“You Look Great! I Never Would Have Guessed!” And Other Acts Of Well-Intentioned Cissexism

Disclaimer: this post is not specifically inspired by or directed towards ANY of my friends, family, colleagues, readers or fans. I am very appreciative of all of your kindness and support.

A couple weeks ago when I posted about how to ask trans people questions without doing so in an insensitive or invasive way, I made a point about unintended implications or underlying assumptions. I also used as a brief example the compliment mentioned in this title. I wanted to explore that a little bit more, focusing on the context of compliments and support.

First of all, let me clarify that I really don’t hold this kind of thing against people. It’s a cultural, social issue, related to our generalized assumptions about gender. It’s not a fault of the person in question. They’re usually just trying to be friendly and supportive, and that’s not the kind of thing that ought to be met with someone biting their head off. So please just know I’m not attacking or judging anyone here. Just explaining a problematic aspect of the way we sometimes approach transgenderism.

Consider the compliment “You look amazing! If I didn’t already know, there’s absolutely no way I ever would have guessed you were trans!”. The person making this compliment has nothing but good intentions, but they’ve accidentally brought along a set of cisnormative standards and are applying those standards to their trans friend.

The main issue is that such a compliment equates passing with beauty. By treating the “I wouldn’t have guessed!” as flowing directly from “you look amazing!”, rather than treating the two issues as wholly distinct, it implies that passing is beauty and beauty is passing. It implies that the only way to be good-looking is by not looking trans, by blending in to cisgender standards of beauty. It holds a trans person up to those standards, and suggests that therefore transgenderism is not and cannot be beautiful. If someone is to be proud of the ways in which they look cisgender they need also be ashamed of the ways that they don’t.

Most compliments always carry these kinds of implications… for every trait regarded as a positive and worth praising someone for there is almost always a corollary trait implicitly regarded as negative. It’s usually a good idea to bear those things in mind.

As a general thing, cis friends, (supportive) family and allies of trans people are eager to demonstrate their support and acceptance. They feel empathy for the struggle and pain the trans friend or loved one must be going through, and want to let them know they’re on their side, that it’s okay, they care about them, and they want to make them feel better. But it all gets rather tricky in that a cis person is necessarily approaching from a cisgender perspective, and aren’t quite always going to be able to consider what their words will mean from a transgender perspective, or what consequences or hurt they may cause, no matter how much they’re motivated by compassion, friendship or love. They’re not always going to be aware of the implicit cissexism stowing away aboard their kindness.

So there’s a few things a cis person should try to keep in mind…

Don’t make assumptions about what our goals and desires are. You may for instance assume that we’re trying to look feminine or something when we really aren’t, and are actually just going for a laid-back look.

There’s an annoying tendency for there to be this sort of universal trans narrative that gets bandied about and indiscriminately applied to all trans people. It contains assumptions like that we’re ALL straight, that we’re ALL aiming to be either feminine or masculine (in accordance with our identified sex), that we ALL want surgery, that we ALL want to pass, that we ALL are trying to look conventionally attractive, etc. When you compliment us on meeting some kind of goal we never were actually pursuing, it sort of enforces that concept that there’s only this one particular way to be trans and that our individuality doesn’t count. So try not to make those assumptions, and don’t congratulate us on what you perceive as meeting or progressing towards a goal unless you actually know we have that as a goal.

Be careful not to reference stuff we might be really self-conscious about. Almost every woman has body image issues. With trans women, it’s practically a guarantee that those are going to be amplified by quite a bit. We’re exposed to all the same belittling, self-confidence shattering images and messages about what a woman is “supposed” to look like that everyone else gets. Trans men are no exception either. They may easily feel bad about not quite living up to societal expectations of how a man is meant to look.

When you take that kind of standard self-consciousness, and weigh it against the lingering pain and discomfort of gender dysphoria, and, well… there may be things about our bodies that we’d REALLY rather forget.

A well-intentioned ally may remark that he finds something about us that is kind of unique or unconventional to be beautiful or cool or sexy or something. That is not always a good idea, as it may be reminding us of something that is a very painful reality that we would want to change if we were able. Like if someone were to compliment me on having a husky voice that they like, or saying that they’re jealous of my height, they may mean it as a compliment but it’s still really going to sting.

