10 Things You Should Never Say to a Trans Person (That Have Been Said to Me)

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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.

-

Originally appeared at One in Six Trans Men

Also from One in Six Trans Men: Fake it ‘Til You Make It Isn’t Faking It At All

Photo of baby with foot in mouth: AshleyNYCPics/Flickr

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About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.

Comments

  1. Nicholas Costo says:

    “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.”

    But they are doing the ‘work’ – they’re asking the question. And yes, people often phrase questions badly, but talking to them directly is often the best way to provide an answer with a perspective. By tolerating bad or even inadvertently offensive questions and answering them, you can help to minimize the chances they will ask the same kind of ignorant question in the future.

    “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.”

    No kidding. But if we accept that a good deal of prejudice arises out of ignorance and fear of the other, then maybe we should make an effort to educate people about ourselves when given the opportunity, particularly when the question is asked in good faith.

    • Maybe, and certainly we often do: this article is one way I do it. But, for instance, the straight guy who likes going to gay bars because he finds the people there have been through oppression and that it makes us kinder needs to know that oppression also makes us cranky and mentally ill. The “work” can be done by asking a question, same as if your fifth grader does his homework by asking you the capital of Alaska. The information is freely available. Some of us have done hard work to get the knowledge. Typically when we convey it through easier means to other people this is called teaching and its paid work.

      • Your frustration is understandable, but ultimately futile. Being angry at people for not knowing what you know and not feeling how you feel is never an affective persuader. It’s unfair, but as a minority, the onus is on you to be an educator if you want others to be more educated. I imagine very few people will spontaneously look up literature on trans issues on their own. But many will be curious to know more when faced with a trans person. It’s your chance to reduce ignorance in the world.

        • As someone who had to use a surrogate to sustain a pregnancy after many miscarriages, I get many extraordinarily intimate questions from people that I don’t wish to answer. It’s difficult to find the right responses while acknowledging that my situation is very unusual and people have a natural curiosity and a genuine interest that is not born of ill will. I also realize that nobody can actually understand this journey, which can be a bit isolating. I wish you luck in finding Grace in these situations toward others while preserving your privacy and dignity.

        • Danielle Paradis says:

          “It’s unfair, but as a minority, the onus is on you to be an educator if you want others to be more educated”

          NO IT ISN’T. Do you ask your cisgender friends about their genitals? No you don’t. Expecting a person to educate you is very oppressive behavior. People can use Google they can educate themselves. it is NEVER the responsibility of the marginalized to explain away another person’s ignorance.

          • For one thing, I’m sorry you think the whole thing is only about genitalia. For another, who’s going to put all that information out there, if not the marginalized people who know what the hell they’re talking about?

            • Joanna Schroeder says:

              They DO put that information out there – but not one-on-one with people they don’t know well.

              If you want information, Google it. Go to reliable sources of information, or people with whom you’re very close and can ask first if they’d be willing to confide in you, and then understand if they say NO.

              You know why? Because it’s NOT ABOUT YOU.

            • YES, EXACTLY. Thank you, Joanna!

          • “Do you ask your cisgender friends about their genitals? No you don’t. ”
            I do, they ask me too. I am pretty open about it. Why should we feel ashamed in answering the questions?

  2. The whole tone of this article comes across as annoyed. The gist I get from it is that you expect other people to ignore the fact that you are an individual who has had a life that is different from what they experienced. Seems like you just want people to keep it to themselves that they have curiosities (Oh, hey! Human nature = curiosity). You preach acceptance while simultaneously disapproving of another’s way of approaching an unfamiliar topic.
    Perhaps your unfortunate experiences have arisen from your interpretations and perspectives of another’s questions rather than the questions themselves.. Just sayin’

    • Yes, I was pretty annoyed when I wrote this, because someone who needed to read it had just asked me a whole lot of really intrusive questions that ignored the fact that I’m a person, first, and wasn’t there to educate him. I hope that reading this, people will get the point that you can easily cross a line in your curiosity, and that it can be satisfied through other means (like my blog, and the thousands like mine). It wasn’t my interpretation of the questions, it was that they were all about my experience of being trans, which wasn’t the context of our meeting, and wasn’t prefaced with a request to interview me. Perhaps this is hard for you to do, depending on your own experience, but imagine if I suddenly had a whole lot of questions about your birthmark, for instance, or your menstrual cycle. There’s curiosity, and there’s privacy, and the need to strike a balance.

