Thursday, September 6, 2012

FAQs about Trans Folk

A reader recently left me a comment asking me to answer some basic questions about trans people and clear up a few myths and misconceptions.  It sounded like a great idea for a new blog post so let's get started!

Trans FAQs

Help!  I've never met a trans person before.  What do I do?
Actually, chances are very good you have met a trans person before and just didn't know it.  Some conservative estimates say anywhere from 1 to 3 percent of the population is trans, so that means out of all the hundreds and thousands of people you've interacted with throughout your life, a decent number have been trans.  Trans people really don't need to be treated any differently from cis people.

What does "cis" mean?

Cis stands for cisgender or cissexual and it is the opposite of trans.  Cis means "from the same side" in Latin, so we use it to refer to people whose assigned sex and gender are "from the same side".  I use this word over "normal, genetic, real, or biological" because the implication is that trans people are weird, fake freaks.  No one is normal, we're all real, we're all made of genetic material and we're all biological creatures.  So cis is the word I and many other people use.

Does "trans man" or "trans woman" refer to their assigned sex or their gender identity?
Trans man refers to a trans person whose gender identity is male, but their assigned sex was female and vice versa for trans women.  Some people use FTM and MTF, but I find these phrases clunky and somewhat insulting as they imply a trans woman was a man at some point rather than just assigned male sex against her will as a child.  Compare trans woman to "black woman" or "Christian man".  The descriptive word, trans, has nothing to do with their sex or gender, it merely describes part of who they are.  The word following trans tells you whether that person is a man or woman.  You wouldn't question whether "black woman" meant male or female, so it works exactly the same way.

How do I know which pronoun to use with a trans person? 
Generally, it's however that person is presenting.  If they're wearing a dress you should use female pronouns, for example.  If their dressed androgynously and you're still not sure, just ask them which pronouns they prefer.  While this may be an awkward question, if you do it in a respectful manner and clarify it's so you can address them as they wish to be addressed than there's no harm.  After all, they may prefer gender neutral pronouns, so there's no way you're going to guess that!  Asking which pronoun someone prefers is much less rude than "What are you?" or "Are you a man or a woman?"

Are gay men/lesbians the same thing as trans women/trans men?
Absolutely not.  Assigned sex, gender identity, and gender presentation are all different.  While this may be confusing for some because some gay men like to dress in drag or fuck with gender norms, their gender identity is still firmly male.  The same goes for butch lesbians.  Being trans isn't a fashion statement.  A trans woman is a woman and a gay man is a man, so while there may be some overlap in clothing (just like cis women and gay men) that doesn't mean they experience their genders the same way.

Are all trans women feminine?  Are all trans men masculine?
Nope.  It's true that many of us early in our transition tend to go "overboard" and might act extra feminine or masculine, but that's mostly just from the sudden freedom to be able to do so.  Similar to how teenagers tend to go overboard until they figure out who they are.  But like teenagers, that phase dies out after a year or so.  I know plenty of fabulous trans men and plenty of butch trans women, we fall all through the spectrum just like cis people.  Even I tend to have my "girly" days and my "tomboy" days, it just depends on my mood.

How does sexual orientation work for trans people and their partners?
If you don't get hung up on genitals, it's a lot less confusing.  If a cis man is attracted to a cis woman than he's straight.  If a cis man is attracted to a trans woman than he's straight.  Yes, even if she's pre-op.  It's the secondary-sex characteristics such as breasts and hips for women and facial hair and muscle for men that everyone is attracted to.  How often do you see someone's genitals before you become interested in them?  Trans people have just as many sexual orientations as cis people.  If you're having a hard time figuring out what someone's orientation is, ask what it would be if they were cis.  If you're still concerned, maybe you should give the labels a rest for a while, they're not that important.

