Sometimes, we say the wrong things because we simply don’t know any better. And sometimes saying the wrong thing can be a blessing in disguise: after getting a bad reaction or being put in our place, we learn.
Thanks to the trusty Internet, we all now have an infinite number of public conversations available to us—we can “overhear” others saying and writing the “wrong” things and witness the ramifications. Or we can simply read helpful “listicles” like these to learn a thing or two.
While we want to say that “there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’” when it comes to being a trans ally, that’s not really true. There are some things that just aren’t cool to say to trans folks—even those things you may think simply come from curiosity, fascination, or a place of good intentions.
Here’s a list of common mistakes we’ve heard—compiled into a convenient list of seven things never to say to a trans person …
1. “Can you still have sex?”
A good, general barometer for whether or not you’re being appropriate (regardless of whether you feel confident in your good intentions) is to ask whether you’d say/ask what you have in mind to a cis person (non-trans). Take the following example: If you see someone you know, but aren’t super close with, at a party, would you walk up and ask about their sex life? Probably not.
Same “rules” of appropriate behavior apply to trans folks. Other people’s genitalia and/or sexual preferences are none of your business—even if you’re just trying to learn.
2. “Are you gay?”
Let’s be clear: gender identity and sexual identity are not the same thing at all.
Indeed, there is a cultural mythology that gay-identified guys are “girly” and gay-identified women are “manly” or “butch.” This is a gross generalization, of course, but the myths are still perpetuated, and end up confusing most people about the distinction between gender and sexuality.
Let’s be clear: gender identity and sexual identity are not the same thing at all. One is about what gender you are, and the other is about what gender you are attracted to. It’s true that for many, being trans also means exploring sexuality outside of the rigid categories of “straight vs. gay,” but that does NOT mean, for instance, that a trans woman who presents in culturally feminine ways is a gay man in drag.
3. “What were you like before you were trans?”
This question could look different depending on what you’re trying to find out—but the bottom line is that it’s not OK to ask someone who’s trans about their “previous” life out of the blue. Plus, this question also implies that the person was not trans before, which is also problematic.
Even if the person makes reference to aspects of their lives pre-coming-out-as-trans, that doesn’t mean any conversation is a Q&A free-for-all for you to get educated. As we said above, the Internet can be a handy-dandy tool for learning more about trans issues and empowering yourself as a more educated ally. Plus, not all trans folks feel the same sense of division between their pre- and post-transition states of being. A good rule of thumb is not to ask or say anything that makes a huge number of assumptions. Because you know what they say about assuming…
4. “OMG. I would have never known you were trans.”
Or equally as bad, “You are really good looking for being transgender”. Statements like these may be intended as praise—you know, when you see a trans man who looks sooo masculine that you just can’t help but fixate on his looks. Well, as good as your intentions may be (and sure, some folks may not mind the misguided praise), statements like these are cisnormative, meaning they are upholding the idea that passing, or “blending in,” is the be-all and end-all of trans standards of beauty. Other problematic assumptions here include the idea that being read as trans is somehow sub-optimal, while being cis—or at least passing as cis—is desirable.
5. “Are you a man or a woman?”
Maybe you have the adequate background on the person to whom you’re speaking to be able to ask questions about what language they use to describe their transition. That said, it’s a good idea to avoid using language (even language that feels trans-friendly such as the abbreviations “FTM” or “MTF”) that reinforces the supremacy of the gender binary. Some trans folks identify as genderqueer, others as non-binary, and others as gender nonconforming. Others identify as agender—not identifying with gender at all.
The bigger point here is that the “goals” of another person’s transition aren’t your business. But they’re especially not your business when they uphold the oppressive existence of the gender binary.
6. “So, do you think you were born in the wrong body?”
Gender dysphoria is used to describe the state of feeling that one’s identity challenges the gender they were assigned at birth. And gender dysphoria has been characterized by some trans folks as “being born into the wrong body.” This may be true for some—but it also isn’t universally applicable. Some may feel dysphoria as a psychological/emotional state, and feel less invested in physically transitioning.
7. “How far are you going to go?”
First of all, this question assumes every trans person has a linear journey in mind for themselves. This is not the case, especially considering there are many folks who definitionally don’t identify within the gender binary. But even for those who do identify as men or women, what makes this question particularly unfair is that it assumes the person in transition even knows what their journey will look like, and it puts pressure on them to layout their plan.
As is the case for all of these questions/statements, there is no one way that everyone transitions.
Sometimes, you may mess up someone’s pronouns. That’s OK. The “goal” of being an ally is not to be flawless and 100% informed all the time. No one is perfect, and if there’s any “goal” for all of us, it’s to be open to learning and adapting as we all learn and accept more based on bringing voice and visibility to diverse experiences.