It’s the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which I wrote about the other day. I thought I’d share “Joel’s Helpful Hints to Keep From embarrassing Yourself” for non-trans people.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not trans. And I didn’t ask any trans person to review this, so it may be full of you know what. So take this with a grain of salt and defer to actual trans people when they disagree with me!
A lot of people want to do the right thing, they want to show acceptance of others. But, just like in the autistic community, there’s some things that people do to do that demonstrate a lack of awareness of things important to trans people. So I’ll give some hints as (hopefully) an ally. I’m going to assume you’re not a blatant bigot and that you want to be a decent person, so I’m not going to explain why terms like “it”, “shemale”, “tranny”, etc, are offensive. If you don’t get that, do some Googling and come back when you figure it out.
1. Don’t assume all trans people feel the same way about terms, gender, or anything else. Gender identity is a key part of all of our identities (including non-trans people), which means there’s deeply held ideas, concepts, and identities that may vary between people. Some trans people, for instance, hate the word “transgender” used as an umbrella term that includes “transsexual” (they might ask – are they trans-sex or trans-gender, as sex and gender are different, see the next point; defer to an individual before making assumptions). I use the term “trans” in this post because of this but others use different terms, and it’s ALWAYS the right thing to defer to someone else’s terms when referring to them.
2. Sex and gender aren’t the same. Gender is not the polite way of referring to a person’s sex, nor is sex a dirty word! Sex is biology, gender is identity and/or expression. Some people use the terms male/female to refer to sex, and man/woman to refer to gender. Others might use different conventions. There’s a variety of conventions for people that don’t fit the binary in either category.
3. There’s no one set of right pronouns for everyone. For instance, don’t use ze (or variants) to refer to a trans person unless you know that is that person’s preferred pronoun. Many trans people believe they do fit the binary system, just not in the way that they were assigned at birth. It’s insulting to them to put them in a different category (not “he” or “she”, but a third or fourth or fifth category), particularly because of the pain many have experienced of being placed in the wrong category. Of course I’m talking about people that don’t expressly identify as not either “he” or “she” – if someone doesn’t identify as “he” or “she”, listen to them.
4. If you get someone’s pronouns wrong, or otherwise misgender them, and are corrected, accept the correction and say you are sorry. Don’t ever try justifying your mistake – things like, “it’s hard to tell” or imply that it’s an easy mistake. Just apologize and say you are sorry, the move on. But make sure to use the right pronouns going forward! If you don’t know what pronouns to use (in other words, aren’t 100% sure), try using the person’s name. You won’t go wrong there. And if you want extra points as an ally, correct others when they get it wrong (you’ll lose points and demonstrate you’re not an ally when you don’t speak up).
5. Don’t ever disclose for someone else. If you’re asked to tell people by the trans person, feel free to do so in the way you were asked. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut. This is not a topic to gossip about. And, no, you don’t come across as “more accepting” or “more progressive” because you talk about your trans friends, outing them in the process. When you tell someone about your friend, it’s not important to say that he’s trans.
6. No, you really don’t have any business talking about their genitals, asking about their genitals, trying to figure out what genitals they have, expressing curiosity about their surgical status, etc. This is even true if you think you’re asking it in a disguised way, trying to watch what bathroom or shower they use, talk about how you don’t understand why someone who is a (insert gender here) would want to have sex with someone who had a (insert genital description here). Yes, people do ask that kind of stuff. But it’s not your business. If they feel you are someone who should know, they’ll tell you. Otherwise you don’t need to know. If most people asked or talked about my genitals, it would be considered rude and creepy. That wouldn’t change if I was trans. Don’t be rude and creepy.
7. Not everyone considers “trans” to be permanent. Many people that once identified as trans no longer do, feeling that they have transitioned to their new gender. Once transitioned, they are simply a man or woman. They aren’t a different category of trans. Others keep the identity. Respect people’s choices.
