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12 January 2011, 2:00 pm 4 Comments

Ask a Trans Person: Learn How to Navigate the Gender Minefield

This post was submitted by Vanessa Crowley

Slow down and think about that question you're about to ask

There is a common sentiment amongst the broader Ls, Bs, and Gs of the collective communities.

They do not know how to learn, or even try to learn, about trans issues. Maybe there are questions that remain unasked out of fear of being offensive. Maybe there isnt even any foundational knowledge to know what questions to ask. Or, maybe there is a fear that they will say something perceived as offensive and then have to deal with a lecture from an uppity trans person. As I have said before, gender can be a minefield.

Yes. I said uppity, as in to speak beyond one’s perceived place in the social hierarchy.

Minorities are frequently called upon to explain themselves in the terms of the majority, and have been for a considerable period of time. “Help us learn who you (as a monolithic entity) are!” The minority in question might even want to help. But, this one interaction isn’t usually enough to motivate the majority away from sexist, racist, classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic or any other kind of language or action rooted in an unexamined privilege of perceived normalcy.

Usually, this request is couched in terms of inclusion. “Help us learn so we can better include you in our efforts.” Thing is though, the reality is rarely one of inclusion but rather one of submission. How can we make you fit into our ideas of who one should be.

Whenever a minority becomes exasperated at the constant state of explanation to an indifferent audience and finally loses their temper, they are suddenly transformed from useful informant to Loud Angry Black Person. Or Loud Angry Dyke. Or Loud Angry Tranny.

In a word, uppity.

How many times am I supposed to reveal intimate details of my life for no other reason than you feel entitled to know, because you want to better understand me like a specimen in the zoo? What if someone came up to you and asked that you explain every aspect of your life, your relationships, and even your anatomy all in the name of figuring out what made you tick? What if ten people all wanted to know every detail? How about a hundred? A thousand? At what point is it enough?

What if it was the same set of questions every damn time? I have given over two hundred presentations to college classes and countless one-on-one conversations. Guess how many times I have been asked a question that I had not heard before? Three. Three times out of thousands.

I did not come into this world with a fully formed knowledge of what it means to be trans. Like anything else that is important it takes a concerted effort to learn. This is not a demand that you also become an expert. Only a request that you make an effort to educate yourselves.

With this in mind, there is a list of things to keep in mind when asking trans people questions about themselves.

  1. Respect Their Chosen Gender. Every single day many trans folk have to deal with ignorant people questioning their gender and making assumptions about who they “really” are or even outright actively denying their chosen identity. It might be tough and you will certainly make mistakes from time to time. If someone calls you out, accept that you were wrong and sincerely apologize. Then next time try harder. You cannot be an ally if you cannot follow this simple rule.
  2. Would I Be Comfortable Answering This Question? How would you react if a stranger came up to you on the street and asked what you are about to ask? If you might be embarrassed then you shouldn’t ask.
  3. Ask Permission. Parts of my life have been fairly traumatic. I have to prepare myself emotionally and mentally before I can really go into any kind of detail. Afterwords, I need to give myself space to do any self-care that might come up. Beyond that, if I have had a shitty day then explaining what it means to be trans to a well-meaning potential ally is just about the last thing I will want to do. Just because you want to learn does not mean you are entitled to my life story.
  4. Check Your Baggage. When I am talking about trans issues, I am coming from a severely dis-empowered position. Like it or not, you probably have some preconceived notions about gender and gender roles. Odds are that my description might contradict some of those notions. Deal with it. There is a time and a place for working out the differences. This isn’t it. Also realize that you are likely to have a lot of privileges not afforded to me simply because you might be closer to social definitions of “normal” gender presentation.
  5. Don’t be afraid of your mistakes. You will make mistakes and you will say or do things that are offensive to someone. When they point this out to you, do not get defensive in an attempt to protect your ego. Accept the criticism, sincerely apologize, and try to adjust your behavior in the future. Then next time try harder.

Generally, I feel as if there is no such thing as a bad question as long as it comes from a place of honest inquiry.

Ask away.

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  • mim said:

    Thanks for posting this! When you’re not used to dealing with things like gender indentity, it’s always good to have some sense of what to do to aviod stepping on any toes. If I may ask, do you know any good sources for getting educated on trans issues?

  • Hannah said:

    @mim have you read Whipping Girl by Julia Serano? It’s one of my faves :)

  • Topher Burns said:

    This is thoughtful and very well put – much appreciated!

  • mim said:

    @Hannah: I haven’t actually, but thanks for the tip! I’m taking note and hope to find it :)