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Feb 03 2012

How To Ask A Trans Person Questions Without Being Insensitive About It

Okay. We get it. You’re curious. You have questions. Lots of them. That’s totally understandable. Transgenderism is, to you, something really strange and hard to comprehend, and also intensely fascinating as it calls into question some of the fundamental assumptions about identity and gender. We’re rare, too, and a great many of us prefer to remain invisible. You don’t meet us very often, and when you do, it’s rare that it’s an occasion where you’re able to ask anything. There are very few trans people who are out there willing to make themselves available as sources of information. So you want to take that rare opportunity to ask some of the questions you’ve had floating around in your head ever since you first heard there were such a thing as people who change their sex.

What’s the harm, right? You’re only expressing interest and trying to understand. You’re reaching out, showing a desire to learn and grow. You’re demonstrating your acceptance through your willingness to engage.

Well.. sort of. Trouble is, you’re also often expressing entitlement, and reenacting some of the forces of oppression that make our lives a bit less than wonderful. Unintentionally, of course, but as we should all understand by now, intent isn’t magic, and consequences are consequences.

It’s important to understand that there’s a whole lot more of you (cis people with questions) than there are of us (openly trans people to ask). As such, we’re bombarded with questions all the time. It defines (and detracts from) a pretty significant chunk of our social interactions. And it’s virtually guaranteed that whatever your question is, this is not the first time we’ve been asked.

There’s a couple things that have resulted in this being on my mind. The FAQ and the questions sent in in response to my “Ask Me Stuff!” post are NOT amongst them. Those questions were solicited, which is a totally different kind of thing, and I’m appreciative of all the questions readers did send in. I’m talking here about unsolicited questions. There was the little interaction with commenter Eternally Learning in response to my post In Memory Of Another Natalie, based on some prior history at a skeptic web forum, and there was also an annoying little run-in I had yesterday where a stranger at a check-cashing shop asked me a series of very personal questions, such as when I first knew I was trans, whether I was on hormones, and how my family had reacted.

So I figured it might be helpful to put up a little guide for how to ask your questions in a respectful way.

Respect our boundaries.

Each of us is a unique person, and we’re each going to each have our own comfort level and different degrees to which we’re going to be open about sharing information, and different situations or contexts in which we’re comfortable sharing that information. It’s likely that we’re going to end up establishing for ourselves certain boundaries; certain questions we’re not going to answer, certain contexts or situations in which we don’t want to be approached or asked about things, and other contexts which we’d prefer over others, that kind of thing.

It’s important to respect that. We do not exist for the sake of satisfying your curiosity, and we do not owe you answers and understanding. We may choose to avail ourselves as an intellectual resource, but this is something that is purely our own decision to make.

So please, try to respect the boundaries we establish, and don’t push those boundaries. Don’t act like it’s some kind of terrible imposition we’re inflicting on you when we say there’s certain things we’d prefer not to discuss, or certain things we’d prefer to discuss only in private, or certain things we’re just tired of talking about and may just not want to talk about at a certain time. We have the right to set boundaries. You should respect them. If you begin criticizing us for this or getting angry, you are displaying a huge degree of privilege and entitlement. Our lives, experiences, stories and perspectives are our own, and you do not get to claim a right to them.

Remember that some things are personal.

So, when you meet a man for the first time, do you go right ahead and ask him how big his penis is and whether or not it’s circumsised?

If not, why should you think it’s appropriate to ask a trans woman about the state of her genitals and whether or not she’s had SRS within the first five minutes of meeting her?

Some stuff is personal. Stuff like our op-status, our breasts and hormones and medical history and sexualized aspects of our body, our grooming habits, etc. Those are our bodies, and the fact that we are transgender doesn’t mean intimate details about them are suddenly, inexplicably a matter of public record. Intimacy is still intimacy.

Focusing questions about us and our transitions on things like genitals and other sexualized aspects of our bodies also plays into cultural narratives that hyper-sexualize and objectify trans women (and women in general), sexualize transition, and sexualize gender. Gender is not all about sex. Gender is very much also about identity and other things like culture, personality, interpersonal relationships, family, social role, and lots and lots of other things. Please don’t reduce us to what’s between our legs.

Beyond that, some things are personal for different reasons. Asking us about our relationships with our families is also a pretty rude and inappropriate thing to do, especially given how tragically common it is for trans people to be alienated from their families. Why on Earth would you think it is okay to bring that up, to call to mind the trauma and pain of a shattered family?

Birth-names are also a rather rude thing to ask about. Those are highly emotionally loaded and very emblematic and evocative of  the identities and past we’ve fought very hard to shed. Typically, we do not wish to be reminded of those old identities, and hate being reminded that we’re still trailing those histories behind us. Usually that is something we want to put squarely in the past. Names carry considerable power and emotional weight.

In general, try to be very careful to consider whether or not this is something we’re going to want to be asked about. Don’t allow your curiosity to throw off your sense of tact, respect and what is or isn’t appropriate. Also, try to have some perspective and be able to put yourself in our shoes.

Listen.

It’s generally very poor form to ask someone something just for the sake of arguing it.

