My partner and I have been together for a couple of years and it was time for that question. The big one. The one capable of inspiring anxiety and fear in the most confident and accomplished person.
“Do you want to go home with me for the holidays this year?”
There is no place quite like home for the holidays. It does not matter who you are, what you do for a living, the status of your life: visiting family can be a harrowing experience. As my partner and I prepared for our trip to the midwest, I had a couple of nights when sleep got held up in my mental traffic. Sure, we are fortunate because their family is pretty liberal, but it was hard to shake my anxiety. I kept trying to come up with answers to all varieties of questions, answers that were understanding, explanatory, but self-respectful. Awkwardness is an aspect of human relationships I can handle, but hurt is something I wanted to avoid.
While sitting in the Seattle airport on our one layover, loud calls for those lost souls who had yet to make it to their gate rang overhead, and it occurred to me that members of my partner’s family might be a bit lost when it came to what to do with me. Not only was there going to be a new person mucking about their festivities, but a new person that is openly transgender. Sound the alarm!
No one wants to be the elephant in the room. We all want to be addressed, we want to be included, and we want to be acknowledged. We want to build relationships. And — for most of us, anyway — we do not want to alienate or hurt others as we seek to do this. Sometimes this can seem daunting, but it does not have to be.
Here is a very basic list of do’s and don’t’s for interacting thoughtfully with your transgender friends and families:
There are a lot of different ways to be transgender. Some trans people may seek medical care, opting for hormone treatment or surgery; some trans people live authentically without going that route. We do not all look the same, act the same, or think the same. Do not presume to know someone’s gender identity.
Additionally, do not presume that you know what being transgender means and use this presumption to delegitimize someone’s gender identity or expression. If a person says they are trans, your only concern is to believe them.
Use preferred names
Do not refer to a person using a name other than the preferred name. You might know someone by their birth name or another moniker, but do not use it. This goes for talking about the past, as well. “When Danika was Danny…” is not an acceptable way of talking about a transgender person.
Mind the pronouns
When interacting with each other, we use a variety of cues and assumptions when deciding which pronouns are appropriate. Many of these signals are based on qualities that are not as consistently gendered as one might think. Long hair? Not necessarily female. Facial hair? Not necessarily male. If you are not sure which pronouns are appropriate, it is perfectly okay to ask. A simple, “Oh, what pronouns do you prefer?” goes a long way to making someone feels respected and welcomed.
Mind the terms
There are a lot of terms in the LGBT community and they can be confusing. Some trans people prefer the term transgender when describing their gender identity, some transsexual, some genderqueer, some agender; some trans people might describe their sexual orientation as gay, asexual, bisexual, pansexual, straight, queer. And that is a concise list. There is a simple way to handle this situation, though: use the terms that a person uses to refer to themselves.
If you have spent some time around LGBT people, you might already know all of the terms and understand the different ideas and politics they encompass. It is possible that you might hear someone describe themselves using a label you did not realize fit their situation. Do not re-label that person in a way that that seems more appropriate to you. There is no substitution for lived experience. People know why they choose the terms they do.
Since we are talking about terms, there are a few that are absolutely off-limits. Do not use “she-male,” “tranny,” or “he-she” when talking about trans people. These are pejoratives. You might hear a trans person talking about themselves this way, but these are terms for them to reclaim, if they wish. Some people make use of these terms in a kink setting, but this is in a situation, or situations, that are intentionally structured, where consent is a prerequisite. Do not use the above terms.
Do not inquire about the downstairs
For heavens sake, do not ask about a person’s genitals. This is an incredibly rude, invasive question. Whether or not someone has had surgery or plans to have surgery is not your business. Neither is how a person uses their genitals. Your curiosity does not trump our humanness or right to privacy.
Do not out someone
So you already know that someone is transgender. Maybe they live openly or maybe they’ve taken you into their confidence. Whatever the case may be, it is not admissible for you to out them to others. This is a breach of privacy and an expression of entitlement. Someone sharing information with you does not give you ownership of that information. And the effect of you sharing that information could be dangerous and harmful.
For a lot of people that have never confronted gender, being around transgender people can be a novel and discombobulating experience. We get that — and that is not the issue. It is what you do with your confusion and discomfort that is potentially hurtful and destructive. Listen to us when we talk. Do not listen to respond, but listen to learn. Our lives are saturated with stories declaring the rigidity of gender. We need an opportunity to tell some better tales.
If there is one thing I am grateful for this year, it is family and friends who are loving and respectful. They started with the above points, but did not stop there. I hope that you will do the same.