Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How Not To Sound Like A Transphobe

Or, how to use language to not hurt trans people.

Transgender people, in the widest definition of the word, are really very different kinds of people with a few unifying characteristics.  It’s like birds.  We know that eagles and ducks and parakeets and blue footed boobies are all birds even though they are quite different in many ways.  With transgender people we might be talking with a Female to Male (FtM) transsexual man, a drag queen or a straight cross dresser.  It could be someone who is between genders, and doesn’t identify as either male or female.  With these kinds of variables it’s hard to know what to say, how to talk to these people without accidentally offending them.

Of course, half the battle in any situation of this kind is knowing the jargon.  The internet is full of good and bad sources for definitions used by the trans community.  They aren’t all agreed to, some are still very fluid.  Not much we can do about that now.  We can, however, look at commonly accepted and used definitions.  This little article is too small to include a glossary but you can go to a few websites to give you some Trans 101 instruction which clears up a lot of the specialized words trans people use to talk about themselves.  Try Susan's Place Transgender Resources, and check the Trans 101 section in their Wiki.  There’s a “Terms & Definitions” section in the forums on that site as well.  If you want some additional sources, doing a search on “Trans 101” will bring up some good sites as well.

But what if you haven’t had a chance to do this research and you are suddenly introduced to a person whose gender expression seems confusing, or not quite right, or perhaps is even introduced to you openly as a trans person?  How do you talk to them?  How do you react?

The first rule is to please not run screaming from the room.  Many would consider this rude.

Ha ha!  All joking aside however, some people do have rather emotional responses when they first knowingly meet a trans person.  If you are one of them, it’s OK!  Trans people know that they are rather exotic creatures, rarely encountered by cis people (“cis” is short for “cisgender,” which is the opposite of transgender) in daily life.  It’s also common for people to just be confused.  The thing to do is to forget they are trans, if you can, and just relate to them as you would to any other person you’ve just met.  All trans people really want is the same respect and dignity you would grant anyone else.

So if the person is obviously presenting themselves as a woman, use female pronouns, treat them like any lady you have just met.  Vice versa for a person who is obviously presenting as a man.  “But what if I can’t tell,” you may say?  “What do I say or do??  Obviously standing there silently with a dumbfounded or confused look on your face isn’t going to work.  The secret is this: Ask them!  If you’re not sure if the person you just met is male, female or something in between, ask them what pronouns they prefer.  This is not a faux pas.  Most, if not all, trans people would be happy to get that question instead of being referred to with an inappropriate pronoun.

Some trans people, those who don’t identify with either of our binary genders, do present a challenge.  They may prefer non-gendered pronouns, little used neologisms like “hir” instead of him or her, or “zhe” instead of he or she.  If you’re uncomfortable with these unfamiliar terms, or if you are really self conscious about asking, use what’s called the “singular they.”   Use the word “they” instead of the gendered pronoun.  It might be a little awkward at first but you’d not be causing anyone any pain. (Yes, being mis-gendered hurts trans people.  They may not show it but believe me, it hurts.)

If you make a mistake, and it’s easy to do – even trans people screw this up now and then – don’t make a big deal over it.  Just say, “Oops,” correct yourself and move on.  The last thing trans people want is for you to make a big fuss over it.  Doing so just highlights a difference they’d rather not dwell on.

Trans  people identify as their target gender,  In other words, a trans woman is someone who was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman.  A trans man is someone who was assigned female at birth but identifies as a man.  NEVER the other way around.

It’s rarely appropriate to ask about surgeries a person you just met might have had in the past.  This is especially true when the surgeries may have involved portions of their body that aren’t commonly discussed in polite company.  The polite thing, therefore, is to avoid asking a trans person about their surgical status.  I know you may be burning with curiosity but still, please refrain.  It’s unfortunate that so many trans people have been asked this question that there are a good number of snappy comebacks floating around.  Things like, “Why, are you asking me for a date?” or, “Please get your mind out of my crotch!”

The other thing to avoid asking is about how they, or trans people in general, have sex.  I know it seems shocking to see this on paper but it happens far too often, sometimes in public places!  (It happened to yours truly once while standing at the counter in the local cable TV office, with people waiting in line behind me.)  This goes back to what I wrote earlier – trans people want the same respect and dignity you would grant a stranger on the street, or someone you just met.  You wouldn’t as a cis person  such personal and invasive questions, please don’t ask trans people either.

Most people have learned how to be polite and act in appropriate ways in social situations as they were growing up.  The education in manners most of us have received was geared only to cisgender people, however.  Transgender (not “transgendered,” by the way – it’s an adjective, not a verb or a noun) people just weren’t part of the picture.  It’s time they become visible.  I hope these few tips will have informed you about some of the pitfalls to avoid when speaking with trans people but if all else fails, you won’t go wrong if you follow the simple rule: All trans people really want is the same respect and dignity you would grant anyone else.  Talk to them with that in mind and you can’t go wrong.

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