Transgender men and women, as well as others who support or admire us, frequently find etiquette a challenging prospect. Etiquette or good manners is often hard to find today in a society where instant gratification and hurried personal contact tend to be the rule. People just meeting transgender persons, as well as those in the process of coming out, find themselves struggling to communicate yet not offend.
She-Male, Drag King, Drag Queen, Transsexual, Transvestite, Transgenderist?
Having a transgender identity is largely a matter of self-identification. Which term do we use? If you are uncertain how a person wishes to be referred, ask. If you do not agree with how someone refers to themself, that is fine. However, extend the courtesy of referring to them as they request, much as you expect for yourself. Finally, translovers, be aware that many transsexuals do not appreciate being called she-males or drag queens. She-male is primarily a sex-industry term, and drag queen tends to be associated with gay male crossdressers. Be informed before asking for that date!
He or She? Mable or Mike?
No article on etiquette would be complete without a brush-up on the subject of pronouns and names. In most circumstances a person's clothing and presentation should lend significant clues as to how a person wishes to be addressed. In social setting if you are not sure how a person wishes to be addressed, simply ask his or her name.
Husband, Wife, Father or Mother?
Generally speaking, usage of non-gender specific terms like spouse, significant other, loved one or parent can help you navigate transgender etiquette receiving too many bruises. I have found in close, loving relationships, using the term loved one often better characterizes people's commitment. Significant other is usually a good choice for writing. If you foresee extended contact with a committed person or couple, ask which term applies.
When You Can't Remember a Name
Forgetting a person's name can create highly embarrassing situations, particularly since we do not wish others to believe we thought of them as unimportant or insignificant. However, forgetting names is something that people often do. As a counselor having worked with over one thousand clients I forget people's names all the time. (This should prove some consolation to therapy clients who believe therapists sit around for years analyzing their clients. Grin!) Fortunately however for the sake of this topic, my work has forced me to become an expert at interacting with people when I cannot remember their names.
I have found a person can deal with forgetting someone's name in a variety of ways. You can use the experienced social butterfly approach; simply greet the person warmly and don't worry about having forgotten the name. Engage in small talk until your memory returns, or follow through with pleasant conversation without letting the person know you forgot. If you are interested in finding out the person's name, you might state that a significant amount of time has passed and ask where you encountered the individual last. This small reminder, short of asking the individual what his or her name is, is a quick route to recollection. If you are attending a social setting filled with important people, you might ask someone familiar with others to help you recognize people you may or should know. Finally, since people's circumstances or names change. I have found it never hurts to ask your about updates when finding out someone's name.
Handling Those Personal Questions
Transgender etiquette requires each of us to know how to handle personal questions from others like us as well as from those who admire us. By nature we are a curious crowd. We love to compare where we and others fit into the transgender community. Are you living in role full-time? Is your hair real? Where are you having surgery? Are you having the bottom surgery? Is that your real voice? Whether you gain friends or end up in etiquette purgatory much depends on how you handle questions like these. After all, in some circumstances asking if someone's hair is real is much akin to pulling off that person's hair piece in public.
I prefer typically to keep personal question-asking at a minimum. I have discovered that it is often possible to learn more about an individual by carefully selecting compliments which reflect the person's appearance or situation. For example, once I complimented an FTM gentleman by stating it appeared as if he'd been living as a man for years. Naturally he loved the compliment, and later disclosed that this was his second time out and that my compliment and bolstered his confidence. As a general rule of thumb, the more information a person is willing to share, the more likely it is they will not be offended by personal questions.
Surgery and Sexual Practices?
It is difficult to decide when and where to ask or respond to this question. I usually hear surgery questions coming before even asked. Particularly, when an individual asks if I mind their asking a real personal question. Frequently I invite them to ask, but also remind them that there is no guarantee I am will answer. If a transgender person shares about him or herself, I am usually happy to discuss my own circumstances when asked. However, generally if a person seems unwilling to share or trying to solicit me for a date, I may ask if there is a compelling reason they need to know about my background. In a worst case scenario if approached by a sexual predator, I bluntly state that I only talk about my genitals after having been properly asked for a date. Within our community discussing genitals is a much contested issue. Some people love to ramble on for days about size, sensitivity, usage and technique. This is fine, even necessary. Particularly when shopping for a surgeon or comparing notes with a close friend. However, good etiquette indicates there is a time and place for every conversation. Generally speaking deeply private questions about someone's genitals or sexual habits shouldn't be asked unless a person initiates a conversation about the subject.
What Is Your Other Name?
This is a question that shouldn't be asked unless someone is your friend. Many crossdressers prefer keeping this information private, particularly if they have concerns about jeopardizing a relationship or employment situation. Transsexuals and some transgenderists often also do not wish to discuss their past. Introducing the question may bring up painful memories of a past some persons wish set aside. Generally I advise that questions regarding a person's old identity not be asked unless their is a specific need to know, or sharing is a mutually agreed upon dynamic.
In brief closing, transgender etiquette takes a little practice to finesse. If you are out socializing and aren't certain what to do, just ask an experienced transgender man or woman, and enjoy your new interactions and relationships.
GENDER ARTICLES. This educational column authored by Gianna E. Israel is regularly featured on the 3rd Monday of each month in Tg-Forum, the Internet's most up-to-date, weekly Transgender Magazine <http://www.tgforum.com/>. Several weeks later each article is forwarded to Usenet and AOL <Keyword TCF>. Each column has been written to inspire contemplation and dialogue. Columns may be reprinted in any medium insofar as each article, its introduction, and the author's contact information remains unaltered.
GIANNA E. ISRAEL provides nationwide telephone consultation, individual & relationship counseling, evaluations and referrals. She is principal author of the Transgender Care (Temple University / in press 1997). She also writes Transgender Tapestry's "Ask Gianna" column; is an AEGIS board member and HBIGDA member.She can be contacted at (415) 558-8058, at P.O. Box 424447 San Francisco, CA 94142, or via e-mail at Gianna@counselsuite.com.
Copyright © 2001 by Diane Wilson. All rights reserved.