Now, I think it’s healthy and good for a trans person to work towards accepting and loving their bodies as best as they’re able, and not spend their whole lives moping about the things they can’t change, but still… a little extra sensitivity and care is worth taking when remarking on a trans person’s bodies. Our relationships with them are typically complex, to say the least.

– Try not to treat us as special, exotic or fascinating. While it may to you seem like a compliment to remark on how interesting it is that we’re trans, or how you’ve never met someone like us before (yes you have, you just didn’t notice), or you think people like us are really brave or really fascinating or really sexy or really whatever, those kinds of statements are inherently Othering. They push us away from you and into the realm of the exotic and unusual. They remind us of how we aren’t simply accepted as normal human beings, but instead as this strange separate category. It can make us feel profoundly alienated, like we’re being treated as a specimen, and also like all of our particular human individuality is being ignored in place of this ONE single element of who we are. It sucks. It hurts. And it also makes it just *that* much easier for people to not try to understand us or empathize with us, or consider our common, shared humanity.

It also sometimes reminds us of our minority status. How few of us there are. And that can be a very lonely thing, being reminded that your experiences are so distant from most people that you routinely encounter people who have literally never knowingly interacted with someone from your particular background.  It gets worse when they rub in just how unknowable your identity is to them. Even lonelier.

Don’t offer unsolicited advice or suggest a particular path for us. This is pretty bothersome and problematic, especially when it isn’t even dressed up in compliments, but cis people, especially cis women, will often feel they’re being helpful by deciding to offer us a bunch of advice on how we can look more like women or men or prettier or whatever. Please, please don’t do this. Being cis does not automatically give you some kind of special authority over a particular gender and make you the boss on the “right” way for a woman or man to dress and present themselves. If I want some tips on how a bit of blush would keep me from looking so washed out, I’d ask for it. And wrapping up these suggestions by complimenting on something you deign me to have done right doesn’t make it much better.

See, the thing is, it’s kind of messed up for people to be deciding there are particular right and wrong ways for a person to be a certain gender, and designating given paths for entering that gender. It gets especially messed up when this is all presented as sort of conditions for being accepted as a member of a given gender. I can fuck up my lipstick, not bother plucking my eyebrows, wear sweatpants to the grocery store and still be every bit a woman, thankyouverymuch. And relatedly…

– We don’t need your approval or permission. “You know, to me, I think you have every right to be whatever gender you feel yourself to be. You’re just fine in my book. I wonder when our society will finally start accepting trans people?” …um, maybe when you all stop acting like we need your permission?

It’s all well and good to offer words of support and kindness. It’s appreciated, really. But there are certain ways of framing “support” where it ends up sounding more like you are allowing us to be who we are, that you’re exhibiting the generosity of accepting our gender, and that although you’ll accept the identity we’ve presented, you want to ever-so-subtly let us know that you’re in charge of that interaction, you’re in charge of whether or not we are gendered appropriately, that you can revoke your acknowledgement at any time, and ultimately you’re the boss of a trans person’s gender. Cis people make the rules but the really really kind, benevolent ones will extend their mercy to us. That’s not okay.

Offering support is great. But do so in a way where you do not undermine the fact that our gender is our own to dictate, not yours. It’s not your place to decide that we are who we are, you are not owed any special thanks or gratitude for you respecting our identities, and our identities are not conditional on your acceptance.

And you REALLY don’t need to let us know when we’re doing our gender “right” in your eyes. Like, “wow, that dress is great! You look very lady-like! To me, you’re completely female right now!”

Thanks, but I don’t really give a fuck. What matters is that I’m completely female TO ME.

Don’t hold us to cisgender standards, or treat cisnormativity as something to be aspired towards.

I kind of already covered that earlier in the post, but it can’t bear enough repeating. Our value, worth, beauty and the validity of our gender is not conditional on the degree to which we are able to look, act or seem cis, or how well we play along by cis rules. We are trans people, and that has value, worth, beauty and validity all in itself.

