Say you’re meeting a transgender person for the first time, or just learned their trans* status: Isn’t that interesting and out of the ordinary? Naturally you have some questions. But there are some questions you really shouldn’t ask. We know your curiosity doesn’t always come from a bad place, but let’s run through a few queries Ms. Manners probably didn’t prepare you for, and why you want to do your new trans friend, loved one or co-worker the favor of not asking them.
1. Have you had surgery? What you’re really asking is, “Tell me all about your naughty bits.” Now think about how you’d feel if someone asked you about the state of your genitalia. Someone who wasn’t your gynecologist or urologist. Um, no.
The other thing you should know is that for many trans* folk, this question exposes systemic bias against transsexual men and women by health insurance companies. Many insurers don’t cover the medical care trans* people need if they want surgery, so by asking this you’re also asking someone if they spent tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket — which a huge number of trans* people can’t afford, because they’re more than twice as likely to be unemployed, and four times as likely if they’re a trans* person of color. Whew. Long story short, don’t ask this.
2. When did you decide to be trans? You wouldn’t ask this question of your newly out gay or lesbian friend, so why would you ask it of the trans person you just met? Here’s the answer you probably knew already: We’re born this way. We start figuring out that we’re different pretty early on, but do you really expect someone who’s two or three or four years old to be able to explain it to anybody, when they’re just figuring it out themselves?
3. So you’re a girl/boy now? See above. We’ve always been ourselves, but sorting out our own gender identity and then having the power to act on it is something that we don’t all figure out at the same speed. We also don’t all have equal opportunities to do something about it.
4. You look like a real woman/man, I’d never have known. This might be coming from a good place — you want to validate your new trans friend because they’re beautiful. The problem is that, when you put it this way, you’re telling them they aren’t really a man or a woman. We’re not Pinocchio — we’ve been real all along.
5. So you’re like, super-gay? I remember the first time I was asked this, by a guy who was fabulously super-gay, and that’s completely awesome — for him. Trans people are not super-butch or super-gay, unless of course they are, because just like everybody else, our sexuality isn’t defined by our gender. We are exactly as diverse when it comes to getting our groove on as the rest of the human race.
6. So what do you do in bed? Have all sorts of fun with my partner, but most often sleep. Some nights I do some reading.
When you’re tempted to ask this question, you’re not just asking who’s putting Tab A into Slot B, you’re asking about what’s on the menu, which is a backdoor way of asking question No. 1. Which was very sneaky of you, but just as you wouldn’t ask your boss, brother or mother this kind of question, do your new trans friend a favor and steer clear of it.
7. So what’s your real name? This can be another one of those invalidating questions. Just know that if a trans man introduces himself as Ralph, he’s Ralph. If he decides to tell you that his parents named him Tiffany and he didn’t get to fix that until later in life, that’s his to share, not yours to ask.
8. But you still like [ … ]? When I came out, some people asked if this meant I wouldn’t like baseball anymore, as if there aren’t millions of women who love baseball. The funniest variation on this theme was one male co-worker saying, “But you drink Guinness!” My advice? Don’t gender things by assuming that some of them are guy things and some of them are girl things. There are men who love opera and My Little Pony, and girls who love sports and science. Embrace it.
Now, I’ll admit, I’ve cheated, because there’s one big question I didn’t include here. The “Which bathroom do you use?” question. But talking about public accommodations is a serious hot button topic worth a separate, full-length conversation of its own. In the meantime, congratulations on making a new trans friend, and don’t ask them questions you wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — ask anyone else.