If, for example, you ask us which terms we consider offensive, don’t go ahead and argue about why those terms shouldn’t be offensive. Don’t ask us what pronouns we prefer only to say that you’re going to call us whatever the hell you want anyway. Don’t ask our perspective on a certain aspect of gender theory only to tell us we obviously don’t understand the concepts very well. Don’t ask us about transgenderism only to cissplain how we’re still “really” our birth sex and always will be.

Basically, don’t ask a fucking question unless you’re actually willing to listen to our answer.

As said, we’re choosing to make ourselves available as a resource for greater understanding. We don’t need to, we’re not obliged to, and we’re not usually all that thrilled about it, but we do it as an act of kindness and consideration, for your benefit, because you asked. Please respect that and return our kindness with at least enough consideration to listen to our response and not simply throw it back in our face and act like you know this issue so much better than we do.

If you’re genuinely convinced that you understand a given issue better than trans people do, why bother asking us about it? Ask questions only if you’re prepared to listen to the answer and put some effort into learning and understanding. If you don’t want to learn and don’t give a damn about our answer, don’t ask.

And generally speaking? It’s pretty infuriating when cis people speak down to us and assume that they understand the issues of transgenderism better than we do, or act like we haven’t ever bothered considering certain basic concepts, like the fact that we can’t change our genetics or that self-acceptance is a lot easier than surgical modification. We know. We’ve struggled with those questions for years. Do NOT act like the only reason we transitioned is because we didn’t bother thinking it through, and that in the ten minutes you’ve bothered putting into those considerations you managed to figure everything out and found the missing key to the entire puzzle that will illuminate how incredibly flawed our perspectives are, that if we’d only noticed that one basic fact we’d totally abandon our silly misconceptions about our own identities. Just please, as a matter of common sense, assume that us trans folk have thought this stuff through pretty fucking thoroughly.

We didn’t ask for this.

We did not transition because we wanted to spend the rest of our lives playing the role of advocate, educator and object of study. We didn’t ask to be constantly approached with questions about our gender and body for the remainder of our natural days. It’s just a somewhat annoying part of the package. One of the things we accept we have to deal with if we want to attain our goal of living as our true selves, and be open about who we are.

Please remember that. If someday we begin asserting our boundaries, or saying stuff like “hey, you know what? I’ve had to address this point three times already this week and I’m kind of tired of it. Can we talk about this some other time?”, just accept that and go use google or something. Don’t get all mad and be like “well, if you didn’t want to answer these questions, why are you openly trans at all? Why did you answer that other guy’s question? Why do you have a blog?” Etc.

The reasons we may choose to be open about being trans usually have nothing at all to do with you or your questions. Different questions or different contexts may feel comfortable to us while others don’t. Sometimes our moods just vary. The fact that we’re okay with discussing one thing in one situation doesn’t mean we’re cool with discussing everything in every situation. Having a blog, or appearing on podcasts, or stuff like that, are individual decisions that we made in individual circumstances. In the case of a blog or podcast, for instance, we may feel the potential benefit of getting the information to a wide audience makes up for the inconvenience or risk or discomfort associated with delving into those topics. Remember, we have a right to set boundaries. We also have a right to set our own terms.

Please don’t just assume that we’ve merrily, happily volunteered to be open books.  A lot of the time, the situation is a lot more like getting drafted into an army than signing up at the recruitment office. As such, you don’t get to act like we’re being fickle or hypocritical when we sometimes want a bit of a break from this.

Be aware of the implications your questions carry.

Questions usually have implications behind them. A sort of statement or worldview beneath it, expressed through the manner in which the question is framed. Try to bear that in mind and be careful about whether those implications are insulting or invalidating of our identities and stuff like that.

As an example, if when asking us our birth name (which as said is already rude anyway, unless you’re on very close, intimate terms with this person), you ask it as “What’s your real name?” you are implying that the assigned name (and the assigned sex that went with it) are more real than our identified sex and the identity we’ve created for ourselves and fought very, very hard for. Those implications hurt.

As a subtler example, asking something even superficially flattering like “does it take a lot of work to look as good as you do?” would carry negative implications such as that a cisgender standard of beauty is the default, that all trans people ought to aspire towards cisgender standards of beauty, that cis = pretty/good and trans = not, that our “natural state” is NOT good-looking, and that our outward presentation is a construct, a simulation and an artifice that we have to put effort into building, that this isn’t simply our honest, basic self, and that the primary goal of this effort and artifice is only to render ourselves aesthetically pleasing to others.

So before you ask your question, just try to take a quick moment to consider the worldview upon which it’s based, and try to spot any potentially offensive statements that might be contained within the framework of the question.

Be careful about the assumptions and baggage you’re bringing to the interaction.

Similar to the last, there are a lot of assumptions and cis privilege that you’re naturally going to bring with you to your questions. Those can end up being rather insulting, frustrating and difficult to unpack.

I’ve often been asked the question of why I believe that having a feminine personality means that I’m female, implying that this is just a misunderstanding on my part, that it’s an antiquated, anti-feminist, binary-enforcing mistake I’ve made. That carries with it a pretty huge cisgender assumption, being that “gender” is only about gender role / expression, which is itself a mistake and fails to understand the divide between gender identity and gender expression which is somewhat difficult to avoid noticing if you’re trans. It carries enormous (inaccurate) assumptions about our motivations.

