Substitute “friend” for: “co-worker”, “schoolmate”, “partner of someone you know”, or someone in the public eye. For example, Chelsea Manning.
If you don’t already know (maybe you live under a rock or are one of those people who reads snarky blogs and not the news), Chelsea Manning went public today regarding her identity, preferred pronoun, and new name (as reported accurately and sensitively by The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and of all places, MSNBC).
It’s pretty sad that other media outlets refuse, even while reporting on this story, to use the correct pronoun. Hint, it’s female pronouns: “she”, “her”, etc.
What’s playing out today in the media is, sadly, the same kind of thing that plays out at parties, work environments, or in social scenes. There’s always a few people who get it instantly, and a lot more who need to be educated, plus a sprinkling of haters who will willfully resist the truth or argue against. Why? Who knows. Maybe they’re angry that this person looks better in a skirt or a suit than they do.
For the sake of this post, let’s assume most people are in the middle group. You’re a nice person, you want to do the right thing, and suddenly your friend is dating a trans person, or is a trans person, or maybe your kid is trans, or your kid’s friend. What’s the etiquette around what might be (to you) a new name or pronoun?
1. Names have power.
Perhaps you are happy with the name your parents gave you at birth. Perhaps you are happy with the gender and sexual identity presumed for you at birth. Go you. It doesn’t hurt you, your gender, or your sexuality to hold a space where other people can be accepted for who they are.
USE THEIR NEW NAME. ALWAYS.
It can be tough switching someone’s name in your mind. The more you use it, the easier it will become, I promise. A few months in and you won’t remember their old name, which will come in handy in other situations which I will get into a little further down this page.
2. Pronouns have power
USE THEIR NEW PRONOUN. Ignore how the New York Times has a perpetual inability to get this right in any article about a trans person. You should be reading The Guardian anyway. Practice also helps.
3. What if I screw it up?
You’re gonna screw it up. We’ve all screwed this up. Correct yourself and move on. It’s as simple as that. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Know that your trans friend noticed. Yes, we notice every, single time someone does this. The more you bring it up, the worse you look.
If you feel the need to apologize for messing this up, especially if you do it in public, make a private apology to your friend or the person whom you wronged. Own your mistake, don’t tell them it’s their fault because “you’re confusing.” It isn’t their fault, it’s yours. Do the right thing and apologize, in private, and with honesty.
4. How to avoid screwing it up?
If you, for whatever reason, simply cannot get this person’s pronoun correct, then refer to them by their name until your mental reframing of them is more complete. Take a moment and look at this person, really see them, not your impression of them, not your past idea of who they are. At the risk of getting into the land of ‘woo’, look at their essence and be open to being flexible. This person has come a long way; your job is to support them and accept them.
Imagine if every time someone looked at you, they saw you with that horrible haircut you had in Jr. High or High School. No, it’s not the same as gender, but the mental timestamp is just as out of date. Flush your mental browser cache and enjoy your friend’s new look.
Avoid doing that thing where you go out of your way to use their new pronoun more frequently than is necessary. That’s kind of the same as when white people talk about their ‘black friend’.
5. How to be an ally to a trans person?
Do not gossip or share personal information. This means: do not tell other people that this person is trans, their former pronoun, or their former name. To anyone. Even with people you know also share this information. Do you want people talking about your tummy tuck or abortion at a cocktail party to a group of fascinated strangers or co-workers? Didn’t think so.
When someone trusts you (and it is a trust) with their truth, your one response should be to honor that trust by not betraying it.
Before you get angry that I’ve equated a hormonal or surgical transition with something to be ashamed of, know this. Some trans people are very open in regard to discussing their transition. Some trans people use hormones or surgery, others do not. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to transition. Transition is a personal procedure and should be kept private.
