Top Five Things to Say (or not) to Transgender People by lore dickey

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lore dickey will be presenting the Pre-Conference Workshop, '"Mindfulness-based Affirmative Practice for LGBTQ+ People" at the ACBS World Conference in Dublin. Learn more about the workshop here.

People are inherently kind to one another. It is part of being a human being. Sometimes though, even with the best intentions we get things wrong. We are embarrassed, we do not really know how to undo what we just said, and most important we aren’t sure what the long-term impacts will be for the relationship we have developed. Below, I offer some tips for some good practices for how to talk with transgender people (whether or not they are your client).

1. What name and pronouns do you use?
This is such a simple question and when we ask trans people this question they feel seen. They will know that you are hoping to connect with them authentically. You may have heard people ask “what are your preferred pronouns?” This question has some inherent problems. When you ask me what pronouns I prefer I think that you will use those pronouns when it is convenient. There are a number of things I prefer: cream in my coffee, a hot shower in the morning, and a regular paycheck. When it comes to my name and pronouns, and other personal information, I do not prefer that you use them, rather I insist that you do so.

One more thought about pronouns and names. Yes, this can be very tricky. When you meet someone, you instantaneously make a decision about the person’s gender. When you learn someone’s name, you are also locked in to both a name and pronouns. You are going to make mistakes. I transitioned 20 years ago and I still make mistakes! Own your mistake, apologize (once), and work to get it right the next time. When you own your mistake, your client does not have to correct you (not an easy thing). They also realize that you are cognizant of the mistake you made.

2. What are your goals for transition?
I do not want this question to become code for “have you had the surgery?” Although, knowing about the type of transition a person would like to make is important as you begin work with a transgender client.

When you ask a transgender person if they have had the surgery – you are asking them about their genitals. You are also showing your ignorance about the many surgical procedures that may be necessary for gender affirmation. In the moment you start to ask a trans person this question; first ask yourself if you need this information or are simply curious. If the question is about curiosity then it need not be asked.

Asking a person about their transition goals should lead the conversation to the ways a trans person wants to transition. There are generally three types of transition: social, medical, and legal. Each of these types of transition have different outcomes. A social transition may involve a name change (though not necessarily in a legal sense) and a change in the attire a person wears. A medical transition typically involves some combination of hormones and/or surgery. A legal transition includes any process that requires a legal intervention such as a name change, a gender marker change, or the change to identity documents.

3. “I would never have known!”
Let me begin this with – of course you wouldn’t have known. And, this assumes that there is something wrong with those trans people for whom you would have known. This is really all about passing privilege. If a person “passes” they benefit from privilege that many trans people are unable to achieve. When working with your clients, it is important that you do not hold the ability to pass as objective. Doing so places an unnecessary burden on some trans people.

When you tell me “I never would have known” I feel invisible. It is as if my having told you I am trans suddenly doesn’t mean anything to you. Just like you, I want to be seen for who I am. Please do not erase my identity or ask me to pretend that the history I had leading up to my transition didn’t exist.

4. I don’t know how to refer to you, and I refuse to take responsibility for my own confusion.
Since when is it acceptable to make your confusion (and unwillingness to accept responsibility) someone else’s problem? I know that this blog post began with a statement that people have good intentions. Although most people are kind, when a person decides to make their confusion another person’s concern, then there is likely to be a disagreement. If you are not sure of my pronouns, ask. The question is really quite simple. It goes like this: “I am confused and I want to be respectful, what pronouns do you use?”

5. We know how to read.
Trans people tend to be well-educated. As a result, we know how to read. It is unlikely that we have entered the wrong restroom. There is no such thing as “bathroom police”. And yet, many trans people experience questioning and violence when trying to use a restroom. The reality is, once we are each in our respective stalls no one has any idea about each other’s gender identity. When you make an issue about whether I am in the right restroom you put me in danger. All I want to do is take care of some basic bodily needs.

Some of this is very basic. If you learned some new things here, you may find that the ACBS pre-conference session that Aisling Leonard-Curtin and I are conducting will help you gain the skills necessary to engage in affirmative practice with sexual and gender minorities.

See you in Dublin!

- lore m. dickey, PhD
Behavioral Health Consultant
North Country HealthCare
Bullhead City, AZ USA