I was sipping tea at the end of a meditation class, when I became aware of a conversation going on next to me between a trans* woman and one of the other group members that made me very angry. Given where I was (the local Buddhist Centre) and that the woman in question hadn’t asked for intervention, I kept my mouth shut. But that didn’t stop the steam coming not-so-gently from my ears.
The gentleman this woman was talking to had, after ‘discerning’ that she was transgender, decided it was ok to ask her a series of increasingly personal questions about her transition, right down to ‘will you be having the Full Monty?’ – his words. Over tea in the Buddhist Centre.
Now she was answering those questions, so perhaps the whole conversation was fine with her, but it did get me thinking about all the questions that people feel are really quite ok and appropriate to ask on learning that we’re trans*. I’ve asked my good buddies on Facebook to give me the questions they are most asked, so read them, weep, and make a note not to ask any of these things unless you are extremely sure of your context, and the person you are asking. And even then, consider just not bothering. Please.
1) What was your name before?
This may be totally motivated out of curiosity, but really this is never an appropriate things to ask a trans* identified person. My old name is irrelevant to your interaction with me now – why will knowing it help you to understand me better?
2) Has your sexuality changed?
Some people’s sexuality does become more fluid after transition, often because of increased confidence and comfort with their body and responses to it. Many other people carry on being turned on by exactly the same type of people they always did. Again – why ask this question? Curiosity is not a sufficient reason to pry about someone’s bedtime preferences.
3) How far are you going to go?
For a start, this implies that transition is a straightforward linear process with an exact end point, and a series of jumping off points along the way. Not true. But actually, you just wanted to ask about my genitals, didn’t you?
4) So does that mean your partner’s sexuality has changed?
This question is often wrapped up as ‘concern’ for an existing relationship. My partner’s sexuality did not just flick like a switch the day I first said ‘I’m not a woman’, but fortunately for me, her love for me triumphs over society’s more salacious expectations that we’ll fall apart as a couple over my transition. It’s just another kind of voyeurism, and if there ARE any changes/problems in a relationship like ours, due to the politics of sexuality or anything else for that matter, why on earth would I be discussing it with anyone except those in whom I choose to confide?
5)Will you have sex with me?
To be honest, if you’re asking me in this kind of context in the first place, the answer is probably no. If you want to add ‘slept with a t****y’ to your list of achievements, run away now before I hurt you. If you like the idea of sleeping with someone your own gender, but without those awkward tell-tale bits (eg: ‘it won’t make me gay because you’ve not got a penis’), sorry, but there’s professionals for that kind of thing.
6) How does your partner feel about you changing?
What do you want to hear? That everything’s brilliant, in which case, fair enough. I can appreciate that people who love us will want confirmation that “we’re ok”, but it’s an odd question coming from a stranger. Are people actually trying to find out if a couple are going through a really hard time, and maybe receive confirmation of their own that ‘transition harms relationships’? Either way, it is, quite simply, none of your business.
7) Can I have your X when it/they have been chopped off?
I know, I know, it’s a common joke when trans* people are contemplating surgery. But being common, we’ve all heard it a few hundred times, and it gets a bit tiresome. Besides, it makes what we’re going through into a cartoon situation. This is not some kind of advanced Mr Potato Head.
8) Have you always felt like a [insert chosen gender here]?
We all have very diverse internal histories when it comes to identifying as trans*. Having to explain our journey in a social setting is not what many of us want to do. As a result, a lot of us have to hand a potted one-liner to sum up the ride so far. Mine is “I knew there was something wrong, but didn’t identify what that was until I was in my 30s”. There, easy. The trouble is, that makes the psychology of transition seem over-simplified, even childlike. Besides, why exactly do you want to know what my gender identity was aged 10, 18, 27, etc…?
9) Why do you want to do this to yourself?
Well, I was bored one weekend and thought I’d spice things up a bit by questioning my gender identity, jumping through countless hoops for the medical profession, taking life-changing medication and undergoing elective surgery. Why do you think?? If there were a different way of becoming the person I know I am, I’d be doing that instead.
10) When you’ve had surgery, can I see?
Did you want to see my genitals before? Have I indicated any desire to play saucy show and tell with you? Why are you so interested now? Are you going to give me marks out of ten? Ok, sarcasm aside, it can be helpful for people considering surgery to see the results of someone else’s, but really, unless you have a vested interest in seeing what a modified body looks like, it’s not very polite to ask. There are a million pictures online. Go (go)ogle them.
11) Which way round are you going?
Surprisingly common, this one, and in a weird way it is almost a compliment. However, I’d advise that if you really can’t work out ‘which way’ someone is going, just keep quiet, use the name they’ve asked you to use, and reflect on whether it really matters for you to know.
10) Are you sure?
By the time most of us tell our family, friends and wider acquaintance of our intention to transition, we have spent endless months and years weighing up the decision. If you mean ‘are you sure you’re a man?’ well consider your own gender identity. Are you sure you are a man? A woman? Genderqueer? How do you know, and how can you be sure? I bet it’s not because of what is dangling between your legs. Of course we’re sure. Or as sure as anyone else can be about how they identify, and that’ll just have to do.
I’m sorry if this week’s post seems a little angry. I know sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but I guess I’d rather be sarky and a touch bilious than outright furious. Because sadly, trans* identified people are subjected to questions like this all the time, all over the place, by people they have barely met as well as those who are closer to them. You might think it’s unfair of me to say ‘Don’t Ask’, because it does help to understand someone if you ask about their journey, but please, I beg of you, choose your words carefully, choose your timing, and examine your motives. Most of all, consider whether you actually need the answer to a particular question to be able to support someone on their journey. And if you’ve just met someone, it does NOT show empathy, support or acceptance if you ask intrusive questions.
Most of us will answer questions when we’re pinned in a corner, but it can be humiliating, uncomfortable and stressful, even when we still have a smile on our faces. Please consider that perhaps empathy, support and acceptance comes in NOT asking these questions.