Questions To Ask (And Not Ask) Transgender People

Trans_forming the Dialogue Logo

Trans people have gained unprecedented visibility in recent years. Many folks still have a lot of questions about trans people. But what questions are okay to ask? As part of the Simmons College Trans*forming the Dialogue project, I will share a few thoughts on what you should and should not ask the trans folks in your life.

What are questions that one should not ask a transgender person?

1. Anything about their genitals. It’s totally normal to be curious about trans people’s bodies. Most of us have received pretty limited sex education, and many people don’t know much about the typical male and female bodies, let alone the anatomy of trans and intersex people. So there is absolutely nothing wrong with having questions about trans people’s private parts. But, one should be very cautious about how one asks these questions. If you’re not this person’s doctor or lover, do you really need to know? Trans people routinely get asked disrespectful, very personal questions about our bodies. Would you ask a cis (non-trans) guy the size of his penis? Would you ask a cis woman to describe her labia to you? Unless you have a very special type of relationship with this person, probably not. Generally, the best option is to do an internet search. There is a lot of great info available online–you can probably sate your curiosity without making your friend or family member extremely uncomfortable. You are also welcome to ask me anything.

2. What did you look like before? If you meet somebody post-transition, you might be curious about how they looked or what their name was before transition. This kind of question is likely to make your trans friend feel pretty weird. When I’ve been asked questions along these lines, I felt like the person viewed me more as an exotic curiosity than a regular human being. I also felt bothered that they were so preoccupied with my pre-transition life. The whole point of transitioning was to express who I really am, and you’re meeting me now, so what does it matter to you? Some trans folks are totally comfortable sharing this stuff, but others are not. Wait for the trans person in your life to volunteer stories or other information about their life before transition.

What are questions that one should ask a transgender person?

1. What name and pronouns do you go by? This is always good to ask if you are not sure. In my experience, trans people really appreciate it when folks take the time to find out the proper words. I have never been offended because someone checked in about my name or pronouns. If you know someone who is questioning their gender or currently in transition, it’s not a bad idea to check in every once in awhile to see if anything has changed. This is especially true if you notice that your friend has changed their gender presentation or if you hear another friend call them by a different name.

2. What has being trans taught you? Being transgender in a transphobic society is a formative and unusual experience. From growing up to living in the closet to transitioning, trans folks have a broad range of experiences that are quite foreign to most people. Trans people often have very interesting insights about gender, social norms and being human. I love it when people ask me what I’ve learned through the experience of being trans.

3. How are you today? Trans people are just people. Like everybody else, we want to be treated with respect. This is sometimes hard to come by, especially for those who are visibly gender-nonconforming. The greatest gift you can give is kindness and a little bit of your time.

Learn more about Simmons College’s Online MSW Program.

Synonyms For LGBTQ+?

I recently noticed some search terms popping up with folks looking for other ways to say LGBT. They probably found my rant on how LGBT is not a synonym for gay. I certainly stand by that. But what is a good synonym for LGBTQ+?

The best I’ve got is gender and sexual minorities or GSM for short. I like this phrase because it’s clear and inclusive. I like that instead of trying to name each specific minority experience–an impossible project that will always leave someone out–it just points out the axes of experience we’re talking about. It’s a logical grouping; gender and sexuality are so intimately related. Gender and sexual minorities are everyone from lesbian, gay, bi and trans people to asexual, nonbinary and queer people, to kinky and poly people, and more.

In casual settings, I frequently use queer as a synonym for LGBTQ+. It’s not a perfect fit. A lot of people, especially LGBTQ+ folks of the older generation, are just not down with the word queer. And a lot of queer people feel that being queer is quite distinct from being, say, plain old gay, because it includes a certain critical, anti-assimilationist attitude. Still, it rolls off the tongue, and people invariably know what I mean.

In theory, GSM is my preferred term, and queer is not. But in practice, I haven’t fully integrated GSM into my vocabulary, and despite its imperfections, I say queer all the time.

What are your favorite alternatives to LGBTQ+?

I’m Bisexual

Why don’t you ever talk about being bi on your blog? Alma asked me, half asleep in bed on a recent morning. It’s a good question.

