When James Becomes Janice: What Not to Ask a Transgender Friend

Every other Tuesday, Steven Petrow, the author of Steven Petrows Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners, (Workman, 2011), addresses questions about gay and straight etiquette for a boomer-age audience. Send questions for Civil Behavior to stevenpetrow@earthlink.net.

Q. Dear Civil Behavior: Someone I knew decades ago when I was in college identified as transgender pre-op. Lately, this person looked me up online and started an e-mail chain. They informed me they had changed their name from a distinctly masculine one to a gender-neutral name, but didn’t really explain. On the one hand, since we discussed the transgender issue quite extensively back in the day, I feel that basic politeness and, of course, an interest in catching up would suggest that I inquire about whether the person has fully changed gender. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to be intrusive around a potentially delicate topic. Is there a polite way to ask, “Did you have surgery?”

—Spencer Cox

A. Your heart’s in the right place, but I’m afraid “Did you have surgery?” is the wrong question for two reasons. First, it’s too personal (this is true of asking, unprompted, about any surgical procedure) but more important it’s not likely to give you the answer you’re seeking. The better questions are: “What’s your pronoun preference?” or “I see you changed your name; how’s everything going now?” Either should be a soft enough lob to encourage your friend to explain the name change and to get at the heart of the matter.

(I do want to commend you, however, for exemplary use of pronouns in your letter. Without knowing a person’s gender identity, “they” and “their” is the way to go, even if Strunk and White disagree.)

More than anything, though, your question highlights a major misconception about transgender folks. “One of the biggest education deficits we have is that trans has something to do with surgery,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), told me. “It’s irrelevant.”

Why? Because our body parts are not the sum total of our gender. Chaz Bono (formerly Chastity Bono) described the notion of gender identity, I think, perfectly: It’s what’s “between your ears, not between your legs.” The bottom line is that each of us is the gender that we feel we are, that we identify as.

That’s why those who transition, which is to say change their gender, may follow along any number of paths. Some simply change their first name (Armand to Amanda, for instance) or the way they dress. Some take hormones to encourage the physical characteristics of their new gender. Some choose full sex-reassignment surgery, whether that means genital changes, breast reduction or augmentation, hysterectomy or some other gender-related procedure. What is most important to understand is that someone may live in their new identy long before having surgery – or may never have any procedure.

As a society we’re generally very underinformed about trans issues and people. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned people have shared their confusion with me about which pronoun to use and which questions are appropriate. It’s much the same place we were in the conversation about gays and lesbians a generation ago, when Miss Manners (a k a Judith Martin) was asked by an anxious letter writer: “What am I supposed to say when introduced to a homosexual couple?” Her perfect answer: “How do you do?”

As Ms. Keisling explained to me: “There’s always a level of anxiety when people are learning new things — especially when it’s about identity. The challenge is that the public is starting to go through that process with trans people.”

Not surprisingly, inadvertent slips of the tongue only reinforce our anxieties. For instance, over the holidays a friend was at lunch with a transgender man when she referred to him as Michelle instead of Michael (his new name reflecting his new identity). He let it pass, but my friend was deeply embarrassed. To assimilate such changes takes time and patience, but nonetheless the assimilation is very important.

All of this may seem complicated and indeed for those transitioning it can be. Supporting a transgender friend or family member is not just good manners but also about being an ally to those who too frequently face bias, verbal assaults, not to mention violence – including by their own hand. Of the 6,450 transgender and gender nonconforming people (those who don’t meet society’s expectations of how a man or woman is supposed to look) polled for a recent NCTE survey, 41 percent said they had attempted suicide (compared to less than 2 percent for the general population).

The small moment of social discomfort that the rest of us may experience on the way to educating ourselves about gender identity is nothing compared to that statistic and the pain it represents. So, when in doubt, follow the lead provided by a person’s name and other visual cues and, if still confused, ask for guidance – respectfully.

Why do you think we’re still generally underinformed about trans issues and people? What more can we all do?

Steven Petrow can be contacted at Facebook.com/gaymanners and @stevenpetrow or his Web site gaymanners.com. If you need advice about gay/straight situations or issues (geared to a boomer-aged audience), send questions to Mr. Petrow at stevenpetrow@earthlink.net. (Unfortunately, not all questions can be answered.)

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