I begin with two apologies.
The first has been brewing for awhile. Six posts into this series, I have said almost nothing whatsoever about female-to-male (FTM) transgenderism. This owes not to intentional slight, but rather to the fact that I have no personal experience to relate. Nevertheless, I do not wish to perpetuate the myth that transgender identity occurs more often in those born male than those born female.1
The second relates to a certain lack of creativity in this post. The interwebs teem with “things not to say” lists. I hesitate to walk on such a well-trodden path except that it is impossible for any one list to encapsulate the way all transgender people think. Try this thought experiment: get together with a friend and make a similar list for some demographic that applies to both of you: farm kids, Belgians, women or twenty-seven year olds. A few common themes might arise, but are your lists identical? Is your list better than your friend’s attempt? Step one in relating to anyone, whether trans, Latino, socialist or cat lover is to see the individual. Consider my list to be a friendly addition to excellent offerings by others.
Further, I think it no mistake that the first of our enumerated rights is that of unfettered speech. The freedom to express myself that I hold so dear as a trans person is inseparably linked to your freedom to do the same. What follows are not rigid rules, but rather examples to highlight ways in which people subconsciously tend to dehumanize trans people and reminders about polite social engagement. With that understanding, here are things I think you probably should not say to a trans person:
1. Nothing. One of the hardest parts about coming out for me was that people were talking about changes in my life, but I was not invited to the conversation. Feel free to speak with me as if I do not have a contagious disease.2 The danger in preparing a no-no list is in giving the impression that speaking with a trans person requires an entirely new complement of social graces. I do not think this is the case. All the usual social cues apply: depth of relationship, who else is listening, what topics have been on the table in the past, non-verbal expressions of comfort/discomfort, urgency of information, mutual negotiation of conversation boundaries, etc.
2. So…now? Put almost anything between those words and I can almost guarantee that it will finish badly. These little bookends magically convert a request for information into an expression of skepticism or dismissal. Witness:
“Do you think you are a woman?”
“So, do you think you are a woman now?”
3. Why would you ever want to be a woman? Odds are, you have never said this to your daughter. A woman is a perfectly wonderful thing to be. Even if one could get past the sexist vibe, the question approaches gender identity as a matter of choice, and a foolish one at that. Transgender people get barraged with messages that they are fucking with the natural order rather than simply trying to live authentically. We recognize the code: lifestyles instead of lives, agendas instead of dreams, choice instead of birthright.
4. I’m sorry but I just I can’t call you _________. Yes, you can, actually, and the sooner the better. Claiming impossibility sidesteps the normal social courtesy of meeting people on their own terms. Often what is meant is that associating a new name to an old face is difficult. Trans people understand this–I still occasionally misname or mis-pronoun myself. Try this instead: “I’m having a hard time training myself to use your new name. I’m sorry if I still mess it up sometimes.”
5. Why are you wearing that? The color makes me happy. I like the way the fabric feels against my skin. I saw it on the mannequin and I just had to have it. The cut gives me a curvier shape. Black is always fashionable. I have fabulous legs. It matches my shoes. It hides my belly. It brings out my eyes. Prints are all the rage. The dress code calls for business casual. It’s supposed to get windy later. LTS marked it 80% off.
Self-expression is intensely personal. I have paid an excruciatingly high social price for dressing in a way that makes me feel beautiful, confident…even glorious, to quote a dear friend.
At least it did make me feel that way until you said that…
6. Whoa…for a minute I thought you were a woman. I can’t get anything past you, can I? You saw right through my seven years of presenting as feminine, changing my name and even the “F” on my driver’s license, passport and birth certificate. Kudos to you, sir. You solved the puzzle. Have a biscuit.
7. “It’s like I’ve lost you.” Variations abound:
“Who are you and what have you done with the person I loved?”
“I miss <old name>.”
“We are grieving.”
Transition disrupts social order. The impact ripples outward to family, friends and beyond. The first order of business is to openly acknowledge the validity of whatever emotions come in to play. We feel what we feel.
What comes next may sound odd coming from someone who has made so many waves in the area of self expression: not everything felt needs to be expressed. Yes, it genuinely hurts to find out that someone you love doesn’t match up to the image of them you hold in your head. Worse, the frightened souls emerging from the closet tend to careen into walls and stumble awkwardly over the furniture. Might they not be a little more understanding of what you are going through and try not to make such a mess? They need a little perspective. “It feels like you’re dead.”
I had it all, as they say–a beautiful wife and family, postcard views of every sunset and a job that more than compensated me for my efforts. Rumor has it I was even kind of cute. The only hitch was that someday I would die and nobody would ever have known who I really was. When I could bear it no longer, I told the world my secret. It was unwelcome news, and there has been no shortage whatsoever of people telling me I am metaphorically dead. Please don’t add to that vile roster. It won’t actually make you feel any better.
Transgender people sometimes surprise me too. There really aren’t that many of us–mere millions, if the statistics can be trusted. Sometimes we get so rattled by the unexpected that we start to babble the most ridiculous gibberish. We’ve all been there. The best we can do is to expand our comfort zones and stretch our horizons. Meanwhile, I hope my list helps you avoid stepping the occasional pile of poo. If nothing else, remember one golden rule:
Do unto transgender people as you would do unto anyone else.
1 You might encounter the abbreviations FAAB (female-assigned at birth) or MAAB (male-assigned at birth). These terms point to the fact that gender is routinely assumed from sex even though it does not always follow in this manner.
2 As far as you know. Hug?