How to talk to trans people: a guide to having good discussions without putting your foot in your mouth. 

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I help to run a trans education group that is home to over 40,000 members. The group is an experiment. Can calm education help us to overcome trans antagonism, ignorance, and phobic behaviors? Can we make the world a better place by talking with one another, even in some small way? A lot of the time it works — and sometimes it fails spectacularly. 

When those failures occur, I often receive messages from the poor cisgender folks who got their feathers burnt when they repeatedly expressed rude and dismissive ideas about trans people. “How can I talk to them when they’re so angry at everything,” some ask. “I don’t understand what I said wrong,” others sigh at me while metaphorically shrugging their shoulders. 

If your goal is to be able to have healthy conversations with trans people about trans issues, then it’s important to understand how to talk to trans people — and to recognize the filters and perspectives that might distort what you think you said into something patently offensive. 

Where are you standing?

Before you ever utter a word to a trans person about a trans topic, it behooves you to survey your environment and to get feedback about it. You are in unknown territory to you; it’s very easy to get lost or step into perilous territory. 

And your territory is simply different. You have a great confidence in your territory as you’ve lived it in your entire life: you have likely never questioned your gender so much as revolving around it. You are also part of a dominant cultural structure: you’re cisgender. You’re the default. 

Society is shaped by you and others like you. You have the security of having your gender reinforced by marketing, self help books, rhetoric, carefully edited versions of ancient texts, cultural expectations, humor, movies and media, story and song, and more. You have, for all the struggles you’ve had in your life, been able to operate within these frameworks of assumption comfortably. Even when these structures are cruel or restricting to you, as they are to women and people deemed to be women, they are solid and pervasive. They are like air — you only notice them when they’re pointed out or they cause suffering.

You have a different perspective: normativity. You see society actively wants to reinforce its assumptions. Things that don’t fit those narratives are removed either with stealth or force. Consider the history of LGBTQ+ folks, for just one moment. There are two examples that help to point out how your assumptions are shaped. Both involve WW2, but not in the way you think. 

The first is relatively famous. Did you know there was a body of research on transgender individuals dating back to the much fantasized about good ol’ days? You know the ones when things were simpler? Consider the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. This was a library of knowledge about trans people (among other topics) that the Nazi party eliminated: we have no idea what information was there and now lost. If that institute had remained untouched, if its information had not been destroyed by people who wished to control society’s assumptions, you would have far fewer questions about trans people right now. Instead, we have no idea how many decades or even centuries of progress on trans topics were destroyed. The institute was so much more than that in that they offered services to transgender individuals, and even that was halted. 

The second is less famous. Did you know that Anne Frank was likely bisexual? Probably not, because the versions of her diaries taught to kids in school today are edited and taught in such a way as to obfuscate and hide that information. This is a relevant summary with quotes and additional information:  Anne Frank was attracted to girls.

The point in saying these things is to point out to you that we have a history that you don’t know, and neither do we because it keeps being erased and hidden. This is normativity. Normativity seeks to enforce whiteness, cisgenderness, and heterosexuality as the defaults and fundamentally good. Whenever space is offered to minorities and marginalized people it is often done as a curiosity or an example — exceptions that prove the rule and are meant to be tolerated, at best. And it’s still happening. This is just a small example from recent days: CDC gets list of banned words

This is how your perspective is formed. To borrow a sort of cliched phrase at this point: it’s a privilege as much as it is a prison for you. 

There was a man who came to our group to accost our membership for not being sufficiently grateful and patient with cis people. I’ll never forget the final line of the final paragraph of his declaration of benevolent superiority: “So, for better or worse, y’all need us more than we need you.” 

He was right in his observations. There are far, far more cisgender people than trans people. You are allowed to walk away from this, to go back to ignoring things, and indulge in normativity. You have the power, at any point, to dismiss a trans person and your life is not only unchanged for that it is actively improved. You don’t have to deal with someone pointing out cruelty to you when you walk away, and so you are more comfortable. 

Unlike this person, you probably don’t relish that power as something that should be lorded over others. Yet when you speak to trans people, the problem is that you speak this perspective. You don’t know what you don’t know, and your not knowing gives you an unending well of confidence that you’re right. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, by the way.

Until this moment, you have flowed with the river Normativity regardless of the ways it has been artificially shaped and polluted. Choosing to swim against that current requires effort and learning a new set of skills to help navigate. And who better to teach you those skills than trans people — the ones who have been swimming against it this whole time.

