Here’s What’s Okay (And Not Okay) to Say to a Trans Person
1. Don’t Ask Us Questions Related to Our Lives Pre-Transition
Asking us about our lives before we grew into ourselves is pretty insensitive. It can trigger dysphoria, and it’s basically saying, “I want to hear all about that time you were super unhappy and not yourself.” Don’t go there. Plenty of people have written blogs, articles, and transition memoirs, so if you’re curious about this part of the trans experience, please read those. Don’t badger your hapless trans acquaintance (or friend) for the gory details of their sometimes-traumatic past. It’s just impolite. If we bring it up, that’s another thing. It doesn’t mean it’s open season on your questions. It does mean that we’re trusting you enough to talk about this. Listen respectfully, and don’t press questions. Be affirming and honored that this person is sharing their experience with you.
2. Don’t Ask About Medical Transition
As with #1, if someone brings this up, that’s a different story. Follow the steps outlined above. But if someone hasn’t brought it up, please don’t bring it up yourself. It’s like asking out of the blue, “So, how are your hormone levels lately?” or “How do you feel about the shape of your labia?” Except worse.
Because with trans people, our bodies are non-consensually objectified and fetishized constantly. Cis people seem to have an endless fascination with the physical aspects of our transition, as part of a creepy sexualized eye. But it’s just as creepy to pontificate on trans people’s genitalia and secondary sex characteristics as cis people’s. So don’t do it. Even if you have talked about similar subjects before, or you are very close, recognize that for some (not all!) trans people, this has been brought up so many times before that it’s often better to let them take the lead, if they decide to talk about it with you.
3. Do Ask (Everyone!) ‘What Pronouns Do You Use?’
You really can’t know without asking. You wouldn’t just assume someone’s name. And their a/gender identity is probably irrelevant unless they bring it up.
But just like with names, you will need to know their pronouns in order to be able to refer to them. And assuming just doesn’t cut it. So ask what pronouns everyone uses – because anyone could use any/all pronouns, or none at all – and introduce yourself with your name and pronouns. Because that’s solidarity – and also needed information. When you do that, you’re saying, “I know that you need this information in order to interact with me, and I know that there is no one way to look trans. So even though I rarely am misgendered, I want to ensure that I create a culture in which nobody is.”
4. Do Ask How to Best Support Us in Any Given Space
If I had a dollar for every cis person, queer or straight, who said they supported me, but then did nothing to make the spaces we shared safer… Well, let’s say I could retire at a very young age. Supporting us can take different forms for different people. We all are unique humans with a variety of needs. So it’s better to ask, rather than assume, what someone needs (or even if they do need support from you). Another benefit to asking is that you can make sure that you will be able to do something that is helpful. Sometimes, what a cis friend or acquaintance thinks will be helpful will actually make the situation worse.
Like with everything else in life, it’s best to get the consent of the person you’re trying to work with, and it’s always best to take direction from the person experiencing oppression in that situation. Of course, it’s also important to only offer or commit what you are able to do. If you’re able, push yourself out of your comfort zone to do a little more – because many trans people live outside our comfort zones perpetually, and it would be great to have some company out here.
5. Do Ask Whether Shared Information Should Remain Confidential
Trans folks are in all sorts of different places when it comes to sharing trans-related information with others. Some are non-disclosed and/or don’t identify as trans. Some are just starting to come into themselves and haven’t told hardly anyone. Some have told some things to some people and not to others. And some of us are out to the world! The same is true not only with disclosing a trans identity, but also generally with the ups and downs of navigating a transphobic world. If someone has confided in you about a struggle they’re having, or about dysphoria, or about their relationship with their family – whatever, really – you should make sure that you know what’s confidential and what they want others to know. It’s the way to build trust and also avoid ruining lives. Because it’s very dangerous to be trans in the world. If a trans person has shared some of those struggles with you, be safe and make sure that you know what is a secret you need to keep, and what that person openly shares.