This week GLAAD’s Tiq Milan joined me for the hour to talk about “transgender etiquette.” He responded to an overflowing mailbox, with questions about what pronoun and name to use for a trans person; what not to ask a trans person; why the sudden visibility of trans people in the news, and much more. In addition to his work with GLAAD, Tiq is a contributing author to the upcoming anthology Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, and is the Co-Chair for the LGBT taskforce of the National Association of Black Journalists. He started his transition 7 years ago. Below is an adaptation of the online chat. I asked the first several questions and then we took reader queries. To read the full transcript, please click here.
SP: Let’s start with some definitions. In fact, I told my 80-something year old mom the other day that we’re going to be having this discussion and she said: “Ask, what’s the difference between transsexual and transgender.”
TM: Your mom asked a great question and one I hear a lot. Simply put transgender is an umbrella term that includes the multitude of gender variants and identifications from cross-dresser to gender queer to trans male or trans female. Transsexual refers to someone who has medically transitioned with hormones and/or surgery. Not all people who identify as transgender have medically transitioned nor do all transgender identified people want to.
SP: In my experience, some well-meaning people use the wrong words (and pronouns, which we’ll come to in a moment): When that happens, what’s a good response from both people?
TM: First, I think people should get into the habit of asking others what their preferred gender pronoun is if they aren’t sure. I’m sure that feels new to a lot of folks to ask, but it’s ok to inquire very politely: “I want to be respectful so can you please tell me what pronoun you prefer.” I’m sure the person being asked would be grateful for the space to define themselves and it makes for less awkwardness later. If you’re in situation where someone is repeatedly using the wrong pronoun, it’s ok to pull them aside.
SP: A commenter posted this on my page after I wrote about Laverne Cox being on the cover of TIME. It wasn’t the only message laced with antipathy. Why are we seeing that? And, not to mention, so much violence against trans individuals?
“I think the TIME magazine story is ridiculous. What kind of civil rights do they need? This is what makes everyone say the gay community is looking for special privileges. When a fringe group says they want MORE, it reflects poorly on all of us. This cover wasn’t a ground breaking move for LGBT… it was a giant step backwards.”
TM: Transgender people aren’t a fringe group. We’ve existed for thousands of years in cultures all over the globe. The fact that gender is not binary — is not as cut and dry as most people may have thought evokes a lot of fear in people. And that fear is sustained by misrepresentation in the media and a lack of representation in our legislation and policies. Only 8% of people actually know a trans person, so for 92% of the population everything they know about us is what they see in the media. Laverne Cox is completely shifting the narrative of our lives and creating space for trans folks to tell our own stories about our authentic lived experience and that change doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks. However, that is the nature of social change. There will always be people who aren’t ready to handle social shifts. Also, this idea that trans people having leadership within the broader LGBT movement will some way take away from LGB folks is quite frankly, nonsense.
Now to our reader questions:
At what point do I change the pronoun I am using for a trans person?
Q: I understand that the correct pronouns are important to a transgender person. What I’m not sure about is when ‘she’ becomes ‘he’ or vice versa. Is it when a person starts taking hormones, has surgery, presents him or herself with a new identity?
A: This best thing to do is ask. The transgender community isn’t a monolith and the experience varies. You can ask, “What pronoun are you going by now?” Or “What pronoun do you prefer.” It’s really up to the individual.
Trans man/woman terminology?
Q: This may seem like a very ignorant question, but when someone is referred to as a trans man, does that mean they were born female but now identify as male or the other way around?
A: Yes. A transgender man is someone who was born female and is now male identified.
Gay before trans?
Q: I have a trans friend of long standing who is in her late fifties and adamantly corrected me when I suggested in a casual remark, early in our friendship, that she had been a gay man before she was trans. Can you help explain to me why my comment was wrong?
A: Maybe she never identified as a gay man. Maybe she identified as a woman prior to her transition. It may be worth to ask her if you want to understand her transition more.
SP: Are there any other terms that we should define or discuss?
TM: We rarely discuss gender variants or gender queer folks when we discuss trans issues. Gender variants and gender queer refers to folks who don’t necessarily identify as male or female. Or they identify with aspects of both. These folks are usually left out of the discussion unfortunately. Discussions around gender variants can be nuanced and complex but I think it’s important to not leave facets of the trans community out of the conversation.