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.
This is probably going to come off as the most unromantic love note ever. That’s OK. That’s us! …We have been together for close to 8 years now. We lived together before we “got together.” We met as housemates, which was kinda an interesting way to get to know someone (if you’re considering asking them out) in terms of feeling out potential compatibility. A more detailed version of how we got together is here, if you’re interested: Happy Randomtimes, today.
Last fall, we got legally married, which I had a lot of mixed feelings about. It boils down to: We got married for health insurance purposes (and other legal reasons that seem unclear at this time, but may be super important at later times). We did not get married out of love. Every day we are together, it is out of love. Marriage has absolutely nothing to do with whether we are together or not. It does not mean we are any more or less likely to stay together now. It doesn’t mean that anything about how we operate our relationship has changed. Marriage is meaningless. So I guess I’m attempting to bring some meaning into it, because next Saturday, we are celebrating the fact that we got married.
I haven’t been in the best place, emotionally, the past few weeks, and that’s been making it feel like a struggle, to plan for this celebration. Which is OK. This party will happen. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and nervous when planning something so big. Everything does not need to fall into place exactly how we want it to for it to be a good day. It’s going to be a good day because we are connecting with people and with each other. And not because the sound system worked without a hitch and no plates or glasses got broken.
But there’s kinda more to it than that. We are celebrating marriage, and I’m struggling to understand what marriage is. (Marriage is what you make it.) Almost anything that is traditionally romantic, anything that is a traditional ritual for a wedding day, the roles we play… I don’t get it. It’s not because I’m a contrarian or I’m “too cool for school.” It just does not resonate. I don’t wanna play those games. In general, we won’t be. We’re having a “ceremony,” (er, 2 actually, an opening and a closing ceremony) but it will be fairly aberrant, bent, queer, variant, deviant. We have no gift registry. Our photo album is full of pictures of our friends and families. Scrap the scrap book, and the guest book while you’re at it. I could go on…
We’re discussing the idea of slow dancing to “Everyday is Halloween,” (Not because we wanna stir shit up, but just because that has been our wake-up alarm song every morning for about 5 years now.) I love all of these ideas, but I’m still not comfortable playing the role of the person who is getting married (or already got married, and is now on display.) In a way, it feels like the party was just an idea a while back, and now has a life of its own. I think collecting some of these thoughts is really going to help me out.
So a note, to my partner:
Hey, you! I like you a lot. I trust you as much as one person can trust another person. As time goes on, I just keep finding that we are super highly compatible. You give me huge amounts of space and leeway to be myself, to figure out what I want/need, to experiment. I couldn’t be in a relationship any other way. I know that I often hold myself back, so I cannot be having someone else also doing that.
It feels like we’re generally in-tune, in-synch, we communicate about what is going on, regularly. And if we aren’t, we will be again soon – I don’t feel left in the dark for long. And if I do, it is not worrisome. We’ll catch up with each other soon enough. I know I’m a difficult person, sometimes. I can be moody, and I generally need a shit-ton of alone time, in order to feel like a person. I make things complicated when they are simple. That’s not easy to live with. You just roll with it.
I think that you are so super cool. You are a strong person with values I really admire. You stand up for yourself and for what you think is right. You’re not afraid of confrontation. You mold your life into what you want. We’re molding our lives together, continuously.
PS- At my most recent therapy appointment, I just kept crying and crying (that I couldn’t do this marriage party thing, basically). She suggested I write on my blog, where I’m comfortable, about it, before I’m in this less-than-comfortable situation. That perked me up. I said, “That’s a pretty good idea.” She replied, “That might be it for me – I might not have any more of those; I’ll take it.” I reiterated it was a really good idea. Also, at the end of the appointment, she told me it was a freebie – a therapist’s version of a wedding gift. Haha.
Dear (anonymous) Sir,
A few days ago, you asked the internet through a google search, “does my janitor who is a male like me and im a male (gay)?” And the internet took you to my blog, in the hopes it would help you find your answer. (Yes, the internet does have its own hopes and dreams!) I highly doubt you found what you were looking for, so I decided to fill in the blanks, in case you try again in the future. I will be taking some liberties and making some assumptions, in order to create a concise response. If I am off base, please, call me out!
I’m sorry to let you know, the internet cannot answer questions that are this specific to your personal experience. You can glean a whole lot of information that might help you put words to your feelings, which is super helpful. But the internet does not know your situation, does not know your janitor, and does not know anything beyond whatever it is that people write on it. Is there a chance that your janitor wrote about you on the internet? Yes, maybe. But you will not be coming upon that writing by asking in that way.
In order to learn more about this, you would have to interact in real life. Also, you may want to ask yourself instead, “Do I like my janitor, like, do I like like him? And if so, do I want to do something about it, despite potential consequences?” You might want to weigh the pros and cons. You might want to feel out the situation in more nuanced ways before jumping to conclusions or potentially propositioning him directly. You could ask for advice from people you trust and are close to. Hell, you could even anonymously ask for advice in myriads of places online (again, I’d suggest focusing on your own feelings and not your janitor’s)! But you will not come upon much success by googling it.
