A reader asked,
What are the do’s and don’t’s when asking a trans*person about their experience?
What are 2-3 questions (or as many as you like) that one should NOT be asking a transgender person?
What are 2-3 questions (or as many as you like) that one SHOULD be asking a transgender person?
This reader happens to be the marketing coordinator of Simmons College, the third US women’s college to accept students who identify as transgender. She was wondering if I’d like to add to the conversation in the form of a blog post. Sure! So, officially:
I am participating in Trans*forming the Dialogue, Simmons College’s online MSW program‘s campaign to promote an educational conversation about the transgender community. By participating in this campaign, I will be offering my perspective on what TO ask and what to NOT ask trans*people.
The first thing to think about: it totally depends on how well you know the person! So, let’s break it down:
If this is someone who is a stranger, and they just introduced themselves to you, saying their name back to them is a great way to start out affirming who they are. Also asking, “What are your preferred pronouns,” is important so that you can address them to other people in the way they want/need. This is a little tricky because we’re specifically talking about visibly trans-people here. You could be meeting many trans-people throughout your life and not even know it!
Then, personally, I would steer the conversation away from trans-related topics, unless they bring it up. Oftentimes, trans-people don’t want to talk about more personal aspects upon meeting someone new. So any other great questions fall into the general getting-to-know-you category. “What brings you here?” Or, “How do you know so-and-so?” Or, “How’s your day been so far?”
If you are talking to an acquaintance and want to get to know them better, instead of asking direct questions about their experience, you could share some of your own – what was your childhood like, what was puberty like? Chances are your new acquaintance has a lot to say about growing up and will feel more comfortable sharing if you share first. Do NOT ask, “do you feel like you are trapped in the wrong body?” This is a trope perpetuated by the media that not all trans-people relate to. It’s kind of a sensationalized way of putting it. It is a sound bite. Asking about their experience is a great way to get a better understanding about how broad and different “trans-narratives” really are.
If you are a friend / ally of a trans-person, there is a lot you can do and ask! You can specifically ask, “What can I do to support you?” It might mean correcting pronouns in the moment in social situations for your trans-friend. (I know I have a hard time with this, and if someone does it for me, it feels affirming.) It might mean exploring gender expressions together – maybe going out and trying on different clothes or trying out makeup together. If you are a trusted friend, more personal questions to help you understand would probably be appropriate. “What does gender dysphoria feel like?” “How would you define your gender?” “Where are you in your coming-out process?” These questions can spark great conversations that let your trans-friend know you are engaged and interested and want to help if possible.
If you are in an intimate relationship with a trans-person, asking a lot of questions is essential! Transition related decisions will affect both of you, emotionally, financially, and energy-wise. It’s important not to press for a timeline or throw in your two cents about what your partner should be doing. You will need to adjust to the natural pace (it is a long process) and understand that there is going to be a lot of uncertainty. “What can I do to support you?” works well, but your partner might not really know in the moment. There will probably be times when gender dysphoria and frustrations are acute – during those times, just being physically present and not asking any questions might be best. In the bedroom, asking what is OK is a must. The way trans-people feel about their bodies and about sex can be wildly in flux and change from day to day. Asking, “Is this OK?” or “what if I did this?” or “What feels good right now?” is going to be better than phrasing things in the negative, such as, “What is off limits right now?” or “Where can I touch you?” These kinds of questions might lead to shut-down mode.
Questions that are never appropriate are, “Have you had any surgeries yet?” “What are you going to do about your beard?” “Do you think you will be able to pass?” Or anything else related to their bodies and their appearance. This is personal and could be triggering. Not all trans-people have the same goals or timeline. Also, some people are non-binary, and their transition goals might look very different.
If you don’t know the trans-person very well yet, and you are not sure what is OK and what is not OK to ask, just use this rule of thumb: Is this something you would ask a cisgender person? Other than the preferred pronouns question (important question you might not ask a cisgender person) this will get you far in a social situation.
Happy almost Halloween! I thought I’d celebrate by digging deep into my writing archives to see if I could find something festive. It may not be all that festive, but it does seem apt – I found something I wrote 12 years ago, on Halloween day, that touches on gender identity, costumes, and anxiety.
A little back story for what is to follow: I was a Junior in college, and I was taking an awesome class called Imagining Herself, a cross-class between Women’s Studies and English Literature. The book list was from some Gender Studies Dream Team (for 2002, at least):
Leslie Feinberg – Stone Butch Blues
Riki Anne Wilchins – Read My Lips
Zora Neale Hurston – Dust Tracks on a Road
Kate Bornstein – Gender Outlaw
Audre Lorde – Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
And others that I can’t remember anymore. Unfortunately, I didn’t read these books (well, I’d already read Stone Butch Blues on my own). I couldn’t. I was having some major depressive issues, which really put a damper on what I was capable of doing. I hadn’t told any professors I needed help yet, but I would be doing so in the very near future. The professor’s name was Katrina (not her real name). I sort of had a girlfriend at the time, whom I’ll refer to as “girlfriend?” Question mark, because I was never clear on whether we were actually together. Girlfriend? had been in this class the semester before me, so the professor had a clear memory of her.
Here’s what I wrote on Halloween, 12 years ago:
More than ever, I became terribly anxious in Imagining Herself today. I think because we were discussing Stone Butch Blues, and I felt like I was supposed to be adding to the discussion, yet I couldn’t say anything. I’m one of five people in class who are potentially VERY focused on issues raised in that book. These other classmates all contributed a lot. I contributed nothing. I just couldn’t. Katrina even brought attention to me because of the zines I’ve been handing in for my project. She wanted me to talk about some of the stuff.
