How to interact with Transgender Persons; Respectfully!
Transgender people are people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth. “Trans” is often used as shorthand for transgender.
When we’re born, a doctor usually says that we’re male or female based on what our bodies look like. Most people who were labeled male at birth turn out to identify as women, and most people who were labeled female at birth grow up to be men. Most of these people describe themselves as transgender.
How should we interact with Transgender people respectfully?
Use the language a transgender person uses for themselves. No two transgender people are exactly the same, and different transgender people may use different words to describe themselves. You should follow the lead of each transgender person, as they will best know the language that is right for them.
If you don’t know what pronouns to use, ask. A simple way to see what pronouns someone uses—he, she, they, or something else—is to wait and see if it comes up naturally in conversation. If you’re still unsure, ask politely and respectfully, without making a big deal about it. Sharing your own pronouns is a great way to bring up the topic—for example, “Hi, I’m Rebecca and I use she/her/hers as my pronouns. How about you?” If you accidentally use the wrong pronouns, apologize and move on. Making a big deal out of a pronoun mistake may be awkward and often draws unwanted attention to the transgender person.
Be careful and considerate about what other questions you ask. There are many topics—medical transition, life pre-transition, sexual activity—that you may be curious about. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to ask a transgender person about them or expect a transgender person to be comfortable sharing intimate details about themselves. There are two questions you can ask yourself that may help determine if a topic is appropriate to bring up:
“Do I need to know this information to treat them respectfully?” Asking someone’s name and pronoun is almost always appropriate, as we use that information in talking to and about each other every day. Beyond that, though, you may be curious about questions that are not things you truly need to know. For example, a transgender coworker’s surgical history is rarely information that you need to know.
“Would I be comfortable if this question was turned around and asked of me?” Another good way to determine if a question is appropriate is to think about how it would feel if someone asked you something similar. For example, it would probably not feel appropriate for a coworker to ask you about the private areas of your body. Likewise, it’s probably not appropriate to ask similar questions about a transgender coworker’s body.
Here are some specific topics that many transgender people are uncomfortable discussing with anyone but those closest to them:
- Their birth name (never call it their “real” name!) or photographs from before they transitioned
- What hormones they are (or aren’t) taking
- What surgeries they have (or have not) had
- Questions related to sexual relationships
Someone’s transgender identity is their private information to share, or not. Just because someone has told you that they are transgender does not necessarily mean that they have told everyone in their life. A transgender person may not choose to tell others that they are transgender because it is unsafe to do so, because they’re worried they’ll be mistreated or fired, or simply because they don’t want to share that information with someone. It is not up to you to decide who should or shouldn’t know that a particular person is transgender. Similarly, transgender people should be the ones to decide how much information is being shared: a transgender person may be open about being trans, but only want to discuss medical issues with certain close friends. Simply because a transgender person has told you something about their experiences doesn’t mean they want everyone to know.
Avoid compliments or advice based on stereotypes about transgender people, or about how men and women should look or act. People sometimes intend to be supportive but unintentionally hurt transgender people by focusing on their looks or whether they conform to gender stereotypes. Here are some examples of what to avoid, as they often feel like backhanded compliments:
- “You look like a real woman! I never would have known that you’re trans.”
- “You would look less trans if you just got a wig/shaved better/wore more makeup/etc.”
- “No real man would wear clothing like that. You should change if you don’t want people to know you’re transgender.”
- “I’d date him, even though he’s transgender.”
It is important to use respectful terminology, and treat transgender people as you would treat any other person. This includes using the name the person has asked you to call them (not their old name) as well as the pronouns they want you to use. If you aren’t sure what pronouns a person uses, just ask politely.
More Resources at transequality.org