There are in fact LOTS of questions we get asked that make such assumptions about our motives… assuming that it has something to do with hatred or distaste for our assigned gender (rather than simply that that gender wasn’t right for us), assuming that our motives were sexual in nature, assuming that it’s about fitting in, assuming that we just couldn’t accept ourselves, assuming that we didn’t try other things, assuming our sexual orientation is towards the sex opposite our identified sex, and SO many others.

Please try to acknowledge that you can’t really assume anything about our motives (and that most assumptions you may have about any aspect of trans experience contains a significant chance of being incorrect). Please try to be aware of your own relative lack of understanding. Approach us from a position of seeking to understand, not just trying to expand upon the assumptions you’ve already crafted. Approach us from a position of not knowing.

Be mindful of the risks or danger you may be exposing us to.

It’s not always safe being trans. We’re a VERY big target for bigots, and at very high risk for not only the usual kinds of not-very-nice-ness, but often at risk for actual violence. As such, there’s some situations where it’s just not a good idea to broach the topic of our gender at all.

If you and I are sitting in a crowded bar, and you suddenly ask me about the process of acquiring an approval letter for hormone therapy, you’ve just potentially outed me to everyone in earshot. If something like that happens in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person listening in, I could end up with some of my teeth knocked out. Or worse.

On a comparatively milder level, if you ask me a question like that in a public thread on a web forum that is not a specifically trans-friendly space, you’ve just extended a tacit invitation for everyone there to offer there own opinions on the subject, and on transgenderism in general. A lot of those opinions can be very nasty. It’s especially careless to do this on a web forum with a noted history of transphobia.

So please be mindful of the setting in which you’re asking the question, and be mindful of the risks to which you might be exposing us by asking.

Remember that we’re exhausted.     

Like I’ve said, it’s virtually a guarantee that no matter what you’re asking, it’s not the first time we’ve been asked. For a lot of questions, we’ve had to answer them over and over and over and over. Like I’ve been asked to define “cis” at least thirty times since I began identifying myself as openly transgender in non-specifically-trans internet spaces.

So if we seem a bit frustrated sometimes, or cranky, or snarky, or just don’t want to deal with something sometimes, don’t take it personally. It’s probably just that we’re tired.

Also try to remember that there are certain times and places where it’s just not really going to be very fun to get asked these things again. Like times when we’re specifically trying to talk about something that has nothing to do with being trans.

And really: google is your friend. To an even greater extent than that an individual trans person has probably been asked a given question before, some trans person somewhere has almost definitely been asked before. So just please be prepared to do a little of your own research every now and then. The answers aren’t being hidden in some Secret Vault Of Tranny Wisdom somewhere. They’re out there. They’re available.

Are you holding us to inappropriate or unfair standards, or asking us to “prove” the legitimacy of our own identities?

This is a really big one.

One of the absolute worst things us trans folk have to deal with in terms of the questions we get asked by cis people is when those questions are specifically constructed such that we’re being positioned as though we need to prove ourselves. There are times when it becomes clear that we’re not being asked this stuff for the sake of helping someone learn and understand, but instead because they refuse to respect our identity until they feel they’ve been satisfactorily convinced that we really are what we say we are.

It’s not fair to treat our assigned sex as the default, to take a cisnormative position in which trans identities are not acceptable unless some kind of sufficient evidence is presented, to take everyone else’s identities at their word but expect that we need to successfully argue the legitimacy of our own before you’ll accept it, and to hold us to inappropriately strict standards of gender before you’ll condescend to treat us with the basic level of respect a human being deserves.

We do not owe you an explanation in exchange for your respect. As human beings, just like you, we already deserve it.

Before interrogating our gender identity, ask yourself the motives behind your questions. Are you trying to learn more about transgenderism for the sake of understanding it better, for the sake of compassion? Or are you asking because you think we’re not really what we claim to be or are a threat or don’t fit into your worldview and you expect proof before you’ll accept anything we say or are?

Proof and evidence are wholly reasonable things to expect when people make extraordinary truth claims about the nature of the world. But we are not doing that. Our claims are not extraordinary, and they are simply expressions of our own subjective identity.

If you insist on proof and consistent, well-reasoned arguments that I can rightly claim membership in the category “woman”, that the definitions of that category that include me are the only ones that can reasonably be applied within human sociology, that the definitions that exclude me are not reasonable in the context of a person’s identity and would necessarily exclude many cis women too, and/or that my gender identity is legitimate, I can indeed provide it. You bet your gender-normative ass I can. But I shouldn’t have to, and you certainly have no right to demand it.

Try not to treat us as an object of study, a specimen or as a special, exotic, fascinating Other.

This one is also pretty important. Regardless of how good your intentions, being placed in the position of telling you all about who we are and our experiences and what transgenderism is can be a very othering experience. It can make us feel like outsiders, some kind of alien that is being intellectually dissected by the natives of the planet upon which we’ve crashed.

No matter how much you may even have a highly positive view of us, seeing us as brave or sexy or wondrous or intensely interesting, asking questions in such a way that it frames us as anything more (or less) than a human being like any other can be a pretty alienating and emotionally difficult thing for us to deal with.

