If you have recently learned of a transgender person in your life, you might not understand their identity and you may be unsure of how to act around them without offending or hurting their feelings. The term “transgender person” in this article means a person who does not fully identify with the gender they were assigned with at birth, including intersex people who were not born with a clearly identified gender to begin with (such as people with androgen insensitivity syndrome). There are transgender people all over the world (e.g. US, Mexico, India) and in a wide variety of cultures (e.g. Native American, Thai). People who willingly alter, manipulate or change what identifies them as being of a particular gender have been present throughout human history. Here’s how to understand and respect someone who challenges your ideas about gender, and who does not easily fall within the category of “male” or “female”.
- Thank them. It is very hard to come out to people as transgendered. They trust and/or respect you very much to have come out to you. Thank them for trusting you; it will mean a lot to them, because you mean a lot to them.
- Respect their gender identity. Think of them as the gender they refer to themselves as and refer to them with their chosen name and gender pronoun (regardless of their physical appearance) from now on. (Unless they are not out, or tell you otherwise. Ask to be sure if or when there are times it is not okay.)
- Watch your past tense. When talking of the past don’t use phrases like “when you were a previous gender” or “born a man/woman,” because to them they have always been the gender they have come out to you as, but had to hide it for whatever reasons. Use other frames of reference, for instance “Last year”, “When you were a child”, “When you were in high school”, etc. If you have to use this, say “before you came out as current gender“, or “Before you began transitioning” (if applicable).
- Use language appropriate to the person’s gender. Use the words for their proper gender, not the one they were formerly assigned. If they identify as a woman (MtF – male-to-female), use feminine words like she, her, actress, waitress, etc. If they identify as a man (FtM – female-to-male), use masculine terms like he, his, etc. (Unless they say otherwise.) Use the name they ask you to use.
- Your friend Jack has just come out as a transgender person, and now wishes to be called Chloe. From this point on, you do not say “This is my friend Jack, I’ve known him since grade school.” Instead, you say, “This is my friend Chloe, we’ve known one another since grade school, and it’s great you’re finally getting to meet her.” Table any awkwardness you feel for another time when you and Chloe can talk privately. Definitely, if you want to remain friends, you will need to respect Chloe’s wishes and address her as who she is today, not the person you used to know.
- You are introduced to Chris by a mutual friend, Dani. You’ve heard Dani refer to Chris as a woman, but you see that Chris is clearly trying to pass as a man, even if not too convincingly yet. Pay careful attention to the way Dani addresses Chris, and if you realize Chris is one and the same person you’ve heard Dani talk about in the past, make sure you don’t say so until you and Dani are alone somewhere. In the meantime, you should refer to Chris as “he” or “him” and not ask a lot of questions unless you sense openness to them. If and when Chris wants to come out to you, he will.
- Don’t be afraid to ask. If you have a question that isn’t too personal (based upon what type of person they are and the relationship you share), ask them. They will be happy to answer most questions, and glad you are taking an interest in their life.
- Respect their need for privacy. Do not out them. Telling people you are transgendered is a very difficult decision, not made lightly. “Outing” them without their permission is a betrayal of trust and could possibly cost you your relationship with them. It may also put them at risk, depending on the situation, of losing a lot – or even being harmed. They will tell those they want to, if or when they are ready.
- Don’t assume what the person’s experience is. There are many different ways in which differences in gender identity are expressed. The idea of being “trapped in a man/woman’s body”, the belief that trans women are hyperfeminine/trans men are hypermasculine, and the belief that all trans people will seek hormones and surgery are all stereotypes that apply to some people and not to others. Be guided by what the person tells you about their own situation, and listen without preconceived notions. Do not impose theories you may have learned, or assume that the experience of other trans people you may know or have heard of is the same as that of the person in front of you.
- Recognize the difference between gender identity and sexuality. Do not assume that their gender has anything to do with sexuality –it doesn’t. There are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and asexual transgendered people, just as there are non-transgendered people of all orientations. If the person comes out to you about their sexual orientation, use the terms they use.
- Treat them the same. While they may appreciate your extra attention to them, they don’t particularly appreciate you making a big deal of them. After you are well-informed, make sure you’re not going overboard. Transgendered people have essentially the same personalities as they did before coming out. Treat them as you would anybody else.
- This condition is known medically as Gender Dysphoria, but there is much contention about this issue. Some believe the problem lies in society’s refusal to acknowledge the variations of sex and gender present in nature (including human beings).
- If the person was assigned male at birth, she is a transwoman, MtF, or simply a female/woman. If the person was assigned female at birth, he is a transman, FtM, or simply a male/man.
- Asking about peoples’ genitals and how they have sex is not appropriate, in the same way that asking cisgendered (people born in the sex they identify as) people how they have sex is not appropriate.
- It’s rude to ask what their “real” name or birth name was — the name they have chosen to suit their gender (if they have done so) is their real name, and they want you to think of them that way. Asking about past names only puts them on the spot, and you don’t need to know it.
- Everyone is different and most transgender people will be glad to answer any questions – but if they are uncomfortable answering, or don’t want to, then let it go. If you need to know, use the resources below.
- Not all transgender people get a sex change (SRS, or Sexual Reassignment Surgery or gender confirmation surgery), so don’t automatically think that is the plan. Don’t assume that it’s appropriate to ask about a person’s plans for surgery, hormones, and so forth, any more than you would pry into someone else’s medical affairs.
- If you slip up early on and say “she” or “he” when you meant the other, don’t apologize too much, just follow the mistake with the right term and continue what you were saying.
- There is no “cure” for being transgender, except to correct the physical appearance to match the mental gender identity. There is a problem with the body, not the mind.
- Websites like PlanetOut or MySpace have transgender groups, or other sections for transgendered people; go to them to talk to people or learn more.
- Do not call a non-transgender person a “real” or “normal” girl/boy etc. What makes a man a “real” man or a woman a “real” woman is their mind/brain, not their body. A transman is no less a real man and a transwoman is no less a real woman; the only difference is that their body does not match their gender. Instead, use terms such as non-trans or cisgender people.
- Never tell them that people will not understand or love them because they were not born the right gender outside. It hurts very badly, and is not true. Many, if not most, transgendered people are understood, accepted and loved.
- Even if you have objections to transgenderedness, you should always respect the person and never willfully embarrass them publicly. Embarrassing or humiliating the person does no good for anyone.