A reader writes: “I am a cis teenager who tries her hardest to be a good ally. Recently, I was talking with someone I’d just met (‘Bob’) who attends my school. We walked past another student, who is trans (we’re in an intersectional feminist club together and he’s talked about it). Bob referred to the trans kid using female pronouns.
“I know that the trans kid only transitioned last year, and Bob had met him before his transition, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know that the trans kid had transitioned. Instead of confronting Bob, I continued to talk about the trans kid using male pronouns. Bob got the memo and then used male pronouns.
“Was that the right thing to do? I wasn’t sure if I should have confronted him more directly (‘Actually that kid uses male pronouns’), but I didn’t want to out him, even though he’s out at school as far as I can tell. I also didn’t want to just let it slide and use the wrong pronouns. In case this situation comes up again, do you have any advice on the course of action that I should take?”
This is a tough one and an easy one. It’s a tough one because, as an ally who knows this person from a particular club only, you might not necessarily know if he is out everywhere. If you refer to him by male pronouns outside of the club, and he is not using male pronouns outside of the club, then you will out him. But if you refer to him by female pronouns just because someone else does, then you will disrespect his identity, whether he’s out or not, but particularly if he is out everywhere.
The easy part is that you can ask him. You’re in the club together, and even if you don’t know him well or have never talked to him directly, there’s nothing wrong with approaching him and saying, “Here’s the deal. What do you want me to do from now on?”
Now, with regard to the situation at hand, I think you did exactly the right thing, and I think you should do it in the future if it happens again before you are able to ask the person about his preferences. In this case, you did exactly what you were asked to do – to refer to this person with male pronouns.
You didn’t try to “explain” his situation to Bob, which is not your place to do. You simply respected his wishes. At that point, Bob can do whatever he wants – and he did. He caught on and started using male pronouns. In my opinion, your decision, given the circumstances, was spot on.
What do readers think?
A reader writes: “Have you ever had incidents where your gender identity is in question with someone you’re speaking with and all of a sudden they reach out and touch your chest? I find this so weird. I bind on a regular basis, so they aren’t feeling much, but over my three years of transition, I have had this happen three or four times from different people. Has anyone else has this happen?”
Yes, I have had this happen, and it is inexcusable. I have had people touch my chest, my face (facial hair), and my head (after a haircut).
Like pregnant women who complain that strangers have no problem touching their rounded belly, trans people seem to have public bodies. For some reason, people think that, because we are trans, our body is not our own, and that they have a right to satisfy their curiosity by touching it and asking intimate questions about it.
Perhaps this is because coming out as trans is such a personal and intimate act that people assume that, by doing so, we have given up any right to privacy. Or maybe once we have come out, we are no longer human in some people’s eyes, and therefore, people think that they can touch us or pet us like they would a dog who walked up to them on the street.
In the case of your gender identity being in question, I assume the person is touching your chest to see if breasts are present so that he or she can make a determination as to what gender and sex you are. This, to me, seems akin to sexual assault.
Does someone walk up to a woman and grab her breasts to see if they’re real? Does someone walk up to a man and grab his crotch to see if he has a dick? Not in polite society. Why would anyone think it was acceptable to feel someone up to determine that person’s gender?
Notes to would-be allies and others:
1. When people come out to you as trans, they are simply telling you a fact about themselves. They are not inviting physical contact or personal questions.
2. If, for some reason, you absolutely have to know what gender a person is (really have to know), and you can’t figure it out, then ask that person. The presence or absence of breasts or a dick means nothing anyway, but you don’t a get a free feel to find out.
3. If you touch me, I get to touch you. Since you got to decide where, so do I.
The bottom line is that touching people without their permission is inappropriate. Trans people are people. Therefore, touching trans people without their permission is inappropriate.
You never knew those high school logic problems would eventually come in handy, did you?
Reader, what do you think?