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.