How to Talk to a Transgender Person
Maybe you've just met a transgender person for the first time. Maybe you work with one. Maybe a friend or relative has come out to you as transgender. Whatever your reasons, you're interested in learning about how to interact with a trans person, which is awesome!
First, let me congratulate you on doing your research! Most people are raised to view gender and sexuality as a binary system with two possibilities: male or female, and gay or straight (and sometimes bisexual, but even that's pushing it for a lot of people). Even just considering other possibilities can be really, really tough and emotionally confusing. By reading up on transgender people, you're already showing your open-mindedness, curiosity, and willingness to learn. You're doing great!
I, personally, am not transgender, but I have a couple very close friends who are, so I'm happy to share with you some helpful etiquette tips, sensitivity suggestions, and bits of useful information I've picked up along the way.
What IS a Transgender Person, Anyway?
A transgender person is a person who self-identifies as a different gender from the one he/she was born with, physically. In other words, a transgender person is one who was born physically male, but feels female inside or born physically female but feels male.
I know it seems pretty strange at first, but here's a good way to look at it: imagine other people want or expect something of you that just doesn't feel right. Your parents are pressuring you to be a lawyer and it just isn't you. Your friends are always trying to drag you out drinking, but you don't actually like drinking. That feeling is the same thing transgender people feel about their gender. What they feel inside does not match society's expectations of them and their bodies.
Some people are ashamed, afraid, or confused about how they feel, and so they never come out as transgender (just like you might tag along with your friends to the bar, pretend to have fun, and feel miserable and out-of-place inside). Others use various methods to make the look and feel of their bodies match what they feel inside, and these people are referred to as transgender.
Now, I am of the opinion that the only stupid question is a leading question (because those aren't truly asked with the intent to learn) so here are a few things you might be wondering about:
Aren't Transgender People Just Men in Dresses?
No. Although many transgender people do cross-dress, they do so to make their appearance closer to what they feel inside. A transgender woman feels more natural and comfortable in women's clothing because inside, she is a woman.
Cross-dressers like Eddie Izzard are very different. They dress the way they do because they enjoy wearing the clothing of the opposite sex, but they still feel comfortable with their biological genders. Transgender people who cross-dress do not consider themselves to be wearing the clothes of the opposite sex. Rather, they feel like they are wearing the clothes of their true sex.
Aren't Transgender People Just Gays and Lesbians?
No. Transgender women are not men trying to be women so they can date or marry straight men, and transgender men are not just women trying to be men so that they can date or marry straight women.
Lesbians and gay men do not wish they were the opposite gender. Gay men feel comfortable and happy as men, and many love their bodies. And as men, they love other men. The same goes for lesbians.
Being transgender actually has nothing to do with who the trans person is attracted to. Some transgender women are interested in other women and consider themselves lesbians, despite being born as men. Some transgender men are interested in other men and consider themselves gay, despite being born female. Some transgender people consider themselves heterosexual and are attracted to the opposite gender of the one they identify with. Choosing to live as a different gender from the one they were born with is the only thing that makes a person transgender; who they love does not enter the equation.
Transgender People Aren't REALLY the Opposite Gender Until They Have Surgery, Right?
No. In fact, some transgender people choose never to have any type of gender reassignment surgery.
Some trans people choose to simply dress as the gender they identify with. Some undergo hormone therapy as a less invasive form of gender reassignment. Some do choose to have surgery. Regardless of the state of their bodies, trans people feel like a certain gender inside, and that never changes. For example, if a trans man decides surgery is too dangerous or expensive, he can still choose to live as a man, and that decision should be respected because in his heart he is a man and always has been.
Transgender Terms and Vocabulary
Now that those questions have been cleared up, let's move on to talking and interacting with the transgender person or people in your life. Here are a few terms you may find helpful or need to know at some point:
MTF (male-to-female): This refers to a person who was born male but feels female and chooses to live as a woman.
FTM (female-to-male): You guessed it. This is a person who was born female but feels male and chooses to live as a male.
Transwoman: A transwoman is the same thing as a male-to-female transgender person.
