Transformations: Transgender 101 - the Dos and Don'ts

Editor’s note: This week, San Diego Gay & Lesbian News welcomes Melinda Harris to our staff as a social contributor. Melinda will write a bi-weekly column covering transgender issues and will also occasionally profile those from the "T" of our LGBT community. Some of the information was compiled from multiple expert sources available online. An important authority and source for all transgender issues is the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Hello! My name is Melinda Harris - and I’m here to take everyone on a ride through the life of the spouse of a transgender woman – a "T-bird," if you will!

My partner and I have been together for seven and a half years, and she’s not the only one who’s transitioned – it was a big transition for me as well, and in this column, I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Together, we’ll be examining everything from Trans 101, some helpful dos and don’ts, (and transgender terminology) and in future columns, I will also introduce you to some of the "movers and shakers" of the transgender community.

My goal is to not only educate the readers out there – I’m also here to learn as well.

In recent years, transgender people have begun to take a more visible place in the LGBT and wider communities. Many non-trans people want to be respectful of transgender community members and want their community to be trans-friendly and welcoming, but they don't necessarily know how to do that or where to begin.

This column is intended to answer some common questions and to provide some basic ways to make your world more trans-friendly. There is a lot more information out there (some accurate, some not-so-much), and many creative ideas that have yet to be invented!

What every person can do

When interacting with transgender people in any setting, the most important thing to remember is to respect each person and their identity and experience. The important thing is how they feel inside - not how they look outside - just as we all hope that people will treat us according to who we are and not how we appear.

Asking questions

Transgender people understand that gender can be complicated and confusing and that most people do not know very much about these issues. The important thing is that people be respectful, and it is generally appreciated when people want to learn. There are ways to ask questions that are respectful and other ways that are not.

The first question to ask yourself about someone else's gender is: "Do I really need to know?"

In most situations it is really not important (or appropriate to ask) what a person's gender status or situation is. For example, if someone walks into your workplace and their gender is unclear, there is almost certainly no reason to ask or comment in any way. The person is there to work, and to be among community. They can be welcomed without knowing what their gender identity is.

There may be times in which you decide that you do need to know or understand something about someone else's gender. Most people are welcoming of respectful and appropriate questions. This is often better than making assumptions that may not be true. If the person doesn't want to answer, then they will choose not to.

What is a respectful question? The most important guideline is this: If you yourself would not wish to be asked a given question, it is probably not respectful to ask it of someone else.

Instead of asking, "What are you?" or "Are you a man or a woman?" try: "What is the respectful pronoun to use for you?" or "I'm interested in hearing about your gender identity if you are comfortable telling me" or "Is there anything I/we/the community can do to make this a more comfortable place?"

Other dos and don'ts

  • DON'T:
  • Ask about anyone's body, genitals, medical procedures, or medical history. If they want to share that information, they will. If you are concerned about someone's health, it is fine to ask, "How is your health?" as you would for any other community member.
  • Unnecessarily refer to a person's previous gender status or a previous name. If this information is not known publicly, revealing it could put the person at risk of harm. Regardless of how open a person is about being transgender, referring to their previous status usually makes that person uncomfortable. Some may choose to refer to their previous gender identity, but others do not wish to bring it up.
  • Insist that someone must be either a man or a woman. Some people identify themselves as neither gender, as both genders, or as a third gender. This may seem confusing, but this is a legitimate choice. Some people are in a process of discovering their identity or deciding how they wish to live. People may be in various stages of a gender transition. If you need clarification on which pronoun to use, ask.
  • Say things like: "But you look like a woman!" or "But I've always known you as a man" or "But you made such a good/attractive woman." Comments like these are disrespectful and make people feel badly.
  • Be afraid to say, "I don't understand, but I want to be respectful of you." Being a good ally to transgender people does not mean that you never get confused or make mistakes. It means that you are doing everything in your power to learn and act in a respectful way, always -- even when you don't understand.
  • DO:
  • Take other people's identities seriously, even though it may not conform to your own ideas about gender or sex.
  • Remember to treat other people's identities and choices with the respect that you would want for yourself.
  • Respect a person's choice of name/gender/pronoun. If a person expresses that they prefer a certain name or pronoun, take care to use only the name/gender/pronoun that they prefer, and strongly encourage others in the community to do the same. This can take time to get used to, and most people do make mistakes -- don't worry. The person is almost certainly used to mistakes. The important thing is that the person knows that you respect their preference, and are trying.
  • Remember that not all transgender people are the same. Like everyone else, different transgender people have different identities, experiences, needs, and interests.
  • Act as an ally with others in the community. If you notice non-inclusive language, suggest to the appropriate person that it be corrected. If you know that someone prefers a certain pronoun, it is appropriate to gently inform or remind someone else who is not using that correct pronoun.
  • Remember that you may be interacting with a transgender person and not know it.
  • Seek out information on your own. Transgender community members will be very appreciative of your efforts to learn about the experience of transgender people.

Language

Language is very important. People pick up on small cues. The following changes may seem minor, but they are among the most important ways to indicate that a community is making an effort to be trans-friendly. It often makes the difference in whether a transgender person will approach a community and whether they will choose to stay.

  • On flyers, in newsletters, event announcements, etc.: Instead of writing "men and women welcome" or "for both men and women," try "all genders welcome" or "for all genders."
  • In articles, e-mails, essays, etc.: Rather than "both genders" or "men and women," refer to "all genders" or "people of any gender."
  • If events, groups or programs (event, social group, etc.) are advertised or indicated as "gay and lesbian," consider whether it really is only for gay and lesbian people or whether a transgender (or bisexual person, for that matter) would be welcomed. If the latter is true, change the language.

Facilities

If possible, it is very important to have a non-gender-specific restroom. Again, this may seem like a minor matter, but for many people who have a "non-traditional" gender presentation, using public restrooms can be a particularly frightening and unpleasant experience. They are often much more inclined to go to places that have a non-gender-specific facility. (Often these are single-person restrooms.)

Consider whether all of your facility's restrooms must be gender-specific or whether one could be made available to everyone. This need not be complicated; covering the "men" or "women" sign with "all-gender restroom" is sufficient. Remember to do this for temporary, shared, or rental facilities also.

Political and social action

Include transgender and gender diversity issues as part of your workplace and community’s social action network. There are many transgender community services and advocacy organizations that are in great need of our support!

In the future, I will do small profiles on these important organizations at the end of my column, to keep you better informed.

Melinda Harris is a former columnist for the Riverside Press-Enterprise weeklies, and is currently working on the completion of her first novel, "Miranda’s Magick." She operates three online vintage clothing stores on eBay and Etsy, is a part-time student at San Diego City College, an active member of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the proud mom of a grown son. She’s also a former rodeo queen and is addicted to FarmTown on Facebook! Melinda and her partner live in Hillcrest. She can be reached at melindaharris@live.com.

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