I was almost about to write the sentence “I hope this post didn’t come across too much like biting the hand that feeds” …but then I realized how monumentally fucked up it is that cisnormativity should be so entrenched that I conceptualize cis people as the hand that feeds me, and that I’m supposed to be eager for their approval to the extent that I daren’t risk them withdrawing it by pointing out how sometimes the ways that approval is offered can sustain systems of bigotry.

So… rethinking, rethinking…

I hope none of you take this as personally directed anger, or a lack of awareness of your good intentions. I very much appreciate every bit of support our cis allies offer. Really. Thank you. But it is important to remember how sometimes the structure of that support itself enforces the system that keeps us as the secondary, oppressed, othered class. Until it is generally recognized that the worth, value and legitimacy of trans identities is not dependent on cisgender acceptance and approval, we will never achieve actual equality. So while a compliment every now and then is certainly appreciated, bear in mind that we don’t need them… what we need is to be able to accept ourselves, and have acceptance of our gender be a given that does not require any special effort or notice. And please try to be sensitive to our position, please try to bear in mind the context, implications and assumptions you’re bringing in with you, and please don’t define the standards of beauty or our gender for us.

Thank you!




  1. TiG says

    Thanks for this! I’m always trying to be less of an asshole when I don’t mean to.

    I was reading this and so much of what you’ve mentioned about the unsolicited advice is a giant part of my every day as a cis female. A tall one. I’m sensitive about my height for completely different reasons, but I get comments all the time and I feel the “ouch” every time. And I totally get that people mean it as a compliment, but it still seems to suck.

    I am wondering how much of the unsolicited advice (about clothes, make up) is targeted to women in general? I know it’s a small part of what you were saying, but it made me curious!

  2. Anders says

    This is me thinking aloud

    As with all things good, I suppose compliments pale with usage. It might be nice to hear that you are brave a couple of times per year. When you get it every day, it can be a little frustrating – like complimenting a child for acting grown-up… and when it all comes from one person you may be wondering who he’s trying to convince – you or himself…

    And the solution is, as has been pointed out before, to see the whole person as an individual. To see the person and not just a big trans sign. After all, there is no such thing as THE trans person, just as there isn’t THE Jew or THE Alcoholic. Trans people are ordinary people who share an attribute, just like redheads or people with long fingers.

    But is that so? My understanding is that transgenderism is a fairly dominant personality trait, influencing other personality traits like a black hole bends space and time. Are there narratives that are common to all trans people that we can isolate? To what extent is that because of the social stigma [-10] involved? Or is my understanding just wrong?

    • says

      Is being Swedish a dominant personality trait, influencing others? Or being American in Sweden, if that works better for my analogy? I just want to request clarification of what you are asking, Anders. I’ll expand on the analogy and give you a link when I’m on a real computer, if you like.

      • Anders says

        It’s an interesting question. I’m not sure – I’ll have to think about it. Certainly our culture makes an enormous difference in how we act, how we think, how we feel. But I don’t feel Swedish. On the other hand I don’t feel cis either, and as we know “fish have no word for water.”

        • says

          With permission, I wanted to link you (and Natalie, and anyone interested) to this article about experiences of alienation and distancing, from a trans woman’s perspective. It’s very abstract, unlike most articles I’ve read, but it, along with an article about gender ternary by the same author, partly addresses the part of your question about possible common narratives due to social stigma.

          But while I’ve found common patterns, in my view it’s potentially dangerous to assume they’re fully representative, or especially to present your conclusions as if definitive to others. It’s because of how people may use those conclusions against someone. There’s a phenomenon Julia Serano calls “gender anxiety”, wherein people feel like they HAVE to know whether someone is male or female (even if they’ve been told another gender). I think there’s a related anxiety, I don’t know what to call it, in which people feel like they HAVE to have an explanation for “what exactly makes a person transgender or transsexual”, or perhaps that’s really from “what exactly makes a person a man/woman”. Like they have to understand gender and sex along simple sharp lines. And that’s a lot of where transphobia comes from, isn’t it? And in particular cis people dictating how trans people should be: another recommendation for a book I’ve read part of–Susan Stryker’s “Transgender History”.

          Again I am a cis person with personal reasons to want to be a trans ally and a personality that makes me want to learn and lecture, hope I am not overstepping.