I’ve come out four times. The first time I came out, at age 13, I came out as bisexual. Two years later, at 15, I came out as gay (my word at the time–never could get comfortable with the word lesbian). At 19, I came out as butch; at 21, I came out as a trans man. Well, I’m going for number 5, and I’m finding myself circling all the way back around again. I am bisexual.

This is something I’ve concluded recently. Part of what’s made this a tricky learning process for me is that I have extremely lopsided attractions. To get really specific here, I’d say I am bisexual and heteroromantic: I experience sexual attraction to both men and women, but romantic feelings only towards women.

My attraction to women feels fully developed, vibrant, definitive. I know, very clearly, whether I am attracted to a woman or not; and if I’m attracted to her today, I will probably be attracted to her tomorrow. I get crushes on women. I am madly in love with a woman.

My attraction to men feels vague, fleeting, more potential than realization. Feelings of attraction come and go, and I can be uncertain whether I’m attracted to a particular guy. If I’m attracted to a man this morning, I might feel differently this afternoon. When I feel a more stable attraction to a man, rather than feeling romantic-love-type feelings, it’s more like feelings of friendship and comradery with a slight sexual twist. Even if I were single, I don’t think I’d want to date or be in a relationship with a guy.

My attractions towards men remind me a little bit of what I’ve read about how some gray-asexual folks experience sexual attraction in general. I want to give a shout out to the ace community for doing so much groundwork in exploring and coming up with terminology for different types of attraction. I am allosexual, and I wouldn’t have the language to describe what I’m feeling without the asexual community. Asexual people of the internet, you are awesome!

I have felt these attractions, in this imbalanced pattern, since the onset of puberty. But they made no sense until after transition. I experimented with guys a little bit as a young teenager, but the experiences felt all wrong, because I was in a female role. As I realized that I had romantic feelings for girls but not boys, I figured I must be exclusively attracted to women. As I began exploring my gender, I concluded that my feelings towards men were a result of identifying with them–which is definitely part of it. The feelings are a longing to express sexuality with other men, as a man.

So there you have it. I feel it’s important for me to share this here because there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be bi. Until recently, I never considered identifying as bi because to me the term suggested strong, close-to-equal attraction to men and women. But I now see this is untrue, and in fact many bisexuals experience lopsided attraction. I was partly inspired to claim the label of bisexual by that essay by Charles M. Blow on his sexual development and imbalanced interest in men and women [content note for child sexual abuse].

I don’t like the prefix “bi”–there are more than two genders, and I definitely experience attraction towards genderqueer people. But of course, homosexual and heterosexual, gay and straight have the exact same problem–they are all based on a gender binary. I feel like bisexual gets unfairly blamed, when really this is an issue with our whole concept of sexual orientation, and I see that as an example of biphobia. So despite these flaws, I’m using bisexual because it’s widely recognized and because I can no longer claim that the definition does not accommodate me.

“Bisexual” seems to have this strange problem where a huge proportion of people who could be described as bi reject the term. This seems to be a special case; I don’t see large numbers of people who could be described as straight or gay rejecting those words. I respect each person’s self-definition–your sexual orientation is whatever you say it is–but I think the larger pattern here is biphobia, plain and simple. I want to do my tiny part to help change that.

Alma and I have been sharing a process of discovery as we both continue to grow into our queer identities. We’ve carved out a “monogamish” arrangement (to use Dan Savage’s excellent term) to allow me to explore this side of my sexuality. Specifically, I’m curious about fooling around with another trans guy. This is meaningful to me both as an expression of my attraction to men, and as part of my ongoing process of learning to love my trans body and envision myself as a sexually embodied human being.

At this point, this isn’t something I feel any need to actively pursue. It may or may not ever happen. But it always feels good to get a little more honest.

5 Tips For Changing Your Gender Pronouns

Pronouns–those tiny little words that can hurt like a broken bone or be as delightful as a birthday present. For many trans and gender-nonconforming people, gender pronouns are an important aspect of self-expression. Whether you want different pronouns because of your gender identity or your views on the gender system, it’s a challenging task. If coming out is safe and feasible, you might be ready to ask your loved ones to start using a new pronoun. How do you go about getting other people to call you by the right words?