People are also comfortable discussing their abortions, the births of their children (in gruesome detail which I like to hear because I like gross stuff), or their colonoscopy. These are highly personal stories and should be shared only by the person who experienced them. That isn’t about being politically correct—that’s just good manners. Don’t be rude and co-opt someone else’s good party story. If other people are gossiping, shut them down. If they gossip about your friend, chances are they’re also gossiping about you.
Do not ask if they are planning to get/have gotten surgery.
Just. Don’t. Think about it. Unless you are their surgeon, it’s none of your business what’s going on down there.
Educate yourself on trans issues.
There are a ton of articles similar to this online, (many of them better written) as well as many, many books on the subject of being trans, partnering with trans people, and the human rights issues faces by trans people. Some of them have contrasting information. Be informed. Read. Use your critical analysis skills and stay compassionate.
Trans teenagers, and adults for that matter, are far more likely to attempt suicide or use drugs/alcohol. This is not because all us trans people are So Messed Up. This is because the world treats trans people unfairly. Transgendered people are more likely to be unemployed or face discrimination on the job. Health insurance companies do their damnedest to deny trans people access to transition-related services, including mental health services, which have been proven time and time again to improve people’s quality of life, personal safety, and economic security. Trans people often lose the support of family and friends and must constantly fight for recognition that their transition is real, necessary, and meaningful.
Never use the word ‘Tranny’
6. As a final note:
Since the default standard mainstream dialogue around trans people is to treat them like the punchline to a joke, I can see why uninformed people might interpret it that way. This is a good opportunity for people surprised by the news to consider how their mental awareness of trans issues is shaped by representations in the media. Compare the coverage, consider how respectful writers and reporters are of names and pronouns.
Guest blogger T is trans and queer identified, currently owned by two cats, lives in San Francisco, and will occasionally write blog posts if nagged by close friends.
Since I posted “Privilege“, I’ve had a number of discussions with clueless folk about the privilege they do not believe they have or would like to discard because they are tired of being called out on it.
First, I am going to go over some basics in a list that is not comprehensive (please note, I am offering examples of experiences on a systemic level. Just because you, personally, have experienced something different doesn’t actually negate what I am saying below):
Congratulations! You have privilege.
White people: You have privilege. You aren’t immediately flagged as potential trouble in stores and airports. You don’t have to explain to your white children why they aren’t safe from the cops. You are more likely to get a job than the more melanin-enabled. People don’t assume you will be lazy, or late, or trouble on the streets. You don’t get extra targeted by cops. There is no such thing as Driving While White. You get to wonder why the brown people are upset about racism in movies and TV, because it’s just entertainment.
Men: You have privilege. You don’t worry about being sexually assaulted if you go out alone. You don’t have to automatically wonder if that guy in the elevator with you is a creep. You get paid more than women. Nobody assumes that you don’t know what you are talking about professionally just based on your gender. You don’t have to sue companies for promotions, universities for tenure, newspapers to be allowed to get out of the researcher/secretary pool. You get to wonder why women get so upset when you approach them on the street.
Rich folk: You have privilege, and everybody knows it. You get to wonder how families can possibly live on only $250,000/year.
Straight people: You have privilege. You don’t have to constantly fight for the legitimacy of your intimate relationships. Your right to marry is not up for a vote. Nobody says things like, “I’m not heterophobic, but…”. You don’t have to wonder if your state will let you adopt a kid, or if you will have any parental rights over the kids you are helping to raise. You don’t get bullied, beat up, maimed, or killed for being openly straight. You get to wonder why the queer folk want to deal with the misery and complications of marriage.
Cisgendered people: You have privilege. You haven’t had to go through an extensive (and expensive) medical, psychological, and emotional process just to feel like your body is your own. You haven’t faced bigotry from every single community around you because your outsides don’t match your insides and you need to do something about it. You don’t get bullied, beat up, maimed, or killed for identifying as a gender that does not match the one on your birth certificate. You get to say stupid shit like, “That’s so weird. I would never put myself through that.”
