I am participating in Trans*forming the Dialogue, Simmons College’s Online MSW Program’s campaign to promote an educational conversation about the transgender community. This campaign was designed to shift the conversation away from the problematic questions that are often asked of the members transgender community and foster a more progressive dialogue. I was asked to be a “featured voice” in this campaign and provide my prospective about what TO ask and what NOT to ask trans* people. Of course, I am but one voice in the sea of many, please check out the other responses here!
The prompt: What are the do’s and dont’s when asking a trans* person about their experiences?
- What are 2 – 3 questions that one should NOT be asking a transgender person?
- What are 2 – 3 questions that one SHOULD be asking a transgender person?
I decided to go about this a little differently. Instead of listing specific questions one should or should not ask transgender people, I came up with guidelines for deciding which questions are appropriate and which ones are not.
Know the Basics
Before you begin asking too many questions of the transgender individual, do some research on the basics. Many times when someone is revealing their “true” gender, or their brain gender identity, others go straight for the anatomy of the individual. Anatomy is about natal sex, not gender. The transgender individual likely wants you to understand more about how they feel on the inside, not about what their body looks like. Read my blog post here for more information about Gender Vs. Sex. Additionally, it will be helpful for you to understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. If you don’t, you might accidentally start focusing on the individual’s romantic life or sexual behaviors when they are trying to tell you about who they are. :) Read more about this distinction here.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s important to remember the transgender person is not there simply to educate you or satisfy your curiosity. They are a person, just like you, living their life. Try to figure out what kinds of questions you would like to be asked, and go from there. Would you want to be asked details about your potentially painful past? Probably not. Would you want to be asked details about your genitalia? Most likely not. See my blog post “What’s In YOUR Pants?? (They’re called “privates” for a reason) for more on this. What would you want someone to ask you about? You would probably want people to ask how you are, how your loved ones are, and what you’ve been staying busy with. Ask!
Stay in the Now
The transgender person in front of you is not living in the past or the future, they are living in the present. Stay in it with them. What name they were given at birth, the process of their transition, their plans for medical intervention in the future, etc. do not give you a sense for what that person is about, today. Ask them about their here and now, in general terms. If the transgender individual’s gender identity or transition comes up in this conversation, that means it is relevant for them in the present.
Think in Terms of Solidarity
If you think of yourself in a different category than transgender people, a separation is created that does not need to exist. We all have gender identity, and that makes us capable of understanding it. You don’t have to have gone through something exactly as someone else has to relate to that person. Many of the problems transgender individuals face is in regards to stigma, discrimination, and lack of understanding from society at large. Since we are all a part of society, we are all capable of creating change. Make sure you are using the correct name and pronouns for the individual. Speak up if you hear someone who is not. Speak up if you hear transphobic language, practices, policies, or potentially unwelcoming spaces for transgender individuals.
Think Beyond the Binary
Society tends to operate as though there are two genders, male and female. In reality, gender is on a spectrum and male and female are but two genders on it. Every person is the expert on their own gender identity. Trust what they say to be true for them, even if you can’t relate to it or haven’t heard of it before. Some people feel male or female. Some people feel both, and some people feel neither. Some people feel more one gender than another, and some fluctuate from day to day. Operate from the standpoint that you are there to honor and respect their gender, not decide what it is or what you are comfortable with. The only way to have a relationship with someone is to honor them for who they truly are.
Happy Conversing! :)