This piece discusses some Trans* issues, it deals predominantly with transgender people who identify as male or female and choose to undergo medical intervention to various degrees (for example hormone therapy and surgery). However many aspects will apply to people who are not opting for medical treatment of any kind.
For those who aren’t completely familiar with the topic, please read this rough guide to the terminology.
Whether it’s from a cisgender family member, a friend, colleague or new acquaintance, transgender people often hear uncomfortable remarks and questions. Much of this is well-meant curiosity or advice. However, it can overstep the boundaries of person’s privacy and it quickly stacks up as each friend and relative has a harmless question they want to ask or another piece of advice they want to give.
These are some of the things transgender people regularly hear and often find uncomfortable or offensive. Some of them may seem obvious intrusions but others are less obvious. Please do read all of them.
What Not to Say to a Transgender Person and Why
If you’re completely new to this then please note that it’s considered disrespectful and often hurtful to refer to somebody using the wrong pronouns (eg. he, she, him, her) or their former name. It may take time to feel natural but please do try and if you slip up, correct yourself and then move on without drawing any attention to it. They will appreciate it.
“You should [blank] to look/sound more male/female” or “If you want to “pass” you should [insert gender stereotype here].”
Your friend, etc. already has a wealth of internet resources to help them in this area if they wish. Any behaviours or choices you notice that are not traditionally male/female are probably intentional choices for which they have their own reasons. Just as many cisgender people do not conform to traditional gender roles for their own reasons.
“You look like a real man/woman” or “You look just like a man/woman”
This makes it seem as though you believe your friend etc. is impersonating a man/woman rather than simply being themselves and living according to their gender identity. If you want to go one step further than simply omitting this statement, consider instead broadening your own concept of what a man or woman is, ie. She is a woman. Specifically, she is transgender woman, though you needn’t add that modifier any more than you need to specify when someone is a cisgender woman.
Similarly, “I think of you as a [gender identity].”
This isn’t something that cisgender people are told, singling out your transgender friend, etc. to tell them as much suggests that you think of them as anything but their genuine gender identity.
“What do you have down there?”
I’m sure it’s obvious to most people that this is an inappropriate question to ask anybody, transgender, cisgender or otherwise. Unfortunately, transgender people are often asked variations of this question. And because some people will go on asking questions like this, it’s even more important for friends and family of transgender people not to add to these invasions of privacy with less obvious but similarly uncomfortable remarks. So please, read on!
“Have you had the surgery?” or “When are you having the surgery” or “Are you having the surgery?”
Firstly, not everyone opts for surgery. There is also no set number of surgeries. Some people opt only to have one surgery but they could go further along the medical route if they chose. There may be as many as five or six surgeries required in addition to surgical revisions to improve results. Secondly, let it be a person’s choice whether or not they share this information with you, as well as how and when they do so.
“Are you going all the way?”
“What size are you going for?” or “Here’s how I think you should get your [body part] done” or “Take it from someone who’s had [body part] all their lives.”
This is pointless because all surgical decisions must be made in conjunction with a medical consultant. And unless you are that medical consultant, this really isn’t your business. Transgender people frequently deal with their genitalia being discussed as though it were public property or a matter of public interest – please don’t add to this for them by being one more person who does so.
“What’s it like now that you’ve had [blank] surgery?”
Surgeries and their outcomes are private, a person may or may not be pleased with the outcome. If someone wishes to share that information with you, they will. But allow it to be their choice. Consider instead asking them how they’re feeling and recovering after their surgery. This shows genuine concern without appearing voyeuristic and overly curious.
“What will you do when you have [body part]?” or “How will you feel when you have [body part]?”
Just how uncomfortable this is will depend on the body part. If it relates to having sex, the question may come off as voyeuristic and feel like an invasion of privacy.
In addition, your friend is unlikely to feel any more “like a man/woman” than they already do. They will most likely feel relieved, it may make their life easier and so on. But when you ask this question, they may believe that you think of them as being other than a man/woman until they’ve had this surgery.
“I bet you/your partner are really looking forward to that!”