    • Danielle Paradis says:

      Amanda perhaps you should stop tone-policing? Just Saying.

  3. Jarad Dewing says:

    “Trans people learn how to be men or women from the people around them, just as cis people do…”
    Love the feist, love the fervor, but this binary distinction seems a little… short-sighted? Let’s not learn how to be men or women, but how to be people.
    Good read, mate.

    • Being good is one thing. Following the rules for your society, and for whatever bucket(s) you fall into for that society, is another. Yes, we all have to learn to be good people. About half of us need to learn to be men, as well, which is another skill set.

    • In principle I agree with you. But while I can’t think of anything of value to be learnt about being a man by observing the behaviour of most men, in a patriarchal society there’s a learning curve to surviving being seen by others as female and the systematic mistreatment that comes with it, which in a sense could be described as “learning to be women”. It does clearly erase non-binary people though

  4. jose colmenares says:

    Is there something wrong with my way of thinking? but I do not find ANY of these offensive. For the record I am not transgender or even queer. People who would say these things are being supportive and/or curious. In the big picture those are nice things to say compared to what most of the world would say or do to a transgender person with the exception of a few enlightened places. I only liked the last paragraph of this article, because is the only one that reflects the reality of anyone who is “different” or “unusual”

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Maybe you don’t find them offensive because you aren’t trans or queer?

      My feeling is this = I’m not trans and mostly not queer, and so I have to trust and listen to my friends who are. I may make mistakes, but my friends know that I mean well and they also know that I”ll work my ass off not to make the mistake again and be thoughtful.

      My general rule: If you wouldn’t ask it to a straight or cis-gendered (not trans) person, you shouldn’t ask it to anyone.

      You don’t ask me if I have a penis. Don’t ask him. You don’t ask me how I have sex with my partner, so don’t ask him. You don’t tell me I’m doing “womanhood” right, so don’t tell her, and nobody asks me where I learned to be a girl, so don’t ask the other girl.

      Does that make sense? It’s pretty simple. If you found out your friend who is a trans man had a baby, you can ask questions about the baby. How old is the baby now? Boy or girl? Was it a hard labor? These are things you might ask me. Not “how did you get pregnant?” etc.

      • That’s a surefire way to keep the world ignorant though. I ask my friend questions about what kind of feeling he has in his arm which he was born with the forearm missing, he answers. Am I meant to be quiet because people are normally born with forearms or can we actually be curious and ask questions respectfully?

        • Joanna Schroeder says:

          No, but you could say, “Hey, would it be cool if I asked you a question about your arm?”

          Also, conversations between close friends are so different than conversations between strangers or people who barely know one another.

          • I have a friend and former co-worker who is more drag than trans and he really opened my eyes cause I had never met anybody like him before, with the exception of a brother of mine who happens to do drag as his job. He would come to work with makeup on, and I was ok with that. I mean shoot I was raised around musicians and was in a band myself for quite some time fresh and ripe out of college so this was nothing new as far as my life went. He said the same thing as what you just did, in the fact that if people just sat down and got to know him, he’d be more than happy to answer any questions or be open about why he loved dressing in drag. Truth be told, in the end, I wound up becoming very good friends with him and he’d even give me makeup tips and even helped me in my wedding.

            I think it all comes down to we should respect the individual, get to know them first, and then once you are friends and are comfortable with each other, sit down and ask questions, but don’t ask stupid or pervasive questions that might hurt your new found friend.

    • Danielle Paradis says:

      Is there something wrong with my way of thinking?

      …yes, yes there is. Who cares if YOU don’t find them offensive. How blind to another person do you have to be to object to them being annoyed by how they are treated?

  5. OMG I can’t believe people can be that rude or dumb to say or ask those things! Sorry you had to go through that. People are disgusting.

  6. LOL… I wrote my above comment before reading any of the comments and now that I did, I am even more disgusted. People and their f*cking entitlement.. excuse my French. “I’m not here for your entertainment… you don’t really wanna mess with me tonight”. I am very familiar with the feeling of being objectified, used, insulted, etc. I feel your pain. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I totally get you. I don’t know what it is about people that makes them so… territorial? Rude? Ignorant? Stupid? I guess it all has to do with a major lack of empathy and a lack of understanding in a world where sociopath behavior is the norm. I am utterly disgusted by people’s behaviors and their justifications for it. Wish you all the best and may you encounter some beautiful souls.