We do understand, and we know you’re curious, and we know that from your perspective we are an alien and strange thing, something very, very difficult to understand. But please try not to remind us of that or rub it in our faces. We know that you’ll never fully comprehend us and our experiences, but do your best to try not to emphasizee the distance between us. Instead remember to also hint at our commonality and our shared humanity.

Shared, simple, mundane, and universally wondrous, fascinating humanity.

Be aware of the power dynamics and social context.

Remember that when you’re interrogating us, you’re speaking from a position of privilege. You’re in the position of power and we are, comparably, vulnerable and weak. Therefore taking a position where you don’t really acknowledge this, or aggressively approach us as peers with equal social power, on equal footing, where you can go toe to toe with us in a fair fight is kind of mean. We can’t really fight back all that well.

We’ve also endured a whole lot of discrimination, oppression, suffering, cruelty, bigotry, hatred, bullying and dismissal. We’ve spent most of our lives being kicked around, having who we are denied, being treated as one of the principal objects of shame, scorn and ridicule within our culture. We internalized a lot of that and ended up torturing ourselves for years. Our discrimination is still institutionalized and culturally acceptable. We are at immense risk for violence, murder, suicide, poverty and many other dark things. We’ve lost family. We’ve lost friends. We’ve made enormous sacrifices and gone through incredible pain just to have one of the most basic, fundamental sources of comfort that the vast majority of human beings are simply handed on a platter and take very much for granted: a body we can call our own.

All in all, being trans is hard. And we’re hurt.

So please remember that. Don’t walk into the conversation like we’re tough and fine and totally your equal and can handle whatever you throw at us. We have wounds and vulnerabilities. Please don’t poke at them or remind us of what hurts.

Be aware of how your questions may be asserting your power and privilege, and be aware that you may be speaking from a position of entitlement

When you get upset that we don’t want to answer your question, or you act like we need to prove our identity to you, or act like we owe you whatever explanations you want whenever you want, then you are displaying a pretty brazen sense of entitlement. That’s not very nice. Please don’t do that.

A lot of the time, these conversations and questions will be structured in such a way that it asserts a cis person’s position of privilege relative to the other. A lot of the time, when the conversation is all about us providing you with the “proof” you think you need in order to accept us, what you’re doing is kind of like strutting around saying “I’m the boss here! YOU don’t define your gender! I get to define it! I don’t have to call you a woman or think of you as such unless I want to! I’m in charge here, I have the power, and I’m going to make sure you know it!

Also not very nice. Please don’t do that.

Being nice means recognizing your privilege, and not using conversations with trans people about trans stuff as a means of asserting it and letting us know who’s got the upper hand. We already know. We’d often prefer to forget.

Be aware of how you are assigning responsibility. Are you treating it as our job to educate you, and our responsibility to ensure that we are not oppressed?

Say you’re an ally and full of good intentions. If you’re reading this blog, you probably are. Thanks! I appreciate you guys, I really, really do.

But… please try not to act like it’s my job to ensure that you’re a good ally and provide you with all the answers. It’s really not my responsibility to educate everyone about the nature of my oppression and make sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do in order to not contribute to it. Positioning responsibility that way not only is an assertion of entitlement as described above but also re-enacts the oppression: “If you want to be treated humanely, first you’re going to have to earn it!”

Instead it’s your responsibility to learn how to not participate in the oppression. That’s what being an ally is, assuming that responsibility and doing your best to live up to it.

I’ll try to be as appreciative as I can. And I’ll often choose to help. And I want to do whatever I can to help make things so the next generation of trans girls and boys and boths, neithers and in-betweens grow up in a world better than the one I had. But it’s not my obligation to do so. That responsibility primarily lies instead on those who would otherwise be the ones recreating for them the oppressions I experienced.

It’s your job not to be a cissexist or transphobe.

If you’re here, and you’re listening, and you take these lessons to heart, you’re trying your best. That counts for a whole lot. Thank you.

57 comments

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  1. 1
    Martyn

    The advice you give here for asking questions in a respectful way should be common sense for most people.

    It’s depressing to read it is not the case though. Still, I am sure articles such as this one along with your other writings’ will educate no end.

    Awesome work. Again.

    1. 1.1
      rapiddominance

      @Martyn N Hughes

      I’m embarrassed to say this, but she did add to MY common sense closet.

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I would just invade her personal space out of curiosity; but it would have been out of intuition that I would refrain rather than by a clear, human understanding. Plus, I think the clarity I’ve recieved will apply in a lot of other situations, as well.

      @Natalie Reed

      Thanks for guidelines that will probably allow me to interact with many and various groups more respectfully. You’ve done an utterly socially clumbsy person a favor today with this read.

      Take care.

  2. 2
    Anders

    Exactly what do you keep in the Secret Vault Of Tranny Wisdom? :D Or is that secret?

    Excellent points; I wonder how many of those I’ve already broken. D: I can’t promise that I’ll always keep to these guidelines, because I have a big mouth. But I can promise I’ll try, and that I’ll calmly accept that it’s my fault if someone points out my mistakes. I hope that’s enough.

    1. 2.1
      janiceintoronto

      Would you please stop using the slur “trannies”

      I’m -so- tired of hearing it.

      Really.

      1. Natalie Reed

        Are you asking me?

