Trans Respect/Etiquette/Support 101
by Micah Bazant (updated from from TimTum: A Trans Jew Zine)
Respect everyone’s self-identification. Call everyone by their preferred name/s and pronoun/s. Use language and behavior that is appropriate to their gender self-identification. Do this for everyone, all the time, no matter how much you think they deviate from what a “real man” or “real woman” should be.
What we truly know ourselves to be should be the only determinant of our gender in society. Set aside your doubts, start educating yourself and respect that we are who we say we are. By doing this you are saying: “I see you, I support you, I respect you.” By not doing this, you let trans people know: “I don’t understand you and I’m not trying to. What you tell me about yourself is not important, all that’s important is how I think of you. I am not your ally. You are not safe with me.” Being referred to or treated as the wrong gender feels painful and disrespectful to us.
It’s hard and dangerous to change your name and pronoun. Know that it has taken a lot of courage for this person to let you know who they really are; they are sharing something very precious. It may seem hard or silly to you at first, but it can be a matter of life and death for us.
If you don’t know what pronouns or gender-labels someone prefers (and there’s no mutual friend around to clue you in), just ask them. Politely. And respectfully. For example: “What pronoun do you prefer?” or “How do you like to be referred to, in terms of gender?”
Usually when people can’t immediately determine someone’s gender, they become afraid and hostile. If you misrecognize someone’s gender, it’s okay, don’t freak out. Apologize once and get it right the next time. Misidentifying or being unable to classify someone’s gender does not have to be an awkward or shameful experience. By asking someone in the right way, you can indirectly communicate: ‘I want to be respectful of you and I don’t want to make any assumptions. I see your gender ambiguity and/or fluid gender expression as a positive, fabulous, creative and honest (need I go on?) thing.’
You do NOT have the right to know any medical or anatomical information about anyone else’s body, unless they decide to share it with you. This means: don’t ask about their genitals, their surgeries, the effects of their hormones, etc. This is private! The first question usually asked to transpeople is, “Do you have a penis?” or “Do you have a vagina?.” Would you ask a non-trans person about their genitals? To do so is incredibly invasive and disrespectful. It reduces us to one body part, as if all the rest of our minds,
hearts, bodies, contributions and personalities are not important. Our bodies are not a community forum, or a tool to educate you!
Also, don’t ask us about our surgeries, medications, etc. If we want you to know about something, we’ll bring it up. For example, just because your friend-of-a friend-of-a-transperson told you that someone is having surgery, doesn’t mean you have a right to come up and ask them about it (especially in front of other people).
Trans people have a huge range of ways that we navigate the world, based on preference and necessity. Transphobia functions very differently than homophobia; being ‘out’ is not necessarily desirable or possible for us. Being a trans ally means supporting people in being more safe and healthy – which may mean anything between letting everyone they meet know they are trans, to keeping their gender history
entirely confidential. Its crucial to support people in being as ‘out’, or not, as they need to be.
There are many situations in which being ‘out’ could have serious negative repercussions; transpeople are killed every year just because other people find out they are trans. Revealing someone’s trans status could cost them a job, a relationship, or their physical safety.
Names are very powerful things. For a lot of trans people, the names given to us by our parents represent a gender identity which was wrong, humiliating and forced. Changing our names carries a lot more weight than it does for non-trans people. Don’t ask someone what their old name was. And don’t ask if our current names are our ‘given names’, or worse yet, ‘real names.’ If someone wants you to know, they will tell you. If you know someone’s old name, don’t share it with other people.
Some transpeople go by multiple names, because they are in transition, or because they prefer it that way. Again, don’t trip about it. Just ask them what they prefer to be called and then call them that, every time. It may seem strange to you, but it’s completely normal for us.
Also, don’t make comments about the gender associations of trans people’s names. This is especially annoying in a cross-cultural context. A name that means (or sounds like) ‘Badass warrior king’ in one language, might mean (or sound like) ‘Nellie flower picker’ in another. Don’t assume that you know what meanings or gender implications our names have.
Don’t assume that our gender transitions are linear, one-way, or start or end at a fixed point. For example, some intersex people1 (who aren’t “born male” or “born female”) have trans experiences, and may also identify as trans. Some transpeople, for example, may express themselves as masculine, feminine and then back to masculine. In an ideal world this would be no different than having long hair, then short hair, then long again.
