10 Simple Things You Ought To Know About Trans* Issues: Or, How To Make The World A Cooler Place For Your Trans* Or Genderqueer Friend To Live In

Post by Claire Askew for the Love for Love series.


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10 Simple Things You Ought To Know About Trans* Issues: Or, How To Make The World A Cooler Place For Your Trans* Or Genderqueer Friend To Live In

OK, let’s start with a full disclosure: I do not identify as trans*. However, I do identify as someone who used to be completely clueless about LGBTQI issues. When I first got my job – working in a community college in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas – I was totally green, and full of unchecked privilege. Initially, I didn’t know how to make my classrooms into safe spaces. Had you asked me about my personal strategies for including and engaging LGBTQI students, I’d have had no idea what to say. The truth was, I didn’t have strategies.

I think this is true of many of us — teachers, writers, creatives – whoever we are. A lot of us cisgendered folks don’t really think all that much about how our habits, language and behaviour might affect the transgendered individuals around us. Often, this isn’t because we don’t care about those individuals’ needs. More often, it’s because we don’t want to be seen to be singling people out, or we’re worried about getting it wrong, and offending someone. Some of us just never think about it, full stop.

Over the past few years I’m incredibly grateful to have come into contact with some amazing individuals – students, colleagues, peers – who identify as trans* or genderqueer. These folks have done so much to nurture my slowly-growing understanding of LGBTQI issues. They’ve been incredibly patient, recommending resources and reading material, helping me to realise the extent of my own privilege (and its manifestation in my classroom and teaching practice), and working with me to tackle it. Here, I want to share a little of what I’ve learned, as a cisgender person with a duty of care to other people. And hey, as Kind Over Matter teaches us, we all have a duty of care to other people. This guide isn’t just for teachers – it’s for anyone who cares about making the world a safer, friendlier place… for everyone.

1. Know that sex and gender are not the same thing!

People have trouble wrapping their heads around this one, and that’s probably because a lot of folks use the words “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. But once you realise that they’re actually totally different concepts, you’ll start to use these words more carefully. Sex is the biological stuff – what bits you were born with, what chromosomes you have. Gender is how you identify. So, if someone tells you they identify as female, then their gender is female, full stop. It doesn’t matter whether they have a womb/a vagina/ovaries or not… ’cause that’s stuff’s sex, not gender.

2. Know that there are way more than two genders. Like, way more

You know how official forms often ask for your gender, and then give you a box marked ‘male’ and a box marked ‘female’? Those forms suck. Why? Because there are way more options! Some people think of themselves as belonging to both gender groups, and might identify as bigender or pangender. Other folks move back and forth within the gender binary, and might identify as gender-fluid or genderqueer. For other people, the gender binary is totally useless when it comes to their identity. People who identify as third-gender include some Native American Two-Spirit people; Hijras, who hail from South Asia, and many other groups and individuals. This array of diversity may blow your mind a bit, but it’s pretty awesome.

3. Smash that binary!

So, now you know how useless the male/female binary is, it’s time to stop relying on it! Because most folk think about gender in this way, cisgendernormativity (seeing cisgender people as “normal” and everyone else as “weird” or “other”) is deeply ingrained in most societies. As tiny children, we’re told that princesses always marry princes. In school sex ed, we’re told that women have wombs and men don’t. And as adults, almost all the movies, TV shows, popular music and advertising we’re exposed to depict male/female relationships and reflect an extremely narrow version of gender. Now you know the world is more complicated than that, so it’s time to stop trying to fit everyone neatly into one of those two little boxes.

4. Never, ever mis-gender people.

A big part of rejecting the gender binary is making sure that you acknowledge the gender that other people wish to identify with, not the gender you think they should identify with. Referring to someone who, for example, was born female but wishes to identify as male as “she” can be extremely hurtful or insulting. It doesn’t matter what plumbing someone was born with (that’s sex, not gender, remember!), or how much “they still look like a girl/boy” — if they wish to be identified in a specific way, that’s a wish that needs to be respected.

