Many trans people (including myself) speak and train in a variety of venues, and we do so because it is important to us to educate non-trans people about who we are. We get a lot of comments and a lot of questions in those settings, and unless we have specified that a particular topic is off-limits (I never do), we expect and are happy to answer any and all questions that come our way. In that situation, as the old cliché goes, there are no stupid questions.
But there is a big difference between a training or educational setting and a social or workplace environment. When we speak or train, we make the choice to answer questions, respond to comments, and so on. When we’re eating fast food, shopping at the mall, or just meeting someone for the first time in a social setting, we’re sometimes caught off guard.
So I present “Ten Things Not to Say to a Trans Person” (all of which have been said to me at one time or another) as a cautionary reminder to those non-trans folks outside of a formal educational or training setting.
1. “Have you had ‘the operation'”? (Equally offensive: “Have you had ‘the surgery?'” or “Are you pre-op or post-op?” or “Are you done?”)
There is no one “operation.” Trans people have many surgeries or no surgeries. We know what you’re talking about, but we like to pretend that we don’t just to annoy you. Like you, we consider our private parts private. You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.
But transition is not all about genitalia – in fact, the social aspects of transition can be far more complicated, complex, and compelling. To ask about surgery is to disregard every other aspect of a person as a human being – not to mention the fact that you would not likely ask anyone else you know about his or her genitalia.
Unless you’re asking me to sleep with you, what’s underneath my clothes should not be of concern. And if you are asking me to sleep with you, then I’d like to see what’s underneath your clothes before I make my final decision.
2. “Which bathroom do you use?”
We use the bathroom that matches the gender that we are presenting (if the law allows). We use the bathroom that is right for us (if we can), just like you use the bathroom that is right for you. And we use the bathroom for the same reason that you do. We have no interest in seeing or hearing anything that you are doing in there, and we would prefer that you not take an undue interest in us. We just want to get in, take care of business, and get out. If you have seen most public restrooms, you will understand why.
3. “If you combed your hair a certain way, walked a certain way, did ______ (fill in the blank) a certain way, you would be more masculine/feminine.”
Thanks for the tip. Now, as for what’s wrong with you …
4. “When did you decide to become transgender/transsexual?”
We didn’t “decide” to “become” this way. We were born this way. When did you “decide” what gender you were – or did you just know? We may have made a “decision” to transition, but most trans people will tell you that transition is not a choice – it is a medical necessity, and any “decision” that was made was simply the decision to continue to live, which necessitated transition.
5. “You pass really well.”
While some trans people may take this as a compliment, especially in the early stages of transition, “passing” implies that a person is not what he or she seems to be – that the person is “passing” for something else. Unless you’re a driving instructor, if you want to give a compliment, just say, “You look nice today” or “That color looks good on you” or whatever you would say to anyone else.
6. “I thought you’d be a monster – but you’re just a normal person!”
Catch me during the next full moon.
7. “How do you have sex?”
Buy me dinner and I’ll show you.
Seriously, there are many ways to have sex, and trans people have sex just like everyone else. Sex is not just the missionary position, although trans people have sex this way as well. But if you’re strictly the “tab A into slot B” type of person, you might be missing out on some things yourself.
(Equally offensive: “How do you go to the bathroom?” Umm, there’s this thing called the urinary tract …)
8. “I can still see the woman (or the man) in you.”
Darn, did I forget to zip up my pants again?
But seriously, most trans people would prefer not to be reminded of their previous incarnation, if you will. While those who say this generally mean no harm and are just being sentimental about a “person” they miss from their past, those who have transitioned usually don’t share the same sentimentality about their pre-transition self, so no matter what you see, it’s best to keep it to yourself.
9. “Are you afraid that people will hate you or want to hurt you?”
Yes. But I try not to think about it unless someone brings it up.
10. “What does being a man (or a woman) mean to you?”
It means not being asked that kind of question, because you would never ask a non-trans man (or a non-trans woman) the same question.
Also see Trans Etiquette for Non-Trans People