The year is 2019, and while many battles for human rights have been won, we’re still fighting over what amounts to basic equality for a lot of people, and with the enhanced visibility and the benefits therein also comes pushback. This is especially true at the moment for transgender (shortened here to “trans”) rights, which have been a hot topic of late.
This article isn’t going to focus on “why” this is important, instead focusing on ways to be more inclusive in your speech, and generally “how” to not make trans people uncomfortable.
That said, even if you’re in support of trans rights, you may not understand all of the potential potholes in dealing with us and not making a grievous error. So without any further preface, we’re going to jump right into how to be more sensitive.
1. The Basics
To start off with, let’s get this out of the way: the word Transgender is an adjective, not a noun, and definitely not a verb. The following statement is a proper use of the word transgender:
“I just read an article about gender inclusivity by a transgender woman the other day, and it had some really good advice.”
You cannot however say that someone “has been transgendered,” or that “the transgenders are demanding equal treatment.” I’m starting with this, because I think it gives a good background to how you should treat trans people in general. Namely, being trans is an adjective that is attached to them, it is not something that happened to them, nor is it them: it is a descriptor used to describe an asset of their identity.
Now, reading this I’m going to assume that you’re cis (short for cisgender), which basically just means that you were born as the same gender with which you identify. I promise, it’s not an insult. Now, being cis, you most likely identify strongly as male or female, and for many people having this questioned or not respected is deeply upsetting. This is also true for us. That said, you have a base assurance that you are, in fact, your assigned gender, and both society and your own body reinforce this idea. For trans people, we’re constantly fighting for that identity, and even without the help of those actively causing distress we have to fight far harder.
Now, not all trans people want the same thing, and not all of us express ourselves in the same way. For instance: I present as feminine as I can, use she/her pronouns, and generally try to “pass” (“passing” is when a transgender person appears to be cisgender, and for some of us it’s a goal, while for others it is not). That said, I know a spectrum of people who don’t attempt to pass, from those who don’t identify as male or female (typically using they/them pronouns), and those who identify as an opposite gender but still present as their gender they were assigned at birth. These are all equally valid ways of expressing one’s gender identity, and each should be respected.
Doing this is honestly pretty easy. Using the pronouns someone wants, the name that they’ve told you (even if another is present on identifying documents, etc.), and generally deferring to them for how to treat them is a really solid start. Now, I understand that using they/them to refer to a person or using pronouns that defy the standard gender stereotypes for how a person presents can be hard for those who weren’t raised in this era, and I’ll admit–as a trans person trying to pass myself–I’ve messed up at times, but this is something that we all need to get better at.
I wish I had an answer for this other than “just get used to it”, like a happy little mnemonic you could use, but honestly, this is just a base thing we all need to figure out. This is the direction our culture is sliding, and simply put: as a trans person, I don’t really care whether this is hard or not. Trust me, you’re getting the easy end of this arrangement.
Committing to treating every person you meet according to their identity is difficult, due to the fact that just glancing at a person can’t tell you their gender; sometimes mistakes happen. That said, you can take steps to mitigate this (or at least, minimize potential damage), and I’m assuming that if you’ve read this far you really are committed to causing as little harm as possible.
I know that this one takes a bit of rewiring, but this is an easier shift than you might think. I typically try to minimize my use of pronouns unless I know someone’s, and unless you’re having a conversation about someone else, you generally don’t have to. That said, I typically default to using they/them pronouns. Think of it this way: if you know nothing about an individual, you refer to them as “they,” right?
Imagine you’re a superspy meeting your other superspy contact. You know nothing about them, except they’ll be wearing a red jacket and will wink at you three times. When telling your team about this in your super secret base, you would probably say something like:
“I’m supposed to meet Agent-B at the corner of Super Rd. and Secret Drive. They’ll be wearing a red jacket, and probably have impeccable taste.”
In the above case Agent-A knew nothing about Agent-B, so they defaulted to using they/them pronouns. We do this all the time on a day to day basis, and it’s not that much to say that just looking at someone you… still know basically nothing about them. How about we just keep on doing it?
