Category Archives: Guidance

Suggestions for not being rude or abominable while interacting with trans people.


I came out as a transgender woman today to my second-level boss.  He’s generally supportive, which is good.  He’s on the same page with me on questions of strategy and logistics, and has indicated that he’ll happily sign off on whatever needs to be signed in order for me to transition at work next month.

Then, inevitably, he asked The Question.  The Question is almost always asked in the context of coming out as trans or discussing being trans.  At least he made an effort to surround The Question in work-approriate phrasing: “So, are you going to be taking a lot of leave soon?  For… um… the surgery?”  I don’t mind being asked about leave; I very much mind being asked about my future plans for my penis by a person that has no reason to care.

The reason I’m calling it The Question (Capital T, capital Q) is because this one question is what defines being trans in mainstream narratives.  When someone identifies themselves as being transgender, somehow all propriety is thrown out the window and it becomes reasonable to ask a subordinate what they plan to do with their genitals.  The Question doesn’t just come from the ether, independently descending into the mind of the overwhelming majority of people who interact with trans people.  It’s culturally-seeded; because so much of transition is framed in terms of an “operation” or “the surgery” in mainstream culture, it’s seen as something that’s worth asking.  Until someone has had some sort of surgery, they aren’t “really” a man or woman, because when it comes to society’s view of trans people, it’s all about the genitalia, to a scary degree of obsession.

Where does the seeding come from?  We have a perfectly timely example of that today: Piers Morgan aggressively putting his feet in his mouth after his interview with trans activist Janet Mock.  Piers kept referring to Mock by her birth-assigned name, and indicated that she “used to be a man.”  The show’s banner boldly proclaimed that Mock “was a boy until age 18.”  Why 18, you ask?  Well, that’s when she had surgery, and therefore “became a woman.”  The same thing happened to Laverne Cox when interviewed by Katie Couric several weeks ago, so it’s not as if there wasn’t a recent discussion of how this is a problem.

This kind of discussion is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be trans.  Janet Mock was never “a boy.”  Laverne Cox was never “a boy.”  I was never “a boy.”  As trans women, we all were designated male at birth, were told that we were boys, and never told that the reason we felt different was because sometimes the sex assigned at birth is wrong.  There’s a deeply rooted assumption in our society that someone is cisgender (that is to say, not transgender; their gender identity is consistent with their designated sex) unless they’ve proven otherwise.  How does someone prove otherwise, what question can we ask someone to prove that they’re really not the sex that was chosen for them at birth?  Well, there’s always The Question.

I can’t be mad at my boss.  He doesn’t know any better.  When I politely pointed out that asking that kind of question is rude (though gave him kudos for doing it within the context of a work-appropriate question), he understood and we moved on (which makes him a paragon of reasonable response to criticism when compared to Piers Morgan).  The problem is that he *should* know better.  There are plenty of trans people who are more than happy to educate the public on gender identity and what it means to be trans.  However, once those people get access to a mainstream audience, the mainstream narrative they’re trying to fight grabs ahold and won’t let go.

Until mainstream media, both fictional and non-fictional, gets better at covering trans people as entire people, rather than taking a laser focus on genitals and The Question, it’s going to keep coming up.  It’s the only narrative people have been given as how to react to someone being trans, because it’s the only narrative they’ve been given.

Related Reading: – Samantha Leigh Allen, “I have a penis (for now) but my sex is not male.” “How not to be an ally.  Or how Piers Morgan is an ass.  Or, no, I never was a man.” – Parker Molloy, “I’m a Transgender Woman, and This is What It’s Like” – Katie McDonough, “Laverne Cox flawlessly shuts down Katie Couric’s invasive questions about transgender people: ‘The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people,’ the actress explained to Couric.” – Kat Haché, “On Genitals.” – Natalie Reed, in a series of tweets on the power of narratives to shape culture.

Trans 101 Resources

A brief introductory note:  I put this together as a precursor to coming out to *my* family and friends.  Some of my friends asked that I make it more accessible so they could share it with their friends, and so here it is.  It’s possible that some will disagree with how I have phrased things or the resources I have chosen, which is their prerogative.  If I receive any suggestions on improvements, I’ll take them under advisement..

Resources for inevitable questions:

Some definitions (mostly from UCSF’s Center of Excellence for Transgender Health and the National Center for Transgender Equality, edited somewhat):

  • Assigned sex: The sex which a person is identified at birth. Also “designated sex.” Avoid “biological sex,” “genetic sex,” or “chromosomal sex,” all of which are both scientifically inaccurate and nullify trans identities. 

 You may see this abbreviated in a number of ways, mainly “AMAB/AFAB” (assigned male at birth / assigned female at birth) or “DFAB / DMAB” (designated female at birth / designated male at birth).