  3. says

    I can see why this would be hard: how do we treat someone “normally” while at the same time being aware that they have a trait that is somehow not-average and must have had an effect on who they are now…it’s a bit of a balancing act, and for people who aren’t used to thinking outside of the gender binary it can seem nonsensical and impossible to do.

    I think I’m pretty good on the scale of cis-people-not-being-dorks-around-trans-issues, but I know that I get tripped up and caught up in my own prejudices and bias, so it’s good to have the reminder.

    Years ago I worked for a company in the queer community and had the privilege of working on a team with some awesome, awesome people, a few of whom were trans and were either transitioning (in the 4 years I worked there a colleague went through the whole coming out process and began some aspects of physically transitioning) or had transitioned, so that went a long way towards breaking down my own prejudice, because when you spend time communicating with a person, it gets easier to see them as a whole person.

  4. otrame says

    I think it is perfectly understandable that cis-normative ideas dominate the discussion. Cis-gendered people are by far the most common. But that just means we need to understand a concept that goes beyond transgender issues. We need to stop trying to force people into pigeon holes. We all do it. It is, to some extent, natural. When we lived in groups of 25-30 people it wasn’t that big a deal because we knew the people we dealt with every day so intimately that they weren’t “woman” or “gay” or “would rather gather berries and set dead falls with the women than hunt with the other men”, they were just Mary and Joe and Arthur. Placing people outside the group within pigeon holes was understandable. You didn’t know them like the members of your band and it was just easier to label them “member of that group that Mary married into” or “one of the ones that tried to take our best prickly pear patch last year”.

    But we don’t live in such small groups any more. The people we know intimately are, at best, our family and a few friends, but we deal with hundreds of others every single day. And here is the thing. People are complicated. Each of us is a series of continuums and if you try to force a continuum into a bunch of neatly labeled boxes you are going to damage that continuum, chop it up into pieces that are completely unnatural (yeah, okay, weird analogy–it was the best I could come up with).

    We need work toward letting go of some of those pigeon holes. It won’t be easy. The best of us still do it all the time. It is understandable to try to deal with a complex world by labeling the people around us. It is entirely natural to label them “like me” and “not like me”. It is natural. It is also, in this world, where we are in contact with so many other people, stupid and damaging.

    It is our nature to live in groups and work within those groups to the betterment of our own lives. That is fine. What we have to do is stop with the “like me/not like me” business and make our groups practical and designed to get the best out of everyone. To do that we have to stop forcing them into those damned pigeon holes and let them be who they are.

    Or as a comedian (whose name I am chagrined to admit I don’t remember) once said, “Hating someone because of the color of their skin is stupid. You should get to know them as individuals. Believe me, they’ll give you a much better reason to hate them.”

    tl;dr: We need to learn to deal with people as individuals. We need to get rid of normative ideas of how “men” and “women” or “black” and “white” or “gay” and “straight” or “_______” and “_______” should be and let individuals be individual. Then, as the comedian said, you can decide whether you like them or not, but not because they have a penis and like to wear makeup, or don’t have a penis and like playing football, but because of the content of their character.

  5. jeffengel says

    Natalie, would you have any examples of better ways of expressing oneself when one is inclined to give such well-intentioned but potentially hurtful cissexist compliments? I do understand what you’re saying, but I can readily picture myself wanting to (e.g.) compliment someone on their successful transitioning in some regard and furrowing my brow and hesitating and struggling to word it in some way that is sincere and safe. And my social skills aren’t quite rock-bottom.

    • sisu says

      this is something that’s bouncing around in my head, too, after reading this post. I think it’s getting muddied up with the idea that passing as a cis person is not necessarily every trans person’s goal… that conforming to cis standards of beauty/presentation/appearance isn’t what a trans person necessarily aspires to do. Did you previously write about that, Natalie? The archives widget is borked and I can’t remember if I read about that here or on one of the blogs in your blogroll.

      anyway, thanks again for this. Your blog is one of the ones here on FTB that routinely makes me take a (mental) step back and re-evaluate a belief or thought of mine.