1. Ask for what you want. Requesting different gender pronouns can be a nerve-wracking prospect. You might be wondering whether people will take you seriously as a she or a he, whether people will play grammar police when you request singular they, or whether friends and family will be willing to learn a new set of pronouns like ze/hir/hirs. It can be tempting to look for a compromise and ask for whatever you think is most likely to stick. This might be a good option if you think there’s no way friends and family will come around or if you just don’t feel that strongly about it. In general, though, I think it’s worth it to ask for the pronouns you really want. You’re already going out on a limb–you might as well go all the way out!

2. Be patient…for awhile. Adjusting to a pronoun change can be pretty tricky. We tend to use pronouns without thinking about them. Even people who are 100% supportive will probably screw up at first. I’m trans, and I have messed up people’s pronouns numerous times. For some reason, it seems new pronouns take longer to stick than a name change.

So when you first change your pronouns, be patient with friends and family who make genuine mistakes. I’m not talking about people who are disrespectful, cruel, and/or refuse to accept your new pronouns. I’m talking about people who love you, who are good to you, who plain old mess up sometimes. When people use the wrong words, politely remind them and move on. They should be able to acknowledge the mistake and move on quickly, too. So long as people are actively cooperating, allow a grace period for adjustment.

3. Boycott the wrong pronouns. It’s been almost a year since you came out about your pronouns to friends and family. Some people have completely adjusted, some mess up occasionally and then correct themselves, and some call you the wrong pronoun on a regular basis and don’t correct it or apologize. You’ve talked this over with everyone and politely corrected people, dozens and dozens of times. It’s time to end the grace period and stop playing along with folks who claim it’s too hard to change.

At this point, I suggest completely refusing to respond to or acknowledge the wrong pronouns. This is an approach I took and it worked really well for me. The questions I asked myself was, “What would a cis guy do if someone called him she?” I figured he would a) assume the person was not talking about him, b) be shocked and even offended if he realized they were, and c) correct the mistake with indignation and a sense of complete entitlement to the correct pronouns. So, I made it my mission to react in this way, figuring that I am just as entitled as anyone to the right language. I don’t recommend flipping out on people or anything–just acting as if it’s completely obvious that others should use your preferred pronouns, and refusing to play along when they don’t.

For example, a mispronouning would often happen in my family when we got together for dinner and my mom started telling stories about when I was younger. As my mom began an anecdote referring to something she did as a child, I would get a very confused look on my face. She would pause, noticing my confusion–often, that would be enough and she’d correct herself. If that didn’t happen, we’d have a short exchange along these lines.

Me: Wait, who is this story about?

Mom: You, of course!

Me: Oh! Huh, okay. You said she so I thought you must be talking about [female relative].

Mom: Oh, did I? Sorry about that. Anyway, when he was little…

I suggest a “fake it til you make it” approach–act like you can’t imagine being called the wrong words, are shocked someone would make such a mistake, and are obviously deserving of the proper terms. I found that after a few weeks of acting this way, it became second nature.

This worked really well on two levels. First, once using the wrong words stopped being a viable strategy to communicate with me, the last holdouts came around. Second, and perhaps more important, getting mispronouned didn’t sting so bad, because I was not participating in it.

4. Spend time with people who get it. Coming out about your pronouns, correcting people when they mess up, adjusting to the change yourself–it’s an exhausting process. Recharge by spending time with friends and family members who see you for who you are and show it.

When I was knee-deep in my transition, after an exhausting family dinner in which I’d been mispronouned ten or twenty times, it was such a relief to come home with Alma and know I could finally relax. I also drew strength from close friends who got my masculinity and had no trouble seeing me as a dude and calling me he.

To stay in balance during this difficult change, spend plenty of time with folks in your life who just get it. If none of your friends or family members fall into that category, seek out other people for solidarity. You might be able to find trans support groups or meet-ups in your area, or feminist or queer organizations where you can meet like-minded people. If this is not available where you live, connect with people online as much as you can.

5. You are more than your pronouns. At the end of the day, remember that you are a whole person. You are an incredible being of great dignity and power. Whether or not other people get your pronouns right, you deserve respect, happiness and love. Be good to yourself. Don’t let others’ ignorance compromise your self-worth.

