Gender Identity: A little help for friends

If you’re missing previous posts, check this one for the basics, and use the tags at the bottom for others.

There are a lot of decent things around the internet giving primers on what to do/not do, call/not call, say/not to or around or about trans* people. Like this one from Autostraddle.

However, I’m much more a fan of the tone of this type of article – because instead of scolding you for not knowing everything and having all the right words and so on, it offers ways in which you can develop yourself and help everyone.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the Autostraddle post, but it seems to me that most people who read it are probably not the people who can properly learn from it.

Most of the people around me are great and supportive, but some of them have found it difficult to get their heads around what, to many of them, is this whole new identity. I’m asking people to see something in me which most of them haven’t before.
OK, there’s some, whose reaction was basically “…Yep. Yep, that makes sense” because they have seen, noticed and observed the masculine and feminine facets to who I am.
Most people, however, are not that observant, and don’t know me well enough to have seen the deep-seated gender confusion I’ve always had.

It’s important to me that the people in my life are able to understand and travel my path with me, as I want to understand and travel theirs.
I need to trust that the people around me are willing to be aware of how difficult this journey has been, is, and will continue to be. That it will be a thing which is present in our relationship (whatever that is) to some extent.

Those around me also need to trust that I am aware of the difficulties they face, and that I’m willing to help and support them the way I need them to help and support me.

With all that said, let’s get to the actual post.

Politically Correct is not necessarily the same as Individually Desirable.
By which I mean that being PC can serve when talking in general, and when you don’t know the wishes of an individual, and that’s cool.
However, every trans* person will have their own preferences – which may develop and change over time – and for the individual, it is these which you need to pay attention to. If nothing else, it’s simple courtesy and one each of us (trans* or otherwise) has a right to ask for.

If in doubt: ask
 Following on from the above – it’s exceedingly rare that a polite question, to aid in clarification, will be met with anything but gladness and an answer. The fact that you’re willing to ask an individual trans* person what their preferences are is great, and something many people are too afraid to do. Ask for clarification on their names and their preferred gender pronouns – even if they’ve already said something more generally, don’t be afraid to ask for an answer specifically tailored to you, it’ll stand you both in good stead for your ongoing friendship.

There’s a time and a place
Even for the trans* person who is willing to sit and spend as much time as needed answering your questions – be aware of the appropriateness of time and place. Think about where you are, who else is around and might overhear, what you’re both doing, and bear in mind that even in the most appropriate situation the trans* person you want to ask questions of might have other things on their mind and prefer not to answer questions right now.
If you’re at all unsure, or asking something that personal, make your first question the one that requests permission. Then accept the answer given and don’t push it

There’s also a line
Not every question is a question that everyone wants to answer. Before you ask the question take a second to consider this: given this time and place, and the relationship you have with the person you’re talking to, would you be happy to answer the question you’re about to ask?
If the answer is no, maybe leave it for now.
If you really want to ask personal questions – how about if you first ask permission, and then create a safe space in which the conversation can be had: get together at your house with a bottle of wine, for example.
In short – just be sensitive. You may be super curious to know if the transsexual you barely know at work is fully post-op, but is that question really ok for you to ask in the break room?

“Do I have to call you [insert new name/pronouns here]? I’m used to calling you [insert old name/pronouns here]” (or other similar comments)
It doesn’t matter what the reason is – if somebody, anybody, asks you specifically to call them something and/or not call them something else, it is the most basic sign of respect to follow their wishes, and something everyone deserves. If you requested your friend to call you by a nickname because you don’t feel your full first name suits – you’d expect them to go along with it, because you’re friends. This multiplies by a large amount when the person asking you to cal them something different is doing so because of an evolution in their understanding of the basic person that they are.

For a trans* person it is especially important that you show them the respect of addressing them as they have requested from you. They’ve most likely gone through things you can’t even imagine, in order to reach this level of comfort and knowledge in themselves, and asking you to call them something new is a HUGE step. The quickest way to ruin the trust they have in you and your friendship is to reject that struggle.
If it’s new to you, then it might be hard for you to understand, and it requires a scary step forward on your part too, but the solution is to talk to them about it, not to try and withhold what they need from you.