  6. Chirico says

    Honestly these suggestions should be universal to all people regardless of their gender, cis-, trans-, whatever. You wouldn’t go out of your way to tell a cis-woman that she looks particularly “feminine” that day, nor would it be polite to tell someone that you think it’s really cool and exotic that they’re Native American. It’s sad that these things even need to be said.

  7. says

    I am curious as to what’s an acceptable way to respond to someone coming out to you as trans. Something like “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me”? Or is that too “me”-centric?

    Honestly, my social skills are so horrible, if someone told me they were trans, I would probably just nod and say “okay” and then move on.

    • says

      Not for nothing, but I think you’ll probably find that a lot of trans people have social skills that are on par, and have as little idea how to handle the situation as you think you do. 😀 Many I know would be happy to just hear, “OK”, and have it left at that. I’m sure it would have been a dramatic improvement over some of the responses *I’ve* gotten.

      Seriously, though, I think your initial instinct was a good one. Thanking someone for trusting you enough to share deeply intimate details of their life with you ought never to be unappreciated.

      You might also offer an expression of genuine happiness that the person has reached an epiphany in their life, which is a pretty cool thing no matter who it is, or what the reason.

  8. says

    Well, you can wear sweatpants to the grocery store, but that doesn’t mean you should. 😛

    But for me that’s a fashion thing, not a gender thing. I’m actually a little confused about how it would be a gender thing – is it a stereotype that men dress down when going out for chores and women dress up?

    I say this as someone who regularly puts on a tie when popping out for condoms or pop or whatnot, so I might have a skewed perspective.

    • says

      Well, I don’t. Not really. I don’t even own any sweatpants.

      But the thing is that a cis woman can dress down and basically be a total slob without having her gender questioned, but the same isn’t true of trans women. We’re expected to constantly be in total top form, presenting as femininely as possibly, or else we’re suddenly not “real” women and “can’t expect” people to treat us as such and are fair game for gender-based criticism.

      • says

        Ah, I see. Thanks for explaining it. I can see where that’d happen. More of the same “must be more feminine than feminine cis women” stuff, like when you were talking about WPATH gatekeeping.

  9. Cynthia says

    Man, I love the way you put things.

    “Cis people make the rules but the really, really, kind, benevolent, ones will extend their mercy to us.”

    That’s it! It’s that attitude of “I’m doing you a favor by conferring my grace upon you” that so grates on my nerves.

    Also, that judgemental attitude you talk about? That you’re letting the side down if you aren’t perfectly feminine all the time? That seems to be common for all women. It may be as common for guys, but since I’m not one, I can’t say. Perhaps some of the guys would share?

    And those backhanded compliments? Totally get that! (My point there is not to downplay what you experience, BTW. It’s to point out that you aren’t nearly as alone as you feel, we’re all right there with you.) Someday we can all join a forum and share some of the crazy things people say with good intentions.

    As usual, your writing and the comments by the other thoughtful readers are enlightening. I will try harder to only give compliments that are real, that don’t give only acceptance for meeting societal norms. With small actions, we can affect a revolution, right?

    • Anders says

      Also, that judgemental attitude you talk about? That you’re letting the side down if you aren’t perfectly feminine all the time? That seems to be common for all women. It may be as common for guys, but since I’m not one, I can’t say. Perhaps some of the guys would share?

      It’s not. We have another set of gender norms, like “boys don’t cry” and “adult men do not watch cartoons with animated ponies”.

      • Ace of Sevens says

        Talking about how you love your girlfriend rather than enjoying convenient vagina-access can get you accused of being whipped in the wrong circles. Generally, it’s important to impress upon other men that no woman makes any decisions for you.

        • jeffengel says

          You really need to get different men in your environment…. Then again, my friends tend to be women so I’m not the best judge of how consistently (cis?) men are buttheads that way.

    • says

      Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s “letting the side down” so much, aside from the “whipped” thing. But there’s definitely a huge amount of gender policing for guys, a lot of which seems to come down to homophobic attitudes. Even just having long hair will get you hassled in most places – I haven’t got it a lot in Montreal, but anywhere outside of a cosmopolitan part of a big city a non-dudely dude is likely to catch looks or comments at least.

  10. Ace of Sevens says

    I take it straight guys immediately assuring you they would totally do you isn’t helpful, either, especially if they seem insincere?

