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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.