        Because no, I’m probably not going to stop using it every now and then. I reserve the right to periodically include the word in my work. It’s a means, for me, of stripping it of its relative power, denying its ability to have power over me, and treating it as something over which I have control and can mock and belittle. It helps.

        If you’re asking Anders, he hasn’t really made a habit of using it, and in this case was only quoting a phrase from the article.

      2. Carol

        Because of the way people choose to identify themselves, just about any term you use is going to offend SOMEONE. Personally, I know a number of trans people who use and enjoy the term Tranny. I know a woman who openly embraces the term “Tranny Dyke” as her identity. It would be unfair to ask her, for example, not to use the term that she has decided suits her because the term “Tranny”, or the term “Dyke” for that matter, offends someone else. I use the term “dyke” to apply to myself which often gets met with objection from other lesbians and other people because I’m a cisfemale and I’m femme. I’ve been told “you’re not a dyke” more often than I care to remember. It’s like telling african american people they can’t use whatever terms they choose to define themselves, ie the ever controversial “n” word. I know a woman who dislikes even the words trans, transgendered or transsexual because she simply wants to be known as a woman, not a trans woman. She calls herself a woman and says she was born with a deformity so she has remedied that deformity through medical intervention. Point is, there just isn’t one, blanket, all purpose, non-offensive term that works for everyone. You can’t avoid offending everyone. All you can do is use the terms you feel most comfortable with to define yourself and try and be as sensitive to others when directing terms at others. It’s unfair and unreasonable to ask that someone not use a self-identifier because it offends you or isn’t one you’re comfortable with if it suits them.

        As for the contents of this article, very well written. Personally, I find that if I simply have a little patience and get to know a person simply as a person, including trans people, any questions I have are answered later on. I’m not suggesting seeking out and befriending a trans person simply to learn more about them. That’s obnoxious. If you want to learn about trans-people in general, do some searching online. If you want to know more about a specific trans-person, consider simply becoming their friend and getting to know them as more than their gender identity, but as a whole person. Chances are any questions you have will be answered naturally in the course of a developing friendship much better than they would through some interrogation or interview process. Anything that doesn’t get answered through getting to know the person as a person is probably sensitive information and at some point you may get to a point of being close enough with the person to have the privilege of friendship to ask more delicate questions. This has the added benefit that you may learn things about this person that have nothing to do with being trans at all, and you make a new friend in the process who is much more complex and interesting than the narrow view of their gender identity.

    2. 2.2
      Natalie Reed

      Don’t worry! You’re fine!

      1. Anders

        Thanks. My self-confidence is not at its highest point right, so that’s one of those questions you’ll tire of…

        Two things – does this apply to compliments as well? Does hearing how brave you are lose its luster after a while?

        Also, you used a word in the FAQ – dilation. Is it ok to ask for clarifications of term you use? I think I can guess what it is, and if it is that then its unlikely to come up in polite conversation.

        1. Natalie Reed

          Compliments can definitely be tricky and complex too, and I do personally have some negative feelings towards the “you’re so brave” stuff, and compliments can ALSO carry lots of cissexist assumptions and implications (like “you look great! I never would have guessed!” being an extremely transphobic thing to say, once you peel back the surface), so yeah, one should be careful about them. But there’s definitely more leeway with compliments, since it’s clear that one’s intentions are positive, and that you don’t MEAN to be hurting the recipient. So a trans person may be made uncomfortable by a compliment, and a compliment may contain cissexist or transphobic implications and undertones, but we’re usually much quicker to forgive someone, be understanding and offer the benefit of the doubt in those circumstances.

          Dilation is probably exactly what you think it is.

          Like, you know when you get a piercing, you need to leave the stud in for awhile so that the piercing doesn’t heal shut?

          As I’ve mentioned a couple times recently, I am going to create a glossary very, very soon.

        2. Diane

          Thank you for all this education. I have to say I hope telling someone they are brave does not offend them because I have said that. I just can’t imagine going through life uncomfortable in my own skin and then being at the point where I can make changes and maybe still wondering was I making the right choice at the right time in life. The pressure of an uneducated world would be overwhelming for me and that is what makes me feel like they were brave to go through all that pain to be who they know they were supposed to be from the very beginning.

    3. 2.3
      Emily

      Exactly what do you keep in the Secret Vault Of Tranny Wisdom? :D Or is that secret?

      It’s a secret. Duh :P

      And it’s a wonderful secret~

      1. Natalie Reed

        An amazing, incredible secret.

        But I’m afraid we’re simply not allowed to share it with outsiders.

  3. 3
    Anders

    The problem for me would be that I can either ask (and risk asking something you’ve explained a million times), or not ask (thinking I can put myself into your shoes when I have overlooked something important). But I agree that Google is my friend.

    1. 3.1
      Emily

      Well, if you are courteous and respectful in your questioning, and back off if we refuse to answer, you should be okay. Just be mindful, and ask yourself “would I approach anyone else with this type of question about them?”

  4. 4
    Jeff Engel

    Thank you very much. Much of this will apply for any of us dealing with anyone down a social power gradient and it’s a powerful reminder that genuine egalitarian respect for other people doesn’t mean acting as if there is not and never has been any form of bigotry whatever than can bear on your conversational partner’s experience. It means recognizing it, accounting for it, and working to correct it.