There are infinite ways to transition. Things like binding, packing, tucking, electrolysis, hormones, surgery, or changing our name, legal ‘sex’ and pronoun, are some of the possible steps of a gender transition. Trans people have the right to make all, some or none of these changes, and in any order.
Do not ask us if we are sure, or remind us that our transition is irreversible and that we may regret our changes. Do not tell us we are coming out as trans just to be ‘trendy’. We have usually been thinking about and dealing with our gender issues for a long time, although we may not have shared our years of internal torment with you. We are aware of, and probably very excited about, the consequences of our decisions.
Do not tell us how you liked us (or certain things about us) better before we transitioned. There is a normal and healthy grieving process that people go through around any major change, including gender changes by people in our lives. It’s important to acknowledge and deal with your feelings, but not with us. We are going through enough stress, and we really just need your support.
Do not tell us how hard this is for you or how uncomfortable we make you. However challenging it may feel to you, it’s much harder to live as a transperson. Many many people become amazing trans allies and effortlessly call all their trans friends by the right names and pronouns. You can too, its really not that hard - its just a different way of thinking about gender. If you are uncomfortable with someone’s gender, find ways to work on it yourself or with other, knowledgeable non-trans friends.
Transphobia + sexism + racism + classism = a big slimy mess
It is a stereotype that all trans people are sexist: that all MtFs are still “really men” and still have male privilege, and that all FtMs are becoming men because of their internalized sexism. Trans people can be sexist towards ourselves and others, but we are not any more or less sexist than non-trans people. It is not inherently sexist to be trans.
Similarly and unfortunately, trans communities are just as racist, classist, etc. as the rest of the world, but not more so. And these dynamics play out in particular ways among transpeople. Just like some people will tell you all gay people are white, some people believe that all trans people are white, and that being trans is just a privilege of white people. Of course it is easier to be trans (or anything actually) if you are white and have money, but most gender-variant and trans people are working-class and poor people of
color, because most people in the world are poor and working-class people of color. Being trans is not inherently racist or classist.
Educate yourself and take action!
• Look at books, websites, films.
• Talk to other non-trans people who know more than you do.
• Start an unlearning transphobia group with other non-trans friends.
• Help write a non-discrimination policy for your school or workplace that protects gender identity and expression.
• Pay some trans folks to do an educational presentation for your group or organization.
• Especially if you work in a school, faith-based organization, governmental agency, or a social justice, social services or healthcare organization, try to integrate trans-inclusive policies and services.
• Work to create bathrooms that are accessible for all genders (for example, single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms)
• Think critically about your own gender and your participation in the binary gender system.
• Reflect on how you can be a better ally to trans people.
Once you have educated yourself, educate other non-trans people about gender issues. This is so needed and appreciated!! There have been so many times when people said offensive things to me when I wished I had a non-trans ally to refer them to. Trans people shouldn’t have to do all the work. Besides, even though there are way more of us than you think, there aren’t enough of us to educate all the hordes
and hordes of non-trans people in the world. Also, it’s a lot harder for us to do this work, because we are more vulnerable. Helping someone unlearn transphobia usually involves hearing and sorting through a lot of hurtful crud while people sort out their feelings about gender.
Interrupt transphobic behavior. This is also usually easier for a non-trans person to do, because they are not making themselves as personally vulnerable or a target for retaliation.
For example, correcting other people when they refer to someone by the wrong pronoun is very important. When introducing people, it is good etiquette to clue them in beforehand about the language preferred by any trans people who are present. By this I don’t mean outing any trans people who would prefer not to be out, but letting people know how to refer to anyone who might not ‘pass.’ Simply saying things like, “I’m a lady, he’s a guy,” or “that’s none of your business,” or “actually, his voice/body/manner is just great the way it is, and I don’t want to hear another comment about it,” cansave the day.
Above all, talk to your trans friends, listen and educate yourself. If you are not sure how to best support someone, ask them. If you are not ready to support someone in the way that they need, don’t pretend that you are, just figure out what you need to do to get there. Starting to be an ally doesn’t require you to be an expert, just be honest with yourself and take some risks.