This may be a joke to the speaker but again, transgender people frequently hear others discuss their genitals and their sex lives as though they’re public property. In addition to this, the statement implies that a couples’ sex life cannot be satisfactory or complete until a certain surgery or without a particular body part. Commentary on other people’s sex lives, even as a well-humoured joke, is generally inappropriate. Negative commentary usually causes offence.
“A sex change”
Avoid the phrase “sex change” surgery or “a sex change”. Firstly, because what is meant by this term actually takes more than one surgery and extensive hormone therapy. But more significantly because this term is outdated and harkens back to a time when Trans* people were considered “freaks shows” and later as fodder for poorly made talk shows. An attitude which unfortunately still partially informs how society regards transgender people today.
Comparing surgical procedures to “superficial” cosmetic procedures
Surgeries that do not directly affect a person’s physical health but rather alter their appearance in some way are deemed to be cosmetic surgeries. To deem all of these surgeries “superficial” however would be to drastically understate the effect that they may have on a person’s mental health. This is not limited to surgeries that a transgender person has as part of transitioning. However, those surgeries are of the utmost importance to their mental health. As such, they should be regarded as health care and not as luxuries as these comparisons are often intended to suggest, nor should their importance be trivialised.
Asking transgender people these types of questions is just as inappropriate as it would be to ask a cisgender person about their genitals or sex life.
QUESTIONS/REMARKS ABOUT “COMING OUT” AS TRANSGENDER
“I know someone who cross-dresses.”
These are different two situations and different experiences. Crossdressers don’t necessarily have any conflict between biological sex and gender identity. Referencing cross-dressing is likely to make the other person feel as though you think of them as merely adopting the guise of a particular gender when in fact they identify as that gender.
“I know someone who performs drag.”
Referencing drag performance is likely to make your friend, etc. feel that you think of them as a male/female impersonator who needs to “act” as something other than they are. Whereas in fact, by living according to their gender identity, they may feel that for first time in their life, they no longer have to act.
“Is that like a transvestite?”
No, it’s not. The term transvestite, while still used by some, has largely been abandoned due to negative connotations. It also refers to an entirely different experience, see the two paragraphs above.
“I know how you feel, I cross-dress or am a transvestite.”
If you are versed in terminology and involved in the wider Trans* community or consume Trans* media or content, it’s possible that you will have some areas of common interest. But the experiences and feelings are different. It’s important to remember that the other person permanently feels like, and identifies as, their particular gender.
“I know someone who’s gay..”
This a very different thing. Gender identity and sexual orientation are completely unrelated. While both groups are minorities and are marginalised in society, their experiences will be different (though for some people, there will be an overlap – there is some information about sexual orientation and transgender people below). To an extent, the two groups share a community, but not every gay or transgender person chooses to participate in that community. This applies to all gender, romantic and sexual minorities – while there can be overlap, as there is among cisgender people and there is a common community, try not to lump these minorities together as though they’re one.
How does your partner feel about that?
Firstly, this implies that you assume their being transgender would be problem for any partner or potential partner. Needless to say, this may make your friend etc. feel that you are suggesting they are less attractive or loveable. Secondly, while many transgender people do experience relationship problems or divorce upon coming out, many others are able to transition with the support of a loving partner (if you are dating a transgender person, there are links related to that further on). It is considerate to let someone know that you’re there for them if they do experience difficulties of any nature, but zoning in on or prying into somebody else’s relationship is always inadvisable. This also relates to the next question.
“How did your family take it?”
Realistically, there is a chance that the person’s family (or social group, colleagues etc.) reacted negatively to their decision to transition. If so, is that really anybody else’s business and is it likely that they would want to discuss something which may be quite hurtful? As with so many other things, let it be their choice if, when and how they discuss it with you.
“We’re not your soap opera,” quips one Youtuber in discussing this question.
Also be aware that in some circumstance, this question can suggest that you prioritise the impact it has had on their family, over the significance that coming out and transitioning holds for your friend, etc. It make it seem as though you believe your friend, etc. has done something negative or inflicted something awful on their family. When in fact, their alternative to transitioning may be a life of unhappiness and possibly even one they find unbearable.
“This is very difficult for me.”