  5. 5
    Ace of Sevens

    I suppose asking to feel your beasts is right out.

    I bring this up because of this story. While Russell comes off as pretty creepy, I’m more worried about the pronoun troubles in the article.

    1. 5.1
      Ace of Sevens

      And by beasts, I mean breasts.

    2. 5.2
      Natalie Reed

      That was one of the very first questions I was asked after coming out to one of my ex-roommates.

      1. Emily

        Ew. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have had anyone approach me in that manner. Granted, I’m on a campus with an LGBT Safe Zone training program.

      2. Pteryxx

        …seriously? Gaaaah.

        The word “beasts” seems appropriate here… but not for the body parts. Sheesh.

        1. Emily

          Agreed.

      3. Anders

        Hah! He was just copping a feel from a cute girl. If it works it works.

        1. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

          Uhhh, that’s kind of a really creepy thing to say wrt that article.

          1. Natalie Reed

            Kind of, yeah… she was his niece. And sometimes “what works” is, you know, sexual assault.

          2. Anders

            Ok, sorry. That was over the line. Still have to adjust my common sense, it seems.

  6. 6
    bubba707

    Maybe I’m an odd duck or something, but I’m not particularly curious about transgendered people. I simply accept people as they present themselves and let it go at that. In my life the topic of sexuality simply doesn’t come up and I’m not at all concerned about people being LGBT since it doesn’t impact my life or sexuality a bit and I refuse to exclude or make an issue of it. I take people one at a time and I like em or I don’t based on what kind of person they are not who they love or what gender they are. I wish more people would just learn to mind their own business and keep their noses out of others private and personal matters.

    1. 6.1
      Mara

      I don’t think you’re odd, because I’m pretty much the same way.

      I mean, I’m not saying that I’m not interested in reading things about what it’s like to be transgender or what have you, but I just can’t see why anyone would feel the need to bug someone with these kinds of questions.

      I have friends who are transgender and I don’t see why it’s any of my business whether they’re on hormones or how big their breasts are or whatever. If they want to tell me something, I’m happy to listen and be a sympathetic ear, but why would I bug them about it?

      This may be related to the fact that when I was pregnant, random strangers would ask me if I was having a “natural” birth (no, very unnatural) or if I was planning to breastfeed (I thought I’d try footfeeding first and see if it worked).

      I swear, if I ever ask these kinds of intrusive questions with no good reason, I hope the person hits me, because I’ll deserve it.

      1. betsumei

        I’ve noticed a shocking amount of personal-space violations around pregnant women as well. No asking, just walk up and touch the belly.

  7. 7
    felicis

    Great post – and I might note that your advice is not limited to asking questions of transgendered people, but of anyone who is appreciably different from societal norms. Were I to talk with a Native American (or one of the First Nations Peoples, to use Canadian parlance), or a black person, or a Muslim, or a lesbian or gay person – most of your points would apply to anything I would (as a cis-hetero-white-male) apply. I have been learning to see more and more the privilege that I enjoy, and how it colors my interactions with others. You just gave me a great guide and reminder of how to help keep that privilege in check – thank you!

  8. 8
    felicis

    Ooops – edit:

    “most of your points would apply to anything I would (as a cis-hetero-white-male) apply

    “most of your points would apply to anything I would (as a cis-hetero-white-male)say

  9. 9
    Cynthia

    YES! You could devote an entire blog and the rest of your life to the question of “why do people think they have the right to ask and expect an answer to any damn thing they ask?”, but who has that kind of time?

    I am one of those who, like Bubba at #7, feels people should have private lives. Period. So I will never ask you personal questions unless you invite them in our personal relationship.

    I’ll confess I came to this choice in part to the incredible questions I’ve been asked. Pregnancy is an education in intrusive questions (a cashier asked me if I had hemorroids and how much weight I gained) and I gained a huge respect for not asking.

    I appreciate you putting yourself out there for quizzing, too. but if I meet you in public, you’ll have to volunteer it, because I’ll pay you the respect you deserve and not ask. I’ll stick to things like ‘is this seat open’ and ‘would you like to get a drink’.

    1. 9.1
      jolo5309

      “why do people think they have the right to ask and expect an answer to any damn thing they ask?”

      I am trying to think of any time asking personal questions of this sort would not be rude.

      1. Emily

        Being trans seems to short circuit people’s ability to determine whether or not a question is rude.

        1. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

          Genderqueer folk cause similar, though usually less frequent or safety-threatening mental effects in strangers.

        2. Wintersong

          I have a similar experience as someone with Tourette Syndrome. When people find out I have TS they often launch immediately into a whole host of questions that can be incredibly inappropriate.

          I’m not entirely sure where this idea that people who fit within the dominant social paradigms of gender/race/disability/social class/etc are *entitled* to answers from people who don’t comes from, but it can be very tiring to live with.

          1. Natalie Reed

            Yeah, I can imagine! Must be especially tough in that what most people think Tourette’s Syndrome is and means is almost completely unlike the reality of it. You have my sympathies.

  10. 10
    Yellow Thursday

    I’m not sure if this is the appropriate place or time for this story, but I’ve been thinking about it since you described your conversation with the employee of the check-cashing place yesterday.