  11. geocatherder says

    My in-laws travel a lot in their motorhome. A few years ago they encountered a person that they called a “he-she”. Shudder. At the time I didn’t know the proper term is trans woman, so I didn’t correct them. (Sorry!) But this lady turned out to be a GREAT next-site neighbor. She insisted on giving them some home-canned goodies (I expect she was one of those people for whom canning is an art form; my mother was such a person) and entertained them with her stories of being a “full-timer” traveler.

    So, based on that experience, two old people who’ve never met another trans person in their lives (that they knew about) think trans people are great!

    Sorry, just had to share that, even though it’s tangential to this post.

  12. says

    I’ve probably been guilty of this. In fact, I’m pretty sure I made a comment on the thread you mentioned. But it’s difficult, because … and I don’t mean this as an attack or anything, but you mention people “clocking” you, and it’s from this point of reference that I come from. I genuinely (apply cis-standards and all) don’t think I would’ve “clocked” you. And I’m really not trying to apply those same standards to you or anything. I’m just going off your own cues. I dunno. :/

    • says

      Yeah, I understand. Like I said, this wasn’t inspired by anyone in particular, and I do appreciate all the kindness of my friends and allies and everything. And it’s even okay to say to a trans woman that she’s passable or that she’s pretty, it just gets problematic when you equate the one with the other. Saying that you think I pass is fine. And in my case, that actually is something I would like to be the case, since I’m a binary-identified woman and all. But if you were to say that as a compliment to someone who isn’t binary-ID’d and isn’t interested in passing, that would be kind of problematic. And also if you were to say that I’m passable BECAUSE I’m pretty, or pretty BECAUSE I’m passable, that would be a problem. But you didn’t say that. You just said that you probably wouldn’t have clocked me. So it’s not really a problem. You know what I mean?

      It also helps that you’re someone I know and trust, and whose intentions and understanding of trans stuff I know to be respectful, rather than just some stranger.

      People clocking me, by the way, is something that makes me self-conscious, but not because I aspire towards being cis or am super ashamed of being trans. It’s more in terms of knowing how other people will perceive me differently, and treat me differently, when I am clocked. I want to be recognized and treated as a woman, nothing else, and that usually doesn’t happen once someone knows or recognizes that I’m trans. And on top of that there’s the danger associated with it. And the dysphoria. And being reminded that I’m different and “alien” and stuck in this sort of imperfect body and all that.

      • says

        Even that bit kind of rings my “problematic” bell a little. The very term “passing” is inherently fraught with cissexist/cisgendrist assumptions. I suppose it’s the best we’ve got at the moment, but it still squicks me.

      • says

        Thank you for the further clarification. I would *hate* to think that my own biases and privileges were impinging on your own experiences. And I can definitely see where the cis-normative issue with passing/”pretty” comes in. That’s where, as you rightly say, it comes down to individual preference with ones own self-identity. It’s just murky though, because while we’re all individuals with our own cues and behaviors and preferences, we’re also informed by the biases and privileges of society. Really, it has to come down to treating each individual with respect and learning from their cues. And trying not to take offense when your own privilege is pointed out. So. That’s what I’ll continue trying to do.

        Anyway, thank you for the explanation. I know it’s an exhausting role that you’ve landed yourself in. Please know that I value your insights and friendship.

      • amhovgaard says

        “I want to be recognized and treated as a woman, nothing else, and that usually doesn’t happen once someone knows or recognizes that I’m trans.”
        This is a difficult subject, and I’m not sure how to explain what I want to say… but I’ll give it a try 😉 I know some trans people, and I’m the kind of person who tends to recognize that someone is trans even when most don’t – not because I’m obsessed with gender, but because I generally tend to notice details, esp. incongruous details. But some people are just so obviously men/women, even if I can easily tell that they were born with the wrong bits! And it’s certainly not because they are “more feminine than feminine cis women”; I’m Norwegian, and we tend to wear “sensible” clothes/shoes and not too much (if any) make-up: an extremely feminine woman will immediately be assumed to be either not born w/a female body or not born in Norway… For me, I think it may have more to do with feeling comfortable with being what & who they are, and somehow projecting that. (Obviously I don’t get to decide if other people are men, women, a bit of both, or neither; that’s not what I’m talking about: it’s just that sometimes I have to consciously remind myself, and sometimes I don’t… and whether or not I can tell that they’re trans is not the deciding factor.)