It can be very difficult for family members to come to terms with what appears to be a new identity. But know that your relative is exactly the same person they always were, you’ve just learned something new about them, that’s all. Their name and pronouns may change, but your relationship won’t and what is more, you have the chance to strengthen it by being supportive at a time when they probably need it and the chance to get to know even more about them as they get to be entirely themselves without reservation or apology, for the first time.
I would suggest that you seek resources to help you manage any difficulty you’re having in coming to terms with it. But avoid language that may make them feel guilty or ashamed or may give the impression that you prioritise the feelings you’re experiencing now over those they may have secretly and silently endured for their lifetime. Not to mention the feelings of apprehension they will be experiencing as they prepare to tell others and perhaps also tackle what can at first seem a daunting medical bureaucracy and intervention.
“Why did you choose your name?”
This may be fine for some people, but it’s best to let them tell you if they want to rather than asking them. If you don’t like the name somebody has chosen, it’s as well to keep that to yourself as it would be if you didn’t like a cisgender person’s name. Your friend, etc. is the one who has to live with the name, so all that matters is that they like it.
“You haven’t made it easy for yourself.”
This statement is based on the false premise that it is a person’s choice to be transgender. It is a choice to “come out” as transgender, it is a choice to transition (although the alternative may feel impossible and in-viable) but being transgender itself is not a choice. A cisgender man doesn’t choose to “feel” male, yet he does and he would continue to feel that way even if his body were surgically and hormonally altered. That’s his gender identity and he didn’t choose it. The same applies to transgender people. Steer clear of this statement as it makes the transgender person responsible for something that is entirely beyond their control. And if they could feel comfortable and happy without going through the difficulties associated with being transgender, they most certainly would.
OTHER BODY PART QUERIES
“How do you go to the bathroom?” or “Do you still stand/sit?” or “It’s okay, I sometimes sit.”
This just isn’t anybody else business. That’s it.
“Which bathroom do you use?”
If you want to reassure a newly transitioning or even a newly-hired transgender employee that they can use whichever bathroom they prefer, that can be a good idea. Do it discretely and leave it at that. Asking the question however, is different. It’s probably going to be considered an invasion of privacy. It’s also a surprisingly sensitive issue. Navigating public bathrooms can be a major anxiety for transgender people, particularly those who are transitioning.
We think of bathrooms as being sex-segregated but the truth is that judgements are made not based on anatomy, but on general appearance and presentation. Transgender people may face disapproving looks, comments, harassment and even violence if they are judged by others to be in the “wrong” bathroom. This can happen in either or even both bathrooms depending on how their appearance is perceived by others. This also happens to other non-traditionally presenting people, who are judged to be in the “wrong” bathroom.
If you see someone who you perceive as being in the “wrong” bathroom, leave them to it. As long as they’re in there for the same basic functions as everyone else and are doing no harm, it really has no impact on anybody else. They have probably made that decision to avoid endangering their safety and/or privacy, as well as their own personal comfort.
“How do you have sex?”
This is an inappropriate question to ask anyone and frankly, there is a huge amount of variation in how couples of all types have sex, whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex couples, whether they are cisgender, transgender or any combination or variation. Also, transgender people are no more or less sexually experimental than cisgender people. Once again, the fact that transgender people are asked questions like this provides more reason for those who care about a transgender person not to add to their sense of invaded privacy in other ways.
“Is that a wig?” or “Is that your real hair?”
Compliments can be nice. But comments of this nature about a person’s hair can make them feel self-conscious.
“What size are your feet?” “It’s a shame your hands are so small/big.” “Will your hands/feet/height change?”
Once again, comments like this may make your friend, etc. feel self-conscious.
“What do you do with your [body part]?” or “Do you bind your chest?”
Referring to body parts that a person may be uncomfortable with is generally a bad idea. People will sometimes have questions about various body parts, but this again belongs in the category of being nobody else’s business. If you absolutely have to refer to body parts, which is unlikely outside of medical scenarios, it may be better to use neutral terms such as “chest” and “genitals” rather than referring to body parts your friend etc. is uncomfortable with in terms that will increase that discomfort.
Requests to see or touch surgical sites, scarring or body parts are entirely inappropriate. Unless of course you’re a doctor and you have a good medical reason for needing to see or touch the site!
