It’s weird, isn’t it?
I would not consider myself the foremost expert on trans people and issues. I have a few niche areas where I think I’m considerably educated, but I’ve only in the past few years really dug into trans issues and history, and I think it shows. I don’t know as much as I think other people think I should.
Which makes it a strange position to be in when you’re the only source of personalized trans experience for a good portion of your immediate circle. My personal group is pretty heavily unbalanced in the cisgender direction; while I do have a number of trans friends, almost all of them are out of my current city and even my state. But as a result of that, a large majority of my day to day interactions are with cisgender people. In many cases, I’m their main or perhaps only contact with a transgender person.
And that makes the interactions weird sometimes.
To be clear, I don’t mind being a person’s token trans friend. If in any way I can help a person to better understand transgender issues and emotions, if I can humanize the transgender experience to someone outside of it, that’s a win for all of us. I enjoy it when a friend calls upon me with questions that I’m able to answer and I can see that I’ve enriched their world view in some way.
As much as I want to be a spokesperson, there are, in fact, parts of my life where being transgender feels like it’s breaking in rather than already coexisting with the rest of my self. When I’m working or just existing in the world, my first concern is really never my history with gender.
And yet, especially recently, I keep stumbling into sudden landmines where likely well-intentioned acquaintances don’t know what to talk about with me unless it’s my transition and transness. And these people just do not know how to talk to trans people, they don’t know the general etiquette. But then of course most cisgender people don’t inherently know how to talk with transgender people. I get that, trust me.
Trans people are well aware that most people who aren’t transgender know very little about us (correct terminology, appropriate questions, etc.). Painfully aware, actually. When cisgender people ask us questions, we expect to get some rough-around-the-edges remarks. Sometimes we make the decision to try and educate. And sometimes we just let things slide.
In my personal case, I don’t mind if people know I’m transgender. But what’s important to that is my own autonomy. If people are going to know about this part of me, I want it to be because I told them, or because I allow them into a part of my life where they can learn this on their own. In either case, it’s on me to decide who I give this knowledge to.
So when those around me choose to make offhand remarks about how they “know” I’m transgender, it rubs me a really wrong way. In the way it’s said, in the looks that come with it, it’s always implied that they could figure it out on their own. That it’s pointless for me to even try to pass, because it’s so obvious what I am. And that upsets me.
And that’s what’s caused me to think about this topic, why I’m writing this.
I know that I am a lot of peoples’ only personal contact with a transgender individual. Outside of me, I don’t know what their exposure to trans people is. I don’t know if they have trans friends, relatives, or if their only other knowledge of what transgender even is comes from fictionalized media and TV news stories. The only thing I can control in an interaction with a cisgender person is myself, and more and more I’m finding myself torn with how to act.
I am a huge proponent of trans safety over cis feelings. But I’ve also started to realize that while that should be our first priorities, it isn’t always. Because while each individual cannot possibly represent the entire community as a whole, that’s always the burden placed on our shoulders anyway. Just like with any other minority group, we’re expected to be representatives for everyone like us, ignoring the nuances and individual experiences within that community.
At this point in my life, I don’t mind having to field insensitively-phrased questions. When I can tell the person asking them has good intentions, I can sidestep inappropriate language and I do my best to teach them in all the ways I can. But when a person is too blunt, too rude, I’ve realized that I can’t get angry.
Because, what if I get angry? What if that person walks away from an interaction with me believing the worst in transgender people? What if they take that hostility from me and use it as validation for transphobia? What if someone in their life comes out as trans to them, and their previous negative interactions push them away from acceptance?
I know that’s a lot to put on myself. I alone cannot be responsible for the societal image of transgender people. A trans person is not to blame for society’s systemic transphobia problem, and we shouldn’t feel the need to constantly be on our best behavior.
And yet, we do. Because history and current trends teach us that we will not be heard if we lash out. Those “I identify as ___” jokes come from the idea that transgender people are shrill drama queens, looking for any chance to berate a person for not perfectly understanding transgender nuance. When in reality, most transgender people I know are perpetually scared to correct others in regards to their gender, their name, their pronouns. We’re nervous around those we know are accepting and loving, because we’re hyper-aware of what society will read us as if we speak up.