Educated people: You have privilege. You have never had to have somebody read a document to you because you cannot. You have never faced the embarrassment and shame that our culture heaps on the uneducated. You aren’t stuck in jobs that nobody else wants because you never had the opportunity to finish grade school, let alone high school and college. You have never been without a voice. You get to wonder about and mock all the godawful grammar on the internet. (Approximately one in seven people in the US can’t even read this post I am writing.)
Able-bodied people: You have privilege. The world is basically designed for you. You don’t have to worry about elevators being out, people getting bitchy because you take up more space and time on public transit, or aisles being too narrow. You aren’t limited to specific jobs, specific forms of entertainment, or even specific locations. You get to complain about your inability to use handicapped parking spots.
Tall people: You have privilege. Just kidding! I know it sucks to be able to reach everything.
Second, I am going to make a point I seem to have to make repeatedly, but never seems to get taken to heart:
The lack of one kind of privilege does not cancel out all other forms of privilege.
Grew up poor as shit, but still straight, white, cisgendered male? Guess what? You still have privilege. Grew up poor, brown, gay, and male? Guess what? You still have privilege. Poor, brown, queer, female with an amazing education? You still have privilege.
I can keep going with the combinations until this looks like an LSAT question, but I won’t, because the LSAT sucks. (I get to make that shitty joke because I get to claim educational privilege.)
Third, I am going to expand on what I discussed in “Privilege”:
It’s just something you have.
No, you didn’t ask for privilege. You aren’t necessarily looking for the special treatment you receive because of it. You may not even be conscious of it. That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have it.
The thing about privilege is that the benefits are automatic and not always visible to the privileged. Which is another way of saying, you don’t notice you aren’t being discriminated against. Men don’t notice that they aren’t on constant alert against being sexually assaulted on the street. Straight people don’t notice that they aren’t being treated differently when with their partners.
When you get called out on your privilege, nobody is telling you to change it. Nobody is telling you that you are a bad person because of it. Nobody is saying that it’s your fault. What you are being told is, people who do not field specific kinds of discrimination have a very different perspective on the world than people who do. What you are being told is, what is an intellectual exercise for you may not be for somebody else.
What you are being told is, take yourself out of your privileged shoes and put them in somebody else’s (let me guess—they don’t fit. Kinda uncomfortable, right? You’d like to take them right back off, right? Yeah. That’s what people are talking about when they call you out on privilege). This goes back to my initial post. Because ultimately you need to recognize that you have it. You should acknowledge it. And while acknowledging it doesn’t change the fact that you have it, it does go a long way toward helping you understand where people are coming from when they say, “Dude. You realize you just spilled a bunch of cold unpleasant privilege into my lap.”
Don’t be afraid of those uncomfortable shoes. Seek them out. Walk in them for a minute, if you can. Marvel at the blisters and bruises. So that when you put yours back on, you can appreciate how well they fit, and how comfortable they are. That, metaphorically, is what you should be doing when your privilege is pointed out to you.
ETA: Since enough people have the need to make this argument, I feel it ought to be addressed. There seems to be a new “solution” to the use of the word “privilege” that seems to have been created by people who are deeply afraid of the word. I have tried to unpack it in this post, but I guess I can’t stop people just reacting to it instead of seeing that. So please let me state: calling discrimination “human rights violations” instead of using the word “privilege” changes absolutely nothing about the above post. All it does is try to shift focus and say, “I don’t have privilege, these people are simply being wronged.” Not only is the use of “human rights violations” a bit overwrought, it doesn’t work that way. People are being wronged, it’s true. But it is on a systemic level, and thus it is what actually creates privilege. The fact that people are suffering from various kinds of discrimination and lack of safety on a systemic level is the very reason that people who do not suffer—on that same systemic level—experience privilege. Taking the focus off of the privileged for these discussions does nothing to change that, it just makes those who are uncomfortable with it and think people who are using it are calling them bad people feel a little better in the moment. My suggestion is that you stop reacting to the word and start really considering what it means in this context.