Whenever you meet a trans* individual for the first time it is normal to have questions. It is normal to be curious about something you do not know. If you just met them though, then do not ask anything deep and personal that you would not ask any other person you just met. For those of you who have a friend or loved one, it is normal to make mistakes and accidentally ask offensive questions if you are not really educated on trans* issues. In order to help you out so you do not offend any trans* friends or loved ones (or even trans* people you just met), here are some questions that you want to avoid. Just remember that just like any other group of people, trans* individuals are all different and have different boundaries. Just because you asked a trans* person one of these questions and they were not offended does not mean that the next one will not be.
1. ”So…What exactly do you have down there?’ or “Have you had the surgery?”
I feel like this one should be obvious, but you would be surprised how many people ignore common social courtesy around trans* individuals. NEVER ask a trans* person about their genitals. It is considered rude and inappropriate to do it to anyone else, and it is still rude when the person is trans*. Unless you are about to become intimate with a trans* person, or you are a doctor treating a trans* patient for something that is relevant to their genitals, then it is none of your business. If you get close enough to a trans* person, they might talk about it with you, but let it be on their terms and when they want to talk about it.
It also makes us feel objectified that you care what is down there. It suggests that it matters or somehow changes who we are or whether you will accept us as being a “real” man or “real” woman. Also, for those of us who need surgery but cannot afford it (or for trans men who choose not to have surgery because the surgical techniques are lacking), this can make us feel like awful by reminding us our body STILL is out of alignment with our minds, and that others judge us because of it.
2. “When you used to be a boy/girl…?”
This really depends on how each individual comes to terms with their past before transition. Some may see themselves as having once been a different gender before transition than they are now, but others see themselves as always having been the gender that they identify with. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the latter is true for me. This means that if you ask me any question that starts, “When you used to be a boy/man…?” it bothers me because I never identified with or accepted those labels before transition. This is why using male pronouns or my old name when referring to me before transition is also upsetting. It took a while for my parents to understand this part, because they had so many years of raising me and conceptualizing me as a boy that it was hard for them to look back before transition and use female pronouns and my current name.
Transition for me is about three things: 1) accepting myself, 2) changing my body so that it comes into better alignment with my mind, and 3) changing other people’s perception of me so that they can more accurately see me for who I already was to begin with. It is not about changing who I am. As a result I see myself as always having been a girl.
3. “Can I see pictures from before transition?”
This is the equivalent of asking to see pictures of someone during the hardest and most depressing part of their lives. It is hard enough to look at pictures of myself now seeing the permanent damage testosterone did to my body, but seeing how I looked then before I started HRT brings back all the negative emotions of having to live a lie…it is just too much. It also tends to reinforce cisgender people’s perception of me having “changed” genders, which just adds to the reasons for me to not want to show them.
4. “What is your REAL name?”
This is an offensive question because it suggests that the name you identify with is not your “real” name. My REAL name is Rebecca. Even if you were to ask me, “What was the name you went by before transition?” I would not tell you. This is not because I do not trust you. Knowing my name from before is not a sign of trust. It is because I do not want anyone to know it. If I could go back and erase my old name from the memories of everyone who knew me (including myself) I would. But obviously that is never going to happen so I just have to live with it.
5. “So how do you have sex?”
This one is inappropriate for the same reason question 1. is. If you would not ask a cisgender person that question, please do not ask a transgender person the same question.
6. “Are you a woman or a man?”
The first problem with this is that if you are unsure of someone’s gender identity, you are limiting their gender to one of two categories. The person who’s gender you are unsure of might identify outside of these two categories, so the question is quite presumptuous.
Another problem is that when most people ask this question, they really do not need to know. If you feel the need to ask someone what their gender is, first ask yourself this: “Why do I need to know?” Most of the time it is just our trained inner desire to categorize the person, and not because we actually need to know the person’s identity. If you are going to be interacting with this person a lot and you are going to need to know how to refer to them, only then is it appropriate to ask, but do not phrase it as, “What gender are you?” Rather, ask them, “what pronouns do you prefer to go by?” This tends to be a much more polite way of asking. Instead of being a stranger asking what someone’s personal identity is out of the blue so you can categorize them in your head, you are now a stranger trying to be polite by referring to them in a respectful manner.
7. “How do you pee?”
This goes along with questions 5. and 1. It is none of your business how someone uses the restroom. Period. Do not ask them.
8. “If I’m attracted to you, does that make me gay?”
If you are attracted to a trans* person please do not ask them this question, because it is insensitive to the feelings of that individual. I mean, how would you feel if every person who was attracted to you felt confused about their orientation. Most of the time we, especially trans women, are seen as just sex objects and fetishes that some people are “into” as it is. We just want to be loved and appreciated for being the gender we identify as just like anyone else.
Now as to whether you are actually gay or not, that depends. If you are a man and you are attracted to a trans man then maybe. You also might be bisexual, pansexual or queer. If you are a man and attracted to a trans woman, probably not. If you are a woman who was attracted to a trans woman before she transitioned and she still was presenting as male, then probably not. It is very unlikely that an exclusively gay man or an exclusively straight woman would be attracted to me seeing as how I have female secondary sex characteristics. Really it is up to each and every individual to figure out and define their own sexual orientation themselves, rather than having someone else classify it for them. Just like gender identity, sexual orientation is on a spectrum and is much more complicated than we often make it out to be.