Trans*Forming the Dialogue

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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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What’s In YOUR Pants?? (They’re called “privates” for a reason)

When a person reveals their transgender identity and plans to transition, one of the first questions they are often faced with has to do with their anatomy, or genitalia. If you have been one of those people asking such a question, don’t feel bad. It’s normal to be curious about this, and it’s something concrete I think people tend to ask about as a way of understanding the transition process. However, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why questions about a transgender person’s genitalia might be a little off the mark.

When you ask about anatomy/private parts/genitalia, you are referring to one’s sex, not gender. When a person reveals their gender identity to you and it is different than how you have always thought, they are explaining how they would like to be seen by friends, family, and society at large. They are talking about which pronouns they would like you to use (“he/him/his”, “they/them/theirs” “she/her/hers”, etc.), which name they would like you to use, and whether they would like to be seen as a man, woman, both, or neither. If you think about it, our genitalia do very little for us in explaining our gender identification! Simply put, no one sees these parts of us except perhaps medical professionals or those with whom we plan to be sexually intimate. If the one of first questions you ask is about one’s genitalia, I would say you’re concerned with the “wrong end”. Bring your attention up… way up. One’s gender identity exists in one’s brain. If you really want to know about how a transgender person feels, identifies, or wants to be seen, ask about what goes on for them in their brain.

If someone says they are “transsexual”, this translates to “changing sexes”. So the more outdated “sex change operation” applies here. (Now called Sexual Reassignment Surgery.)  However, your loved one will probably not refer to themselves as transsexual. You will likely hear the term “transgender” which yes, means “changing genders”. Stay with them in this revelation and focus on their gender, not their sex.  (For a more detailed explanation of these two concepts, please check out my Gender Vs. Sex blog.)

They’re called private parts for a reason.  A complaint I often hear from transgender individuals is that as soon as they reveal their plans to transition, others feel they have the right to know about what’s in their pants, or what’s going to be in their pants post transition. A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t normally ask this person about their genitalia, don’t do it after they’ve come out as transgender to you.

If the transgender individual is a VERY close friend or family member, and you think it’s ok to ask, ask eventually.  Don’t have it be one of your initial questions. Show you understand their gender FIRST. Do research on what options are out there for transgender individuals and then lovingly ask  your loved one what they are considering.

Be different. Because many transgender people have told me this is one of the first questions they get, it will be refreshing for them to come across someone who doesn’t ask about their anatomy. Ask about what you can expect with their upcoming changes and how you can support them during this major transition. More importantly, ask them how they are doing with such an important change.

Because changing genders is largely about how someone is seen and perceived, transgender individuals are often most interested in those changes that will help them “pass” as the gender which matches their brain gender identity. One’s genitalia is not proudly displayed while one is shopping at the grocery store. Therefore, genitalia is not one of the first considerations of a transgender individual when focusing their efforts on trying to pass. The main things that help individuals pass for a particular gender include but are not limited to: hair length and/or style, presence or absence of facial hair, pitch of voice, clothing, and presence or absence of breasts. When someone is trying to assess another’s gender, these factors are usually used the most when trying to make a decision. Hormone supplements (Testosterone or Estrogen) can assist with many of these changes.

Shay O’Reilly explained it well in the article “Shunning Medical Hoops, Transgender Patients Turn to ‘Informed Consent’ Model”: “While much media attention is paid to gender confirmation surgery, it’s hormone replacement therapy that often makes the largest difference in the lives of transpeople. Patients frequently report that hormone therapy makes their body feel more comfortable or more like home—more importantly to many, hormones masculinize or feminize the body, helping trans people be read correctly as their gender.”

Referencing one’s genitalia immediately following a revelation about their gender can enforce stereotypes and insecurities. When the questions and conversation goes immediately to one’s genitalia, you are reinforcing the misconception that one’s gender is based on and entirely connected to one’s anatomy. When one immediately “goes there”, the interpretation may be something like this, “You say you want to be a man, well, men have penises” or “So if you say you’re a woman, you’re going to have a vagina, right?”.  If the transperson cannot afford or does not wish to pursue “bottom surgery”, the implication could then be that they will not “really” be the gender they are saying they identify as.

Additionally, it is likely the trans person is acutely aware of how their anatomy (sex) does not match up with the gender identity of their brains. Calling attention to this and asking them to explain it (often over and over to many different people) can be exhausting. Not only because it’s private and could make the transperson uncomfortable, but because it may bring up feelings of inadequacy, sadness, or wishing their anatomy were different.

For the transperson reading this blog who does not like discussing this with others, here are a few tips to deal with “the” dreaded question.

  • Have a response ready, or an arsenal of responses ready. Be a broken record if you need to.  Examples:  “I’m not comfortable answering that”, “That’s a little too personal”, “I don’t feel comfortable telling you about me specifically, but I can tell you that some transgender people choose to … and some choose to….”. “That’s private”.
  • If the question brings up feelings of frustration or exasperation, take a deep breath. Give yourself space for a response. As I said before, I don’t believe others are trying to be invasive or inappropriate; they are merely curious and trying to understand.
  • Re-direct the person to a more appropriate means of getting their curiosity satisfied. “I appreciate your interest. Let me suggest some websites… books… blogs, etc.”
  • A great way to re-direct a question like this is to briefly clarify the difference between gender and sex. You could say, “Actually, that question is more about my sex, and I’m trying to tell you about my gender.”
  • Use humor. Laughing it off will make the other person more comfortable, and it will probably be good for you, too. Kim Pearson, co-founder of Trans Youth Family Allies and mother of a Female to Male transgender individual, uses a great response when fielding questions about her son. When asked if he’s had “the” surgery, she states, “No, he still has his appendix”. When the person then clarifies they were referring to genital surgery, she asks them to please go first and describe their child’s genitals in detail. 🙂

Stay tuned for my next blog which will include descriptions of bottom surgery and other options for transgender individuals. My hope is that this will help satisfy some curiosity so the questions don’t need to be asked as often, and for transpeople to use as a resource to give those who are curious.