Transman: A transman is the same thing as a female-to-male transgender person.
Tranny: This is a derogatory term for trans people. It's like saying "Jew" to refer to a Jewish friend, so avoid using it and just say "transgender" or "trans person" instead.
Transvestite: This is a non-transgender cross-dresser (like Eddie Izzard, as I mentioned before). "Transvestite" is considered a derogatory term, so use "cross-dresser" instead.
Transition: The physical process of altering a transperson's body to resemble his or her true gender.
Two-Spirit: Two-Spirit people are people in many Native American societies who fill both gender roles. Two-Spirit people can be biologically male or female and they are considered to have both masculine and feminine spirits within them. They often wear both masculine and feminine clothing and fulfill the social roles of both men and women.
Hijra: Hijras are South Asian people who are born male but fulfill female gender roles. They dress and live as women and their identities are considered both social and spiritual in nature.
How to Talk to a Transgender Person
Now that you have the vocabulary to understand what you're talking about with a transperson, here are a few etiquette tips on how to talk with a transperson.
Do not ask for a transperson's "real" or birth name. This is considered rude because it implies that the name a transperson chooses to use is not as legitimate as the name of their birth gender. In essence, it's like questioning the validity of their gender identity. Some trans people have legally changed their names and others have not, but most choose to use a name that fits the gender they identify with. Respect that.
You may be really, really curious about the person's old name, but contain your curiosity and hold your tongue. By not asking, you're showing your friend that it doesn't matter and that you accept them for who they are inside.
Conversely, if you know someone who has come out as transgender, do your best to refer to that person by his or her new name. Slip-ups happen, so you can always explain that you might say the wrong name by accident now and then, but the person will appreciate your effort if you do your best.
This should really go without saying, but never refer to a transgender person as "it." Transgender people are human beings and using a term like "it" for another person is dehumanizing.
Just like with names, it's always polite to refer to transgender people by the pronouns of the gender they identify with. For example, do not refer to a transman as "she," when he chooses to live as a man. He just wants to be treated like a regular guy. You'd feel totally weird if someone started using opposite gender pronouns for you, right? Trans people feel the same way.
Do not ask a transperson about his or her private parts. Just because he/she is trans does not mean you have that right. You wouldn't ask your boss if she mows the lawn of her "secret garden," so don't ask a trans person if he/she has male or female naughty bits or if he/she has undergone surgery. Bodies are private and the state of other peoples' flowers of man- or womanhood are none of your business. A good rule of thumb is not to ask a trans person anything physical you wouldn't feel comfortable asking your mother.
Always respect the person's wishes regarding his or her transgender status. If the person tells you about being transgender in confidence, don't tell others without permission.
Even if the person's transgender status is out in the open, don't make a big deal about it. Don't introduce him/her as your "trans friend." You wouldn't say "this is my straight female friend" or "this is my gay male friend," so don't do it with a transgender person.
Don't go out of your way to tell everyone the person is trans either. You wouldn't say "my friend Judy is African-American" out of the blue unless it came up in conversation naturally (say, if a friend asked what Judy looked like). It should be the same way with a trans friend. If the person is comfortable with others knowing, you don't need to avoid talking about his/her trans status in conversation, but knowing a trans person should never be treated like a bragging point.
Remember, your trans friend probably does not want to be singled out or treated differently as a transperson. They're just people, after all. Most FTM trans people want to be accepted and treated like regular guys and most MTF trans people want to be treated like regular women. Do so and it will go a long way to put them at ease and make your interactions comfortable and enjoyable for everyone.
Stand up against violence and hate speech. Support and defend the transgender people in your life against poor treatment, rude and hurtful comments, and physical violence. They deserve the kindness and respect that every human being is due, and you can be a huge help by being an ally.
The Power of Kindness
Finally, the #1 best thing you can do in the course of talking to a transgender person is to show kindness and open-mindedness. If you accidentally commit a social or verbal faux pas, just apologize and learn from your mistake. Try asking the person to be patient with you and explaining that it's your first time interacting with a trans person. If you show effort and respect, he or she is sure to respond positively.