Asking people these types of questions is as inappropriate as it would be to ask a cisgender person about their sex lives, bathroom usage or body parts.
These are questions often asked or statements frequently made by cisgender people as they try to gain insight into or express an interest in the experience of a transgender person. This can happen both when a person is “coming out” and afterwards as someone learns that the person is transgender.
“When did you decide to become a man/woman?” or “How is it now that you’re changing into a man/woman?”
Transgender people identify as their preferred gender. Their body may be changing and the pronouns used to refer to them may change. Their name may change. But the one thing that isn’t changing is their personal identification as a man/woman. That is the thing that remains certain, while other aspects are brought into alignment with it. As such, words and phrases like “become” or “change into” or “used to be” a man/woman, are inaccurate and most likely hurtful. As for the word “decide”, see “You haven’t made it easy for yourself” above.
“What’s it like to be transgender?”
When you frame this question so casually, it can suggest that you expect an equally straight-forward and easy answer. Being transgender is a part of how your friend, etc. experiences the world and everything in it. They have been transgender every moment of their lives. There is no way to sum up that entire experience and dispense it in one or two convenient sentences.
“There’s a person at my supermarket who is transgender” and similar statements.
Firstly this assumes that all transgender people are somehow automatically interested in the existence of other transgender persons and particularly those in the vicinity. If they are interested, there are online communities and meet-ups they can join and attend. However, the other alarming factor here is that the speaker has taken it upon themselves to mention someone else’s transgender status (with or without including their whereabouts), seeing that person as a topic for discussion. Your transgender friend, etc. may worry that you will use them in conversation or discuss their transgender status as a form of gossip.
“I saw Chaz Bono on TV” or “Conchita Wurst in the Eurovision” etc.
The latter is not transgender but rather a drag queen who like many drag queens, uses female pronouns to describe his female on-stage persona. That matter aside, transgender people are individuals just as cisgender people are. And while they may have this one particular thing in common with the celebrity figure of your choice, they may not like the idea of being lumped in with every other transgender person in existence. In addition, your friend, etc. may hear about it endlessly every time a transgender celebrity appears on television or a new reality show featuring a transgender person is aired. If so, they’ll likely be quite tired of hearing it. Likewise…
“I saw a TV show about a person who was transgender.”
While it might be valuable to watch a well made documentary, do bear in mind that the experiences of transgender people vary, as do their preferred terms and descriptions of their experiences. Those you see on television are not representative of the entire transgender population. Hence…
Anything at all about being “trapped the wrong body”.
While some people do describe their experience as one of being trapped in the wrong body, many people feel that while they may opt to alter some parts of their body, it is very much theirs. For these people, they are more likely to feel trapped by a multi-headed hydra of bureaucracy, a healthcare system, a society that awards them less respect and privacy than it does to others or in some cases a financially constrained situation that prevents them from getting the treatment they need.
On Preferred Language…
I have used the word “transitioning” throughout this piece. The word is frequently used by many people to describe the process of permanently altering their gender presentation to agree with their gender identity. However, not everyone will be comfortable with this word as it may be reminiscent of such terms as “becoming” or “changing”. As with all of this, take your lead from how the individual talks about themselves and what language they employ.
On related note, I have used the term “preferred gender” purely for explanatory purposes. Although it’s a common term, I would advise the term “gender identity” instead wherever possible.
“What was your name?” or “What is your real name?”
A person’s birth name is probably associated in their own mind with years of privately-held unhappiness and perhaps depression, as well as experiences that they may have found uncomfortable and even degrading, with or without being consciously aware of the reason, such as having to wear traditionally gender-specific clothing or attend single-sex schooling etc.
For some, that experience with all its degradation, discomfort, confusion, repression and fear can be encompassed by a single word, their birth name. Some people may tell your their former name, but never ask it. And incidentally, the name a person was assigned at birth is no more “real” than the name they have chosen. There is also a reasonable chance that their chosen name is now their legal name, but in the vast majority of interactions, that distinction won’t be relevant.
“Can I see a picture of you before?” or “What did you sound like before?”
