are some general do’s and dont’s when asking a trans*person about their experiences?

I’ll keep it simple:

  1. DON’T be an asshole.
  2. DO try to keep an open mind.
  3. DON’T talk about things you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else. Would you ask your grandma about the state of her vagina? No? Then don’t ask a transwoman about the state of hers.
  4. DO recognize your privilege.

 


What are 2 – 3 questions (or as many as you like) that one should NOT be asking a transgender person?

  1. Are you a boy or girl? Or worse, are you male or female?

This question may seem innocent enough, but it can be hard for some transgender persons to answer.  For one, what are you actually asking? Do you want to know how the doctors identified us when we came out of the womb? Are you actually interested in who we are as persons, or are you just trying to figure out what’s in between our legs?

For non-binary trans* people, the question becomes even more complicated as they might not find either option sufficient to describe themselves. By asking this question point-blank, you force trans* people to put a label on themselves while trying to figure out what you’re really asking.

  1. Did you get the surgery yet?

The first thing to note here is that surgery is a very intimate life decision. Not every trans* person gets “the surgery” – or “the surgeries” in the case of trans men – and certainly no one is obliged to. In asking someone about the status of their surgery, you’re asking them to reveal their medical history, major life choices, level of dysphoria, and state of their genitals. none of which should be open to the public.

I think peoples’ obsession with genital surgery points to a deeper problem with our gender worldview. For so many people, being a man means having a penis and being a woman means having a vagina. This simple genital binary ignores the biological and social complexity of gender. The truth is a transgender woman’s gender identity is female whether she has the surgery or not. She doesn’t “become” a woman by “changing” her sex; she was already a woman but now she can hopefully experience greater harmony between her gender identity and genital morphology.

  1. What are you like in bed?

Trans* persons aren’t sexual curiosities, we’re people. This question ignores our personhood and treats us as a sexual flavor to be sampled.

  1. Biting rhetorical questions like:
    Do you think God makes mistakes? What are you doing with your life? Don’t you think peoples’ reactions to you are justified? Aren’t you ashamed? Do you think your friends will really stand by you? Won’t it be hard finding a significant other as a transgender person? Don’t you know you don’t have a womb? Don’t you know you have a penis? Don’t you know you’ll always be a facsimile of a true woman?

Simply put, only ask questions you genuinely want an answer to, and don’t be an asshole. We don’t need reminders that being trans* is difficult. Believe me, we know.


What are 2 – 3 questions (or as many as you like) that one SHOULD be asking a transgender person?

  1. What are your preferred pronouns?

Unlike asking if we’re male or female, asking our preferred pronouns acknowledges us as persons. Most trans* people will not be offended if you ask them how they want to be referred to. And most of the time (but not all), simply knowing their pronoun preference will tell you their gender. If a transwoman wants to go by feminine pronouns, chances are she wants to be treated as a lady. If a transman wants to go by masculine pronouns, chances are he’s presenting as a man. Pronoun preference is an easy, safe way to answer the questions you may be asking about our gender.

  1. How are you doing?

Obviously do NOT just go up to a random trans* person and ask them about their feelings, as that would be intrusive (duh). However, if you have a transgender friend, it’s always worthwhile to let them know you care. Some trans* people go a very long time without simple affirmations. Just because we put up with lots of shit every day doesn’t mean we feel strong. It’s nice to have people in our lives who are more interested in our feelings, hopes, and dreams than in the status of our genitals.

  1. How can I help?

This is the basic question every trans* ally needs to ask of themselves, and then once they’ve committed to changing the world for the better, they need to make sure to check in with actual trans* people. Too often well-intentioned allies set out to help the trans* cause but end up acting contrary to trans* people’s best interests. The movie Dallas Buyer’s Club is a great example. The film praised itself for being supportive of trans* people, but its portrayal of us was so far from reality that it ended up doing more harm than good. So if you’re going to help change the world, make sure you listen to our stories and learn where our needs are.

 

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