  • Cisgender: literally “on this side of gender” (from the Latin prefix cis, which is complementary to trans). An adjective describing a person whose birth-assigned sex, gender identity, and gender presentation are aligned.
  • Female-to-Male (FTM): describes the trajectory of a person assigned female at birth who is changing or has changed their gender expression to male. In general, do not use; it puts undue emphasis on assigned sex.
  • Gender Identity: An individual’s internal sense of being male, female, both, neither, or something else. Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not visible to others.
  • Gender Expression: How a person represents or expresses one’s gender identity to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.
  • Genderqueer: one who defies or does not accept stereotypical gender roles and may choose to live outside expected gender norms. Genderqueer people may or may not avail themselves of hormonal or surgical treatments.
  • Male-to-Female (MTF): describes the trajectory of a person assigned male at birth who is changing or has changed their gender expression to female. In general, do not use; it puts undue emphasis on assigned sex.
  • Passing: A term used by transgender people to mean that they are seen as cisgender. For example, a transgender man (assigned female at birth) who most people assume is cisgender male.
  • Queer: A adjective used to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual/pansexual, and transgender people, in addition to others who do not fit neatly into any of these categories. Some use queer as an alternative to “gay” in an effort to be more inclusive, since the term does not convey a sense of gender. Use with caution. Do not ever use as a noun.
  • Sexual Orientation: A term describing a person’s attraction to members of the same sex or different sex. Usually defined as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual. This is distinct and separate from gender identity.
  • Trans: shorthand adjective for a variety of transgender identities. Also, trans people. Do not use this term as a noun: a person is not “a trans”; they may be a trans person.
  • Transgender: literally “across gender”; sometimes interpreted as “beyond gender”; a community-based adjective that describes a wide variety of cross-gender behaviors and identities. This is not a diagnostic term, and does not imply a medical or psychological condition. Do not use this term as a noun: a person is not “a transgender”; they may be a transgender person.
  • Tranny / shemale / he/she / “it”: Derogatory terms for transgender or transsexual. Do not use these words.
  • Transsexual: a medical adjective applied to individuals who seek hormonal (and often, but not always) surgical treatment to modify their bodies so they may live full time as members of a sex category other than their birth-assigned sex (including legal status).Most trans individuals prefer this term not be used to describe them. Do not use this term as a noun: a person is not “a transsexual”; they may be a transsexual person.
  • Transition: The period during which a transgender person begins to express their gender identity. Transitioning may include changing one’s name, taking hormones, having surgery, or changing legal documents (e.g. driver’s license, Social Security record, birth certificate) to reflect their gender identity.  Do not refer to this period as “becoming a woman” or “becoming a man.”

UCSF “Primary Care Protocols: Hormone Administration” – answers to all your questions about hormones.

UCSF “Primary Care Protocols: Surgical Options” – Since people will inevitably want to know about my bits.  Unless you were interested in them before, you don’t get to ask now, but here’s some general information.

“Answers to Your Questions About Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity” – a 2-page briefer on the topic from the American Psychological Association

“My Child is Transgender: 10 tips for parents of adult trans children” – not directly applicable, but still a quick read and will probably answer some basic questions you might have. or available at

“Trans Etiquette for [Cis] People” – by the author of “My Child is Transgender” – a few quick tips.

Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: “Welcoming Our Trans Families and Friends” – a longer support guide for friends and family of trans people.  In some cases, it’s written more for people transitioning as teenagers or younger adults, and so isn’t entirely applicable to transition as an adult.

There’s a lot more to say here – it’s a valid critique that this is reductive and declawed, and doesn’t do enough to highlight cissupremacist elements of society.  For that kind of discussion, see, for instance, Not Your Mom’s Trans 101.

(edit:  I updated some of the definitions to clarify some things, in part based on conversations I’ve seen / overheard reflecting confusion over how to refer to trans people in the time before they were out / transitioning and how to refer to transition. This isn’t just about arbitrary language choices – the choice of words indicates certain incorrect ontological beliefs that should be corrected.)

Present Perfect Pronouns Please

(this was something I wrote for friends and family to help them understand how to reference me in stories relating to me, pre-transition).

The “too long; didn’t read” version of this is simple: Emily / female pronouns. Always. Even when referring to events taking place prior to my transition. [Except for those of you who are temporarily refraining from using my current name and pronouns for fear of slipping and using them among people to whom I’m not out.]

If you’re really interested in my ramblings about Federal Register notices and statutory interpretation, you may recall that I was very pleased with myself for a certain bit of reasoning that got me where I needed it to go. The reasoning was that, because the statutory provision was phrased in the present perfect tense, it was a present look back at past actions, and therefore whenever that provision applied, those past actions couldn’t at that moment be considered under an exclusion that rendered the provision inapplicable. If you didn’t follow, that’s OK, because there’s only one key point here:

Present look back at past circumstances.

Whenever you’re talking about me and my past, you’re (at that moment) in the present and looking back at past circumstances. Accordingly, you should be using the name and pronouns of the present. My name is Emily. As a woman, the correct pronouns for me are she/her. If you are talking about something that happened in 2010, my name is still Emily, and the correct pronouns are still she/her. If you are talking about something that happened in 1985, my name is still Emily, and the correct pronouns are still she/her. If it’s absolutely necessary to clarify that I was presenting as a cis male at the time, you should ask yourself if that would mean outing me to someone who isn’t aware I’m trans (I may not pass as cisgender now, but that doesn’t mean that’ll always be the case), and also why that clarification is necessary.

This is a matter of basic respect.