  7. I would be at least as upset as you are. People and their curiosity.

  8. One night after work, my friend (a transman) was commenting on the ignominy of having his friends ask him which gender pronouns they should use, or using the wrong gender pronouns. In that same conversation, my friend commented that he felt that he didn’t have many friends and wished he could make friends more easily.

    A big barrier to friendship, for this guy, was how easily offended he was. It had nothing to do with anything else besides the fact that you couldn’t ever speak with him or bring friends around him without living in mortal fear that you, or one of your friends, would ask one of those questions that made him angry. Talking to him was like walking through a loaded minefield, and so people didn’t do it.

    The offenses mentioned in this article all center on the theme of other people being inconsiderate of how you feel in the conversation. To become so offended, though, is to refuse to employ the same understanding that you are asking other people to employ.

    It is natural for people to ask other people about things – particularly things that they perceive that the other person knows more about than they do. I am a writer, a jew by heritage, an atheist by belief, a cajun, a southerner, a woman, and an athlete. I represent all of things and I field questions about all of them from my friends who are different from me, and I do so happily in the interest of improving mutual understanding. If you read an account of a Jew asking a Muslim some question about Islam and the Muslim shooting back “Why don’t you Google it asshole,” you can see that this moves in the wrong direction when it comes to mutual understanding or acceptance or friendship. The Jewish person isn’t “objectifying” the Muslim as a tchotchke representing Islam – he’s asking a question, just as people ask questions of you. You can choose to humor them and leave them better informed and more understanding, or you can choose to write angry articles about how mean they are that will probably convince them that talking to trans people is too difficult to even attempt. And that would be a real shame.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      But many of the questions are very personal. For instance, a Christian asking a Jew or Muslim “are you circumcised?” That’s not the Christian’s business.

      Beyond that, I cannot speak for a Muslim, but I would think that if you asked a Muslim about how he has sex with his wife, he’s not going to dig that. And that’s the sort of thing people ask trans folks a lot.

      We have to also understand that there are oppressed groups at work here who are often tokenized.

      Remember also that queer folks are being beaten and killed (not to mention bullied) and systematically oppressed in this country. They are legally denied housing and in many states marriage, adoption, and even jobs.

      We have an epidemic in this country of people being beaten up, bullied and murdered because of their sexuality or gender identity. Dozens of cases this year already. Murders and severe beatings. Ask kids at almost any high school what it’s like being out and gay, let alone trans.

      So you have to understand when you go into a conversation with someone you don’t know well, that what makes them different may make YOU curious, but it may be something they don’t want to talk about. It can be dangerous, it can be something that made that person feel unsafe before or even now. And most of the time, it’s personal. He or she doesn’t want to talk about their vagina or penis or anything any more than you probably do, and possibly less.

      Justin is my friend, and I can tell you that if you get to know him, and he gets to trust you, he’ll tell you about his life. But in his own time. The same way you tell people about the intimate details of your life.

      Ask him the things you’d ask anyone else. Ask how he met his husband, his dog’s name, what he does for fun, his recipes for holiday cookies. He’s got a ton more to talk about than being trans, and you and I don’t need to put our own questions on him.

      • Hi Joanna
        As a Scandinavian I am always shocked when Americans ask others :” what’s your number ?”
        Here it is private, but in America it seems to raise suspistion if you don’t share that info with the date.
        It is seen as then you have something to hide.

        Somehow I don’t feel it is un polite to ask if a man is circumcised, when we are friends. I never ask , but many tell it when we discuss these matters.

        • Joanna Schroeder says:

          If they volunteer it, yes. But saying, “So, Bill, are you circumcised? What’s that look like?” at a dinner table full of people sort of out of nowhere would be really, really bizarre.

          • Hi Joanna
            Frankly,I don’t think anybody would ask like that.
            And if transmen and transwomen get that kind of question then I do understand their irritation .

            Most of us are not any more curious about how they make love , then we are about how our friends and our neighbours make love. I never wonder about that. Nor do I wonder if my neighbors are circumcised or not. I know some are circumciced and some are not,since I live in a multi etnic city and have had boyfriend of both kinds.

            Yes,I have wondered what it means when a transman say he will not have any operations. I do not ask but think it means exactly what he says. He chooses to have no operations.

