How to Respect a Trans* Person
If you have recently learned of a person who is trans* in your life, you might not understand this part of their identity and you may be unsure of how to act around them without offending or hurting their feelings. The term “trans* person” in this article means a person who does not identify with their birth-assigned sex and/or their birth-assigned gender. There are trans* people all over the world and in a wide variety of cultures–in fact, it’d be hard to name a country or culture where trans* people aren’t present. For such people, it is not always easy to explain their gender situation in today’s society. You’ll have to understand and respect someone who challenges your ideas about gender and sex, and who does not easily fall into the category of “male” or “female” or “masculine” or “feminine”. You can start by respecting the person’s self-identity and using the same terms and pronouns that the person uses to describe themselves.
- Be with people unconditionally, as you would be with any other person, especially where gender is a non-topic in life.
People just acknowledge gender and move on. Respect each person as you would any person. Understand that the moment the conversation turns to respecting someone “because of” something, is the moment we are not just being with them unconditionally as the gender they present themselves as. If you aim to respect someone “because of” their differences, you’re emphasizing a distinction and saying that we need to apply the conversation of respect to this person because of that difference; in fact, nothing is different, and we just need to be with this person, as we would any person. Above all else, be with them as the gender they refer to themselves as and refer to them with their chosen name and gender pronoun (regardless of their physical appearance), as you would with anyone. (Unless they are not out, or tell you otherwise. Ask to be sure if or when there are times it is not okay.)
- Watch your past tense. When talking about the past try not to use phrases like “when you were a previous gender” or “born a man/woman,” because many trans* people feel they have always been the gender they have come out to you as, but had to hide it for whatever reasons- or at least be aware of when you do it. Ask the trans* person how they would like to be referred to in the past tense.
- One solution is to avoid referencing gender when talking about the past by using other frames of reference, for instance, “Last year”, “When you were a child”, “When you were in high school”, etc. If you must reference the gender transition when talking about the past, say “before you came out”, or “Before you began transitioning” (if applicable).
- Use language appropriate to the person’s gender. Ask what pronouns the trans* person prefers to have used in reference to them and respect that choice. For example, someone who identifies as a woman may prefer feminine words and pronouns like she, her, actress, waitress, etc. A person who identifies as a man may prefer masculine terms like he, his, etc. Other trans* people have begun using gender-neutral pronouns like they, their and them. Use the name they ask you to use.
Your friend Jack has just come out as a trans* person and now wishes to be called Mary. From this point on, you do not say “This is my friend Jack, I’ve known him since grade school.” Instead, you say, “This is my friend Mary, I’ve known her since grade school.” Table any awkwardness you feel for another time when you and Mary can talk privately. Definitely, if you want to remain, friends, you will need to respect Mary’s wishes and address her as who she is today, not the person you used to know; despite the fact that the trans* person IS the person you used to know, you just know them better now.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some, but certainly not all trans* people will answer questions related their identity/gender. Don’t expect the trans* person to be your sole educator, however. It is your responsibility to inform yourself. Also, if a trans* person doesn’t feel comfortable answering your question, don’t try to “force it out of them.”
Questions about genitalia, surgeries, and former names should usually only be asked if you need to know in order to provide medical care, are engaging in a sexual relationship with the trans* person, or need the former name for legal documentation.
- Respect the trans* person’s need for privacy. Do not out them without express permission. Telling people you are trans* is a very difficult decision, not made lightly. “Outing” them without their permission is a betrayal of trust and could possibly cost you your relationship with them. It may also put them at risk, depending on the situation, of losing a lot – or even being harmed. They will tell those they want to, if or when they are ready.
This advice is appropriate for those who are living full-time or those who have not transitioned yet. For those living full-time in their proper gender role, very many will not want anyone who did not know them from before they transitioned to know them as any other than their current, i.e. proper, gender.
- Don’t assume you know what the person’s experience is. There are many different ways in which differences in gender identity are expressed. The idea of being “trapped in a man/woman’s body”, the belief that trans* women are hyperfeminine/trans* men are hyper-masculine, and the belief that all trans* people will seek hormones and surgery are all stereotypes that apply to some people and not to others. Be guided by what the person tells you about their own situation, and listen without preconceived notions.
- Do not impose theories you may have learned, or assume that the experience of other trans* people you may know or have heard of is the same as that of the person in front of you. Don’t assume that they are transitioning because of past trauma in their lives, or that they are changing genders as a way to escape from their bodies.
- Begin to recognize the difference between gender identity and sexuality. Do not assume that their gender correlates with their sexuality – it doesn’t. There are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and asexual trans* people. If the person comes out to you about their sexual orientation, use the terms they use.
- Treat trans* persons the same. While they may appreciate your extra attention to them, they don’t particularly appreciate you making a big deal of them. After you are well-informed, make sure you’re not going overboard. Trans* people have essentially the same personalities as they did before coming out. Treat them as you would anybody else.
- Be willing to listen. Many TG people live in small communities where sharing their experience is limited to their own kind. Often, being able to explain and educate people about their experience is helpful to both you and them.