Readers–what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you changed your pronouns? If you’re considering changing pronouns in the future, what holds you back?

Is It Okay For Cis People To Use Trans Language?

Overlap. Lots of overlap. Source.

Commenting on a recent post, silencecanbeviolence asked an interesting question:

I do not consider myself trans, but I really hate seeing only male/female options on forms. I guess I would have to mostly classify myself as cis-female, but I definitely have a masculine side and enjoy gender bending and “playing boy” from time to time. I find it empowering and cathartic.

I like to catch people off guard by using vague gender labels from time to time. My Facebook is set up to use “their” rather than “she” or “he” as a small form of protest against the gender binary, and again partially just to try and confuse people, I suppose. Is it acceptable to use trans-related gender terms when I don’t consider myself trans?

This is a great question! I am going to assume that by “use trans-related gender terms,” silencecanbeviolence means using gender-neutral pronouns and similar things.

I find this a bit tricky, and I have to admit that at first, the idea made me a little uncomfortable. However, after giving it some thought and talking it over with Alma, I would say this is fine. Everyone has the right to express gender as they wish, and everyone wins when more people engage with gender in ways that feel right. I will explain why I initially felt uncomfortable, and then talk about why I think it’s a good thing for cis people to ask for gender-neutral pronouns if they want to, or otherwise defy gender norms.

I have encountered people off-line who use gender-neutral pronouns, not so much because of a core identity as nonbinary, but as a way to be a conscientious objector to the gender system. My first reaction was to be a bit miffed. This is because, for me and a lot of trans people, our genders are not a political statement of any kind. Many of us resent the fact that our genders are politicized by other people. The gender system politicizes our genders because they are taboo, and activists on both the far right and far left may interpret out self-expressions as political gestures commenting on gender roles broadly, feminism, etc.

This annoys the hell out of me, because it implies my gender is a chosen statement. I make a lot of political statements related to my gender–for example, I try to embody a nonviolent masculinity, and I consider that a political statement. But being a man, using male pronouns, and so on, is just the only way I can feel comfortable. It’s not inherently more political than anyone else’s gender. I want to make sure people understand that we don’t choose to be trans because of our beliefs about the gender system, that trans people can be conservative, moderate, radical, or anything else. We’re making a statement, but that’s because just being alive as a trans person makes a statement in this society. Our genders are politicized by other people, but not necessarily political statements on our part.

On the other hand, who is harmed if people who consider themselves cis want to mess with gender norms a little? It seems this can only benefit the trans community. The more people ask to be treated the way they prefer, the easier it will be for trans people to do the same. I think everyone should have the right to request the pronouns that work for them, period. There is no need for any kind of test to determine that someone has the “right” reasons for preferring certain pronouns. There is no such thing.

Transgender is a big umbrella, and we should welcome anybody who needs to get out of the rain. Somebody like silencecanbeviolence–who identifies as cis, likes to express different aspects of gender, and wants to use gender-neutral pronouns in some spaces–ought to be welcome.

The terms trans and cis are very useful–otherwise we get stuck with trans vs normal. But we should not let them crystallize into a rigid, absolute binary. They’re more like multiple overlapping fuzzy regions that blend at the edges. We should not police those borders. We should embrace the ambiguity as an opportunity for alliance.

What do you think?


Thanks to Alma for a great conversation that shaped this post.

Everyday Discrimination

1. My insurance company covers my Androgel prescription, allowing me to afford the medication.

2. I refill my prescription as usual. Suddenly, a new form is required to process the refill. The new form just so happens to ask whether the medication is for female-to-male transsexualism.

3. Poof! My medication is no longer covered. I cannot pay for it without coverage.

4. This is just the most recent time my insurance has denied me coverage; I already know how to get afforable prescription testosterone when paying out of pocket. So I’ll be okay.

5. But it still hurts to be told my healthcare doesn’t matter and isn’t worth paying for, just because I’m trans.

5 Ways For Trans People To Deal With The Gender Question

The following question recently turned up in the search terms.

being transgender when filling out paperwork wat do u put?

