8 Questions to Avoid Asking Trans* People

Blue question mark
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.

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Terminology: How to Refer to a Trans* Person

It can be confusing on what terms to use, how to use them, and in what context are they are appropriate.  Each person often comes up with their own individual understanding of the words they use to describe their identity, so these words can notoriously be fraught with tiny idiosyncratic differences in terminology that  vary as much as the human population that uses them.  Even the same word, like “trans” for example can mean one thing to one person, and then hold a completely different meaning for another person.  Please remember that these are my understanding of the terms and it does not necessarily represent what every trans* person understands them to be.

Transgender

First, I’ll start off with the word transgender.  This is the most generic blanket term that is used.  It does not have the same stigmatized forceful feel that transsexual can sometimes give off.  Also it focuses more on the concept of gender rather than on the physical nature of sex that the word transsexual implies.  Being an umbrella term, it includes anyone who’s gender identity does not align with the one assigned to them at birth.  Depending on who you ask, it can also include cross-dressers and drag performers as well.

Personally I use transgender as more of a socio-political term to describe myself.  It is a relatively quick simple term to describe the group of people who I share a similar experience with.  It easily lets people know some of the struggles I have had to go through in life.  It also provides a unifying word behind which all groups of gender minorities can rally together and fight for equality.  I never really have seen myself as ever having been a boy/man since I never really accepted the role ascribed to me to begin with.  Rather than becoming immersed in the male role, I just completely shut down and stopped talking or socializing all together.  I did not even let myself have opinions on anything: even a favorite color.  It was not until I actually started accepting myself as a woman that I started blossoming into the person I am today.  Because of this, the word “transgender” can feel strange to me sometimes because I do not see myself as having changed from one gender to another (as the word suggests).

MTF and FTM Transsexual

This word is used to describe people who not only identify as a different gender than the one assigned to them, but also take or desire to take medical intervention into the mix.  They either want hormones, surgery or both.  Although I use medical intervention, I particularly do not like this term because it puts a strong emphasis on the physical transition rather than on who the person is.  Also it has a slightly more negative connotation than transgender does since it has been abused more.

Tranny

Do not, I repeat DO NOT use this word.  Just because some people *cough* RuPaul *cough* use it does not mean that it is okay.  For many, including myself, this is the equivalent of the “N” word.  It has been used in such derogatory manners over the years that the word itself has inherently become derogatory.  Also never call a trans* person an  “it,”  a “shemale,” or a “he/she” because these are extremely dehumanizing and offensive as well.

Trans vs. Trans*

“Trans” is just a shortening of the word transgender, but implies trans woman or trans man.  Because of this, the relatively recent idea of adding an asterisk to the end to create “Trans*” came about.  The asterisk means that anything can follow the word trans*, and as a result is seen as more inclusive of all that fall under the trans* umbrella.

Ex: “I am a trans woman”

         vs.

       “Being trans* can mean a number of things”

Trans Woman vs. Trans Man

Some people can get confused on who you are referring to someone as a “trans woman” or “trans man.”  I see ignorant psychology articles that refer to transgender women as, “transgender men,” or “transgender males,” all the time.  A trans woman is a trans* individual who identifies as a woman, and a trans man is a trans* individual who identifies as a man. Period.  Unless you are being a jerk do not call someone who identifies as a woman a “man,” or someone who identifies as a man a “woman.”

Transgender is an Adjective NOT a Noun

This is definitely one of my pet peeves.  Transgender is often used as a noun and this is wrong for two reasons: 1) It is grammatically incorrect and just sounds weird to me o_O   2) Using transgender as a noun reduces our whole identity and being to one trait, when we are complex human beings with many traits and characteristics that define us.

Right:   “They are transgender”

Wrong: “He is a transgender”

Right:   “She is a transgender woman”

Wrong: ” I know lots of transgenders”

Drag Queen/King vs. Cross-dressers

The difference between a drag queen or king and a cross-dresser is that the drag performer does it for performance reasons.  They like to play with gender in a way that puts on a show and is entertaining, and also like to mess with gender stereotypes as well.  Like a cross-dresser, most do not identify as a different gender than the one assigned to them.

Someone who cross-dresses puts on clothes of a different gender because they enjoy it, sometimes for sexual reasons and sometimes not.  They do not do it in order to perform like a drag queen or king, it is rather an internally driven desire.

Sometimes, before coming out as trans*, people will say they are a cross-dresser or perform drag first since it is safer and more contained than coming out all the way and turning everything in their lives upside down.  This does NOT however mean that every drag performer or cross-dresser is secretly trans*.