    I’ve met only one trans person (in meatspace), that I know of. Katlyn was a customer of the bank (where I still work) when I was a teller. She had a very masculine look, in spite of dressing and wearing her hair in a feminine style. I don’t know where she was in her transition, and it’s not my place to speculate. She never offered any information. She wasn’t even prone to small talk. I’ve never been one to pry into people’s personal lives, even though I was curious in this case.

    A few of my coworkers had known Katlyn before her transition, even as a child, when she was known as Frank. One of them, who used to work at a clothing store, even made jokes about Katlyn trying on and buying women’s clothing. I tried to say that it wasn’t funny, but I must not have been very effective, because the jokes continued.

    The last time I remember seeing Katlyn, one of the tellers addressed her as “Frank.” When Katlyn protested, the teller said, “Your parents named you Frank, and I’ve always known you as Frank, so I’m going to call you Frank.” Katlyn stormed out. The rest of the employees were rightly horrified, but I don’t think the teller was reprimanded for her behavior.

    About a year later (IIRC), Katlyn’s obituary appeared in the paper. It said she died alone, in her home. Again, it’s not my place to speculate. I didn’t know Katlyn very well, but I miss her sometimes.

    1. 10.1
      Pteryxx

      I thought I was calm about this until your story. Now I’m furious. Since when do employees get to harass a customer, much less put someone’s self up to a vote. Why would anyone even DO such a thing? What is so damn important about victimizing outsiders and gaining those knowing, vicious laughs?

      The only unsolicited questions we should EVER get to ask are “Are you all right?” and “How can I help?”

      1. Yellow Thursday

        I completely agree. The way my coworkers treated Katlyn made me angry and sad. But I said very little about it because most of it was going on after Katlyn left. Most of what I said was along the lines of “that’s not right” or “that’s not funny.” The incident with the teller insisting on calling her “Frank” really made me angry, but by the time I might have said something, Katlyn had already left.

      2. bubba707

        Sadly, some people revel in cruelty and especially enjoy being cruel to those that are different from themselves. I dispise that kind of beast. I like to follow my grandfathers advice, Go to hell is the only appropriate answer to a nosey question and a fat lip is the only practical response to any kind of assault. I’d consider that “employees” attitude an assault. Yeah, I’m an old country boy and having passed my 60th a bit on the old fashioned side.

  11. 11
    Emily Somers

    Another lovely blog post that falls into the category of “everything I wish I had said, and more!”

    One footnote I would add, as I would derive from my own experience, would be the need to caution people about offering ‘rebuttals’ to my answers. On a couple of awkward occasions now, I’ve had a rather presumptuous person offer his or her version of analytical commentary trying to deconstruct or expose what they feel are assumptions in my own thinking. And that is fine to an extent — because of course dialogue is important, and I hardly have all of the answers (or any answers). But I do wish cis-people would realize that it’s easy to dismiss or deconstruct an answer, when your life-experiences are quite far removed from the pressure of the question.

  12. 12
    Michael Brew

    Good post, and I’d definitely say this is good advice when talking to anyone for the first time.

  13. 13
    beardofpants

    You have invited me to ask you questions before (on facebook, I think), and it’s pretty much for the above reasons that I’ve abstained. A) I don’t view you as a scientific specimen to be dissected, and B) I figure that I will learn more through listening, and reading and google-fuing than by pestering with incessant questions.

  14. 14
    Cora Holt

    Thank you for writing this. My wife gets more than her fair share of inappropriate questions, sometimes from people she’s only known for five minutes. It’s tiring and upsetting. The worst questions come from people who insinuate the she is only “pretending” to be a woman. If people want to be supportive then not asking questions is a good place to start, but how about also not habitually getting pronouns wrong and then apologizing. Every five minutes, at every encounter.

  15. 15
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    Try not to treat us as an object of study, a specimen or as a special, exotic, fascinating Other.

    I disagree.

    Everyone is an other — except for me. Which means that I shouldn’t treat them like I would treat me, like, say, by assuming that my frame of reference is special when talking about them, because my frame of reference is only special when talking about me.

    Because everyone else is an other, furthermore, I cannot read their mind or judge their personality if they do not express their thoughts to me. If they don’t wish to do so, then life moves on. But if they do, I have to listen, because otherwise I make the ultimate mistake in denying them themselves, their own being, by attempting to impose myself on them and define them based on how I am defined (which I don’t even know very well in the first place).

    This means that I am also an other — to everyone else. And as an other, no one else knows what I think, or how I feel, and I can choose to not honestly express how I think or feel. As such, I must remember that others are trying to make an analysis of how I feel and they may not necessarily know me well enough to be able to take my words as more than such (and I have to do the same, despite it being one of the things I tend to fail at). Others, furthermore, may not wish to be honest for their own protection (another thing I tend to fail hard at), and I must respect that.

    The only real commonality is that we are all at some point going to screw up at some of the above.

    1. 15.1
      Josh, Official SpokesGay

      Excuse me, but you don’t get to “disagree.” You don’t get to tell Natalie that she is not allowed to ask people not to treat her as a specimen. You don’t get to “disagree” with her (quite understandable for anyone with empathy, ahem) being indignant or uncomfortable being treated as an object of discussion rather than a person with a well-delineated sphere of privacy.