A note to people on my side of this – the chances are there’s something else behind it that the speaker is unable to convey (or even realise is there). They’re probably having difficulty with being asked to see you in a way they haven’t before, as something/someone they haven’t before. It’s likely you’re the first trans* person they’ve known, or at least the first they’ve known going through it. You have to understand that it isn’t easy to see someone you’ve known in a new light, and things like the above are probably manifestations of deeper difficulties they’re having.
It can feel like the person they love is suddenly telling them they’re someone else. This isn’t the case, but it pays to be sensitive to the idea that someone might be struggling with a new concept. It’s worth the time to work through it.

Real or Not Real
“What’s your real name?”, “Are you really a man or a woman?”
I get why you might be inclined to use such phrasing: if you’re perceiving that somebody was one thing and is now pretending to be/attempting to be/in the process of becoming another (depending where you are in your journey of understanding), then that may be how it feels to you.
What you need to be learning is that for a trans* person real and not real are the other way around. A change in name, presenting as a particular gender (or no gender) undergoing stages of transition, whatever – you’re talking to someone who is or is becoming what they feel themselves to really be. Their “real” name/gender/etc is who they tell you they are today. They’ve likely spent a long time and gone through a lot of things to work out for themselves who they really are – and it helps everyone for you to make the effort to go through the same process of switching around your thinking.
No it’s not easy, but as always, if you care about the person, and want to keep their friendship, then there’s no way around it – you have to do this. But don’t be afraid to ask your friend for help.

Asking for help
It’s a running theme for a reason. If you’re struggling because your friend/partner/family member/work colleague/whatever has come out as trans*, the best possible thing you can do is to ask them for their help in your attempts to understand and learn.
If you’re struggling, the chances are they know, and this will affect your relationship.
If you do the hard thing, open up and say that you’re having some difficulties, ask if you can talk about it with them, you’re going to strengthen your friendship, be a person they know they can trust, and grow as a person in the process. There is no bad here.
If you’re finding it hard to simply admit that you’re not understanding, consider how hard it was for them to come out. Also consider that they’re facing rejection, meanness, insults and more from others – and your willingness to talk about it is going to remind them that as vulnerable as they are, there are people who stand solidly behind them. Finally, it’ll show them that they are important enough to you, for you to be willing to make yourself vulnerable in order to understand.

Don’t Panic
It’s ok not to understand everything right away. That’s why we have the internet, and why we have brains and mouths to have conversations. It’s not your fault if you don’t immediately understand and know everything – it is only your fault if you continue that way.

I have some general policies:
I will always provide an answer to any reasonable question or issue
I will always find time to discuss with somebody who wants/needs to
I will correct people when I deem it appropriate, but always in a polite and caring manner
I will first always try to understand the reason for any mistakes or misunderstandings
I will not be easily offended by these mistakes or misunderstanding, or by the lack of knowledge and surety of those around me – rather once I see it, I will endeavour to teach and clarify.
I will not react harshly to those who are purposely insulting or offensive, or who reject me because of who I am. I will be hurt by it, because I’m human, but I will not respond in kind.

And finally…
If you’re unsure, you have two basic options.
1) Turn it around. Put yourself in their place, and ask yourself…is this appropriate? Would I be ok with this? Is there a better time to ask this? What are the assumptions behind this which I’m feeling might make it problematic – and do they still apply if the person isn’t trans*? etc. Reverse the situation and examine, that should help you pinpoint where the potential problems are, and where your personal problems/fears are.
2) Ask them “Is this ok?”. Trust that they will answer one way or another – and that if you have asked politely, they won’t be upset. There are few things that a trans* person hasn’t and won’t encounter, in general it’s the way you approach them which will influence their response. Be nice, be understanding, be willing to acknowledge what you don’t know and ask them.

Questions? Comments? Ask away.