            • Joanna Schroeder says:

              When we’re talking about operations, you’re talking about genitals and breasts. You think people won’t ask about genitals, but you’re saying you wonder that same thing. Many people ask, and he’s saying not to.

          • ““So, Bill, are you circumcised? What’s that look like?” at a dinner table full of people sort of out of nowhere would be really, really bizarre.”

            I guess I am a freak or something. I’d laugh at the question but it wouldn’t bother me. Is puritanism really that bad in the U.S?

      • Hi Joanna
        Good men project wants to reach out to the whole world,and have a dialogue,but at the same time most of the writers write as if America is the only country on earth. No offence.( I do remember your husband.)
        Then remember that not all coutries are as brutal as Amrica towards certain groups.
        You write:
        ✺”We have to also understand that there are oppressed groups at work here who are often tokenized.

        Remember also that queer folks are being beaten and killed (not to mention bullied) and systematically oppressed in this country. They are legally denied housing and in many states marriage, adoption, and even jobs.”

        “We have an epidemic in this country of people being beaten up, bullied and murdered because of their sexuality or gender identity. Dozens of cases this year already. Murders and severe beatings. Ask kids at almost any high school what it’s like being out and gay, let alone trans.”✺

        I don’t doubt that transmen and trans women have difficulties in countries outside America, but the situation in America sounds extreme compared to the situation in Scandinavia for example.

        The problem here is law that demand that any transperson must first have operations and remove their ability to have children before they can start on hormon treatment . That is unjust and inhuman demands.
        But nobody can be denied housing,jobs and marriage. Correct me if I am wrong,but the killings and intense hatred seems to be the American situation but it is not that bad everywhere else in this world.

        For me part of the problem is that it is impossible to grasp what is like to dislike and feel that uncomfortable with the body you are born with.
        And maybe that feeling continues even after the transformation ?
        I will read up and educate myself and promise Justin to never ask any questions when I meet persons I think is trans. But usually I will never be able to tell.

  9. Joanna Schroeder says:

    Defensiveness, I find, often comes from guilt.

    He’s not ranting at you. He’s upset, the tone is a little upset, but you might be too if you were in that position. Start by just thinking, “He might be irritated for a reason” and then you can learn.

    • Sorry Joanna, but this reply of yours was a response to a reasonably lengthy (and reasonable) conversation you and I were having. Unfortunately, someone’s sensibilities were a little challenged and my responses were deleted. Is it wrong that I feel it’s a little disingenuous that this comment has been left, while its context has been removed?

  10. The trans people I know I happen to be on fairly close terms with and I have never gotten the impression that they find it offensive to talk about their experiences. One girl in particularly is very open about herself in general and told me she was trans soon after we met. I feel like it would be against her nature to not talk about issues that are important to her.

    I have another friend who is afraid of not being accepted by her friends and family if she were to come out (I was the first person she came out to) and so I asked the first friend if she had any advice. She seemed happy to help. I want to be supportive of my friends but I can understand how probing questions would be dehumanizing. I think it would seem uncomfortable to have similar conversations with someone who wasn’t a close friend.

  11. I don’t have any trans or gender queer experiences, but I’ve found compliments to be more offensive than questions. Recently, I was helping a friend carry his new IKEA furniture, still boxed and unassembled, into his apartment. My car was justly parked in a loading zone, but his wife (also my friend) stood watch, just in case. As we returned for trip #2, she informed me that a neighbor told her how impressed he was by me.

    You know that disgusted feeling associated with the 10 questions addressed in this article? They were impressed that tiny, little female me was carrying those big, heavy IKEA boxes. I doubt a man would be paid any notice if he carried it on his own.

    I’ll grant you, these buggers are heavy! But they’re manageable between two people. Due to my uneven gait (which garners the occasional question), my friend took the stairs backwards. If my husband had been present, we’d have left the car in the loading zone and handled everything in one trip. I would have taken the stairs backwards because I would not have been able to hold the box high enough for his tall self to accommodate, and you can’t (or SHOULDN’T) lean forward when you’re walking up a flight of stairs backwards. Since my husband was absent, female me bore the bulk of the weight for a short period of time, and people find this impressive.

    If my husband had been present instead of me, there’d be no “story”, because men lifting heavy stuff is what men do.

