How to Be Respectful of a Trans Person

Every year, March 31 is Trans Day of Visibility. This day “aims to bring attention to the accomplishments of trans people everywhere while fighting cissexism and transphobia.”

If you’re still struggling with understanding transgender, nonbinary, and other gender identity topics, I get it: Like most people, I was raised to think that boys were boys, girls were girls, and that was that.

The first key point, though, is: What does it matter? If someone you’ve always called Pam announces they want to be called Steve, okay. How is that any different to your experience than if someone gets married and changes their last name? The only change you’re being asked to make is in how to refer to them.

We as a culture seem excessively obsessed with what’s between someone’s legs. Love, attraction, and identity are a lot more complicated than that. Some people identify with a gender other than the one assigned to them based on their genitals. That’s okay.

Anyone who identifies outside the cisgender “you’re the gender you were assigned at birth” identity, whether or not they identify as transgender, faces a much higher level of bigotry because of their identity. Many “women’s only” spaces and conversations overtly exclude trans women. And cis men are even crueler: Trans women are assaulted and killed for their identity.

Every time we do something to mock transgender people for their identity, we add to the pile. Just as with the Rape Culture Pyramid, where “jokes” and “banter” form the cultural foundation which ends in rape, so too do jokes and insensitive attitudes form the foundation on which exclusion, assault, and murder are built.

So I encourage you to educate yourself as much as possible, but at the very least: Treat trans folk with respect. This is easy if you follow a simple rule: Treat everyone with respect, unless they personally do something wrong. Don’t treat anyone like a second class citizen. Then you’ll treat trans folk with respect as a matter of course.

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There are three specific issues I’d like to highlight.

One is the preposterous “bathroom bills” that have been appearing around the country. These bills require people to use the gender identity they were assigned at birth. The basis for this is to “protect the children”: Perverts and pedophiles might use a “choose your room” policy as an excuse to get their jollies by going into the “other” room.

Pedophiles and perverts aren’t waiting for our permission. What stops them is vigilance and laws against sexual violence. Having a law that keeps “men” out of the women’s room isn’t going to stop them from sneaking in. Laws should be focused on actual wrong-doing, not on boogeymen.

I do get the concern that a little girl might see a trans woman’s penis. That’s an argument for discreet stalls, not for banning certain women from the bathroom.

Let people use the restroom they’re most comfortable in, and use other laws to punish the perverts.

If your reply is, “But trans folk are perverts!”: No, they’re not.

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The second issue is how we often police trans folks. “You can’t be a trans woman, you wear suits.” “You can’t be non-binary, you dress so much like a woman.”

I’ve been struggling with this one a lot myself. I realize that I instinctively expect a trans person to go out of their way to “look like” the gender identity they’re using.

This “prove it” attitude is disrespectful. Somebody is whatever gender they identify as. This applies to cisgender folks, too, by the way: A transvestite man is still a man. While many transvestites identify as transgender, they are separate identities.

It’s simple: If someone tells you they’re a woman, they’re a woman. If someone tells you they’re a man, they’re a man. If someone tells you they’re some other gender identity, there you have it.

Unless you plan to have sex with them, what difference does it make anyway?

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My third issue is one I’ve found to be much more difficult than I thought.

One of the most consistent microaggressions that trans people face is the misuse of pronouns and other gendered language. Our linguistic heritage is such that we’ve baked our obsession with gender into the fabric of our language.

We refer to mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. We talk of husbands and wives. In most cases, we have a non-gendered alternatives: Parents, children, spouses. In the case of parents and spouses, there’s also a distinct bias towards heterosexual, monogamous relationships. A child with a heterosexual, cisgender couple as their parents can refer to “my mother” and “my father” and be talking about distinct people. A child with any other group as their parents has to either use more words (“this is one of my fathers”) or be ambiguous.

There are plenty of languages that don’t make gendered distinctions. Mandarin Chinese is one of the most widely spoken languages, and the default is to not explicit mention gender. In English, there are only a few word sets that don’t have a pre-existing gender neutral equivalent (“niece/nephew” and “aunt/uncle”). Within my lifetime, we’ve largely replaced words like “chairman” and “actress.” We could clean this up if we really wanted to.

For my own part, I’ve been largely successful talking about my child, and referring to myself as his parent. But I continue to struggle with talking about “my spouse,” and even though I’m fine with being Mx. Hartzer, I continue to hesitate with using the title. Most frustrating of all, as a teacher, I continue to get my students’ attention with “ladies and gentlemen” instead of the much easier “folks.” These habits are tenacious.

Pronoun use is even more frustrating. “They” is perfectly acceptable as a singular for people whose gender we don’t know, but my goal is to use it comfortably for everyone. I’m a long way off from that.

Let me clear: Not all trans folk want gender neutral pronouns. If a trans woman asks for “she/her,” then use those. If our language gets to a point where we can get rid of “he” and “she” entirely, in favor of “they,” then great. Until then, use the pronouns you’re asked to use.

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I’m still struggling a lot myself. The cultural programming runs deep. At the same time, I’ve long struggled with my own gender identity. As a man who has never felt comfortable inside the man box, I used to see trans women as betrayers who should instead be fighting with me to dismantle that box.

I came to realize, though, that that was my fight, and I had no right to demand other people to help me in my fight. We all have our own struggles in this life.

I don’t need to understand what it’s like to be transgender to be respectful of a person’s identity. I just need to be respectful of a person.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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