Q: I’m not sure how to politely address gender ambiguous people. I’ve heard from both butch cisgender ladies and trans guys that feel very upset when they are misgendered, but I feel bad that their different internal identities can look similar externally. Guides tell me I should go by presentation (but this can hurt butch women or trans people who haven’t transitioned) or to ask outright about pronouns if I’m unsure (but I feel very few people would be okay with that). I am also wary of using gender-neutral pronouns (namely “it”) for fear of dehumanizing or othering trans people and/or denying their true gender identity.
SEBASTIAN: This is a tough question. Being misgendered (mistaken for a gender other than how you identify) feels pretty awful if you are strongly identified with it or are particularly sensitive about people seeing you as you truly are. Certainly butch women and pre-T trans men or genderqueer people can look very similar. And often they are all sensitive about being seen as their true gender. Butch women, understandably, want people to see that there can be variance in how women express their gender identity. Trans men, understandably, want the world to see what they are feeling and know to be true. And genderqueer people, understandably, would love it if the world made room for non-binary genders and could actually validate people whose gender identities didn’t fall into either category.
I live in a part of the country that has lots of butch women. (Once dubbed Lesbianville, U.S.A.) I love that female masculinity is visible and affirmed here. But it meant that as a trans man early in transition, pretty much everybody thought I was a dyke (and I mean that as an identity not as any sort of derogatory term, obviously), and a lot of times people went out of their way to affirm my masculine female identity to show that they “got it,” you know? When I went out with my girlfriend at the time, it was “Hi ladies” “What can I do for you ladies” constantly.
It felt pretty terrible until a trans friend of mine who had been living as a man without testosterone for over a year at that point pointed out how great it was that gender variance was visible here. When I went home to North Carolina (or traveled most anywhere actually), my high voice and feminine features didn’t mean a thing – short hair, flat chest (I was binding), masculine style of dress = boy.
Still when you’re feeling dysphoric, being misgendered can be detrimental (and really dangerous) to trans people.
But that doesn’t answer your question. I don’t really have a great answer. It’s a tough situation, because our language (and most languages) essentially require identifying someone’s gender if we’re going to talk about them. The best gender neutral option, in my opinion, is using “they,” which is actually what some genderqueer people prefer.
Probably the best solution here is to put effort into not gendering people in general. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we weren’t so hung up (consciously and unconsciously) on figuring out someone’s gender identity? Try using “they” or “them” or “that person” for everyone, even those with the most typical gender expressions. That way you aren’t actually othering gender ambiguous people.
And, you know what – ask. Try to ask people who might know (I recently encountered a barista who I thought was genderqueer but my friend knows her and it turns out she very much identifies as a woman) so you don’t have to ask them directly if possible. To a trans person, it’s way better to have someone admit they’re not sure than to have them using wrong pronouns. Make sure you ask in a private setting, though.
ANNIKA: I feel that this is one area where trans * women have it easier than men. Even if a trans* girl doesn’t pass as cisgender, there are usually some pretty obvious cues (makeup, clothing, etc) of her true gender identity. Of course, it may get trickier for those trans* women who don’t identify as femme. Still, I feel that it’s harder for pre-T trans* guys and very butch cis women, because sometimes the only discernible difference is personal intent.
At my trans* youth clinic, it is standard practice when meeting someone for the first time to introduce yourself with your name and preferred pronouns. If anyone is unsure, they ask. It just makes things easier. That being said, the clinic is probably the queerest place I’ve ever been (which is saying a lot), and I realize that it’s not so simple in everyday life. If you are unsure of how to address a gender ambiguous person, avoid explicitly using pronouns until you have a better idea. If the usual cues like someone’s first name don’t make it any clearer- ask! Ideally, you should consult a mutual friend before bringing it up with the person in question. Don’t feel bad for asking, either! One of my friends addressed her transmasculine classmate as “she” for several months before he politely informed her that he prefers male pronouns. So when in doubt, ask, because even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable, it’s always better than misgendering someone.
Q: I think someone I know is trans*. How can I show them I’m an ally?
SEBASTIAN: This question could be one of two things.
I think a person who is still presenting as their assigned gender is actually trans and I want to let them know I support whatever they are feeling / planning to do
I think a person I know as one gender has a history living as another and want them to know I’m cool with their trans history.
