you’re at work, a social setting, or political event,
and a real live transgender person says
“Hi!” You don’t want to say anything
wrong since you recall the tedious questions and responses
you’ve endured about your sexuality, but you
want to appear interested and engaged. Thankfully,
there’s etiquette for talking to trans people.
Here’s a look at questions to avoid. Trans
people will thank you for it.
What’s the T doing in LGBT? You
probably get the L and the G from
extensive personal experience. You might even get the
B (we’ll save that for another article).
But that pesky T can be a real mystery. LGBT
people (in fact, all people) have a gender identity
and expression. That’s how many LGBT people are
rewards partnering with the “opposite” gender
and is organized around a procreative ideology: Male
and female are the two types, and they make babies.
Same-sex partnering violates the first rule of gender
identity and expression, which is so deeply ingrained and
enforced that a violation of it is sometimes described as
real problem. We aren’t oppressed just because
we’re queer but often because we look
and act queer. That’s gender identity and
expression. And it’s often imposed from inside our
own community. Some LGBT personal ads demand only
“straight-acting” applicants need apply.
The community often rewards those who pass as members of the
Can I ask you a personal question? This usually
means “Don’t be offended, but I’m about
to offend you,” which often leads to one of the
Are you transgender? (Variants include “Are
you a real girl?” or “Were you always a
man?”) The first rule of Trans Club is, You do
not talk about Trans Club. Let the trans person bring it
up. Many trans people make great efforts to align their
gender identity and expression. Many don’t like
to talk about it. Getting “read” (slang
for identified as trans) can be a demoralizing blow, and
asking equals reading. The better someone can pass,
the more likely it’s going to hurt if you ask.
And please resist speculating with others or confirming
their speculations if you know.
Do you have any “before” pictures? This
question comes courtesy of media hacks who exploit the freak
show angle. Some trans people are proud of their
transitions and, like someone newly in shape, might
show “before” and “after”
photos. But for many trans people, old photos and
details of their past remind them of difficult times
they’d rather not revisit. Also, they’re often
used as evidence that we’re
“really” whatever we were assigned at birth.
What is/was your “real” name/old name?
See above. Never mention someone’s old name or
other name. Never ask what it was. Using
someone’s old name is often the insult of choice for
those who dislike a trans person.
Can I still use your old name? This is why many
trans people don’t stay in touch with people they
knew before transition. If you knew someone
pre-transition, don’t use that person’s
old name and pronoun. Before sharing stories about
someone’s past, check with the trans person to
make sure it’s OK. Remember, reminders of the
past can be painful, so show respect for your longtime
friend or acquaintance.
When did you get it/them cut off? Did it hurt? Can
I see/touch? First, transgender surgery is performed
under anesthesia by skilled plastic surgeons so, no,
it didn’t hurt. It’s more like
reconfiguring than amputation. Second, you don’t ask
nontrans people to describe their private anatomy, so
don’t ask trans people. Finally, don’t
assume we’re getting surgery of any kind; many
can’t or won’t. And, no, you
can’t see/touch until the third date.
What is sex like now? Don’t ask about
orgasms and mechanics. Again, would you ask a nontrans
person? Maybe during postdate analysis with good
friends but not during a casual conversation.
What pronouns should I use? The skit about
androgynous character Pat on Saturday Night Live displayed a
bit of good etiquette in its core premise. If
you’re not sure, avoid gendered terms like she,
his, Ms., sir, and so on until you are sure. Don’t
ask outright; just strike up a regular conversation,
and usually any answer will become apparent.