  13. says

    “You know, to me, I think you have every right to be whatever gender you feel yourself to be. You’re just fine in my book. I wonder when our society will finally start accepting trans people?”

    This is horrible regardless of what it is applied to. Rights are not a matter of personal opinion or preference — they are rights. It is no more my opinion that you can be whatever gender you feel than it is my opinion that you can be whatever religion you like or vote for whatever candidate you’d like (or not at all, but that’s what spoiled ballots are for) or say what you like without repercussion (except, of course, screaming “Fire!” in a crowded theater) or exercise any of the other rights you have. Those are your rights. If you do not have them, they are being unjustly denied to you, full fucking stop.

    If you don’t agree with the above paragraph, you are not standing up for rights. You are standing up for privileges, privileges that are granted contingent on approval from a group with the privilege to grant such privileges. Privileges can be justifiably withheld. Rights cannot, except in specific cases where individuals demonstrably act in ways that violate the social contract^*.

    The next time I hear “…to me, I think [group X has right Y]” I am going to cut them off and tell them “group X has right Y regardless of what you think, so just say that and leave your opinion out of it.” And possibly smack them, depending on my mood.**

    ^ – read: commit crimes and be convicted of those crimes by a fair, evidence-based trial.

    * – Aside: I loathe Kohlberg’s stages of moral development because of this. Kohlberg specifically excludes the social contract from “universal ethical principles” and demeans it by placing it lower on the scale than “universal ethical principles”, which apparently is stuff like Kant. I cannot fathom how declaring one’s own course of action universal law just because (aka “categorical imperative”) is a higher stage of development than defining morals based on how one’s actions would affect society at large if they were allowed with an acceptance that the individual is partially responsible for the society they live in and in turn that society is partially responsible for the individuals that make it up.

    ** – This obviously does not apply when the right(s) in question is (are) manufactured or misinterpreted.

    • darius says

      The problem I have with this is that we (and I speak of the US here; from what I understand, this applies to all countries currently in existence, though) don’t live in that society. We live in a society where some people have rights, and others are being denied them.

      Someone saying (for instance) “Gay people have the right to marry” would be correct in some states in the US, incorrect in others, and so on for the rest of the world. If I were to say “I think gay people have the right to marry,” I would be correct whether I’m in an area where such marriage is allowed or not.

      I’m not saying that gay people require my permission or approval to get married, but that currently (and unfortunately) they are, in some states/countries, being denied the right that they are due. I am voicing my support for their rights.

      I think the key distinction (IMO at least) between “X has Y right” and “I think X has Y right” is whether that right is being protected (generally by the government). In some cases, a right will fall under basic protections already in place, and enforcement is the issue (whether because of willful lack of enforcement or simple neglect). In other cases, new laws must be made to ensure that the right is protected. Either way, though, to say someone actually has a right versus saying one thinks a person has a right is an important distinction.

      I think the same distinction applies to statements about acceptance/tolerance, but I can’t formulate a coherent reason right now. I need to think about it some more first.

      • Dalillama says

        I’d argue that there are even finer shadings here as well. For instance, I say that the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment clearly includes the right of same-sex couples to marry, i.e. I think that I have the right to marry my husband even if that right is not presently enforced, either by my state or the Federal government. However in, say, Iran nothing in the laws even implies that homosexuals have any rights, let alone that of marriage. If I were to say “I think that gay people in Iran have the right to marry,” I would be patently wrong, because they haven’t. I could truthfully say that I think that gay people in Iran should have the right to marry, though, which is a useful third category. That gives us rights that are enforced, rights that exist on paper but are not enforced, and rights that do not exist but should.

  14. Brynn says

    Interesting, but I disagree on a number of points because while it is fine on paper, it doesn’t take into account some real world factors. One of those “It shouldn’t be that way, but it is kind of things.”