And so I offer you this guidance: the first step to talking with trans people is not to talk at all, it is to listen and accept. We are the experts in swimming against the tide. We have to be. We have learned about ourselves, our shared histories, endocrinology, genetics, philosophy, and more. We are the library now and when in a library it behooves a person to read, learn, and take notes. 

Ok, but why are trans people so angry? 

Have you ever been in a situation where you were working hard at something, or maybe multiple somethings, at work or home and then someone else stepped in to tell you you were doing it wrong or to ask why you were doing it the way you were? Consider that moment, do you feel frustrated with that memory and the person who spoke to you that way? 

That’s how trans people feel when we’re being questioned by cisgender folks. We are surviving. We are, collectively, working through and learning skills to survive and assert our identities in a normative world that would very much like us dead or out of sight. And we’re not just doing that, we’re learning a whole set of gender norms that we weren’t socialized in. 

We’re doing a lot of work and we are scared all the time. We constantly have to deal with people assaulting us and harassing us for who we are. We live under constant threat. As a result, we hoard hormones and prescriptions, rush to get surgeries we need, and jump through hurdle after hurdle to prove our worth for basic dignities. When we’re alone, in our private moments where we just want to enjoy a Facebook group or a subreddit, we can’t escape a world that hates us. We can’t turn on the TV without seeing shows in which trans women are presented for humor or as tragedy. We can’t talk about our problems without being told we “chose” them and so we have no right to complain. I can’t breathe without a friend messaging me to ask if it’s ok for them to buy the new game based on a book series by a transphobic author or a man crawling into my private messages to fetishize my body. (Answer: do what you want, but stop saying you’re an ally if you buy that game.) 

It wears on us. It robs us of the joys in life. It permeates everything. And then folks announce themselves with so much aplomb, “if you want me to not hate you, you have to teach me. I am going to argue with you every step of the way — but if you dare to step on my sensibilities, you have lost the chance to have me become a neutral figure who won’t do anything to help you.” 

“That’s not me,” you might be saying to yourself right now, “I’m a good person. I don’t want to harm anyone.” How do we know that? How can we know you from the person who strings us along for hours, dangling a carrot of acceptance in front of us, only to yank it away in the last minute? Think about it. You might genuinely believe you’re not like that, but we have the life experience that cis folks have an incredibly low threshold for what makes them feel so confused and insulted that they walk away. How do we know you’re not like that?

This is a case where not understanding trans people is recursive. You don’t know what you don’t know, and it enforces the not knowing. When you get confronted with information that challenges the normative things you’ve been taught, or that points out the ways you have done harm, you probably feel nervous and uncomfortable. That’s probably not the experience you imagined when you were preparing for this conversation. Unless you have a lot of integrity, you likely avoid the topic instead of engaging with it.

Listen with a pen in hand. 

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a student was that I should read with a pen in hand. The purpose of this exercise was not for me to argue with the authors of the works I was analyzing, but to note gaps in my learning and to reword the points I received in my own language so that I could express them clearly and educate my audience. When an author’s work challenged me, I wrote my questions down. 

When you are learning from and engaging with trans people, this is the spirit you should engage in. Actively listen to what you’re hearing, process it on the spot, understand the points the trans person is making to you even if your inclination is to argue with them. 

Too many folks patiently allow us the microphone while they’re waiting for their opportunity to speak. And I can hear you saying that not all people are like that and you’re right, but it’s still way too many — and many of those people tell us they’re our allies. 

Engage but do so in a spirit of clarification and understanding — not debate. Debating cisgender folks is exhausting. Cis folks love to play what I’ve come to understand as the “equality of debate” card. The card goes something like this: “I want to respect you and treat you like an equal and so I expect you to have the same sense of objectivity I have about these topics.” This is a big no-no for a lot of reasons: one of which is we are not equal in this dynamic. If we were equal, we wouldn’t be needing to have these talks. You have the power to walk away, remember? Your debate is less of a debate and more of a “convince me to see you as a real person.” It is not a compliment for you to ignore the differences between our perspectives and engage in a “logical” debate predicated on rules that only you know, for the prize of your indifference instead of antagonism. 

It is going to feel like you’re lowering yourself when you effectively communicate and hear trans people. It requires you to, for a moment, see that society has placed you on a higher perch than us. The reason it seems like we’re yelling at you is because you can’t seem to hear us from that perch unless we do. 

