I put together this guide for people who might need a little help understanding how to talk to or treat a transgender person. Gender and gender expression are very complicated and complex ideas. I’ve read a lot of books, trying to wrap my head around the concepts, and I still find them challenging. There are a bunch of different theories, and not everyone, including people within the transgender community, agrees on the particulars. So, just to be clear, I am not speaking for everyone in the community; rather, I am giving advice based on my personal experiences and ideals. With that caveat, here are some general tips that a large portion of transgender people appreciate.
I think everyone would agree that being called “it” or “freak” or the ambiguous “he-she” is offensive. These terms make people feel out of place and “othered.” Those who are transgender may have lived their whole lives feeling like an “other,” especially once they understood their true gender identity.
Tip #1 is to make transgender people feel understood, or at least make an attempt to understand. If you are sure that someone is transgender but are unsure of someone’s preferred gender and gender pronouns (he, she, hir, etc.), then simply ask (only if you are in an environment that would allow such a personal question). Accept those who are transgender for who they really are and who they identify as.
Tip #2 is also important to ALWAYS keep confidentiality with a transgender person. Just because they are comfortable speaking to you, that doesn’t mean that they are comfortable with everyone else. Most transgender people, even those who are out, do not like it when others find out about them through their friends or family. Let transgender people decide whom they wish to tell and when they want to tell them.
Personally, I enjoy it when people ask questions. I feel that it is my duty as an advocate to answer questions, even the rude and ignorant ones; I believe that is how we learn. When people ask what my old name is, I will usually answer the question. Or if they ask me when I “decided” to become a woman, I will first correct their wording and then answer the question. However, many transgender people do not feel the same way I do. Instead they prefer not to share details about their personal life and feel that the person they once were is no longer valid. They want to be seen, perceived, loved, and understood in the gender and form that they have worked hard to achieve—the way they were always meant to be.
Tip #3 is to respect people’s privacy. You may not always get an answer to your questions, but please do not judge or degrade someone just because they do not want to share things about themselves. Make sure to respect the boundaries of your transgender friend. Ask them if they are comfortable talking about their past. Steer clear of asking them intimate questions. (They don’t ask you what’s in your pants, so don’t ask them.) If they are open to talking, then—and only then—you can ask questions, preferably starting small and working your way up.
Tip #4 deals with sexuality. We’re probably all guilty of assuming someone’s gay or straight based on some random detail, like, “Wow, he’s such a good athlete; he must be straight” or “Wow, she’s such a good athlete; she must be a lesbian.” But please do not assume that gender has anything to do with sexuality. The coming-out process can be really tough for LGBT people, and constantly being asked who of the opposite gender they’re attracted to adds to the pressure to conform. Just because someone identifies as being transmasculine does not mean that he is attracted to women, or vice versa for a transfeminine person. Sexuality is fluid, meaning that a transmale can be attracted to men, women, all genders, or no one at all! The best way to think about sexuality and gender is this: sexuality is whom you want to sleep with, while gender is whom you want to sleep as. Again, my advice to you is to simply ask. Once you have your answer, you can have a more open, respectful conversation.
If there’s anything you take away from this guide, I hope it’s Tip #5, which is, it’s okay to make mistakes. It is! You’ll recall that I have been yelled at and attacked for misgendering people and for being ignorant! What I love most about people is that there could be ten people in a room, but with sixteen different opinions! It’s all right if you slip up or accidentally misgender someone—that’s part of the learning process. However, what is important is to be open to learning. Be open to people correcting you (and be prepared for some to become hostile). Try your best to stay calm if someone does get aggressive. Simply explain that you are learning and that you don’t mean to offend anyone. Follow up by asking appropriate questions and respecting each individual’s boundaries. If we’re going to make lasting changes, we need to have the uncomfortable, awkward, tough conversations.
People must understand that transgender people just want to be happy. That’s it—there is no secret to it! Many transgender people lose their families and friends over their transitions. They are hated, beaten, abandoned, and even killed. But the worst part is that they often don’t like themselves. Transgender people aren’t out for attention or to trick people, to dress in the opposite gender’s clothing and parade around. The entire purpose of transitioning is to be happy. It’s about becoming the person who matches how you’ve always felt on the inside. Please do your part to support their happiness.