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Respecting the trans person

You may meet a trans person; or someone you know begins a transition; or you’re a friend of someone who has recently discovered they are a partner, parent, or child of a trans person.
How should you communicate with this person?


There are many well-informed resources to help you. A first point would be the wonderfully detailed guidelines from PFLAG and Questions and Answers. Or the National Center for Transgender Equality Guide to Being a Good Ally. Good resources for the language to use is GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide and Trans Media Watch. An enlightening and concise overview is Jackson Bird’s TED Talk How to talk (and listen) to transgender people or this 10-point guide. An excellent list of books and resources can be found at The Rainbow Owl

Most importantly, know that once you've met one trans person... you've met one trans person.

  • Be respectful. You don’t have to ‘get it’ or agree with someone in order to show respect and courtesy. There are a number of questions that you should never ask, and you may wonder whether you can ask anything at all. Just remember to treat the trans person with dignity.

  • Use the trans person’s chosen name and pronouns. Ask up front if you’re unclear "I'd like to clarify which pronouns you use?" (not 'prefer' - as this implies choice). If a person uses a name that is typically gendered, use the appropriate pronoun. Know that some people prefer neutral pronouns such as they or them or their (Know that 'they' was formally expanded to refer to a singular person by Merriam Webster in September 2019). Be consistent. Don’t dead-name the trans person if you knew them prior to transition, or know their old name. Do not ask what their dead name (previous name) was. If you make a mistake, don’t offer lengthy apologies; quickly correct yourself and continue on.

  • Use the correct gender (male, female, a-gender). That’s the one the trans person identifies with. Be sure to use it even when not speaking directly with the trans person. Use gentle, constant, and consistent reminders to other people if they slip up. If at all in doubt, use their name in place of a pronoun. 

  • Do not ask a trans person, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ This is offensive. Particularly to those whose appearance may not perfectly align with their gender identity. It will be exceptionally offensive to those who identify as gender-neutral. Likewise, do not ask someone identifying as gender-neutral, ‘Why do you look like a man/woman if you don’t identify as one?’

  • Never ask ‘Are you sure?’ If someone has come out to you as transgender, they have already done a lot of thinking and been through a lot of anguish and soul-searching, and have undoubtedly felt this way—or some disconnect—since childhood. This is not role-play. This is not due to any coercion or persuasion. Do not offer your ‘cures’ or suggestions that a vitamin deficiency may be to blame!

  • Never inquire 'Have you had the surgery?' The process of transition is personal, multilayered, and is completely up to the individual. What happens to someone's body and genitals is private and none of your business. The information will be volunteered if the trans person wants to tell you. Know that not every trans person has gender-affirming surgery, or even wants it.

  • The term transgender is an adjective, not a noun. So the correct use is, ‘he is a transgender man’, or the ‘party included a number of transgender people’—never ‘he is a transgender’ or ‘they are transgenders’. There is no such word as ‘transgendered’—it is not a process.

  • If you ask genuine questions about transition, you need to listen to the answer. Without judgment and acknowledging that the trans person knows their own situation better than you do.

  • Do not use statements such as, ‘You are so brave ...’ Trans people can face extreme discrimination, bigotry and intolerance but can be far happier embracing their true selves than remaining closeted and living a lie. Transitioning is not as much an act of bravery as it is of survival.

  • Don’t start ignoring the trans person or pretending that they are someone else. There is no need to alter professional relationships or cease social contact. If the trans person is a co-worker, regular lunch companion, coffee comrade, or gym buddy, then carry on as normal.

  • Do not be silent. Acceptance needs to be clear and overt. Visible acknowledgement of trans people by leaders and those of influence can be very effective. This does not need to be directed towards the individual but can be more general: ‘All are welcome to worship here’; name tags with preferred pronouns; trans-accepting policies, procedures and education.  

  • Don’t be afraid—ask what you fear, and why you fear it? Don’t let fear drive your emotions or relationships with a trans person and their partners or family. If you are male, don’t assume any MTF desires you or wants to ‘jump’ you. You will not become trans by association; it is not contagious.

  • Advocate. Educate. The more that people know about transitioning, the less terrifying it becomes. Be discerning when using sources to educate yourself. Be aware that opinions expressed by transphobes are merely opinions and have no validity and do not negate a trans person’s actual experience.

  • Don’t use ‘transness’ as a gauge. Avoid saying things like,‘You look really good for someone transgender’ or ‘I would never have known you were trans’. These comments can be offensive, invalidating and come across as micro-aggressions.

  • Do not make transition about you. Transitioning has absolutely nothing to do with you, your beliefs, or your understanding. It is true. It is difficult, confusing and disorientating … but nowhere near as difficult, confusing and disorientating as it is for the person transitioning and their immediate family.

  • Try to understand. Do not imagine what it might be like to change to the opposite gender. Instead, imagine being consistently mistaken by society as being the other gender. For example, as a woman, what if you looked masculine, the world only saw you as a man, and you had to pretend to be a man, despite you knowing you were a woman?
    A good analogy to explain gender identity is 'handedness', described by Hannah Simpson: You know, you ask someone to write their name with their non-dominant hand, and it just doesn’t work. When you ask, “How did you know that wasn’t working?” They’ll say, “I just knew.” Early in life, we know whether we are right- or left-handed. As it is with handedness, so it is with gender for a trans person - it just feels 'wrong' to exist within a gender that they don't identify with.

  • Do not ‘out’ the trans person. Some might wear their ‘transness’ on their sleeve but many simply want a quiet, unobtrusive and conventional life, and wish nothing more than to be treated as a ‘human being’ rather than ‘trans’.

  • Do not resort to any trans stereotypes. Know that trans people are as diverse as anyone in the general population, and come in any and all shapes, sizes, colours, political persuasions, sexual orientations, and religious beliefs. All are individuals. There is no collective or ‘trans agenda’ to fear. The negative stereotypes are responsible for many trying to hide their inherent selves.

  • Being transgender is not a modern trend or something new. Know that trans people have existed for as long as people have, and have been documented in cultures all over the world. It is not a choice the trans person has made, nor is it a ‘lifestyle’. Be aware that you have probably come into contact with far more trans people than you ever imagined. The term rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it a diagnosis. 

  • Social acceptance is the best predictor of a transgender person’s success in life. All the surgery, clothes, changes in voice and appearance will do little to overcome distress or dysfunction in the face of social rejection or the fear of violence. Everyone wants to be loved and accepted by those they love and accept.

  • Trans people do not have to adjust their identity to suit your comfort level. Nor should you expect they would inquire as to such - no more than professional or social interactions with say, a black, Muslim or gay person. 

  • Don't hurt others. Be very aware that any disrespect you convey to a trans person, WILL affect their family and loved ones at home. The effects of any stress, depression, sadness or anxiety will manifest in actions, sense of being or stability at home. You are likely to hurt many more people than you might consider, or intend to hurt.

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