You are not a philosopher. You are not a doctor. You are not the blog you read last week. You are better.

The other thing a lot of people will do with trans folks is they will bring us the talking points of others: the ramblings of a news anchor, the fears of an author of young adult novels, the rhetoric of a pretentious white guy ranting about “facts.” Those people demand that we, trans people, account for the words other people say about us. 

It’s ok to have questions about this but those questions are not actually trans folks’ problems. See the issue is that when presented with two competing sides: a trans perspective and a cisgender/TERF/conservative perspective, people default to trusting the cisgender perspective unless trans people can make an overwhelming argument against it. 

And it’s like that for everything. All a cisgender person with a platform needs to do is imply anything about trans folks and it becomes truth until absolutely proved otherwise: often an impossible task. 

If you’re bringing these kinds of articles to the trans community to have them examined, make sure that you’re being as objective as you claim and not giving the benefit of the doubt to cis people just because they’re cis people. That’s normativity talking. 

You have no right to hand out rights. 

Another common mistake that cisgender people make in communicating with transgender folks is that they will say some variant of the following: “You need to be nice to people if you want them to agree with you so you can have more rights.” 

I hope that the way I phrased it helps to make it more obvious why this is problematic, but we hear this a lot.

Rights are rights. The question is not whether we have them or not, the question is whether you are willing to trample all over them because you don’t think we should. 

So if you find yourself thinking you might have some opinion along these lines, it would be best for you to work out why it is you think transgender people need to earn rights, and not ask us to convince you we deserve them. 

“Ok, so what am I allowed to say?” 

All of that build up about things you shouldn’t do is about texture and perspective. It’s to help you understand why sometimes you’re not going to get a calm, pleasant reaction from trans people. It’s to help you understand this next part. You know now, I hope, where you are standing because society has placed you there. So how can you communicate with trans people effectively? At the risk of having misled you, I am not going to give you a list of “this question is ok, but this one is not.” Instead, I am going to empower you to discover how to discover and familiarize yourself with the community and trans individuals.

Let’s start with the most common case: you have a question. There’s something you don’t understand, maybe about gender and sexuality or perhaps about the medical treatments we undergo. Maybe you don’t understand why we would transition. I’ve had some women in my life who couldn’t understand why I would give up male privileges to “become a woman.” 

There’s a bit of a catch 22 here in that you should never just randomly approach a trans person, especially in a physical space, to ask questions. You should also stay far away from googling on trans topics. So I suggest the following 

The first and most appropriate thing to do is to find out where you can find out information. This could be paying a trans person for their time tutoring you, Facebook groups, blogs like this one, discord servers, etc., If you’re reading this I’m guessing you already have access to some common spaces where people can guide you to good information. If not, I recommend the tools and resources offered at https://soundsliketransedu.com. 

The people in spaces like these have sort of tacitly agreed to be available for questions. So the real question is how can you ask respectfully and engage in a conversation acknowledging your perspective? 

First, admit you don’t know what you don’t know. This might seem to be a silly step, but when you simply say, “I don’t know enough to have an opinion about this,” you are calibrating yourself to be ready to hear what information you get from trans people. This step is an important part of the ritual of having conversations about topics that are not in your field of expertise. “Thank you for giving me space to ask this. I really don’t know enough to have an opinion, but I want to understand” is a powerful mantra in trans spaces. Use it well, frequently, and wisely. 

I’m a Theravadan Buddhist. There’s a story we pass around in Buddhist circles about a man who came to a monk to be enlightened. The man was insistent and so the monk, being a monk and a gracious host, says they should have tea first. When the tea was ready the monk began to pour his guest’s cup of tea. The teacup filled to the brim, overflowing onto the table and onto the man’s clothing. He was incensed. 

Enough! Can’t you see that the cup is full?” The man said to the monk. The monk continued to pour the tea until the pot was entirely emptied and there was a great mess everywhere. The monk then said to the man, “you are like this cup. You are full and you have no room for my teachings. Come back when your cup is empty.” 

So I offer you this. If you do only this step, if you only make it a practice to empty your cup so that you can truly hear what trans people are saying to you, you will be so much further along than 9 out of 10 people we try to teach. Empty your cup, friend, and you will never go thirsty.