- Don’t obfuscate. If you are finding something difficult, let them know. An honest, straightforward response is a lot easier for them to deal with than cutting them off.
- Hang out with them. Make it “normal” – get used to them in the way they present and sooner or later you’ll find that they aren’t a strange person, they are “Joe” or “Josephine.” You might just find you end up with a really good friend.
- Be supportive. Those who have begun to express a gender different from the one assigned at birth are usually undergoing a major life-changing event. Patience, understanding, and a willingness to discuss issues these changes will bring about will help them through a difficult and emotional time. It is best to ask open-ended questions that allow the person to share as much as they feel comfortable sharing.
Examples: “How are things going?”; “You looked stressed. Care to share?”; “You look really happy. Something good happens?”; “How can I help support you during these changes?”; “I am all ears if there are things that wish to discuss.”
- Some trans* people will be comfortable answering questions, and some will not. If a trans* person is uncomfortable answering or doesn’t want to, then let it go. If you need to know, use the resources below.
- Many believe that the word “trans*” is an adjective, and a descriptive word; not a noun or a verb. Others believe otherwise. Just as you wouldn’t call an older person “an old” or say they are “old”, it is inappropriate to refer to a trans* person as “a trans*” without adding “person”, “woman”, “man”, or any other appropriate noun. Some trans* people also consider this objectifying and dehumanizing.
- For the media: Do not ask a trans* person to show you their before/after person, be it 10 years ago or a morning before/makeup pictorial, unless they are expressly comfortable with doing it. Many trans* people feel guilty if they don’t comply with a request for something they consider advocacy, even if it harms them. Remember, these pictures will follow this person the rest of their lives and there are some online types who will use those pictures against them, for the rest of their lives.
- If you slip up early on and say “she” or “he” when you meant the other, don’t apologize too much, just follow the mistake with the right term and continue what you were saying.
- Unless you have a close and personal relationship, it may be rude to ask what their “real” name or birth name was — they consider the name they have chosen to suit their gender (if they have done so) to be their real name, and they want you to think of them that way.
- Some people believe that the only “cure” for being trans* is to correct the physical appearance (with surgery and/or hormones) to match the mental gender identity. These people believe there is a problem with the body, not the mind. Current medical evidence and authorities support the effectiveness of these treatments (See AMA, APA, APA, NASW and WPATH statements.) Some people believe that it is society’s gender expectations and limitations for men and women are the core issue and need to reflect an acceptance of a wider variety of gender expression for males and females.
- Do what you’re doing now! Research can help! This is a key factor in supporting your trans* friend. Educating yourself could mean a lot. Keep it up.
- Not all trans* people pursue genital reconstruction surgery (GRS). GRS is almost always more appropriate to use than “sex change operation.” Don’t assume that it’s appropriate to ask about a person’s plans for surgery, hormones, and so forth, any more than you would pry into someone else’s medical affairs. Moreover, don’t assume that there is only one “right,” path to transition (e.g. that to “really be trans*” or to “finish your transition,” you need to have GRS).
- Asking about trans* peoples’ genitals and how they have sex is not appropriate, in the same way, that asking cisgender (those whose bodies naturally match their gender preference) people how they have sex is not appropriate.
- Websites like My True Gender, PlanetOut or 4chan have trans* groups or other sections for trans* people; go to them to talk to people or learn more.
- Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive and/or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male, While some intersex people are also trans*, the two are not the same and should not be conflated.
- Even if you have objections to a person’s gender identity, you should always respect the person and never willfully embarrass them publicly. Embarrassing or humiliating the person does no good for anyone. This situation could also become unsafe for the person the attention is being drawn to.
- Avoid the use of transphobic slurs like “tranny” and “shemale.” These terms are oppressive, objectifying, and dehumanizing.
- Do not compare them to a non-trans* person by calling that person a “real” or “normal” girl/boy. What makes a man a “real” man or a woman a “real” woman is the way they identify themselves, not the way someone else experiences or classifies their body. A trans* man is no less a man than a cisgender man; a trans* woman is no less a woman than a cisgender woman.
- Never tell a trans* person that people will not understand or love them because of their trans* identity. It hurts very badly and is not true. Many trans* people are understood, accepted and loved.
- Be very careful when referring to someone’s gender identity as a “choice”. Gender dysphoria is certainly not a choice by its very definition. Some trans* people describe their identity as a choice, and some do not. For some, the “choice” was to fix their body to match their mind. Find ways to respect a person’s identity that doesn’t hinge on whether or not they can “help it”. For many, the choice is to honor their authentic gender identity, or not. For many, the choice is also to live or end their life through suicide.
- Do not use Segregatory Coordination (separated and still make sense) language by applying pre-gender labels such as cisgender woman, trans-man, the transsexual woman, and so on unless the person uses that identifying the language as their gender designation. In life people just go by their gender identity, whatever that is for them. The unspoken language is that you are not your gender, you are something different, and that is not true.