When A Transgender Person Introduces Themselves, Stop Asking Them These Questions

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 

Whether you think you know a transgender person or not, you have seen headlines of celebrities coming out as transgender or supporting one of their children who have come out. Elliot Page is the most recent celebrity to highlight the news cycle for his brave announcement. His message comes with a lot of attention and questions; some from accidental ignorance, and some from purposeful hatred. Celebrities receive plenty of unwanted attention, and that’s par for the course when you’re famous. But when Hollywood and queerness converge, the attention can go sideways. Coming out as transgender or announcing a project that will tell the story of a transgender person gets … exhausting.

Regarding actors playing transgender people: hire transgender actors. There are plenty of wonderful actors who happen to be trans, and they know this storyline better than anyone. Regarding actors coming out as transgender: show some respect by affirming who they are without challenging their identity. Trust that they know their story better than anyone else, specifically you. Of course Elliot Page is going to get attention after he decided to publicly share his personal journey, but don’t be a transphobic asshole about it. He’s famous and not immune to attention; but he is also human and not immune to the weight of bigotry.

Spoiler alert: You have likely met a transgender person and didn’t realize it. Hi, my name is Amber. I’m a nonbinary, transgender person. I use they/them pronouns. We just “met,” and I — and any other transgender person who decides they want to publicly announce their transition in name, pronouns, or any other way that expresses their true self — expect respect. Kindness and acceptance would be nice, but a general sense of you making an effort to not make my life extra hard would be good too. Let me help you do this.

I totally understand that you have questions about what it means to be transgender. And I also understand you are in that sticky place between wanting to learn and not knowing how. It would seem easy to go directly to the transgender person who just bared their raw and fragile soul to you, but that is probably the last place you should look for answers.

There are so many reasons why being transgender feels crushing on some days, but the need to constantly explain ourselves or defend who we are is what weighs me down. Google is a great teacher. You will find a plethora of science and experienced-based articles, books, movies, and documentaries about and by transgender people. We really do want to give you all of the tools you need to be more knowledgeable and a better ally. However, you need to do this work mostly on your own and ideally it should be done before you “officially” know a trans person. I get it. We are like magical and wonderful unicorns to you and it’s exciting to finally get to say you found one of us, but we will not grace you with our powers if you don’t get your allyship together.

Because I am in a giving mode, here are answers to a few questions I see most frequently when a person announces their transition. I don’t speak for all transgender people, but unless you are transgender, you don’t get to contradict me. Sorry, those are the rules.

How do I refer to a transgender person when talking about their past?

There are journalistic rules about this and personal preference, but the bottom line is this: use a person’s current name and pronouns to refer to them in the past, present, and future unless they tell you otherwise. This is not up for debate, nor is our gender identity. Transition is different for every trans person, but as I would say in the classes I teach: Ellen didn’t become Elliot, Elliot was always there and is now ready to be seen. This is why Wikipedia, Netflix, and other media outlets are adjusting credits to reflect Elliot’s name on their work. It was always Elliot.

So are they straight or gay now?

I don’t know, and it’s not any of your business. Sexual orientation is different than gender identity, and how one decides to label themselves is a privilege to know and not a right. Also, our sexuality is fluid, so don’t get stuck on needing to carve a term in stone in order for you to process your feelings about someone else’s. It’s not about you. Regarding Page, they referred to themselves as queer and their wife seems pretty damn supportive. Be happy for them and focus on your own relationships.

But it’s just so hard, how am I supposed to remember their new name and pronouns?

Have you people never had a friend get married and change their name? Do you not have friends with nicknames within different groups of people? Do you not apologize to someone when you get their dog’s gender wrong at the dog park? Have you not had a cat you named Chuck to later realize Chuck was pregnant with a litter of kittens? You sure as fuck changed those pronouns in a hurry when you realized Chuck was about to be a mama.

It’s really not hard to get someone’s name and pronouns correct. It may take practice and making a few mistakes, but addressing someone how they want isn’t complicated; it’s just new. Netflix, smartphones, and air fryers were new too, and ya’ll figured that shit out.

When you refer to someone by their birth name or pre-transition name after they have provided their chosen name, you are deadnaming them and invalidating their existence. It’s interesting to me how worked up someone named Melissa can get when you call them Missy, yet she she can’t make the mental switch from Ellen to Elliot and is hurt when people point out that she keeps fucking it up.

Cisgender people’s opinions on who trans people are and how we want and should be addressed are either affirming or transphobic—there is not a middle ground here. Comments like “I respect you, but…” or “You do you, but…” are unacceptable. Keep your trash thoughts to yourself or make us a cake and say our correct pronouns and new name until your voice is gone.

Now go tell a transgender person you love and support them — without question.

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