How do trans people have sex?
Very well, thank you.  Seriously, I get this question a lot and often people have no idea how rude it is.  Would you ask someone what their favorite position is?  How about what their kinks might be?  Of course not, unless you were in a sexual relationship with that person.  I don't mean to brag, but the truth is that trans people and their partners, regardless of surgery status, tend to be very creative in the bedroom.  Sometimes out of necessity and sometimes because when you've confronted the bullshit surrounding gender it makes confronting the bullshit surrounding sex a lot easier.

How does a trans person really know their trans?  What if they have regrets later?
Gender identity is set very early on in childhood and can't be changed.  Somewhere around the age of 3 or 4 we all begin to understand what gender we are.  That can get a little confusing if you're a little baby trans person.  How does a cis person really know their cis?  Is it because of what genitalia you have?  If that's the case, ask yourself how you would feel if you woke up with different genitalia one morning.  Would you suddenly decide you were a woman just because you had a vagina or a man because you had a penis?  No!  You would just be really pissed off and try to find a way to deal with it.  Welcome to our world. 

Is it okay to ask about surgery, hormones, etc?
In general, no.  If you're very close with someone who's trans and they bring up the topic, you can probably ask some questions provided you do so in a respectful manner.  At no point should you ask someone about their surgery status unless you're in a romantic relationship with them.  Think about it, wouldn't you be offended if someone asked if your penis was circumcised or what shape your vulva was?  Asking people about their genitals is just rude, including if their trans.

How does "The Surgery" work?
Depends on what surgery and which surgeon.  It's way too much for me to go into here, but if you'd like a basic run-down of different popular methods I would suggest you visit TS Road Map.  They also have some good information on hormones and other medical procedures trans people go through.  In general, the major surgeries are vaginoplasty for trans women and double mastectomy for trans men.  Phalloplasty isn't really that advanced yet, so most trans men choose not to get "bottom" surgery.  I'll try to go more in depth about these in a future post.

Are those real?
Believe it or not, I get this question about my breasts fairly often.  Yes, they are real.  And no, I'm not taking excessive amounts of estrogen to get bigger boobs.  It doesn't even work that way.  Hormone therapy only gets your hormone levels to typical female levels and then genetics takes over from there.  I happen to come from a large-breasted family, so I have large breasts.  It's exactly the same as cis women.  And if a trans woman does get breast augmentation, that's nobody's business but theirs and their sexual partners', so don't ask.

Don't trans people have a mental disorder?
It's true that Gender Identity Disorder was listed in the DSM-IV TR, the APA bible that lists all mental disorders.  However the upcoming DSM-V will be removing GID and instead replacing it with Gender Dysphoria, which is a temporary disorder similar to depression due to someone's unhappiness about their gender or sex, which generally becomes fixed once someone begins transition.  So no, trans people don't have a mental disorder because they're trans.  Whether they have a different mental disorder all depends on the person in question.

I'm pretty sure my co-worker/classmate/acquintance is trans?  How should I approach the subject?
You shouldn't.  This could go one of two ways, neither of which are good.  If your acquintance is trans and you try to ask them if they are, they'll probably feel extremely uncomfortable and wonder if they're so obvious that everybody knows.  This will most likely make them self-conscious and generally ruin their day.  If your acquintance isn't trans they will probably be offended and then feel self-conscious, wondering what part of their appearance makes them appear trans.  Unless someone tells you they're trans, don't try to guess.  It can only end badly.

How can I be a good trans ally?
Excellent question!  The best way to be an ally for trans people is to be their friend.  Talk with them, give them a hug if they're feeling down and be available for them.  Make an effort to use their prefered pronouns and name, even if they haven't started transitioning yet.  This will go a long way to making them feel more comfortable around you.  If you hear anyone making a transphobic remark or use a trans slur like "tranny" or make a joke at trans people's expense, call them out and educate them.  It's the only way we're going to make the world better for all of us.

Hopefully that was enough to get the dialogue started.  If you have any additional questions or comments please feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer them.  Now I need to get ready for my next class.  Thanks for reading!

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