  12. Excellent article. Too bad the commenters who seem upset are exactly the people who should study the article for advice. Sigh. It must feel exhausting at times to think you are preaching mostly to the choir. On the other hand, I feel sure that this essay will reach more than one person who is genuinely open and curious, unsure about how to proceed, and wants to do the right thing (so very distinct from BEING RIGHT, which is what preoccupies so many reactionaries who refuse to examine their privilege).

    It is NEVER the responsibility of the marginalized to teach the privileged.

    • Thank you, Erin. Some of us teach because we feel the calling to do it, and as another commenter says, if the marginalized never try to teach the mainstream, how will they ever learn, and how will the world ever change? But we can’t expect that every person feels the calling to teach. It’s why it works out best when you know and trust someone well enough to judge what kind of a question might be asked without adding insult. For other situations, our cultures generally have some rules about how to open a conversation with a relative stranger. The weather is a perennial favorite.

  13. 5 of these points totally looks like compliments, if you make a huge change on your life and don’t accept the compliments looks like you’re more ashamed than proud. The thing is that if you don’t want the silly questions from strange people, Why to talk about that to them, then? Why to blog about it? Doesn’t make sense, keep it for yourself, and for those who actually must know about it. Or otherwise, be prepared for the hate, curiosity, stupidity, support, judge and compliments.

    • Wendy, I could talk forever about why we teach, but there’s whole fields of epistemology and pedagogy to answer that. The point is not that you should not learn these lessons and that no one should teach them, but that you can’t assume every person is a willing and capable teacher, and in every hour. When I’m in conversation with someone and I’m being careful not to offend, I only ask about the subject(s) that are clearly on the table: weather, our last conversation, and this one’s content are fair game. If I’m testing the waters for more intimacy, I’ll ask more dangerous (what you call silly) questions about a person: their beliefs and experience. Having done that, if I don’t continue engaging with a person on a similarly intimate level, but pull back to the safe stuff, I think that signals that I no longer want to become closer to that person—to get silly with someone strange. When people ask me about my life, and they don’t offer anything about themselves that’s similarly revealing, I feel like I just got stiffed in what is, in the end, a gift economy. People can choose to talk to you or to clam up, to dissemble or be true, to go deep or offer platitudes. I share what I do out of the human need to be known and to connect with other people. It’s why people have written and drawn since prehistory. The blog is the new cave wall.

  14. I can completely understand these points…except one. I do not understand why #5 is offensive.

    “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.”

    I don’t think this compliment requires an appropriate level of intimacy to be accepted as genuine. If I know someone has given a child up for adoption, then it is easy to assume they are strong because it takes a great deal of inner strength to give up a child. If I know someone has struggled with mental illness for the majority of their life, then it is easy to assume that this person is both strong and brave. I say this because it takes strength to battle mental illness for so many years and bravery to face the world when things are horrible for so long. I know society is hard on transgender people. I know that many people deny who they really feel they are because they are afraid. Because of those things, I draw the conclusion that transgender people are brave. To live proudly in a society that hates you requires a strength and bravery that is not required of me to live my life. I can see how hearing that may get annoying if it becomes repetitive, but I do not understand how that is a far reaching conclusion, an inappropriate compliment, or offensive.

    I do, however, recognize your right to be offended at anything that genuinely offends you. I’m not dismissing your feelings, I am just expressing my lack of understanding.

    • I wouldn’t attempt to speak for Justin, but my own personal problem with the “you’re so brave” comments is what I hear when people say that. To me the person is saying, “I could never do that”, and this tells me the person doesn’t understand that it’s not a choice – other than the “choice” to live as myself (no matter what others will do to me) instead of ending my life. I don’t consider myself brave because I chose to live my life authentically, to me it’s just choosing to live – period. I hope that made some sense.

  15. Tom Brechlin says:

    OK, I didn’t read through all the responses so maybe I’m repeating something someone said. What I don’t understand is why a person would even know if someone is transgender? I don’t know of them wearing a neon sign or anything. Transgender or not, who the hell gives anyone the right to ask personal questions? I guess it’s may be fine if ya really really know the person and the comfort level has been established but c’mon …. people need to stay out of other peoples personal live.

    • There have been some times when I’ve wanted to know if someone was transgendered. One was a profile on a dating site and she made a joke about having a decent size penis. Facial features were quite masculine, but I had great difficulty with my internal “gender identification system”. It’s just curiosity as it’s extremellllyyyyy rare for women to have features as she did so it stood out. I wouldn’t dream of asking her though.

