Transgender FAQ: All Your Questions, Answered

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

This week at R29, we’re focusing on the lives and stories of transgender Americans, and their continued struggle for equal rights. But, there are also day-to-day issues and questions that some people who are new to this topic struggle with. 

To tackle some common questions — and, most importantly, to give guidance on how to politely and respectfully interact with members of the trans community — we put together this FAQ sheet as a resource. 

How do I interact with someone who is trans, or who I think might be trans?
Refer to, respond to, and interact with all people by the gender they identify as, regardless of what their body looks like or the gender you think they might be. It’s a matter of basic human decency. In fact, just be nice to everyone around you. 

What does "transgender "mean?
Transgender is an umbrella term that, as defined by GLAAD, is used for “people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.” Like many things of import, gender exists on a spectrum. Some trans people identify as either a man or a woman; others have a fluctuating gender identity or no gender at all.

Is transgender the same as being a transvestite?
No. Transvestism is the practice of wearing clothes that are traditionally defined as being intended for "the opposite sex." It's also sometimes called "cross-dressing." Neither of these terms have to do with gender identity — and they are pretty outmoded in a world where (gasp) men can wear dresses and women can wear suits. Let's leave this in the past.

How do I know if a person has fully become a man or a woman? 
Basically, it's none of your business. Transgender is not about "becoming" something you are not. It's about being able to live your life as your true self. Accept the gender identity of the people you interact with. Never define a trans person in terms of who they “were” in the past. (That means no asking for their “REAL” name.) Purposefully frame your statements in a way that affirms their gender identity. “When you were younger” isn’t offensive. “When you were a boy,” on the other hand, is. 

So, what are the right/wrong terms to use?
"Transgender" is an adjective, not a noun. Your friend is trans or a transgender person. They are not “a transgender.” "Tranny" is a repulsive slur, a "cross-dresser" is not a trans person, and "transsexual" is out-of-date. While some are fine with the terms "FTM" (female-to-male) and "MTF" (male-to-female), let those you interact with take the lead in applying either of these to themselves before you do.

The best option? Just leave the labels out of it. Trans women and trans men are just women and men.  

What is cisgender?
Cisgender — often abbreviated as "cis"— is the term used for those who are not transgender. It's for people whose gender identity is aligned with the one assigned to them at birth. You will also hear terms like "cis male" or "cis female" to refer to individuals with that life experience. It's pronounced "sis." 

What's the big deal with pronouns?
When you use the wrong pronoun for someone, you are invalidating their identity. As you can imagine, when it comes to shifting gender identifications, pronoun usage can become complicated. Some people simply switch to the pronouns that conform to their gender identity; others choose to use neutral pronouns, like “they,” “them,” and “their.” You might also encounter terms like "ze" and "hir," which are intended to be used without gender specificity. 

How do I figure out which pronouns to use?
Since everyone is different, step one is asking. Have a direct and respectful chat with your friend about which pronouns you should use. “It may be a weird moment, but it is always more welcomed than having to deal with someone who feels anxious about not getting the pronouns right,” advises Micah, a non-binary-identified writer, advocate, and educator, who refrained from making a big announcement about their transition and preferred more personal interactions. “I didn't really tell anyone when I changed my name and pronouns,” Micah says. “That's why I am appreciative of those friends who noticed and went along — especially those who asked about it.” 

When you’re talking pronouns, it’s important that you also ask your friend how they wish to be referred to in public, since "people may choose to progressively disclose in some circles, yet not others,” adds Micah. Unless you were explicitly told otherwise, it is not your place to disclose someone’s trans status to anyone. Ever. Doing so is not only disrespectful but also potentially dangerous. But, if someone knows about your friend’s transition and continues to use the wrong name or pronouns, step up to the plate and call that shit out. Correct the mistake, even if your trans friend wasn’t around to hear it. Use your power and privilege to create a safer space for all trans people, not only for your friend.

How big is the trans community?

According to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute, an estimated 0.3% of adults in the United States identify as transgender — but, as the demographer who derived that figure acknowledged in a report on FiveThirtyEight, that estimate has “substantial limitations.” Unfortunately, we still lack significant data on the trans population.

If a person is trans, does that mean they’re gay?
No. Sexual orientation is not a function of one’s gender identity. Sexuality is all about an individual’s physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to someone else. Gender identity is an individual’s internal, deeply felt experience of their own gender. Whether or not a person is trans has no bearing on whom they want to smooch. 

Are there any questions it’s not okay to ask?
“You should not ask about their medical transition, or any invasive personal details, unless they bring it up,” says Micah. I doubt you commence every Sunday brunch by asking your cis friends about the status of their genitals, so please refrain from doing the same to a trans person. It’s dehumanizing and gross. (For a quick master class on this, watch Laverne Cox talking to Wendy Williams.) Remember: Gender doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s body or presentation — or whether or not they have taken hormones, had surgery, or in any way altered their outward appearance. 

What do I do if I accidentally use the wrong pronoun or name?
“Trans folks who are transitioning are very aware that many people knew them under other names and pronouns, and it's perfectly normal if they slip from time to time,” Labelle explains. “The most important thing to do is to acknowledge your mistake, correct yourself, and apologize — you don't have to make it dramatic, either!” In fact, it’s better if you aren’t dramatic about it; a simple apology and renewed dedication to doing better will suffice. 

How can I be a better ally?
The first step is listening: Listen to your friend, respect their requests, and allow them to direct the language you use. The second step is work. Since you’ve known this person by a certain name, it may take a minute to change habits. But, work at it. This is not a small deal — and getting to the point where you’ve internalized a pronoun shift shows you’ve internalized (and validated!) their transition. 

January Hunt, the trans woman behind January Rising Lip Tar, agrees: “A good ally doesn't wait for someone to tell them how to be a good ally; they do their homework and they allow this experience to teach them.” And, while January and Micah were gracious enough to answer some of our questions, you shouldn’t expect your friend — or any other trans person — to serve as your very own guidebook. It isn’t their job to educate you on trans issues or trans life. “This person is going through a change far more complicated than anyone else will fully understand,” January explains. “So, it is important to not expect them to hold your hand through the process.”

Is "gender dysphoria" the same thing as being trans?
Gender dysphoria is a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress due to a conflict between their gender identity and their assigned gender. Many trans people feel detached from their bodies since their physical characteristics do not align with the traditional presentation expected of the gender with which they identify. Not all trans people experience dysphoria, but for those who do, the symptoms can impair their daily functioning. Dysphoria can be triggered by anything from how a hand looks in a photo (too masculine? too feminine?) to being misgendered by a stranger. 

Want to read more stories about the lives and rights of transgender Americans? Check out our full Trans America series here
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