A big part of any battle for equal rights, respect, and better lives, is advocacy and education. In order to reach the general public and make the issues of minorities and downtrodden social groups known, it is imperative to make reliable information readily available. The responsibility for the education of the individual does not lie entirely on the shoulders of the social group in question however. We are, each and every one of us, responsible for our own behaviour, and therefore we are also responsible for finding the information we use to shape that behaviour.
If it is important to you to gain understanding of the issues faced by (for instance) trans people in order to treat them with respect and avoid doing or saying something which makes them uncomfortable, don’t just assume that they are always willing to point out what you’ve done wrong, or to sit down and answer lots of questions. Many of us have had, and continue to have, so many conversations with well meaning (and less well meaning) curious people. It gets tiring. Sometimes we just want to hang out and talk about something else. I am more than just a trans person. I am also a human being with interests and feelings and worries. I am a Geographer, I like to bake, I love books and horror movies and fun TV shows. I’m interested in international development and global health. I sometimes spend hours playing stupid Facebook games and I really adore kittens. My trans status isn’t the most important thing about me. By demanding that we always take the time to answer all your questions, you risk making us feel like we are some kind of freaks or oddities, and that we are only interesting to you because we challenge your ideas of sex and gender.
There is also another side to this issue. Being transgender is a deeply personal experience, we go through difficult and often painful physical changes, including big surgeries. Some of us have surgeries on our breasts and genitals. We don’t want to talk about that with everyone. My genitals are no one’s business but mine. But people often seem to feel that we owe them some kind of explanation for the choices we make, that we need to tell them the current situation with our genitals. Why? Does the presence/absence of a penis tell you all you need to know about who I really am? Isn’t it enough for me to tell you that I’m a man? You really don’t need proof.
It is important that you take the time to educate yourself for a number of reasons:
- I might not want to have this conversation with you. I am not your only source of information.
- Every trans person’s experience is different. Whatever I tell you is not going to cover everything you need to know about every other trans person. Doing your own research online will give you a much wider picture.
- When you get your information from your own research you will find out in a much less awkward way which words to avoid using, what you shouldn’t ask about, and what to avoid doing. It will be much more awkward for everyone involved if I have to tell you in person that you’re making me uncomfortable.
Don’t get me wrong though. If you’ve done your research and you’re just curious to know me better and understand what I am going through personally, that’s ok. You can ask. But I reserve the right to say no. I am generally more than happy to talk about what I’m going through, up to a certain limit. There are certain things I am not going to want to talk about, particularly if I don’t know you very well.
The points that I have made here are not only pertinent to trans people. They also apply to other LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, immigrants, people of races other than your own, people of different cultures, and many more. A functional, compassionate society is based on reliable information, and we are all a part of that.
To make this all easier for you, here are a few links to places where you can read about trans people:
Not Your Mom’s Trans 101
A list of commonly used terms:
Trans etiquette for non-trans people
Another etiquette article
Ten things not to say to a trans person