Equally important though, please disregard everywhere in the above paragraphs where I indulged the idea of “your” janitor. He is not your janitor. You do not own him. You may not know this, but he doesn’t actually even work for you! I am going to assume you are not his direct supervisor, and are instead someone who works in a building (as a lawyer, businessman, teacher, or some other profession where you work in a space.) And he cleans your space. You, in a way, do own that space. It is sort of “your” desk, “your” trash can, “your” chalk board, etc. That is fine. But, again, he is not “your” janitor.
Let’s go out on a limb and imagine you are his supervisor. In this case, and only this case, it could maybe be appropriate to call him your janitor. My supervisor does this – she will refer to us (the people who do work for her) as “my guys.” This has the potential of fostering a sense of camaraderie, like we are a team, and she is our leader. This could be OK. But to singularly be someone’s something, even in this context, would be strange. If you are his supervisor, I’d suggest cutting out the “my janitor.”
I’m just going to say this directly, as a janitor who cleans classrooms. I am no one’s janitor. I am employed by a school district. My salary is worked out through the annual budget, which comes from taxpayers. I am in a union; I pay a union due, and they do work on my behalf. I clean classrooms that are, spaces owned (in a way) by teachers and utilized by students. I do not work for teachers. If teachers have a problem with my work, they could go to the principal and/or my direct supervisor. The reason she is “my” supervisor is because, ideally, she has our collective best interests in mind. And because she is above me, on the power scale, and it is therefore obviously not actually owned by me. It is more appropriate. “My boss.” “My professor.” “My doctor.” “My therapist.” These are common and straightforward. “My busboy.” “My waitress.” “My maid.” “My landscaper.” This is a different story; this is slippery. Watch your step.
Not Your Janitor
Today is the day C and I have been together for 7 years. This anniversary, which we refer to as “Randomtimes,” trumps the recent new date on which we got married, for sure.
How we met (this would be a medium length version): We met briefly twice, through a mutual (more than) friend, in the winter of 2005/2006. I was buying a house the following summer, and she was looking for a place to live that wasn’t her parents’ house. I phone-interviewed her; she had previously lived in a co-op with a bunch of people. She moved in that August, into the tiniest bedroom ever. She painted it bright blue with mint green trim and had a bunk bed. Two other people also lived there. It was cool times; it felt important to me, this household identity. She and I were both in relationships that imploded, exploded, and / or fizzled out within a few months. We started to hang out a little bit, tentatively. She was working downtown, and I invited her on a few “dates” on her lunch breaks. These weren’t indicators to her that I was interested. She thought maybe they were fake dates, whatever those are. : )
Finally one night in December, I wrote her an email from across the upstairs hallway, being a hell of a lot more direct. I had been out late dancing, and felt pretty good about myself right then; she was asleep. I told her I like like her and would she want to talk about it in person with me? It was a very long email – but that was the gist, haha. She did want to talk; a couple of days later, we went for a walk and talked. And talked and talked (and then made out!), and talked some more because, dang, it was kinda complicated – we lived together, yet didn’t know each other super well yet. But we decided to risk it and see how it felt.
It felt pretty great, but was also anxiety provoking, at least for me, at first! But ultimately, awesome. And since then, we’ve always lived with 2 other people, who have come and gone. (Although C moved out of the tiny blue room with bunk bed, and into the biggest room, which has the access to the attic, which is my room / where we sleep.) Up until a couple of weeks ago… the gentleman inhabiting the tiny blue room with bunk bed moved out, and our other housemate is potentially moving out within a month as well. (We asked them to look for a new place to move within the next 6 months.)
This is the first time we’re going to be living on our own, ever. What’ll that be like?!!
Today was back to school day. What does “back to school” mean for a janitor? Well, for this janitor, It means not getting home from work until close to midnight. Blah! It means never seeing my partner (other than seeing her sleeping) during the work week. This will be new. Previously, she had mornings free too and worked later shifts. It’s going to be a big relationship-pattern change. So far we’ve been talking on the phone in the evenings, but, not the same! It also means doing the exact same thing, every single day, 180 times, until next summer. I’d be hard pressed to think of another job that is as isolating and routine-oriented as this one. Mail carrier, trash collector, …what else?
I’m grateful at least we have 2 months every summer where things get changed up. We get to work normal hours. (Well, close. It’s 6:30am till 3:00pm.) We get to work all together, as a team. And there’s all sorts of different, exciting things to get done. Scrubbing desks and chairs, getting the old wax up off floors and re-waxing, shampooing carpeting, lifting heavy things, moving and organizing stuff. At least it’s something different every day. And sometimes there are donuts!
During the school year though, we’re all on our own. I tend to be kind of rigid naturally, so I go through my work exactly the same way every day. I really think I need to challenge myself on this before it feels too mentally heavy. Things can get really heavy… Bleak, repetitive, draining, scary, lonely… Usually I listen to my iPod, and I read during break time, try to keep my mind active. I talk to my co-worker a little bit, but basically, I am alone. I’m kind of used to it by now, but also I want to preemptively plan ahead before things get really bad, in my head.