Gender Queer

Someone identifies as gender queer identifies as neither man nor woman.  Since gender is a spectrum of countless different identities, there are a limitless number of subcategories to identifying as gender queer.  These include, but are no means at all limited to androgynous, bigender and gender fluid.

Androgynous

This is when someone identifies somewhere between genders and does not adhere strictly to man or woman.  Unlike someone who is gender fluid their gender identity and expression tends to stay in one spot on the spectrum and does not move.

Bi-Gender

Rather than identifying between genders, someone who is bi-gender identifies as man AND woman at the same time.

Gender Fluid

Someone who identifies as gender fluid does not strictly adhere to just one gender.  They often “flow” between different gender expressions at different times.  Depending on the person, the range of expression can vary greatly.

In the end there are SO many different gender identities out there that it would be impossible for me to cover all of them.  Gender identities vary as much as people do, and as a result it creates a wide spectrum rather than a tight dichotomy.  In the end, if you are unsure of someone’s identity or how they want to be referred to, then it is best just to ask.  It is much better than assuming the wrong thing.

What is Cisprivilege?

So you may have come across my blog and been like, “What the heck is ‘cisprivilege’ anyway?”  Well that’s a good question, because whenever I say this around one of my friends or colleagues for the first time, they almost never know what it means, so DON”T WORRY you are not alone!  Most people do not have the opportunity to become educated on trans* issues in general so it would make sense that many would not know the language behind them too.

Cisgender

Before we get into what cisprivilege is, first we need to look into the prefix cis-.  Cis- is short for cisgender, which refers to someone who’s assigned gender also aligns with ones internal sense of gender or gender identity.  A crude way of putting it is that a cisgender person is someone who is “not trans*”.  A transgender person on the other hand is someone who’s assigned gender does not match their internal sense of gender or gender identity.  The way these are worded is very important: especially the word “assigned,” which shows how the gender role was ascribed to people against their will.   Avoid replacing the word “assigned” with the words “actual” or “real” because this says that the persons identity is not real.

Right:  “A transgender person is someone who’s ASSIGNED gender does not align with their gender identity”

Wrong: ” A transgender person is someone who’s ACTUAL gender does not align with their gender identity”

Phrasing it the second way is a BIG no-no!!! As you can imagine, to say that one’s identity is fake can be extremely offensive.  Whether you agree with a person’s identity or not, it is important to at least respect their identity if you want to continue any sort of amicable relationship with them.  So if you care about the person please put away any negative feelings you have about their identity and respect them.  This includes using proper pronouns too (he, she, they or zie depending on what they prefer) and other gendered language (Sir, Ma’am, Son, Daughter, etc.)

Cisprivilege

So now that you know what cisgender means, we can talk about cisprivilege, i.e. cisgender privilege.  Cisprivilege is the privilege one receives in society for being cisgender.  For example if you are cisgender, you can expect that all of your identity documents show the correct gender on them, and that if it is incorrect you do not have to go through a long and rigorous medical process that excludes those who do not have $20,000 on hand, or those who do not want, or cannot get, major surgery for that matter.  Also, you can expect everyone to use the correct pronouns (he or she) in reference to you.  In the rare instance one makes a mistake and uses the wrong pronoun, you can expect an immediate and sincere apology.  Any anger you may have for being misgendered is considered a legitimate emotional response.

Cisprivilege permeates through pretty much every interaction in life, and for the most part goes completely unrecognized by those who have it.  A trans* person can have cisprivilege temporarily extended to them if they “pass” as the gender they identify as, but it is extremely fragile and can be taken away at any moment once someone realizes that they are indeed trans*.  For example, if I am applying for a job, the employer might not know that I am trans* by looking at me, but once he looks down at my application and sees that my former legal name is male (which I am required to put on every application), it could tip him off and lose me the job opportunity.

You can even be experiencing cisprivilege and never know it happened.  For example,  it took me 6 months to find a place to live one time because every time the owner or one of the roommates found out I was a trans woman they would not let me move in.  A cisgender person would have been able to move into the first match they found without any objection to their gender identity.  They would never know that the person might have rejected them if they had been trans*.  The same thing applies to jobs, friendships, and dating as well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examples of cisprivilege.  Like I said it is EVERYWHERE and seriously affects our lives in dramatic ways.  It is impossible to cover all the examples of cisprivilege in one article, so I will continue to explore it throughout this blog.  I also will delve into other topics too, like the relationship between feminism and the transgender community, the intersectionality that comes with being both trans* and a racial minority, body image while being a trans woman, and more about language when referring to trans* individuals.   This is the first of many, so I hope you enjoyed and come back for more in the future!  Thank you for reading!!! ^_^