We humans

How should we talk about transgender issues?

Mar 31, 2014 /

Geena Rocero did a pretty bold thing at TED2014: She came out. The transgender fashion model chose Vancouver to reveal to the world that she was assigned male at birth. “I am here exposed … to help others live without shame and terror,” she says in today’s talk.

The trans community has had a spotlight fixed on it in this year: a piece in Grantland sparked outrage and sadness after the subject of the story, outed without her permission, committed suicide; Jared Leto won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club; while Piers Morgan was widely criticized after a poorly handled interview with journalist and activist Janet Mock. Meanwhile the US’s new Affordable Care Act bans discrimination against someone based on their “gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” (See also: Why scientist Kate Stone decided to speak up about being transgender a year after giving her own TED Talk.)

As gender issues become more public, it’s clear that the media will play a crucial role in how trans people are treated — but sensitivity starts with the individual, and a good first step is to be thoughtful and precise about our language. Below, find tips and quotes gathered from trans men and women and their allies about positive, helpful ways to have that conversation. Though respectful language is only part of the battle for equality and acceptance, it’s a very good start.

Don’t conflate sex and gender.
This concept is fundamental to the trans community — and it’s simultaneously obvious and difficult to grasp. Sex is based on biology and assigned at birth, while gender is cultural and social, based on how a person self-identifies. This is, for many, perhaps the biggest obstacle to understanding by the cisgendered (that is, people whose sex and gender align). Says LGBT activist and TED speaker iO Tillett Wright, “Male and female are the two pillars upon which our society is built. Gender dictates everything from what kind of relationship you get into to where you take a piss. And if you upend that, it’s very threatening for people. It challenges the system by which they live.”

Take the time to find out a trans person’s preferred pronoun.
Across the board, experts and activists say this is vital. But isn’t asking someone’s preferred pronoun at a party a bit awkward? According to GLAAD Senior Media Strategist Tiq Milan, most people appreciate it. He says, “People would respect [the question] more than they would reject it, particularly if you have people not on the binary.”

Never use: tranny, transvestite, he-she, she-he, it, sex swapped, sex change. Do use: trans man or woman, male-to-female (m-t-f), or female-to-male (f-t-m), transition.
“‘Tranny’ is the same as ‘faggot,’” says Milan. TED speaker Kate Stone agrees: “The worst, to me, is when people shout out ‘tranny’ across the street. It sounds horrible.” Norman Spack, the first doctor in North America to create an interdisciplinary program for transgender adolescents in a pediatric academic medical center, also sees “she-male” as potentially damaging, because the phrase is often used to refer to male sex workers who dress as women to serve a specific fetish.

While many public trans people and allies view careful language as paramount, University of Southern California’s Jack Halberstam has quite a different view: “I’m not a banner. Policing speech is usually the least interesting way of addressing social prejudice, and often it actually misunderstands how you make change — and also what constitutes harm and prejudice. So I’m much less concerned with the word ‘tranny’ and much more concerned with how we might raise kids to expect people to embody lots of different forms of gendering.”

Don’t focus on a person’s anatomy, past or present.
As Piers Morgan learned the hard way, belaboring someone’s assigned sex at birth, or their surgical procedures since then, misses the point. Says Stone, “Asking someone you just met, ‘Have you had a sex change?’ is like asking, ‘Have you been circumcised?’” Adds Rocero: “It’s a very private thing. Most people just go there, because there’s a sense of fascination about it, but that’s a big no-no.”

Indeed, sexual definition is becoming less important legally. Says Spack, “I’m glad to see that we no longer use terms that require people to have, let’s say, certain surgeries to qualify as trans. It used to be that in order to get a license or a passport, a person would have to have either top surgery or bottom surgery, and then have the surgeon sign on that, so that they could get the designation of being transsexual.” (As of 2010, the US State Department no longer requires sexual reassignment surgery for a passport gender change.)

Never out a person without their permission.
This seems beyond obvious, but it’s precisely what landed Grantland in hot water. How much did outing Dr. V without her permission contribute to her committing suicide? There’s no easy answer, but, says Rocero emphatically, “Nobody has the right to out a person.”

Don’t assume you’ll recognize a trans person — and that’s a good thing.
With harassment rates so high (in a recent survey of 6,450 American trans people, 90 percent reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job), it’s no surprise that for some trans people, even going outside can be daunting. Not to mention, as Rocero says, that media and popular entertainment seem to prefer portraying trans people as victims, drug addicts or prostitutes. Says Milan, “I know so many people, especially trans women, who don’t leave the house during the day. They only come out at night because of the ridicule and the violence.” But this is changing, for the better. Increased visibility is integral to the growth of the trans movement. Says Halberstam, exposure to trans people is the real way to make progress: “There are trans people in every walk of life at this point. There are a large number of trans women who work in software, in computer technology. There are trans people who are politicians, doctors, lawyers, professors. I think that increasingly people do know trans people, though they may not know it.”

Don’t make it a thing if it’s not.
If someone’s trans status is irrelevant, don’t focus on it. Definitely don’t dwell on the anatomical and legal details. This particularly applies to reporters. Milan allows that people may be naturally curious, but gender status should not drive the story. When Stone was in the press after being in a horrific accident, one paper published photos of her from before her transition. Says Stone, this suggests that when you find out a person is transgender, the first thing you should rush to do is dig up information about their past. Really, don’t. Of her gender status, “I’d never speak about it at work — not because it’s a secret, but because it’s not relevant.”

“How should we talk about …” is a TED series in which we examine how society tackles sensitive issues — and suggests ways we might do better. See also How should we talk about mental health, featuring insights from seven mental health experts, including Andrew Solomon, Sarah Caddick and Vikram Patel.

UPDATE: In May 2014 Stone filed a complaint with the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) regarding the tabloid articles that focused unnecessarily on her gender history. As a result the online “sex swap” headlines were removed. Watch a clip of Stone reflecting on her success.