This actually pains me a little bit. That’s because in my dream world, everyone would just assume I’m a girl. That said, in most cases you actually don’t know things about a person. For instance: you may hear their friends talking about them and be able to take a cue. In the end though, if you’re really unsure, even me—a girly-girl of the highest degree—would prefer to be referred to by they/them pronouns rather than have someone slip up and use the he/him I’ve worked so hard to distance myself from.
Now, let’s cover one last situation here you may find yourself in: what if you’re in a position of authority? While you may worry about this, you’re actually in a position where you have all the tools you need. Let’s use two quick examples of ways you can know everyone’s pronouns without screwing up:
Let’s imagine you’re a teacher, and you’ve got an unruly class full of students you’ve never met before. In a situation like this, just reading off the registration list and calling out names is a bad idea that can cause a lot of agony. For instance, in my case, you would probably call out something like: “Mr. Tracey?” and I would feel horrifically hurt and publically humiliated. This is horrible, and, whenever it has happened, I my first inclination is to become one with my chair.
That said, you could instead day one pass about a sheet of paper with last names or photos of the students (if available), and have them mark down their names and pronouns. When it gets back to you, you’ve got attendance taken.
You’re interviewing an employee. Now, you could make assumptions here, but that would open you up to potentially being awful. Instead, you can simply introduce yourself and provide leading info: “Hi, John Johnson, I use he/him pronouns.” Small actions like this give people an opportunity to easily tell you how they want to be treated.
The trick here in general is not to publicly single people out. Trust me; it’s humiliating and horrible. Please, just don’t.
2. Talking About Gender
Talking about gender in the modern day and age is a massive topic. Gender is a complex thing, but the most important thing to do is respect people’s identities. A trans man is a man, a trans woman is a woman, but for a lot of people, it’s not that simple, and you don’t get to question that. Putting qualifiers on what gender means is disrespectful, and you can’t draw a simple line of “if you aren’t doing X” or “haven’t had Y procedure” you aren’t Z gender. There’s not a way around it: gender is complex, and it’s really determined by what the person feels, deep down.
Also, to preempt: No, this isn’t an end to all reason, and no, words and definition still do have meaning. There’s a difference between people’s “humorous” debacles and public “burns” of the “transgender agenda” (I’m looking at you Mr. “I identify as 20 years younger”), and people desperately trying to be who they are deep down. Just because you don’t sympathise with how somebody identifies doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, and it doesn’t mean you can’t try to empathise.
Asking About Gender
Now you might wonder: how do you ask a transgender person about gender? How do you figure out what all’s going on with them? That’s a really good question, because there is definitely a right and a wrong way to do it.
Now, if you’re honestly trying, we’re usually pretty forgiving. Asking is always preferable to not. That said, creating a safe place for a transgender person to offer information about themself is preferable to trying to dredge information out of them. For instance, by introducing your pronouns, you give them a chance to introduce theirs.
If you know a trans person more closely, you may want to ask them questions. In general, don’t ask someone questions you wouldn’t ask them if they weren’t trans—like about their genitals. Imagine if someone just walked up to you and said: “Hey, do you like your X?” It’s really uncomfortable.
That said, if you do know someone closely and want to check in on them, using inclusive terminology is helpful. For instance, I’ve been asked: “So, how do you like being a girl?” Even if the intent behind the statement is positive, it’s still uncomfortable, and honestly, the terminology is disrespectful. Instead, try using more inclusive language, such as: “So, I just wanted to ask: how’s your transition going? Everything OK?” See, it even sounds better.
When asking a trans person about gender, a big thing to remember is that this can be a touchy topic. If there’s something you have to clarify, like which pronouns to use, doing it in public can be really humiliating. Instead, try to ask them in a more personal setting if possible. I know that it’s tricky, but so are a lot of other topics, like when you “accidentally” bring up your sister’s abortion at Thanksgiving. Sometimes, topics require a little bit of respect, and the person affected is the ultimate arbiter of how and when they talk about them.
The Politics… Oh, my
Right now in this country trans rights are a hot topic in both media and politics. There’s a lot of debate about who can use which bathrooms, and when and whether allowing transgender people to express themselves as who they are (and be legally recognized as such) is somehow an affront to nature. This means that conversations about gender are also a common topic, and not in a good way.
What we’re seeing as a whole is an increase in trans visibility and a trend towards cultural inclusion, but that upsets a whole lot of people. The important thing to note is that even though an argument is popular and there are a bunch of people on both sides, that doesn’t mean that one side isn’t simply wrong.