Second, you will screw up and say something offensive — decenter yourself. You will get negative feedback sometimes, it’s going to happen. When you bring an argument or a question to a transgender person, they are not centering you in their response. They are responding to the hundred people before who have asked that question, and the next hundred who will. They are responding to the 10th person who has accidentally called them a slur today without knowing. Be aware that you will make mistakes, you will get called out on those, and that the person is expressing a general frustration. So even though you are hearing the criticism, it is not about you but about a behavior they keep having to endure. Don’t get me wrong, they’re probably angry at you for pressing that bruise, so learn the lesson, apologize, and thank them for teaching you. Realizing that we’ve harmed someone is uncomfortable, but discomfort can be a teacher as well if we put it in its right place. If you respond appropriately here, it will mean everything to that trans person. We aren’t used to folks gracefully handling the knowledge they’ve done harm. 

You might be tempted in this moment to express disbelief at how “sensitive” this person was being. Language matters very much to trans people. Let me give you an example in my personal history. “Dude.”

Let’s get the gendered nature of “dude” out of the way. It is absolutely a gendered word. If you need proof of this, tab away from this and open your most-used chat app. Pick three straight men from your friends list or contacts, and message them this question: “Do you sleep with dudes?” I’ll wait. That it has gender-neutral applications does not change that it’s a gendered word. So with that foundational knowledge established: I hate being called “dude.” 

When people call me that, it fills me with doubt about how I’m being seen — especially in public. It makes me question my appearance and demeanor, which I work hard on, but also my safety. Have I been outed? Do people here know I’m trans? Do I need to leave before someone who means me harm picks up on it? Will people mess with my food? What happens now if I need to go to the bathroom? Is there someone I know here who will walk me to my car? If I’ve been clocked, I don’t want to be followed out. 

These thoughts aren’t me being sensitive. They’re a defense mechanism that keeps me safe in a world where people really do mean to cause me harm. I’ve been followed. I’ve had my car window shattered. We are always watching for small signs that might lead to big dangers. That’s not sensitivity or being delicate: that’s the state of the world and us trying to survive it. 

You probably don’t mind being called dude, if you’re cisgender. Why? Because normativity has given you assuredness. Your gender has been given to you and asserted at every step of your life. How do I know this? Because I don’t correct people who call me “dude” anymore. I was having a friendly discussion with someone who hadn’t clocked me. She didn’t know I was trans. She said, “Dude…” and then finished her sentence. I responded, “Not a dude, but that’s awesome!” To which she replied, “Yeah, no shit.” In that moment, it was clear to me that correcting people about calling me “dude” does more to put me at risk than not, and so now I mostly just sit with all those anxieties and worries when people call me that because I have no way to safely assert myself.

This is why you should listen when trans people say it’s better not to call everyone dude by default. What’s a simple, fun word for you is fraught with worries and fear for trans people. 

That whole detour was to say that when a trans person offers you a correction on something seemingly innocuous to you — listen, hear, and understand. We don’t like being upset, so if you’re getting a reaction there’s a reason. If you center yourself in the criticism you get in that moment, you won’t be able to hear what the trans person is telling you. Your teacup will have been filled by your need to defend yourself. 

Third and finally, remember that a trans person is firstly a person. You have questions about transgender issues and we get that, but we are real, living human beings who have wants and desires. Your ability to understand our trans experience must be rooted in an acknowledgment of our humanity. I have jobs that I do other than being trans. I am a big sister to five wonderful siblings. I have three loving partners (as of this moment). I want to have a life with my partners. I want to have children and grow old and then spoil their kids rotten. I want to travel the world and eat all the foods I can find. I have terrible taste in music, but now I love to dance. I am so much deeper and more than my transgender label.

When you’re talking to trans people, how can you best keep the human in mind? I recommend asking about our hopes and dreams and fears. Ask about our hobbies. Or ask about food — we probably all have a favorite dish. Just please remember the people, because when you separate trans issues from human issues, it becomes easier to pick us apart and harder to treat us well. 

Now go talk with trans people. Be humble. Be better. 

If you’ve made it this far, I can only assume you have a motivation. But I thank you for it. Thank you for making this effort and for endeavoring to treat trans people with respect. Thank you for learning how to learn. 

Take this knowledge, share it. The world is better when we can hear each other better. The world is kinder when we listen for meaning and not for gaps where we can speak. 

May you spread Metta (loving-kindness) to everyone you interact with, and may they, in turn, spread it to others. May your conversations be fruitful and help to bring you together with others in recognizing our shared interdependence. We are all in this together, connected. Remember that when you’re talking to people you don’t understand. 

Metta, my friends. 

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