What not to say to a patient, client, co-worker, friend of a friend, networking contact, first date, or other acquaintance who is transgender.
Has someone just come out to you as transgender? Are you nervous about what to say, now that you know this unusual fact about them? If you feel positively about trans people’s rights to express their identities, you may want to offer your support. Or perhaps you’re curious and would like to know more about this person’s life experience. What is the etiquette of talking about transgenderism with a trans person you don’t know very well?
The short answer is to employ the “Golden Rule” of doing to others what you’d have them do to you in their situation. But for many reasons, it’s scary for cis people to consider a trans person’s perspective. Even people who have experienced oppression, questioned their own gender, or have been educated in establishing trust and rapport with a variety of patients, don’t always know what to say to a trans person they’d like to get to know better, personally or professionally.
In fact, people in the caring professions have not usually had any training at all on transgender issues. There’s more information available on Wikipedia about transgenderism than the average health care professional has received in their whole career. Trans people should be especially aware of this as they seek out care providers for themselves. While this advice is for cis people, and especially care providers, trans people may want to read along to understand why these sorts of comments are so upsetting to hear, no matter who says them.
1. “It’s working.”
The doctor I saw to get refills on my testosterone prescription prodded me like a prize steer on my last visit and remarked, “You’re masculinizing nicely.”
Understand, no one has called me “ma’am” since 1999. That’s the year I grew my first goatee, joined a men’s chorus as a baritone, and had gender confirming surgery. Yet more than a decade later, I’m still reassured by well-intentioned but ignorant people that I pass.
2. “I never would have guessed.”
People might believe they’re being complimentary, or helpful, or are demonstrating acceptance when they say things to me like “Welcome to my gender” and “I never would have guessed.” But what they’re doing is assuming I need their gatekeeping and approval. Neither is true.
Any variation on “you pass” is a personal remark about someone’s body. And unless you are invited, it’s rude to offer your opinions.
3. “How to”
The first therapist I saw, in pursuit of “The Letter” that would get me hormones, surgery, and a male passport, gave me a steady stream of advice on how to hold my cigarette, how to sit, and so on, all of it unsolicited and unnecessary. Trans people learn how to be men or women from the people around them, just as cis people do: we don’t need special lessons.
People who assume I am looking for their approving remarks on how well I’m passing or how nicely I fit the masculine mold, or who assume I want advice on how to “do manhood” better, are objectifying me as a trans person. They have their ideas about gender, and what trans people need, and they treat me accordingly, without paying attention to what I’m actually like, or have asked from them. I’m just a trans person to them, not Justin.
4. “I couldn’t help but notice.”
Most of us already know that it’s rude to grab the handles of a wheelchair in order to push someone where you want them to go, or to touch someone’s hair uninvited to satisfy your curiosity about its texture. There are some rules for how we treat one another, in recognition of body sovereignty, not just for people with disabilities, or people of color, but for everyone. We teach our children that other people don’t get to touch them, and that you don’t touch people, without consent. We teach them not to stare at people who are different. And we also teach them that it’s rude to talk about other people’s bodies.
Just because you know I’m trans doesn’t mean you get to turn the conversation into a free Trans 101 seminar.
5. “You are so brave.”
If you want to make me feel good about myself, compliment me on my shirt. I picked it out this morning. Or even better, compliment my writing or my cooking, in which, unlike my collection of identical white T-shirts, I take genuine pride.
It’s rude to say things about how brave I must be to live my life, because the compliment requires an appropriate level of intimacy, and honesty, to be accepted as genuine. You can’t honestly compliment me on something that you don’t know and can’t guess.
6. “Let me ask you something.”
When we don’t know other people at all, it’s easy to treat them as if they exist only in the role in which we meet them. But it is objectifying to treat people as if they exist primarily to satisfy you somehow—to educate you, or to make you feel comfortable, or like you’re a good person. Unless you’ve hired them to do something specific, such as conduct a Trans 101 seminar or wait on your table, they don’t have to do anything for you, including answer your questions.
The problem is not that sometimes people ask dumb questions. It’s that some people feel entitled to explanations and to feeling at ease and like good citizens—and that rather than doing the work, themselves, other people should meet those demands, by default.
It’s not always possible to do the research before an opportunity presents itself, in the person of someone who knows something that interests you. If you feel the need to ask a “dumb” question, consider starting by asking the person whether it’s okay to ask a few questions about their expertise, and be prepared to accept “no” for an answer. Just as in any other conversation, pay attention to cues that you’re making your acquaintance uncomfortable, and change topics.
7. “What was your old name?”
Or worse, “What is your real name?” If you ask me this (and I have been asked), you’re asking me to tell you the name that I legally changed so that I’d have no more connection to it.
Before professional interviews, I tell them this is the one question that I will not answer. Every time I see in an article, “Samuel, who used be known as Jill … ” I realize that I am right not to tell reporters, because this is what they’ll do with it: use it as a sensationalist prop for their prose.
For many people, trans or cis, what’s in their pants and in their past, is private. If someone gives you permission to ask questions about their private lives, proceed with caution and respect, and thank them for the gift.
8. “I know your old name.”
I hated my old name for most of my life before I changed it. As a kid, I wrote a syndicated advice columnist about it, and she said that I would grow into it. Needless to say, I didn’t.
I’ve had old classmates show up on Facebook and act like they have the right to call me by that name because that’s the one they knew me by, back in the day. When people who knew me from before transition continue to use my old name and make no effort to use my current name, I’m offended; eventually, I refuse to speak to them.
9. “Have you had the full surgery?”
Asking people to explain their questions is always a good response to an unclear question.
I had a psychologist ask me this recently, as part of a history. I’d already told her what operations and illnesses I’d had in my life, so when she asked me this, I did what I usually do in such a situation, and asked her to explain what she meant by “the full surgery.” She got flustered and shut up, because she realized her question was based on a false assumption.
The process of transitioning from one gender to another takes time: years, not weeks. Every trans person has a different experience. Don’t assume anything. Consider asking, “What has your transition been like?” for a more meaningful response.
10. “You must know…”
I don’t know everything about being trans. I have opinions, but you have to know me to understand where those opinions come from. Don’t trust what I say because I’m trans. Google me and read what I, and others, have written on the subject. Talk to other people.
I also don’t know all the trans people. A friend jokes that “there are only six trans men in the world, and the rest is done with mirrors,” but it’s a joke. A doctor I used to see for head meds would tell me about some trans patient or other he’d seen in his career, every time I saw him. It never had anything to do with the reason for my visit. He wasn’t even treating me for GID. He was name dropping to impress me as the kind of enlightened doctor who talks to trans people all the time and it’s no big deal. He impressed me as an insecure windbag.
The good news is that most people don’t need my lessons on not being an inadvertent asshole to trans people. It’s very often the same kind of sensible advice that gets you through any situation where you’re a stranger in a strange land. Be respectful, considerate, curious, humble, compassionate, generous, and courageous. I know it’s not much as advice goes, but it will serve you in a wider variety of circumstances than meeting one of the six trans men in the world.
Baby foot in mouth image credit: AshleyNYCPics/Flickr