Is Bruce Jenner transitioning? That’s the question bouncing around social and tabloid media alike about the Olympic gold medalist and Kardashian ex. Because Jenner has remained silent on the matter, the correct answer is that we don’t know and, for that matter, it’s none of our business. In much the same way, I’ve long advised nosy parkers not to ask a woman, “Are you pregnant?” if she appears to have gained a few pounds. Nor to query a co-worker, “Are you having chemo?” if he’s suddenly lost his hair. Yes, it’s natural to be curious about whether someone is expecting, ill or transitioning, but my advice is ironclad: Check your curiosity and hold your tongue. And when in doubt, choose to be kind.
In many ways, these past 12 months are likely to go down in history books as “That Transgender Year.” Activist and actress Laverne Cox became the first trans person to grace the cover of Time magazine; “Orange Is the New Black,” in which Cox’s trans character also broke boundaries, was nominated for 12 Emmys; and Amazon’s “Transparent,” about a father who is transitioning, hit gold as well. Out in the real world, meantime, transgender people continued to be attacked and killed in shocking numbers. Murders topped 1,500 in the six years between 2008 and 2014, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. And the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law reported that 41 percent of people who are transgender have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, nearly nine times the national average.
In my circle, the Bruce Jenner headlines have become a trending topic. While my lesbian and gay friends could pass for having a rudimentary understanding of what it means to be transgender, an otherwise well-educated 50-something straight woman told me flat out: “I just don’t get it.”
I get that. This is all simply new to her.
It sure was new to me the first time I met someone transgender. That was in the early 2000s, when I was president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. A young journalist introduced herself to me as trans and spoke at great length about topics including the need for greater visibility in our association to the importance of gender-neutral bathrooms. I heard her words, but — I’ll be honest — I remained confused. It would take knowing more trans people and reading books such as Deborah Rudicille’s “The Riddle of Gender” for me to become a decent ally.
These experiences still only place me among the meager 8 percent of Americans who know someone who is transgender, according to a 2013 Pew Internet study. Still, it doesn’t make it okay that there’s so much hostility, and outright violence, directed at trans men and women. But it does help explain it, because the fact that 92 percent of Americans now say they know someone who is gay or lesbian is widely considered a primary driver of recent mainstream acceptance.
With more than 1.5 million individuals identifying as transgender in the United States, the likelihood is increasing that more and more of us will no longer be able to say, “I don’t know anyone who is trans.” Nor, “I just don’t get it.” In the meantime, here are some of the dos and don’ts when it comes to transgender etiquette.
•The decision of when — or whether — to disclose someone’s transition belongs to that person alone.
Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all “right” time for someone to come out as gay, the same is true for trans people. “Transgender individuals are in the best position to decide where they are on their journey to transition, and the readiness of those around them to accept and support them, and how to best approach the topic,” says Shannon Minter, co-editor of Transgender Rights and legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
•If you think someone may be transgender or transitioning, don’t ask.
Wait until the person decides to open up to you. “If you know someone is transgender, do not casually share this information with others without the explicit permission of the transgender person. Gossiping about someone being transgender is not only an invasion of privacy; it can have serious, negative consequences in a world that is intolerant of gender difference. Transgender people can lose jobs, housing, friends or even their lives once people find out they are transgender,” says Nick Adams, a transgender staffer at GLAAD (formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
•When someone tells you they are transitioning or are transgender, be supportive even if you don’t fully understand.
It’s difficult to overstate how much trust such a disclosure places in you; the best response is a gesture of warmth and acceptance, whatever that looks like for the two of you. You could say something like: “Thank you for telling me” or “You have my complete support.” And don’t forget to listen. Jacob Tobia, a transgender advocate, says, “Whether it’s your spouse, your child, your grandparent or your sibling, listening and being supportive make all the difference.” Ask questions that aren’t too prying and then seek out resources on your own. One of the best is “Guide to Being a Trans Ally” published by PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
•Use the name and pronouns that a trans person chooses.
When someone tells you they are transitioning, they’ll usually ask you to begin using their new name and pronoun right away. Follow their lead. If you’re not sure, start by listening. If they introduce themselves with a traditionally gendered name, like James or Molly, use the associated pronoun. Adams explains: “If their name is gender neutral, like Chris, there are two options: You can avoid pronouns as much as possible until the situation becomes clear, or you can ask, ‘What pronoun do you prefer?’ ” If you make a mistake and use the wrong name or pronoun, don’t wait to apologize.
•It’s not okay to ask about medical procedures, hormones or a trans person’s genitals.
Just as I’d hope no one asks me about my genitalia as a testicular cancer survivor, such questions are also out of bounds with a trans person. “Don’t ask if a transgender person has had ‘the surgery’ or if they are ‘pre-op’ or ‘post-op.’ If a transgender person wants to talk to you about such matters, let them bring it up,” Adams says.
One last word: My straight friend who said “I just don’t get it” also added that she couldn’t understand why anyone would transition. I reminded her that after months of suffering with an ankle fracture she’d finally decided to seek surgery. “It had just become so painful,” she had said only moments before. I asked her to think about that analogy in relation to those transgender individuals who have lived their lives in the closet for so long. Approaching the topic from this perspective, I could see that she, like me years ago, was beginning to understand.
E-mail questions to Civilities at email@example.com (unfortunately, not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Feb.10: Transgender 101: What do you need to know if someone says they're transitioning? Ask your questions to experts from GLAAD and PFLAG.