Even though general trends lean towards the acceptance of trans rights, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of disgruntled bigots, and when there’s a voting bloc, there are always politicians exploiting it. That said, the politicians and the bigots (not to imply said politicians aren’t also bigots) cause a reciprocal loop. Because of this, moving forward creates a self perpetuating hate machine that tugs the other way. The effect of this is that, even though transgender visibility has increased along with general public acceptance, recent years have had an escalating amount of anti-trans violence and hate crimes, a trend that took a leap in 2016.
What this means is that we trans people have a lot invested in these discussions about gender. Not only are we discussing our basic human rights, but a lot of the counter arguments are rallying calls to people who literally want us dead. When you give credence to the arguments of socially conservative groups that are actually arguing for the oppression of my basic rights, not only are you calling into question whether I’m a human being that should be treated with dignity and respect, but you’re also lessening the seriousness of the violence that’s committed against trans people daily.
This sort of ignorance is more common than you would think, and you don’t have to say that we need to exterminate all of us in order to be offensive. Honestly, even comments like: “Well, I think we should listen to all points of view here” sting. What’s worse are comments that tacitly endorse hate and hate politics.
Obviously, you’re not going to argue that the civil rights movement for racial equality was wrong, so please don’t give credence to the argument that gender rights are wrong.
So to recap: even though there are two sides in modern gender politics and discussion, one of them is right, and the other is hate-filled. We get kinda twitchy about this, because a lot of the people who want to strip away our human rights also want to cause us physical harm.
This is honestly the easiest section for me to write. That said, my general guideline to “trans-jokes” is just don’t.
Now, I understand that it might come as a shocker, but jokes can really hurt. Moreover, “humor” is also the chosen medium for a lot of very bad people saying very bad things, and, even if you genuinely have no issue with trans people, there are a lot of things you can say that not only are insensitive, but hurt doubly because it reminds us that there are people out there who hate our guts (like we need any more reminder than using the Internet).
The reason humor is a common way for bigots to express their views—and even identify one another—is that their views if blatantly stated would alert everyone around them that they’re a terrible human. That said, hiding behind the veil of “it’s just a joke” lets them communicate their views or even snipe at a victim without being publicly denounced.
I said above that “just don’t” is my general guideline, and I know that this is somehow a divisive stance, but I do have reasons and caveats. The first argument you usually see when this is brought up is that it’s an infringement of free speech. Let me clarify that saying mean things is absolutely your first amendment right. I’m not advocating arresting everyone who says something insensitive, but that doesn’t make you less of a jerk for saying it, and it doesn’t mean people have to like you for saying it or even listen.
You may ask why trans jokes hurt so much, why it’s wrong, etc., and the answer is that most trans jokes are belittling in some way. Now, I’d like to catch this early and say that there are a lot of things that a trans person can say that a cis person can’t. This is generally true of most minority groups, and it applies here as well.
If you’re thinking that this is unfair in some way, think of it this way: someone implementing self degrading humor can be very funny. Someone else saying the same things about that person isn’t funny, it’s cruel.
That said, there are some staples of standard jokes/transphobic nonsense, and let’s dissect some of the common statements that are so common they’re almost ubiquitous.
Example 1: A Direct Attack
“Yeah? Well, I identify as an attack helicopter.” ~ Way too many cis people. Mainly highschool students.
OK, so, if you haven’t heard this before, I want to know where you’ve been living. This is an incredibly stupid, incredibly simple example, but, nevertheless, it’s still common.
Let’s start off by identifying why this joke is funny. What we’re doing here (and by we I mean the tiny humans I shared my teenage years with) is comparing the idea of nonconforming gender to something completely outlandish. Now, the question is what’s funny about this? The only real answer is that if this joke is funny, we have to then think that the idea of identifying as anything other than your birth gender is funny, which is kind of a thing for us over here in camp non-cis.
This kind of not-really-joke is basically just pointing at trans people like me and laughing, which really isn’t very nice. The solution to this is to think about what you’re about to say, and, if the punchline of the joke is “look at that trans person/trans concept, isn’t it ridiculous?”, it is at someone else’s expense and should keep you probably shouldn’t say it. It’s ultimately a statement, not a joke (even if intended as one), and it’s a hurtful one at that. This is important, because when you look at 90% of jokes about trans people, they boil down to being basically just the attack helicopter joke with a fresh paint job.