5. If you’re not sure… ask!

OK: if you’re anything like me, you might be panicking a bit. You might be thinking, “eek, how do I make sure I don’t accidentally misgender somebody?!” The answer is, ask! I’m very, very British, so the idea of asking someone, “how do you identify, you know, gender-wise?” is a bit frightening. However, it’s much better to check and get it right than get it wrong and risk upsetting someone. Most of the trans* and genderqueer folks I know are totally cool to give others a heads-up. Just preface the question with a “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but…”

6. …but don’t pry.

It’s generally totally cool to seek clarification, as long as you’re polite! Prying, though, isn’t always so cool. Yes, some trans* and genderqueer folks will gladly tell you all about their personal experience of transition/coming out/living outside the gender binary… but of course, not everyone’s the same. Nobody on this earth is ever required to go into detail about what’s in their underpants and what’s not.

7. If you’re curious, read up.

Rather than asking questions like, “what’s it like to transition?”, or even (and yes, I’ve heard people ask this) “what do your genitals look like?”, educate yourself about these issues by getting hold of some good reading material. Trans* and genderqueer creatives all over the world have produced some great literature and media about everything from politics to fashion, from economics to food. Ask around, or read around the LGBTQI blogosphere. It’s important to know that your genderqueer friend is not required to educate you on these issues! You have to do the legwork yourself.

8. No slurs allowed

OK, I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the converted here — KOM readers know better than to use offensive slurs, I am quite, quite sure. However, some folks don’t know what counts as a slur and what doesn’t. “Tranny,” for example, is a super-problematic term, and some cisgender folks throw it around with abandon. It’s one of those words that can be hugely hurtful to one person, but water off a duck’s back to the next. It’s a word that some trans* and genderqueer people have reclaimed — those people use it as a term of endearment, and/or to identify themselves, and/or in their humour. However, if you are cisgender, you should steer clear of this word. It doesn’t belong to you. Even if your genderqueer friend says it’s cool, you should know: it’s not for your general use. You have billions of other words at your disposal — you won’t miss this one, I promise!

9. Embrace variety, embrace visibility

So, you know what I was saying in point 3 about cisgendernormativity? We need to make that stuff go away, stat. It’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that making something visible makes it “normal” and acceptable, and right now trans* issues are pretty invisible in our popular media. There are shockingly few positive trans* and genderqueer narratives in books, movies, and on TV. YOU can do vital and amazing things to change that. Are you a writer? Make one of your characters trans*, and don’t make it a big deal. Got kids? Seek out cool bedtime stories that defy the gender binary. Are you a teacher, like me? Make sure your resources — videos, worksheets, etc — show people of all different genders. If you’re creative, I guarantee there’s something you can do to increase others’ awareness of trans* issues in a positive way.

10. Aim to be an ally, not an expert

Basically, be mindful of all this stuff, and mindful of those around you. Get into the habit of looking beyond cisgendernormativity and the gender binary, and those around you may well follow suit. Remember: if you’re in doubt, ask for clarification or get ye to Google and read around. But acknowledge that, as a cisgender person, you’ll never be able to fully see past your own privilege and fully understand this stuff. You’re not aiming to be an expert — you’re aiming to be a good ally. Kindness, humbleness and the ability to acknowledge when you’re wrong — these things are all key. If you reckon you might find it tricky, you’re on the right site. Stick around! And good luck!

Claire Askew is a poet, educator, ranty feminist, and vegan cupcakemistress. She works as a lecturer and creative facilitator in a variety of community education spaces, and she’s also a community champion with Scottish Women’s Aid. Her poetry has been published all over the place, by folks like The Guardian, Poetry Scotland, PANK and Popshot, and she’s written articles for xoJane, The Skinny, Scottish Review of Books and others. Claire blogs about writing, baking, typewriters and saving the world at onenightstanzas.com.

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