Trans*Forming the Dialogue

Trans*forming the Dialogue Logo

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.

Use Empathy

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! 🙂

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Don’t Poke the Dysphoria Monster

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There may be a monster in your child’s closet. All of the reassuring you may have done when your child was little that there was “no such thing as monsters”, checking under beds and in closets to alleviate anxiety, may not have been exactly true. For transgender kids and adolescents, and even adults, a Dysphoria Monster may be lurking nearby.

When I worked in a residential treatment facility for children, I used the “Addiction Monster” metaphor to explain addiction to children. Many children who resided there had parents who were addicted to substances, and this resulted in inconsistent visits, broken promises, and time away in jail. I would explain that when someone is struggling with addiction, they have an addiction monster that is sometimes small and manageable, sometimes huge and overpowering, but never nonexistent. When it’s huge, it has them in their grip, throwing them around, banging them up, holding them hostage. When the addiction becomes more under control, the individual may have more power over the monster, like walking it on a leash. After some time of sobriety when urges have decreased dramatically and the individual is in recovery, the monster may get small enough to tuck away in their pocket. But remember: it’s always there, and they would need to take care to keep it small.

Now that I work with transgender individuals, I have met the Dysphoria Monster. For those of you who don’t know, dysphoria is the discomfort and depression that can come with having a body that does not line up with one’s gender identity, or come from not being read as/treated as the gender one is in their brain. Dysphoria can range from unpleasant to life-threatening; it’s a force to be reckoned with.

Most transgender people experience and relate to dysphoria differently. Some have very little (tiny dysphoria monster tucked in their pocket), some have debilitating dysphoria (picture the gender dysphoria equivalent of Godzilla). Dysphoria can fluctuate on an hourly, daily, weekly basis. How much dysphoria is present on a day-to-day basis can be dependent on temperament, life experience, support, stage of transition, relationship status, triggers, and much more.

Here is an example of how the Dysphoria Monster can work: picture a female-to-male individual walking down the street with a female friend. He’s feeling good; confident, content, enjoying the day. His monster is quiet; he doesn’t really notice it. Suddenly he and his friend enter a restaurant and they are greeted with, “Hello, Ladies!”. His monster is awakened! Growling, breathing down his neck. The monster sits with them at the table for the rest of the meal as he agonizes over being misgendered.

Ever heard of the expression “don’t poke the bear”? It’s important as the loved one of a transgender person that you don’t “poke the Dysphoria Monster”. Be aware of the fact that this monster is lurking nearby and that it is in your loved one’s best interest that the monster stays docile. Unfortunately, parents and partners (and other loved ones) can fairly easily poke the monster because they are usually the ones who are around the individual the most. This can happen in any number of ways: misgendering (using wrong pronouns), using birth name, commenting on body parts, commenting on appearance, giving tips on how to be masculine/feminine, the list goes on.

Do you want to know how big and unruly your loved one’s Dysphoria Monster currently is, and how to avoid inadvertently awakening it? Here are some tips:

  • Educate yourself on dysphoria. Don’t expect your loved one to do it all for you. Understand what can be the most distressing parts of being transgender. Use compassion to fill in the blanks you don’t understand.
  • Check in. Don’t be afraid to ask, “How’s your dysphoria?” (or whatever word they would like you to use). Usually they will know exactly what you mean, and you will get the most direct answer that way.
  • Ask them what triggers their dysphoria the most. This will help you not only learn to avoid causing these triggers yourself, but will be alerted to check in after you witness one of these triggers happening.
  • Ask what helps lower their dysphoria. Ask when they feel the least dysphoric, and then try to increase or replicate these experiences/situations.

How big is your or your loved one’s Dysphoria Monster? Would you describe it differently?