In either situation the best thing you can do is be trans-inclusive in your everyday life and language (something I hope we are all working on anyway) – don’t adhere to binary language or differentiate too much between men and women. If you want to be a vocal ally, get involved in campaigns or follow political events, put a button on yr backpack.
I don’t think in the first situation it would be a great idea to ask them if they are trans. It depends on your relationship with them. If you are close, you could comment on whatever it is in their gender expression that makes you wonder if they have thought much about their gender identity. But only if you are close. They haven’t told you for a reason, and without an intimate relationship to the person, you could really make them uncomfortable
In the second situation, do not talk about it. The best way to be an ally to someone who is living stealth is to think of them as their current gender, try to stop analyzing it and guessing their trans status, and certainly do not talk about it in any way that could out them. Again, they haven’t told you for a reason (and there are lots of possible reasons to live stealth), so you sort of just have to let it go. ALSO, a lot of people give off trans vibes who aren’t trans. I know trans guys who have assumed another guy was trans and he wasn’t and that’s awkward for everyone.
ANNIKA: Like Sebastian said, this question could refer to two different scenarios. Either way, don’t put this person in a situation where they will feel uncomfortable. It’s great to show that you’re a trans* ally, but make sure you do it a way that doesn’t make your suspicions about this person blatantly obvious, especially if they have already transitioned and are living stealth in their true gender. If they haven’t told you anything, you shouldn’t make any assumptions. Maybe this person doesn’t view being trans* as a fundamental part of who they are. Speaking from my own experience, it’s really nice sometimes to not have to wear your trans* status on your sleeve. I can totally understand why some people choose not to be out to absolutely everyone.
You should also tread carefully in the other situation because you don’t want to out someone who hasn’t fully come to terms with being trans* yet. For years, I was terrified that someone would discover who I really was, so much so that I avoided nearly every activity/behavior considered remotely feminine. I thought that there was something wrong with me, and I had to work through a lot of internalized transphobia to get where I am today. I’m not sure how I would have reacted if someone had come up to me at age 18 and told me that they suspected I was really a girl inside. Long ago when I was a frat pledge, we were required to take a photo in front of a gay bar dressed in drag (because obviously the “bros”could think of nothing more humiliating than queer femininity). I wanted to make sure that none of the other pledges suspected that I was trans, so I wore a cheap silver wig, ill-fitting clothing, and no makeup. Even then, a couple of the guys made comments about how I looked like “such a girl”. I laughed them off, but it made me really uncomfortable because it brought about feelings that I wasn’t prepared to deal with yet. So, moral of the story: show that your are a trans* ally, but don’t directly approach this person about it unless they come to you first.
Q: In the gay community there is often a sense of transphobia. Have either of you ever noticed/experienced/felt a sense of homophobia within the trans* community?
SEBASTIAN: Not outward. Not like I’ve seen in terms of transphobia within the gay community. But I have noticed some trans people really make effort to distance themselves from the gay community and gay people, and sometimes the way they do this can come off as homophobic. Most of us want so badly to be recognized as separate from the gay community which is a constant challenge to people who don’t understand trans* stuff, and a lot of us spent a good deal of time basically being forced into the gay community before we came out.
When I lived as a woman, I said some pretty terrible things about lesbians and the gay community at large, even though most people saw me as a lesbian and I identified as a woman who liked women. And I think it was entirely this deep-seated and not totally clear resentment that I had to be a lesbian when something in me really needed to be seen as something very different.
ANNIKA: I can’t speak for the community everywhere, but I haven’t noticed any homophobia whatsoever within the SF Bay Area trans* scene. Most of my trans* friends identify as queer (but obviously there are many trans* people who don’t), and we tend to gravitate towards a diverse community that is inclusive of all gender identities and sexual orientations. I really can’t imagine a situation where someone would say or do something homophobic. I don’t think people would even know how to react, that’s how absurd it would be.
One thing I really love about the San Francisco trans* community is how it aligns itself with other marginalized groups in demanding civil rights. At Trans March two weeks ago, many of the chants were about racism, immigrants’ rights, and homelessness. I suspect that this inclusion of other social justice movements is rooted in our community’s history of too often being ignored as the silent “T” in the LGBT acronym. Many of us recognize that the push for equality is about transforming the structures that lead to inherent social disparity; not simply gaining access to privilege.
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