      My guess is humans tend to have very distinct sexual features between genders and so anyone who borders on the opposite sex will be a lil confusing to our indentification and for some that causes issues. I guess some people feel more comfy knowing? My curiosity though was purely trying to figure out visual cues and I was intrigued.

  16. TheRealMcCoy says:

    “Be … curious … and courageous.”

    Except, don’t be courageous enough to ask anything that might satisfy that curiosity. Don’t compliment. Don’t try to help. Don’t even notice. To do any of that would be offensive.

    Honestly, this whole article comes across as bitter and defensive. Given that transgender people are less than one percent of the population, most people have never met a trans person before; your list of banned things proscribes pretty much anything they might want to ask. If you just want to ‘pass’, okay, your list makes sense. But if you want people to understand transgender issues and transgender people more fully, I think you need to re-evaluate your stance.

  17. Whaa, whaa. If you don’t want to deal with society’s ignorance, don’t go around broadcasting your trans status. If you’ve been passing since 1999, then most of these issues shouldn’t even be occurring unless you’re somehow sharing your personal medical history with everyone you meet. And being called brave is not really an insult, even you if don’t think it’s appropriate, people see you how they see you.

  18. We are, sadly, still in a place in our society where every person who is part of an underrepresented group is elected by those around them to become their educator about that group. It is a forced burden that is unfair. Often times, people just feel clueless and curious and have good intentions. They don’t comprehend how such questions feel when you are part of a minority group. And how those questions feel different when you are not.
    A couple friends of mine where wonderful enough to share their very personal experiences. When people want to know more about the trans experience, feel free to direct them to the podcasts of these two amazing people –
    http://radiovalencia.fm/podcasts/?episode=11201
    http://radiovalencia.fm/podcasts/?episode=12623

  19. No Man in Particular says:

    It makes a lot of sense to me why these comments might feel offensive or invasive. Some of them are just rude no matter who you’re talking to.

    In many cases, it’s cluelessness and rudeness but coming from a place of good intention or curiosity. Some people saying these offensive things are trying to show in their own clumsy way that they mean well or that they aren’t haters, but they have no real experience to draw from.

    In that spirit, do you have words of advice from the “positive” side? Like, not just the “don’ts” but some “do’s”? It’s true that it’s not your job to educate everyone else about trans perspectives, and you’re probably tired of dealing with the uninformed, but suggesting what to do might be really helpful and avoid a lot aggravation. Just thinking in practical communication terms, not as something you have to do or ought to do. After reading this article, I might just feel so afraid of blindly offending someone in that situation that I just say nothing, put on a poker face, and walk away. That can’t be right, either.

    For example, and maybe a silly question, but: what would an ideal conversation look like where someone comes out as trans to someone who isn’t?

    • That’s a very thoughtful question and deserves an answer. Of course, different trans people will give you different answers on just about anything (we’re individuals, after all), but it’s generally a good idea not to assume what pronouns a person uses or how they want to be addressed, and it’s much more considerate to ask them first instead of using the wrong ones by mistake. Unfortunately, many people have told me they would never ask because they think that would be rude, but asking is a kindness, while misgendering is an insult.

      Also, even if the person says they are out and open, it’s never okay to out someone without their permission. Even people who are out will maintain stealth status sometimes for the sake of safety and other reasons. Other than those two points, it would be a good idea to ask the person who just came out to you if there is anything about their experience they DON’T talk about (could be family, could be physical transition such as surgeries, could be past relationships, for example) and then steer clear of whatever they prefer to avoid.

      As I said, everyone is different – some people may be open to questions on some of it but not other things, so it’s best to find out where the boundaries are first. If one is respectful, most people will open up and be honest, but if the person is made to feel judged or repulsive or like a carnival attraction, the questions and conversations will be over – which is a shame because it’ would be great to bring down the walls between us and the uninformed. The key is to see the person as a person and not an object of curiosity. Thanks for asking.

Trackbacks

  1. […] about things you shouldn’t say to trans people. Like this one from Matt Kailey at Tranifesto, and this one from Justin Cascio at One in Six Trans Men. But those are general, all purpose, “these are the […]

  2. […] 10 Things You Should Never Say to a Transperson (That Have Been Said to Me) – Justin Cascio […]

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