Working with, befriending, or otherwise interacting with trans people is not scary or difficult. We are pretty much like everyone else, and we are not a monolithic community. We are men, women, Democrat, Republican, Independent, liberal, moderate, conservative, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, atheist, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, interesting, boring — just about everything.
We have various occupations, from doctor to ditch-digger. You can run into us at parties, at the mall, at the grocery store, or at your local PTA meeting. In many cases, you might not even recognize us as trans. But if you do, or if you are the friend or co-worker of someone who is transitioning, there are some basic points of etiquette that you can keep in mind to help you interact respectfully with a trans person.
1. Treat trans people as you would treat anyone else.
Don’t do things to call attention to a trans person, even if your goal is to let that person know that you accept him or her – no winking, smiling, little innuendos. If you wink at a person, he or she might think you want a date. If you do, then go for it.
2. Use the correct name and pronoun.
The correct name is whatever the person has given you. The correct pronoun is whatever gender the person is presenting. Most cultures have clothing or other appearance markers that designate gender for that culture – that are considered masculine or feminine.
Names also give off clues, because most cultures have names that are considered masculine or feminine. If you ask the person’s name and he or she says “Pat,” then the joke’s on you.
If you are unsure of which pronoun to use, and you really need to know, just ask – most trans people won’t be offended and see this as a sign of respect. But don’t ask if the person is obviously expressing a female or male gender.
3. If you make a mistake with a pronoun or name, move on.
Don’t make a big deal out of it. If you are alone with the person, apologize and drop it. If you are in a crowd, just move on. Don’t draw attention to your slip-up by making a face or groaning, falling all over yourself to apologize, or making excuses to others around you. It will just make things uncomfortable for everyone.
Let it go and make sure that you use the correct name and pronoun the next chance you get. But don’t stick in some hokey, off-topic phrase just so you can use the right name or pronoun – we are wise to that, and other people will just think you’re having a ’60s flashback.
(Keep in mind that, in some work settings where there are laws covering gender identity, intentionally using an incorrect name or pronoun because you don’t “approve” of the trans person or because you want to shame or out that person could be considered harassment and grounds for disciplinary action. Trans people know the difference between an accidental slip-up and intentional misuse.)
4. Don’t say, “I’ll never get that pronoun (or name) right.”
When you say this, you are saying, “I don’t care enough to try.” One thing that helps is to see the person as an entirely new and different individual instead of a man who you now have to call “she” or a woman who you now have to call “he.” Try it – it really works.
5. Don’t say, “You will always be a man (or woman) to me.”
Again, you are saying, “I don’t care enough or respect you enough to see who you really are,” “My feelings are more important than yours,” or “I don’t recognize you as a person.” This isn’t about you. It is about the person with whom you want to stay friends.
6. Don’t touch the person inappropriately or ask personal questions unless you are invited to do so.
Trans people are not public property. Touching something on a person to see if it is “real” or asking personal questions about a person’s body or sex life is inappropriate – unless the person has invited you to “ask me anything.” Otherwise, do not do or say anything that you would not do or say to anyone else.
7. Don’t “out” a trans person.
If you see a person on the street that you know to be trans, it is a private matter and not appropriate to tell your friends that the person is trans. It is also not appropriate to mention anything that would “out” a trans person if you are with that person in a public setting – unless you want that person to tell everyone what you did at the office party last year.
8. Don’t make assumptions.
Don’t assume that the trans person you are talking to is politically liberal (or conservative), straight (or gay), happy (or unhappy), poor (or rich), and so on. We are all very different.
And don’t assume that this person wants to educate you about trans issues or even discuss them. If the person wants to talk about trans issues, he or she will bring them up. For some of us, talking about trans stuff is like being at work all the time. If you’re stuck for conversation, the weather is always a good fallback position. Trans people get hot and cold, too.
Use common sense and respect and you will be fine.