How to avoid this kind of humor:
Just think for a moment about what you’re going to say and why it’s funny. If the answer is “because trans!”, it’s not funny.
Example 2: False Agreement
“Did you just assume their gender‽” ~ “Meme” coupled with various images and statements.
This isn’t funny… Even though people use this as a joke. Actually, there was a notable case of this “joke” getting thrown around in the gaming industry recently, which should surprise absolutely nobody. That said, when you dissect it, it’s the same thing as the attack helicopter joke (and the vast majority of trans jokes). The only humor in this comes from looking and pointing at trans people. Again, all it takes is looking at the joke you’re about to make, and checking yourself on why it’s funny. If it’s “look at that trans person/concept/identity! Isn’t that ridiculous!” You should probably stop and rethink.
That said (and the reason that I’m bringing this up), there’s a whole lot of difference between this and what I espouse in section 1, the Basics. That’s because what we’re talking about is just like the helicopter joke: a mockery of a serious topic (as noted by the interrobang in the above joke). Trans people really take this seriously, so by saying that mocking that thing is funny, people can espouse all sorts of harmful opinions on it they wouldn’t socially be able to get away with normally.
Example 3: The Politics… Part 2
“If the Make America Great Agains get their way, Mr. X won’t be able to be Mrs. X anymore.” ~Paraphrase of impromptu joke I heard.
The first thing I’m going to note, is that if Mrs. X feels feminine and uses she/her pronouns, then we really shouldn’t be referring to her as “Mr. X” at all, and that would normally offend me, but there’s another and even deeper problem here.
The thing to note here is that while, as a statement, this is true, it’s really not a joke, and leveling it as a joke is not great. That’s laughing at someone else’s misfortune and belittling something that’s actually awful. Sure, you might think it’s funny… if you’re not in the situation. If I made a joke about lynchings or concentration camps, they would be in bad taste. Making jokes about the fact that our government is trying to erase trans people, or that alt-right religious groups are advocating for our deaths isn’t funny; it’s actually a serious situation we should probably be very concerned about.
Now, the caveat here is that this is something that a cis person couldn’t do, but a trans person could probably pull off… Probably to a somewhat painful reception, and a lot of people getting a top-off on their drinks. Because you know, sometimes all you can do is drink.
Obviously, the above examples aren’t an exhaustive list of all the things you really shouldn’t joke about. Hopefully though, it can help to start calibrating your humorometer to not being a jerk to trans people.
The thing that every trans person hears a million times when having conversations like these, or confronting people who have said really hurtful things, is that learning is hard, and, for the most part, we actually agree with you. We get it: societally, we’re shifting, and that means if you aren’t keeping up, you have a lot of learning to do, and that takes work. Lots of it.
I wish I could give you a magic solution, an exhaustive list of things you can’t say, but I really can’t. Being trans is a huge part of most of our lives, and we all have unique struggles. That means what I might be able to take would be a horrible misstep around someone who’s had a harder path than me.
My only real answer is to put in the work and try. Do your best to keep up with issues as they come up. I don’t blame you for not reading up on trans issues every day, for not knowing 2018 was one of the most lethal recorded year for trans people so far, or being ignorant on the topic. It’s not a part of your life. That said, it’s a part of the lives of people around you, and as time goes by and increased transgender visibility causes more and more people to come out, you will increasingly impact the lives of people around you.
So please, above all: be kind. A lot of people call us out for being unique snowflakes, but when you really look at it, everyone is. It’s just that most people don’t have to be afraid when they go to the bathroom because of their uniqueness, and, when someone makes a joke about people like them and the whole room laughs, they don’t scan the crowd wondering who in the room would hurt them if given the chance.
How to Be Human: Talking to People Who Are Transgender or Nonbinary ~ A pretty solid set of guidelines for general conversation.
Contrapoints: Pronouns ~ A great summary on pronouns and their importance. Funnier than I am.
Tips for Allies of Transgender People ~ Good short list of behavioral tips.
Someone I Love is Trans or Non-Binary: A Primer on Terminology ~ A starter on terminology.