This is the crossroads I’m at, at least. I want to be an educating voice, but I don’t know yet how to draw a line in the sand when someone very definitely violates my comfort with their questions. I do not owe strangers information on the extent of my medical transition, and yet I fear the chain reaction that could happen if I respond rudely. Not fear of immediate physical violence or anything of the like, but that acting in defense of myself will inadvertently tarnish the idea of trans people in that person’s head.
Other trans people have talked and written a lot about how best to interact with us. Each conversation and interaction is situation-specific of course, but there are some guidelines you can follow as a general rule. Most of them are rules of polite conversation anyway.
If you’re a cisgender person talking to a trans person and you have questions, that’s fine. All you have to do is treat us like a human being, and not somebody who was hit with a nuclear ray and can fly. We aren’t spectacles, we are honest and truly just people, with a complex history of self expression and identity.
Unless we are a close friend, and we trust you very dearly, we don’t want to tell you about what surgeries we have and haven’t had. We don’t want to describe the events that made us realize we were trans, because many of those are painful times to us. Most people will not want to answer questions about their families and “how they responded” (while I am an outlier in this case; at least 45% of trans people experience rejection from their families. Many trans youth are at a higher risk of suicide because of a lack of acceptance from within the home.)
“People who faced a moderate amount of family rejection were about twice as likely to report attempting suicide than those with a low amount of family rejection. Those who experienced a high amount of family rejection were over three times as likely to report a suicide attempt” — Andrew Seaman, Reuters
And, you know, if you’re going to ask questions, ask them with understanding of what you’re asking. Go in with the proper tone.
If you’re going to ask me “did you feel like you were in the wrong body?”, you shouldn’t be smiling at me. You shouldn’t be laughing. You should be well aware of the emotions you are invoking, intentionally or not.
It shouldn’t be on trans people to de-sensationalize themselves, and yet it is. No one else is going to try and humanize us except ourselves. And yet to do so, we have to walk on eggshells in how we characterize ourselves. If we become rightfully angry or even annoyed, we run the risk of being that “did you just assume my gender?” caricature so crudely popularized in the schoolyard.
I find myself forcing myself to be always patient, always so understanding, always insisting “you’re fine!” even if I don’t genuinely mean it. Because I fear if I don’t educate this person, no one will. Because I hold onto hope that I might be able to create an ally for myself and my friends. Because I know the way media has spent the past several decades painting us, and if I have the chance to try and correct some of those myths and falsehoods, I want to try.
It’s an awful tug and pull. There has to be a middle ground where I can be an educator while I still can exist in spaces where that isn’t required of me. I like teaching, but I need time to be a person and not a tool. Trans people shouldn’t have to emotionally bare themselves every time a cis person gets curious. We deserve the dignity of boundaries without the anxiety of being told we’re over-reactionary shrills.
Trans people deserve the dignity of being people first. We aren’t just cautionary tales and sob stories for cis people to absorb and move on from.
Conversely, there needs to be a wider source of information available for cisgender people to learn from. But there needs to be action from cisgender people to seek out this information as well. Cis people cannot just be passive protagonists, waiting for trans people to wander by and spill their life stories to them.
If more cis people actually take action to educate themselves, then they walk into interactions with transgender people far more prepared than they otherwise would’ve. It lessens the emotional labor a trans person must give to explain themselves. It helps both parties.
“One trans story is not “The Trans Story.” The story of how one transgender person realized their gender identity, came out and now lives can be exactly the same as the next person’s story — or exactly the opposite. The beauty of our community is that each story is unique to each person and while details may look similar, our lives are as diverse as the population of cisgender people.
And because coming out is not always a positive experience, it’s best not to assume that everyone is open to sharing.
Similar to the personal details of your life, someone’s gender identity story is a personal story. Allow them to share it on their own accord.” — Pat Goff
Endings are my weakest point; I wish I could give a stronger note of hope. But I know that societal change is a glacial process, and it’s going to take a long time for notable differences to be seen in the way cisgender people consciously interact with transgender people.
Still, even as we move at that glacial pace, individual progress is never something to scoff at. If someone reads this and decides to take it upon themselves to learn about trans people on their own, that matters. It matters to any trans person they might ever knowingly or unknowingly interact with. I promise, we notice when we don’t get drilled for our medical history and our potential traumas. It matters, it impacts us, and most importantly, it humanizes us.
As always, and to end it on a chuckle, John Oliver puts it best: