Questions (Not) to Ask if a Loved One Comes Out as Trans Over the Holidays
by Jay Wu
This article is adapted from NCTE’s “Questionable Questions about Gender Identity” guide.
For many people, the holidays are a time to reconnect with loved ones and let them know about school, recent vacations, or major life updates. Accordingly, some people use the holidays as an opportunity to come out as transgender.
If you’ve recently learned that a family member or friend is transgender and you don’t have many other transgender people in your life, you may be naturally curious about what it’s like to be transgender. Asking transgender people questions about their experiences can be a great way to learn more about what it means to be transgender. Like everyone else, however, some transgender people are open to answering just about anything, while others may not want to share intimate details about their lives.
Before you ask…
Because many of us naturally learn by asking questions, we don’t always pause to consider whether or not a person wants to be asked a particular question. Asking personal and intimate questions of transgender people can make them feel like they’re being put on the spot, pressured to justify themselves, having their privacy invaded, or worse.
Here are a few things to think about before asking questions:
Why do I want to know this information?
Curiosity is important, and a legitimate reason to have questions. However, if you’re only asking because you’re curious, it may be a good idea to turn to Google or other resources on NCTE’s website.
On the other hand, sometimes we need information to respectfully interact with people. Names and pronouns are a great example of this type of information — knowing someone’s name and the pronouns they use (for example, “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” or “they/them/theirs”) allows you to call them what they ask to be called, and treat them with respect.
Would I feel comfortable if someone asked these questions of me?
Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the person being asked a question. For example, what surgeries they have or haven’t undergone or what their genitals look like can be very personal. How would you feel if someone asked to talk about your genitals, or to share details about personal and intimate surgeries you’ve undergone? Even if you would be comfortable sharing that information, not everyone feels the same way.
Would I ask this question of a non-transgender person in a similar situation?
Before you ask a transgender person a question, pause and think about whether you’re treating them differently — and asking more personal or inappropriate questions — simply because they’re transgender.
Some specific questions — and why it might be best to read the answers here
Here, we suggest some questions and explain why your transgender loved ones might be uncomfortable answering them over the dinner table. We also provide answers to these questions and resources if you have more.
How can you tell if someone is transgender? Are you transgender?
Speculating about what someone’s body parts looks like or examining ways they conform or don’t conform to sex stereotypes can feel uncomfortable or intrusive to many people. For some people, asking if they are transgender sounds like a comment about their appearance or bodily characteristics, which they may consider offensive regardless of whether they are transgender.
Answer: The only way to tell for sure if someone is transgender is by having a conversation with them and them telling you. Many non-transgender people have physical features that might not conform to stereotypes about how men and women look, and many transgender people have an appearance that conforms to common stereotypes about how men and women look.
Why do there seem to be more transgender people now? Is being transgender a new thing?
Answer: The experience of those whose deeply held sense of their gender does not match their body at birth has been documented for thousands of years across many cultures.
Until recently, many transgender people in the U.S. lived in shame or secrecy, didn’t have the words to express how they felt, or didn’t think that living according to their authentic gender was a real option. But that doesn’t mean that there were fewer transgender people out there. Being transgender is not new and is not a fad.
As transgender people in the United States gain visibility and acceptance, and as more transgender people are able to connect with each other and build strong communities, more and more transgender people feel safe being open about who they are.
Are trans men just masculine lesbians? Are trans women feminine gay guys? Are you sure you’re not just gay?
This question can imply that a transgender person’s “real” gender is the gender they were thought to be when they were born. It also makes assumptions about who they’re attracted to.
Answer: Transgender men are men, not masculine women. They might be straight and attracted to women, or they might not be. Transgender women are women, not feminine men, and they might or might not be attracted to men. Transgender people can be gay (like transgender women who are attracted to other women, and transgender men who are attracted to other men), straight, or have any other sexual orientation.
Are transgender people confused or just going through a phase?
The experience and emotions of transitioning are personal and often private. This type of question can make it sound like the person asking it is skeptical of the transgender person’s true identity, or questioning who they are.
Answer: Someone’s internal sense of gender is a core part of that person’s identity that often forms at an early age. This is true whether or not that person is transgender. Likewise, transgender people exist around the world, in every society and culture. From this we know that being transgender is not simply confusion or a phase, but a deeply held part of a person’s identity.
What was your birth name? Can I see photos of you from before you transitioned?
Many transgender people are uncomfortable sharing personal details of their life from before they transitioned, including the name they were given at birth and photos or videos of what they looked like.
This hesitation may come from memories of past harassment, hurtful comments, or physical violence. It may also come from feeling like they want to move away from those memories, and move forward as their true selves. Some transgender people also feel that ‘before’ photos can detract from who they are today, and that seeing them may cause others to see them as less of their true gender. Similarly, these types of questions can suggest that the person asking the question is trying to dismiss or deny their true gender.
What bathrooms do trans people use? What bathroom do you use?
Transgender people use the bathroom for the same reason as anyone else: to do their business and move on with their day. Questioning transgender people about bathrooms can make them feel like they have to unnecessarily justify their identity.
Answer: Transgender people generally use the bathroom that matches the gender they live as. Transgender men generally use the men’s room. Transgender women generally use the women’s room. There’s a good chance you’ve already used the same restroom as a transgender person without even realizing it.
Some trans people prefer to use single-user restrooms or gender-neutral restrooms when available, as bathrooms can feel unsafe or uncomfortable for them. Likewise, sometimes transgender people need to make a case-by-case decision about their bathroom use based on safety.
Have you had surgery? Are you planning to have surgery?
Like anyone else, transgender people may naturally feel uncomfortable sharing personal details about their medical history, so it’s important to consider whether you really need this information before asking about it. You also wouldn’t ask just anyone to disclose their personal medical history. (Again, simply being curious is not the same as needing to know!)
Answer: First of all, there isn’t one transition-related surgery that transgender people may have. In fact, there are many different surgeries that transgender people may undergo. Transgender people can have all, some or none of these surgeries. Some people don’t need certain surgeries or any surgeries, some can’t afford them, and some can’t have them because of other medical conditions.
It’s important to remember that no surgeries “turn” someone into a man or a woman, and transgender people’s genders are no less real or worthy of respect if they haven’t had particular surgeries or other medical treatments.
What hormones do you take? How long have you been on hormones? Are you planning to go on hormones?
As above, you are asking someone to share the details of their personal medical history. Consider whether you would ask this person about what other medications they take, or if you’re just curious about hormone therapy for transgender people in general.
Answer: Many transgender people take hormones to bring their bodies more in line with their gender identity. Some transgender people take hormones that make their bodies more typically masculine — usually testosterone. Some take hormones that make their bodies more typically feminine, usually a combination of hormones that block testosterone and increase estrogen. Hormones have a variety of effects, many of which are similar to the effects teenagers experience during puberty.
There are some things that hormones don’t change: for example, taking estrogen or testosterone won’t make someone taller or shorter. But hormones do affect many characteristics that people typically rely on when deciding who looks like a man or a woman: for example, a transgender man on hormone therapy might grow a beard and chest hair. The effects of hormones vary for each person, just like how non-transgender people experience different physical changes while going through puberty.
Read NCTE’s full “Questionable Questions” guide for more questions and expanded answers to the ones included in this article.
If you’re here, that probably means that you want to know more about transgender people, and/or that you want to be supportive to the transgender people in your life. NCTE’s FAQ about Transgender People and guide to being a good ally can help you on those fronts.
And if you just can’t get enough, visit NCTE’s About Transgender People resource hub for more resources and information!