“[Janitorqueer’s] been doing these amazing zines,” she told the class. I felt like I was in elementary school again, simultaneously hoping for and fearing any kind of attention. “Can you share with us your thoughts about what you’ve been writing about, after reading through Stone Butch Blues again?” I hadn’t read through Stone Butch Blues again. I hadn’t yet read ANY of the books for class. I feel guilty and like a fraud. I stared straight ahead. Said, ” … um … ” in almost a whisper. My mind was totally blank. Why does this happen? She acknowledged my discomfort by asking me if we should just move on. I said, “yeah.”
I thought I might cry. How awful would that have been. I tuned out completely to avoid that scene, and that worked really well. I came back to reality within a few minutes. But for the rest of class, all I wanted to do was grab all of my stuff and run out of the room … go and hide. I have this urge often in class, but it’s never been THIS intense. Sometimes I want to slip through the edge of the floor, but not today. I just wanted to explode out, to escape.
Girlfriend? was brought up during the discussion! We were talking about clothing and performance, and Katrina asked me, “You know [your girlfriend?], right?” I nodded. Because I referred to girlfriend? a few times in my zines, she must have made the connection. Then she addressed the class. “Girlfriend? uses clothes as a performance all the time. She is always playing … she’ll wear goth, hello kitty, Ragedy Ann (girlfriend? prefers to call this one “Bag Lady”) … and when she came into class the day people were instructed to wear particularly masculine or feminine clothing, something different than normal, she said that this isn’t any different for her than any other day because she’s always playing. She feels comfortable dressing extremely masculine and/or feminine.”
A classmate asked, “Did she have pink hair for a while last year?” and I nodded, yes. “Oh, ok, I had a class with her. She is really interesting.” Katrina: “Yeah, she’s very bright.” Classmate: “Political Science major?” I nodded again.
I don’t think I’ve ever thought of girlfriend?’s incredible attention to clothing as “playing.” I thought of it as this valley girl thing she does. This thing which is sometimes tedious and sometimes fun and goofy. (She is really excited about creating me as a goth girl for Halloween.) To look at it as a carefully planned out form of play makes me respect it much more. I feel proud that I “know” her. I feel especially tender toward her, or something, ah, I don’t know! Anyway …”
I remember that Halloween. She dressed me up in her clothing and did my hair and make-up. I liked it. She was dressed as a school-girl gone wrong, or something to that effect. It was a really warm night, and we kind of just walked around a lot, stopping in at this party and that party, maybe acquaintances of hers. (I had no idea. As per usual, I was out of it, dissociating.)
It makes me think about all the things we can be expressing with our clothing choices, gender-wise and otherwise. And although Halloween costumes are extremes, all sorts of outfits can be seen as “costumes.” Getting dressed up in formal wear? Costume. Even business casual? Still, costume. Work out clothes? Total costume. If it’s not a t-shirt, hoodie, button-up shirt (mostly flannel), jeans, corduroys (or gym shorts, sweat pants for lounging around), hiking boots, or skater shoes, to me, it feels like a costume. Which isn’t a bad thing at all! Costumes have their times and places – I love costumes! But I will not compromise and wear clothing that does not allow me to feel like myself, when that’s all I wanna be.
Another blog writer covers some similar concepts, here – Becoming Hope: Masks
Oh, and completely coincidentally, this year I’m going as a goth boy for Halloween.
What’s your take on costumes?
Just for fun, I decided to go back to an old online diary and see what I had written (if anything) ten years ago today. And there was one dated 2/13/04! At this time, I was a senior in college, I had no plans, and I was trying to rebuild my sense of self after a destructively devastating depressive episode.
I had been in a screenwriting class the previous semester, and had had some difficulty with the class and the professor. We’d had a few miscommunications. For example, I disclosed to him some of my struggles (such as issues with self-injury) in an attempt to get him to understand why I needed to take an incomplete, going to class and doing the work later. As a result, he decided to show the movie Secretary for the class, letting me know somehow (I don’t remember how) that this was his way of connecting with me. But actually, I felt mortified by this.
So what I wrote exactly ten years ago was this:
[The professor} emailed me today, saying he had been reading my “blog,” [which he must have found by Googling his name] and in my head, I was like FUCK, WHAT SORT OF SHIT DID I SAY ABOUT HIM? Oh man. But it turns out I didn’t really say any shit about him, just wrote about a conversation the class had in which I was excluded from the female POV. And I was like, awesome! but in the journal, it sort of sounded like I felt sligted, because I call myself “other.” He didn’t realize I love “other,” so he wrote to me in the email that it is easy to recall times when one has been slighted, but one must also remember times when one’s unique humanity is recognized. (ex. showing Secretary in class.) So I just had to write back that I didn’t feel slighted – I was pleased, rather, to be excluded from being able to speak from a female’s POV. Yeah, I don’t know if this makes much sense, but, he wrote back saying thanks for the clarification, and he also said to keep writing. “Your blog writing shows promise.”
Promise for what?
Even though I was still a long way off from using the words non-binary, genderqueer, or trans* to describe myself (apparently preferring “other” haha), it’s awesome to see I was thinking about it and writing about it.
With this guy, it’ll be just my luck that he’ll find this post somehow and strike up a long-lost conversation with me, haha. College was weird.