    * We’re .3% of the population. We’re going to be judged by cis standards of beauty, and that won’t change. If 30% of the population is obese, and they can’t get society to change its standards of beauty, why should we think we can?

    * Ever met someone who has done something so mind bogglingly different that you can’t help asking them about their experiences? If you met Neil Armstrong, would you ask him about how he gets his shirts so white? Of course not, you’d ask him about his experiences as an Apollo astronaut. Trans is almost as rare as astronaut, and you can’t expect people not to be curious. Curious I can deal with, and I think it actually helps give broader understanding and acceptance when you do talk about your experiences with someone who genuinely wants to know (and not for purile reasons).

    * Agree with unsolicited advice, in general… but as a friend once told me “Don’t bother trying to learn about how to be a woman from a transwoman. Get yourself some female cis friends, and make sure they’re brutally honest with you all the time.”

    * Actually, we do need their permission. We’re a tiny powerless minority that is misunderstood and actively hated. Without their, clubbing us to death in the streets isn’t just legal, it’s encouraged. We get to exist at their discretion. Is it fair? Is it right? Nope. But it is what it is and won’t change. We have to beg and plead and scape for human rights, because only they can let us have them. The philosophy of “we don’t need your permission” only works in a progressive, secular society. We are neither.

    * Holding us to cis normative standards is going to happen regardless. If you show up to a job interview looking very passable, you’re going to do better than someone who looks like a linebacker in a Anne Taylor suit. Fair? Right? Nope. But everyone gets judged by how they look, and we’re no different.

    It kind of reminds me of the Monty Python skit from “Life of Brian”, where the Judean People’s Front makes men having babies part of its platform / demands. Nice on paper, but ultimately impractical.

    • Dalillama says

      I chronically forget how low the percentage of trans people actually is, as I’ve met (knowingly) an apparently disproportionate number of trans people compared to many others. Regarding the second point, I actually try not to bring up unique/rare experiences of any sort unless the person I’m speaking too brings it up particularly. I consider it a bit rude, mostly due to my assumption that people ask about it incessantly, and they might be just a bit tired of explaining.

  15. Anders says

    I hate my brain. It has started coming up with insults against trans people and make me squirm because I might use them some day some time. Some really bad stuff. 🙁

  16. says

    This fleshes out a feeling I had a couple years ago that I couldn’t quite explain to myself. I mentioned that someone had taken me for a man. A friend said “yay for passing”. I cringed – even without knowing why, it made me feel bad. And now I realize that it’s because I had never indicated my intent to “pass” to anyone and honestly don’t feel a strong need to, so I sort of felt like that was being imposed upon me.

  17. says

    @Natalie — Do you consider it rude if someone who isn’t sure of another person’s gender (or gender presentation) how they prefer to be referred to? (Personal-pronoun wise, you know?) Because, um, I’d rather ask, and sound like an idiot, than just assume, and be an asshole.

    I’ve been called “sir” and “young man” a few times, often while wearing distinctly feminine clothing and even baring a touch of cleavage! It’s… I can see where that’s off-putting and awkward, and if that’s uncomfortable for me, it’s probably a lot more uncomfortable and awkward for someone who is transitioning or has transitioned.

    • says

      In the case that you REALLY can’t infer someone’s preferred pronouns from their presentation, yeah, the polite thing to do is to discretely, respectfully ask their preference. In the event that someone is presenting in an ambiguous manner, it’s likely that they’re used to it, and would rather someone ask than simply make assumptions. It would be offensive to ask the preference of someone who is clearly presenting as one gender or the other, but it’s much more offensive to misgender someone, and genderqueer / bi-gendered / andro people will usually be appreciative that you took the trouble to ask their wishes rather than simply assume.

  18. Louis says


    Thank you from the bottom of my cissexual, male, mostly hetero (but pretty damn kinky) heart. Thank you for this blog and this post. Why? Because I damn well have made this stupid mistake (and so many more) in the past, I’ve thought “heyyyyy wait a minute” as I did it and I’ve never had the courage to ask about my unease at my own cluelessness.

    Oh I know you’re not here to dole out clue-sticks to the likes of me, but I’m bloody glad you do and did. The world’s a better place with people like you in it and speaking out.



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