Whether we identify as gay, lesbian, bi or straight, most of us still don’t know anyone who identifies as transgender. A new GLAAD/Harris Interactive poll reported that only 16% of Americans said they personally knew anyone who is transgender. Unfortunately, there is no data for the percentage of gays and lesbians who know someone who identifies as trans but it is certainly still a minority of us. And the questions I receive from my gay and lesbian Washington Post readers reflect confusion and misunderstandings.
Frank Bruni, the openly gay New York Times columnist acknowledged recently, “Transgender people indeed puzzle many others, including me. I readily admit to confusion when confronted with Caitlyn Jenner, because I associate her voice with someone named Bruce.”
“Just because someone is lesbian, gay, or bisexual doesn’t mean they have a clear understanding of what it means to be transgender,” Nick Adams, director of programs for transgender media at GLAAD, told me. “While people of all sexual orientations can be good allies to transgender people, it does require a commitment to learning about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, and listening to transgender people about the discrimination and inequality they face.”
That being said, here are answers to the most frequently asked questions I’ve received this year:
Q: What is the difference between being gay, lesbian, and bisexual or being transgender?
A: “Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual is a sexual orientation. It’s who you are attracted to,” says Adams. “Being transgender is when your gender identity — your own internal sense of yourself as a man or a woman — doesn’t match your body.”
Q: What is the proper pronoun to use when referring to a trans person — Caitlyn Jenner, for example?
A: In the Vanity Fair cover story, Caitlyn Jenner said without equivocation: “Call me Caitlyn.” That’s her new name, and we should all refer to her that way. According to the most recent Associated Press style book, “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” For Ms. Jenner, the correct pronouns to use are: “she,” “her,” and “hers.”
Q: What should I do if I make a mistake in my pronoun usage with a trans person?
A: “Do what you do anytime you make a mistake,” says Jean-Marie Navetta, who wrote PFLAG National’s Guide to Being a Trans Ally. “Say that you’re sorry and that you’re going to be sure to try harder for next time. This can be tough, especially if you knew someone pre-transition, so be compassionate towards yourself when you mess up.” From my own experience, I’d add that it takes some personal awareness to use the right name and pronouns correctly.
Q: What does it mean to “transition,” since not every transgender person opts for gender-reassignment surgery?
A: It’s absolutely true that not every trans person has surgery, which is why transitioning is not a one-time event. According to GLAAD, it’s a complex process that occurs over a long period of time and includes some or all of the following personal, medical, and legal steps (not necessarily in this order): Coming out to one’s family, friends, or co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) one or more types of surgery. The exact steps will vary from person to person. There is only one thing that matters to the rest of us: People transition when they say they have.
Q: May I ask trans people about their new “feminine” or “masculine” look if I’m just curious?
A: Being curious, even if well meaning, is never a justification to ask a question that may invade a person’s privacy. In general, when someone is ready to disclose information about themselves, including their gender identity, they will. Be patient.
Q: What’s the best way to respond when someone tells me they are transitioning or are transgender?
A: It’s difficult to overstate how much trust such a disclosure places in you. What I recommend is a gesture of warmth and acceptance, whatever that looks like for the two of you. If you are close, a hug may be the best response. Or, you could simply say: “Thanks so much for telling me.” The most important thing is to listen. Listening and being supportive make all the difference.” For friends and family who are close, ask questions as the person is willing to answer them. Preface them like this: “Is it okay if I ask you. . .?”
Q: What if I still don’t understand?
A: Believe me, this is one of the most common questions I receive. Acceptance doesn’t always require understanding, but understanding often follows acceptance. “I don’t get it, but I still love you,” is one good response. You may ask for some time to get used to the news, but whatever you do, don’t criticize, make jokes, or mock – especially behind the person’s back.
If you still have questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.