During my recent interview on the Godless Business podcast, I was asked whether I was “pre-op” or “post-op” – terms which refer to whether a transgender person has had genital surgery. Since this wasn’t really the focus of our conversation, I just answered the question and moved on. But after we were done, it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to be said about this, such as how relevant the pre-op/post-op distinction actually is in trans people’s lives, what kinds of questions would more accurately reflect our experiences, and when it’s appropriate to ask about these things.
To start with, it’s really important to understand that unless they’ve indicated that they’re willing to talk about this, trans people might not want to answer just any question about being trans. Agreeing to talk about it in the context of an interview is one thing, but in our everyday lives, respect for boundaries is important. Think about it: There’s a difference between “Hi, how are you doing?”, and “Hi, how are your genitals doing?” The latter can be intrusive and presumes a degree of personal familiarity that usually isn’t there.
If you wouldn’t say that to someone who’s not trans, then why would you say it to someone who is? Unless you know them really well and they’re okay with talking about it, don’t just assume that they’ll be fine with this. For a lot of trans people, being trans is something that’s already on their mind a lot, and sometimes, the last thing they want is to talk about it with random people who may not even understand them and are potentially hostile.
Having a body that isn’t fully in step with your identity is a pretty personal thing, and like anyone else, you can’t expect trans people to be completely open about their own private history. Recognize that the usual norms are still in place – about asking people how they have sex, what their genitals look like, the surgeries they’ve had and the medications they’re on – and understand that for trans people, these can be even more sensitive topics. And just because you heard one trans person voluntarily talking about this, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is therefore a subject of casual conversation that’s suitable for all occasions. Treat it as opt-in, not opt-out.
Of course, that only covers people who you already know to be trans. If you don’t know that someone is trans, then you definitely shouldn’t just ask them about it. If they are trans, and they haven’t told anyone, consider that they simply may not want people to know. Confronting them out of nowhere would be disrespectful, if not extremely unnerving.
But aside from the matter of when it’s improper to ask questions, it’s also worth examining what kinds of questions would be more fruitful when the topic is on the table. Whether someone is pre-op or post-op tends to be one of the most common starting points for those who are trying to understand trans people, but it’s far from the most useful. It’s easy to see why this is the first thing that would come to mind: most of the world still regards gender as being defined by genitals, and this is a quick way to eliminate an unknown and determine where trans people fall within that system.
The problem is that this system is incomplete and inaccurate. What’s in someone’s pants is only one small part of who they are as a person. To trans people, this tends to be obvious, but to others, it may not be. Maybe it’s just something you have to experience firsthand: if your body, identity, and presentation are all in sync, you might think your genitals have something to do with the fact that you’re seen by others as your gender and treated appropriately. But for us, it’s clear that whether we’ve had genital surgery isn’t usually relevant in our day-to-day lives.
When body and identity are no longer linked together and restricted to being all-male or all-female, it becomes obvious that genitals don’t always matter all that much. We don’t go around pulling people’s clothes off to tell what gender they are – we use other clues. The way that someone goes about life as their gender usually hinges on features other than their anatomy, so while it may be personally important to some trans people, modifying our anatomy is far from our only means of exerting control over this.
At times, it can be artificially forced into greater prominence in our lives by laws in some areas that prevent us from receiving identity documents that match our gender until we have surgery – a requirement that’s all the more troublesome when such operations are undesired or out of reach. Yes, not all of us seek that kind of surgery. The dichotomy of “pre-op” and “post-op” depicts it as something that either happened already, or hasn’t happened yet. This ignores that for some of us, it may be something that never happens – there is no “yet”. Some people can’t have it for medical reasons. Many just don’t have the means to afford it. And some of us simply don’t want it – we’ve decided that we’re satisfied with what we have.
So, what sort of things are more relevant to our goal of going about life as our preferred gender? Well, you could ask what made us realize that this was something we wanted for ourselves. You could ask us when and how we came out – we each have our own stories, much as with anything else you have to come out about, and this tends to be one of the first steps in the process of transitioning. Another major milestone is presenting full-time as our intended gender, something with much greater significance to our everyday lives than the state of our genitals. You could ask what sorts of interesting things we’ve noticed as a result of having lived in two different genders. You could ask us about what kind of difficulties we’ve faced as a result of transitioning. And you can ask what you can do to support trans people in a meaningful way.
Just as with anyone else, there’s so much more to our lives than surgery. And when we do have the opportunity to learn from each other, it would be a shame to miss out on the full breadth of human experience.