      How fucking rude.

      Do you really, genuinely not understand the commonly understood meaning and negative, dehumanizing implications that the term Other brings up? Or, do you know it full well but you’re so self-important that you insist on pretending you don’t and substituting an entirely idiosyncratic definition so that you can make an obnoxious soliloquy?

      If you didn’t mean to come off that way then you need to write a whole hell of a lot more carefully.

      1. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

        I am loving the fuck out of this response.

  16. 16
    Anders

    Ok, people have been talking about power gradients and privilege flowing up and down said gradients. What do you mean by this and where can I learn more?

  17. 17
    Praedico

    I love posts like this. I have rather crappy social skills at the best of times, so anything that helps refine them is wonderful as far as I’m concerned.
    I don’t think I’ve been guilty of anything on this list… well, maybe one or two, but I hope I haven’t. And it’s all gone away in my mental ‘Shit to Avoid Doing’ file to keep a check on my future behaviour.

  18. 18
    Catie

    Thank you for writing this– it definitely made me think more about my word choices, what I say, and if I may be being unintentionally insensitive. One of my good friends is trans* and I often worry that I’m being horribly rude without meaning it, just because I am coming from a cis perspective and know so little about gender identities (I didn’t even know the word cisgender before last semester, true story).

    The part you wrote about being forced into the role of spokesperson really resonated with me: I was homeschooled, and now being at college I face a lot of questioning about what it was like, and sometimes have to contend with people insinuating that it’s an inferior method of schooling, you can’t be properly socialized, etc. I never asked to be a representative of every homeschooler ever, nor to have to defend myself for not having gone to public school. I realize that it’s not a perfect (perhaps not even good) comparison point with being trans*– the experiences themselves are of course entirely different– but I hope that I can avoid putting someone else through this interrogating/defending routine that I’ve experienced; I’d hate to think that I’d do that to someone else without even realizing it.

  19. 19
    tashaturner

    In the last year or so I got to know my 1st transgendered person somewhat well (that I was aware of). I don’t think I asked much of the above until she was hospitalized and then it was only to make sure she was going to be able to get the meds she needed both at the hospital and once she was released.

    I remember some surprise when from day one I simply treated her as her and and frankly kept forgetting the transgendered part. She simply was who she was and I was interested in treating her as the person she was. This did cause some funny discussions at times when I’d be talking about birth control or PMS with the girls.

  20. 20
    Dan

    I had to add: I hate the word tranny. I don’t like it being applied to me or my friends that are also trans*. I feel like it’s an ugly word. Be careful with the words you use to describe other people!

  21. 21
    Cpt. Senf

    Great Article, Thanks.

    Im sure it will give me a good Heads-Up if I ever come in that Situation of getting to know a trans-girl better,
    and these questions will inebitably come up.

    I admit I find the whole Topic fascinating, from a hobby-sociologist perspective,
    but i think this really will lasting insight,

    Also when i think back,
    of the few trans-girls i’ve met I never even bothered them with all this shit,
    i mean I am really interested in the subject, but thats why i have google,
    and sit here reading this blog, right ?

    I think many would like if you just move to the next topic
    and asked her if she liked video-games or something.

    PS:
    As an afterthought when I said in my first paragraph,
    that those questions will necessarily arise,
    let us not forget, that these kinds of questions do not only serve to fulfill my voyeuristic needs, but also as a basic social merit
    of establishing trust between people.
    I.e Me showing that I’m okay and rational with the whole topic.

  22. 22
    T B Stevens

    Yes, to my shame I’ve done a number of these things. For instance I had no idea what “Cis” meant. I can’t imagine what it may be like to live under that sort of microscope.

    I guess I might be able to equate it to being a Quaker, where I answer all the time, no, we aren’t Amish, those are Amish people, Quaker is different, and no I don’t make oatmeal, except for breakfast. Except that nobody seems really interested in systematically oppressing Quakers for imagined moral reasons.

    I will try hard to be more sensitive in the future. As always your perspective is interesting and valuable.

  23. 23
    Dendritic Trees

    Thank you for making me less stupid Natalie.

  24. 24
    Alexandra

    I wish I could print this essay, put it in a time machine and smack my past self in the head with it.

  25. 25
    Kao

    “If you insist on proof and consistent, well-reasoned arguments that I can rightly claim membership in the category “woman”, that the definitions of that category that include me are the only ones that can reasonably be applied within human sociology, that the definitions that exclude me are not reasonable in the context of a person’s identity and would necessarily exclude many cis women too, and/or that my gender identity is legitimate, I can indeed provide it. You bet your gender-normative ass I can. But I shouldn’t have to, and you certainly have no right to demand it.”

    Is this something you have already written or something someone else has written which you could point me to? I would really like to see these arguments laid out because it is an area of constant confusion for me. I have a number of trans and also genderqueer friends but have always been reluctant to ask about this, precisely for many of the reasons you have outlined in your article. My own personal investigations have not led me to a satisfactory answer, because gender theory is not at all a monolithic field and there are many competing and conflicting arguments out there. It doesn’t even seem to be a matter of different “schools” of thought pushing against each other but is much more chaotic than that. I am not asking you to write out your arguments just for me but if you can suggest a starting point I would really love it. Thanks!

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