COLUMN: The language of the transgender community may be different, but the feelings are the same
Republication of column I wrote for WCPO Cincinnati News as a part of the wider response to Leelah Alcorn’s death. There has been a surprisingly competent and lasting media response and I am hopeful that this visibility will aid our local movement’s growth.
COLUMN: Transgender identities can seem complicated, and when a person is first learning about gender it can feel like you are learning a different language. And in a way, you are.
The transgender community, or trans people as we frequently call ourselves, have developed a variety of words and practices to address our experiences, and each are shaped by a long history of community development.
Before beginning to conceptualize the differences of trans people from non-trans people, let’s consider what we all have in common: Everyone has a gender identity, or a way of knowing ourselves as a woman, a man, neither, both, or something else entirely.
Gender identities exist on a spectrum and we cannot choose what identity we have. A person who is cisgender has a gender identity that aligns to their designated sex; in other words a non-trans person. A transgender person has a gender identity that does not align to their designated sex.
The main difference between a cisgender person and a transgender person is not who we are, but how we are treated. Trans people are disproportionately exposed to discrimination and violence, be it at school, work, a doctor’s office, a public street, or even in our own homes.
If you are seeking to learn about the lives of the trans community, the first step is to understand that society defines our differences; our differences do not define us.
No two people are the same, and this is still the case in the transgender community. One trans person’s experience may be very different from another’s. Other factors, such as racism, poverty, and age will influence a trans person’s experiences.
Language is very important. A trans person’s name, identity label and pronoun (she, he, they, ze) are decided upon very carefully, and for good reason. My name and pronoun are not my preference; they are a requirement just like yours. No one would like to be called by a name that isn’t their own, or called something they are not.
I trust you to know who you are, I expect you to trust me too.
Because many people are unfamiliar with trans experiences, they may ask about our pasts, how we came out, or about our bodies. All of these questions are extremely personal. If you would not as a cisgender person what they look like naked, you should not ask a trans person. Allow us to volunteer the information we want to share.
It is appropriate to privately ask a person what language you should use. It is also important to ascertain whether it is OK for you to tell anyone about someone’s trans identity. It is advisable to never disclose a person’s trans identity unless you have explicit permission, even if you think it is relevant. This is called “outing.” Outing a trans person can put them at risk of hostility, losing their job, their housing, a loved one, or even their life.
Respecting a trans person’s privacy is a critical act of support.
Google exists for a reason. Before you go ask your trans co-worker to explain every aspect of trans theory, Google it.
Just because a person is trans, does not mean they know everything about being trans, and even if they do, they do not have an obligation to teach you. If a trans person does choose to talk to you about trans issues, listen to them. If I decide to talk to someone about my trans identity, it means I have something important to say.
If a trans person asks you to change your language or behavior towards them, it means we are trusting you to respect us. If someone calls me the wrong pronoun or outs me, I do not assume that person is transphobic. Generally, I assume the person doesn’t know they made a mistake and I want to correct them for next time.
If you accidentally use the wrong word or somehow let it slip that someone is trans, apologize and try to do better. You don’t need to make it an issue, or extensively explain yourself. It’s likely we already know why the mistake happened; what we need is for you to correct it.
As you learn more about trans experiences, it is important to remember that loving a trans person is not the same as being a trans person.
Cisgender people have privileges we trans folks don’t have. You didn’t choose the privileges of cisgenderism, but you can choose to take responsibility for your place in society, and improve it.
There are many ways to advocate for trans people and they range from asking your workplace to host a training, to volunteering, to politely correcting someone when they call a trans person the wrong pronoun.
Every time a cisgender person takes a moment to address trans discrimination and ignorance, they are making the world better for everyone.
You might not think that a two-minute conversation can save the life of a trans teenager, but change is a ripple effect.
One drop can spread to unimaginable sizes.
The more voices we have behind us, the more we can gain the rights we, and everyone, deserve. The more rights we can obtain, the more lives we can save.
You can help make it happen.