8. Most trans people that identify as a man or woman want to be seen as a man or a woman, not a TRANSman or TRANSwoman. There are lots of people brave enough, or required because of circumstances, to publicly acknowledge that their birth gender assignment doesn’t match who they are. But it’s still respectful to treat them like any other man or woman. And that goes double for someone who doesn’t want to be seen as something other than a man or woman. So treat them as a man or woman (obviously I’m talking about people who identify in the binary here, not people who don’t). Likewise, it’s not important to always distinguish yourself from trans people – don’t constantly refer to yourself as a non-trans/cisman/ciswoman/cismale/cisfemale or similar when the situation doesn’t warrant it – all that does is reinforce the difference (certainly there are times to disclose you aren’t trans, such as when you are speaking as an ally and it’s important to let people know that actual trans people’s views are more important – but using this terminology in other settings can make people feel they either have to lie or disclose something about themselves that they don’t want to disclose – that they aren’t cis-whatever).
9. A trans person may be “out” as their true gender in some situations without being out in others. If the person is using a different name and pronouns in a different setting then when you met them, they may have an important reason to use that name and set of pronouns. Respect that. Their livelihood, family, or other things may depend upon it.
10. Trans people are more than gender identities and genitals. While many are very interested in talking about gender and their own experiences, everyone likes to be seen as a whole person!
11. No, having some masculine or feminine traits that don’t fit your gender does not make you trans! It’s about identity – nobody is perfectly masculine or feminine. If you are trans, feel free to relate. But if you are not trans – even if you have some non-typical traits – that doesn’t mean you have had the same experience. Your experience is valuable, but it’s not the same and can’t be directly compared.
12. On stereotypes: there’s more to transwomen than beautiful models. And more to transguys than muscular hunks. Non-trans women don’t need to wear dresses and extravagant hairdo. They don’t need to avoid “man” hobbies like restoring cars. They can be a woman who likes to get her hands dirty. So can transwomen. Too often, only ultra-stereotypical trans people are shown on TV and the media. Not every trans person could pass as a model (for women) or hunk (for men), nor should they have to. Nor do you have to go out of your way to tell a transwoman she’s beautiful or a transman he’s masculine. If it would sound funny saying “you’re a beautiful wonderful princess beauty pageant model” to a non-trans person, it still sounds weird when you say it to a trans person, even if you think it makes you look accepting and progressive! It’s fine to compliment people, certainly. But you don’t need to overdo it to show you see them as a woman or a man.
13. Being “supportive” by saying “I see you as a woman” or “I see you as a man” might be a bit (or a lot) insulting to some people. Nobody tells non-trans people these things! They don’t have to. They just treat non-trans people according to their gender. Actions speak much louder than words in this case. “I see you as a woman” can be rephrased to “I see you as ALMOST a woman.” Wouldn’t it be better just to treat that person as a woman?
14. Not every non-trans person is straight. Nor is every trans person straight. If a transwoman (that is, a woman that wasn’t fortunate enough to have been assigned female at birth) is attracted to women, she’s like any other woman attracted to women: she’s a lesbian. Likewise for transmen attracted to men – he’s gay. Insulting follow-up questions to this are anything along the lines of “if you’re attracted to women, why did you feel you needed to transition” or “but a man has better parts for sex with women” or anything similar. If you wouldn’t tell most lesbians or gay guys that, you shouldn’t tell a lesbian or gay guy that happens to be trans that, either. Finally, if a transwoman is attracted to men, she’s straight. And a transman attracted to women is straight. You don’t have to be gay to be trans (but you can be)!
15. Speaking of sex – unless you are in an intimate relationship with a trans person, generally it’s not considered polite to ask how that person has sex. Once again, if you wouldn’t ask a non-trans person that question, you shouldn’t ask the trans person that question. Nor the related questions of “how are you going to have a kid” if the person says they want to have a child – once again, that’s personal and generally invasive (and, frankly, probably doesn’t need to be asked if you actually have a reason to need to know – you’ll already know).
16. If you’re curious about surgeries, gender identity expression, or other general transgender topics, how trans people have sex, or any number of other things, there’s this wonderful thing called the internet. I assure you it is on the internet somewhere. You can find out without embarrassing yourself by insulting someone!
17. Once again, actual trans people override any of the above thoughts of mine. Defer to them. Always. Using “correct” language to refer to someone while ignoring what someone tells you is pretty much exactly the opposite of respect.
It’s not a big deal. If you treat people like they want to be treated, accept that you might be wrong, and leave your need to be seen as a progressive or understanding or accepting person behind, you’ll do fine.