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.