This is a good question, one I wrestle with on a regular basis. I’ve shared my thoughts before on how the gender question should accommodate trans people. But as a trans person faced with completing shitty paperwork, what do you do? A few options for how to answer the gender question.

1. Put what’s most comfortable. If you’re faced with the gender question and one option is more palatable to you, put that. For example, when I’m filling out a form and the options are just male or female, I put male. This works for me. So if a certain option works for you, go for it.

2. Put what matches your other paperwork. In some cases, it might not be an option to put down what you’d prefer. For example, if you are a trans woman whose legal sex is male, it might not be safe or feasible to put down female on official forms. You might not want your paperwork to out you, or it might even cause you problems if there is a mismatch. Sometimes, you just have to put whatever your other papers say.

3. Mess with the form. When you have to choose an option but none of them works for you, and when the form doesn’t carry legal implications, it’s not a bad idea to intentionally mess with the question. On a paper form, you might want to draw in a third box with the label of your choice and check that. One thing I’ve done with online forms that have a write-in option is use it for a comment instead of a label. For example, I’ve seen forms that ask you to choose one option: male, female, transgender or other (write-in). When this happens, I will check “other” and write, “Why can’t I choose male and transgender? As a trans man, I am both male and transgender. Your question implies that trans people aren’t men or women.”

4. Complain.
Once in awhile, it may be possible to speak out and even get the form changed. I was recently filling out a membership survey for a professional organization I belong to. They did the good old, “What is your gender identity? Male, Female, Transgender.” The survey had contact info at the beginning, so I wrote an email explaining why I wanted to be able to choose both male and trans. They sent me a very nice email and changed the form to allow people to check more than one option.

5. Walk away. If the form is not that important, and if you’re forced into choosing from crappy options, you can just walk away. As a grad student, I am always getting requests to participate in research, which often sound a bit desperate. If the study asks me to choose from stupid options for gender, I stop filling it out. I might or might not send an email about it. This is kinda mean, but I confess to deriving a tiny pleasure from knowing that, since they didn’t bother to do their homework on the gender question, they will have to work that much harder to get the sample they need, and they will get no help from me.

How do you deal with the gender question?

Hysterical Man: 4 Lessons Learned Preparing For Middle Surgery

I’ve been processing the prospect of a hysterectomy for the past year. I’m at the point where I definitely want the surgery and will probably schedule it as soon as I don’t have a bunch more urgent stuff demanding my attention (i.e. when the semester is over). I have to say it’s been an excruciatingly painful aspect of my transition. A few thoughts on where I’m at and how I got here.

Mules are also sterile, and this one is ready for a nap. I guess there’s just something about being between categories. Photo: David Shankbone.

1. Sterility is a really big deal. When I went in to get a prescription for testosterone, my doctor asked me if I wanted to preserve the possibility of having a biological child. I was like, um, yeah, hell no. I was also 21 years old and way more concerned with paying for beer that night than with being a parent someday.

Letting go of the possibility of having a biological child has been the hardest and most heart-wrenching aspect of this experience. I don’t want to use any of the options available to me for having genetic offspring. There are so many reasons for this, I don’t even want to get into it. Suffice to say that even though I don’t want to use what I’ve got–just the prospect makes me queasy–it’s still hard to let it go. It means letting go of the fantasy that I could ever be a biological father. In confronting this reality, I have felt disappointed, cheated, and humiliated. I have felt left out of the great dance of life, a lonely alien. It feels strange to be so sad, yet so repulsed by the options that are open to me.

2. I am in profound denial about my body. I have never accepted the fact that I was born with a female body. I have to admit that I just straight up do not believe it, to this very day. There’s some pretty solid evidence for my view in that I am, you know, a man. Again I ask, WTF God? WTF?

This is a very deep-seated belief that is beyond all logic and is extremely resistant to change. As far as I can tell, I have always carried the worldview that I am male and it seems I always will. This is the reason approaching hysterectomy has been so painful–it has forced me to experience the cognitive dissonance of being transsexual in a whole new horrible way.

My take on this is, to paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, when you can’t accept, accept your non-acceptance. I accept that I am a trans man, that I have a view of my body as male that is not going to change, and that the thing I can change is my body. I accept that I cannot be a good custodian to female reproductive organs. It’s just not realistic for me at all. So a hysterectomy is something I can do for myself and for my health, out of love.