These questions remind people of a time they may not have been particularly happy and does so by referring to areas that directly contributed to their unhappiness, that is, their appearance and presentation. As questions, these serve no function but to indulge idle curiosity. Equally, showing your friend etc. photographs or recordings of themselves in the past may make them intensely uncomfortable.
“Did you always know?” or “When did you know?”
Like a person’s birth name, the time referenced may be a very uncomfortable one for the person to discuss. They may choose to discuss it with you, but let it be their choice.
References to “when you were a man/woman” or “when you were [birth name]”.
This person has likely never felt they were anything other than their preferred gender. It may cause feelings of discomfort or humiliation to hear you refer to them this way. Thankfully, you can easily alter this statement to “before you transitioned” or “before you went for treatment/hormone therapy” depending on their own choice of terminology. However, is it really necessary to use their transition as the time reference?
And is the question or statement so important that it requires you to mention what was most likely an extremely uncomfortable and unhappy time in that person’s life, for that very reason? Some people may be fine with direct references to their history, but know that others will not, though they may not show it. As mentioned before, take your lead from how they talk about themselves and what language they employ.
“This is my transgender friend.”
Never introduce somebody as being transgender and never disclose or discuss their transgender status to others. Some people are very open about being transgender, but that is their choice and not everybody will feel the same way for a variety of reasons.
On using the right pronouns in professional writing..
While the entire body of terminology may be quite daunting, pronouns are pretty easy. Pronouns should always match the person’s gender identity and not the sex assigned at birth, even when you’re referring to the person pre-transition. This error is quite common in news articles where the subject is described as, for instance, a transgender woman and then referred to by her former name (which there is no need to mention at all) and using male pronouns. As mentioned previously, apart from being quite hurtful to many transgender people, it is also disrespectful. Furthermore, in this context, it misleads and miseducates the public, poorly equipping them for interactions with transgender people in their own lives.
Any use whatsoever of the words “tranny” or “shemale” or “he-she”.
Some people will use the word “tranny” to describe themselves, but the vast majority will consider it extremely offensive. Similarly, while the term “hermaphrodite” has been used by the medical profession in the past to describe people with intersex conditions, it is now largely considered a derogatory term. When you consider the material on this list and the length of the list itself, even a joke of this nature is just another unnecessary addition to the ongoing commentary, jibes, etc. that your transgender friend, etc. has to endure.
“Are you a man or a woman?”
Never ask this question, of anyone. It’s horrendously rude. If you know someone falls into the Trans* category and you’re unsure how to refer to them, you can ask what their preferred pronouns are.
“Wait, you’re transgender and gay?”
Finally, gender and sexual orientation are unrelated and same general rules of categorisation apply to both cisgender and transgender people. For instance, a transgender man (transman) who is attracted only to men is gay. A transgender woman (transwoman) who is attracted only men is straight.
Incidentally, the same categories apply in reverse; a cisgender woman attracted to a transgender woman is gay or bisexual etc. I could provide a vast range of examples by utilising different combinations of gender identity and sexual orientation, but these examples will suffice for now.
If you are dating a transperson and want to learn more from that perspective, here is a link to one of many relevant videos. This is one of several videos by the same Youtuber on that topic.
So the last item on the list is this: Don’t question whether or not there was any point in a gay transgender person transitioning, of course there was. They want to be happy, comfortable, healthy etc. and that’s independent of the sex of any person they’re attracted to or with whom they are in a relationship.
If you’re still confused by this, here is a NSFW Youtube video of a bisexual transgender man and a gay woman discussing the topic in a very light, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, fashion. It’s quite tame but I’ve marked it NSFW (not safe for work) because it briefly features two men in their underwear.
Remind me, why this is important?
I will also leave you with a video entitled “Cis Curiosity” by one Youtuber who talks about what it is like to be asked these questions. There are no shortage of these videos on Youtube. This particular video addresses the feeling of dehumanization that some transgender people experience having been asked these questions repeatedly and had their privacy completely disregarded on a regular basis.
“Bottom surgery” in this video refers to genital surgeries, as opposed to “top surgery” which refers to the chest. There is also a sterilization surgery required in many countries and optional in others.
If you made it here, I thank and applaud you. Now you’ve read it, please go ahead and share it.
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