3. Grieving is necessary. I spent a good while feeling heartbroken about my status as soon-to-be-sterile and never having the option to be a biological father. This was an absolutely essential process for me. It’s normal to grieve over this kind of thing, and we need to allow ourselves the space and time to fully go there.

I can now see that a lot of my grief is about lingering shame and pain around being trans, rather than about parenthood (though of some of it really does have to do with parenthood). I have an ingrained belief that being able to father a child has something to do with being a “real man.” I’m still dealing with this; cultural ideas like that are just hard to shake off.

4. Planning a family is about a lot more than gametes. As I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel of my grief, I got a reality check about my hopes to be a parent. Having a child is something I want to do with my wife, obviously, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to really consider her feelings. In retrospect, I’ve been pretty myopic and selfish about the whole thing; but at the same time, I really could not have gotten to this point without moving through my grief.

Alma has always wanted to adopt and has absolutely zero interest, or really less than zero interest, in ever being pregnant. I can now enjoy the wonderful match we have in this area and feel good about supporting her in her bodily autonomy.

I’m enjoying my new-found clarity about my own feelings, hopes and fears. I’ve come to realize that I actually do not care about having a biological descendant or sharing that connection with a child. I do care very much about being a father someday and I hope to adopt children with my partner. There is a scary vulnerability in this, as I have no idea if it will work out. But it’s real and it’s honest, a genuine dream.

How has your transition impacted your feelings and choices about fertility and parenthood?


Thanks to Lesboi for teaching me the term “middle surgery” for hysterectomy.

Giving Up, In A Good Way

Massive wall of water, suspended. Narrow space of dry ground, an alley through the sea. I am standing on a ladder in the sand, leaning against the liquid wall. I am frantically laying tiles on the water, one little square at a time, trying to hold it up, reinforce it. I am madly laying the tiles, covering up just a few feet of this massive surface that stretches on for miles. Suddenly, I stop. There is no need for me to cover the water, to build a wall against a wall. God has already parted the sea.

This recent dream pretty much sums up the pickle I’ve been in lately. I am feeling immeasurably better since my last post. I have reoriented myself internally and, though I am just as busy, I am far less stressed out.

I realized that I have been suffering from a severe case of trying too hard. Indeed, trying too hard seems to be at the root of much of my longstanding anxiety. I have a habit of constantly trying: trying to be polite; trying to be good; trying to be perfect. I try at everything. I try hard in school, work, relationships, life. I try hard in my spiritual practice. I try hard, very hard, to relax (what an oxymoron!).

There is a hilarious irony underlying all this, in as much as trying actually undermines both being and doing. This stressed out, effortful trying is an expression of basic fear. It communicates a fundamental lack of trust in the world and in oneself. Far from improving one’s performance or helping one to meet goals, trying diverts energy, corrodes calm, and goes against the flow of life. All in all, trying makes action inferior, cramped, inhibited, uninspired, and it is incompatible with wellbeing.

So I have stopped trying. I am not trying to be a good student, counselor, partner, friend or employee; I am not trying to be healthy, happy, or perfect; I am not trying to relax, be present or meditate.

Quitting trying feels like a great big trust fall in which I am both the one falling and the one catching myself. I feel I am just sitting back and watching the actions of the mysterious intelligence I call myself. With no effort whatsoever, I do all the things I need to do, know all that I need to know, and more than that. Words just come out of my mouth spontaneously, and they’re often very appropriate words; I walk out of my house and directly to my workplace, somehow knowing the way. It’s amazing. And it really underscores just how little good trying does me. It seems I can completely stop trying and, far from my fears of my life crumbling into a twisted mess of pain, the only immediate consequence is that I feel a lot better.

I am still doing. I go about my day; I attend to the tasks that greet me. When tension and anxiety arise I remind myself: I am not trying. I am not trying to do an excellent perfect job at this or that, so if I screw up, if it doesn’t turn out right somehow, what’s the big deal? At the same time, I am not trying to be a super present spiritual person, so if I am worried and preoccupied, who cares? I’m not trying to do or be anything in particular–so whatever I’m doing and being is fine.