5 Things Trans Allies Say That Mean Well But Miss The Point

Cisgender allies of trans people usually have our best interests in mind, but despite their good intentions, they sometimes say things that are incorrect or betray a hidden anti-trans bias they may have unknowingly internalized. Below are few things I wish trans allies wouldn’t say, and tips on how they can rephrase and re-channel these benevolent sentiments in a way that’s more inclusive, kind and accurate.

I want to assure readers that the purpose of this article is not to shame cisgender allies of trans people for being imperfect, or to try to aggressively police their language, but to educate them about how to best support the trans people they know and love through their language. I hope that allies who read this article will be inspired to think more carefully about the words and phrases they choose to use in reference to their trans friends, family members and colleagues and examine whether the language they use may contain some covert harmful assumptions about transgender people.

Without further ado, here are 5 phrases about trans people that mean well, but miss the point:

1. “Cool, I’ve never met a trans person before!”

Why it means well:

The speaker is expressing their excitement at meeting someone with a different life experience from them. Most people who use this phrase and others like it are genuinely interested in getting to know trans people, becoming more educated about trans issues, and pushing for positive social and/or political change, but have not yet had the opportunity because they believe they don’t personally know any transgender people. They may follow up this statement with sincere questions about the person’s personal history or trans issues in general such as, “When did you realize you were trans?”, “What do you think about [well-known trans person]?”, or, “Which bathroom do you use?”

Why it misses the point:

Firstly, this statement is most likely false. Current estimates put transgender people at approximately 0.3 to 1% of the general population, although due to inherent limitations in self-report methodology, this is likely an underestimate. As social, political and interpersonal pressures against identifying and coming out as trans continue to lessen – and as people become aware that “transgender” is an umbrella term including more than just the traditional binary genders – this statistic will likely increase.

Let’s take a rather conservative approach and assume that transgender people account for half of a percent of the general population. That means, statistically, that for every 200 people you have met, 1 is transgender. Infographic site Funders and Founders estimates that the average person meets approximately 80,000 people during their lifetime. Again assuming the highly conservative estimate that 0.5% of people are transgender, that means that most of us will meet at least 400 transgender people before we die.

When someone claims that they have never met a transgender person, what they really mean is that they have never met a person who announced themselves as trans upon their meeting. Whether the person was not living authentically at the time, living as “stealth”, or the topic of their trans status or history was simply irrelevant to the conversation, odds are that most cisgender people have met dozens, if not hundreds, of trans people without ever knowing.

Secondly, referring to someone as your “trans friend” or marveling over their trans status upon first meeting can be taken as essentializing or tokenizing. Most trans people don’t want to be known first and foremost for being trans. They want to be known and seen as complex people with a multifaceted identity, only one aspect of which – large or small – is their trans identity or history.

What you should say instead:

“You’re trans? Okay.”

Until given further notice from the person in question, treat the admission that someone is transgender as if they told you they have Italian heritage or play in a basketball league on Saturdays: it’s a small piece of the mosaic that makes this person themselves, not necessarily a dominant feature of their identity. Individuals vary in how willing or desirous they are to talk about their personal histories and trans issues in general, and they may consider some questions intrusive, so allow the individual to have power over how much they choose to discuss this aspect of themselves with you.

It’s fine to ask the occasional respectful question or two, but be mindful that the person may not be willing to act as a spokesperson for the entire trans community, and even might be uncomfortable discussing their own experience if they feel unsafe or not accepted. Let them set the pace and try your best to be open and receptive to their needs and boundaries. If they want to educate you or tell their personal story to you after you have demonstrated yourself to be trustworthy, they will!

2. “[Name] was born a boy/girl and later changed their gender.”

Why it means well:

This is an attempt to acknowledge that a person was originally assigned a gender which turned out to be incorrect. They now see this person as the gender they say they are, not the gender which they were given earlier in life.

Why it misses the point:

The first problem with this statement lies in the notion of being born a certain gender. Terms like “boy” and “girl” describe gender, not sex. Gender is a personal and highly individual experience that influences how people relate to themselves, to others and to the world around them, and just isn’t something that can be known at birth. When doctors proclaim, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” upon the birth of the baby, they are actually using shorthand to describe the legal sex of the child, not the gender.

Even with sex, we run into some problems. Like gender, sex is a spectrum and isn’t always easily reducible to the appearance of one’s genitals. When a child is assigned a legal sex at birth, the doctor makes this determination entirely based on the appearance of the genitals. Unless the doctor has reason to believe that a baby has an intersex condition, they do not run any testing on the baby’s chromosomes, hormones, or internal sex organs, so most people don’t actually know the full extent of their biological sex. So when you say that you were “born male” or “born female” because that’s the letter the doctor chose on your birth certificate, you may not be referring to your biological sex at all, only your legal sex. You may have the genitals typically associated with one sex which lead the doctor to assign you a certain legal sex, but there are a myriad of factors involved in biological sex that you most likely don’t even know about.

Now for the major problem contained in the above sentiment: When someone transitions, they don’t actually change their gender or sex. They simply change whatever outward aspects of themselves don’t reflect their current gender, whether that be their name, pronouns, clothing choices, or physical characteristics. Some people, especially those in the non-binary umbrella, change few or none of these aspects of themselves upon embracing their trans identity; they simply adjust their self-understanding.

The phrasing of “changing” one’s gender heavily insinuates surgery, which not all trans people need, want or can get. A few weeks ago, one of my partners was talking to a friend about trans issues and realized that his friend was under the impression that the “transgender” label only applies to someone who has had, in the words of so many cisgender people, “the surgery,” medically referred to as sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or gender confirmation surgery (GCS). In reality, not all trans people desire any kind of surgery on their genitals – myself included – and many who do want it are unable to access it due to cost, lack of insurance, trouble getting time off work, or medical gatekeeping. Anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable with the gender they’ve been assigned by society is transgender, regardless of whether they want, can get, or have had surgery, or any kind of medical (or even social) transition.

What you should say instead:

Avoid assigning gender terms like “boy” or “girl”  to someone’s legal sex designation. Instead, say something along the lines of, “[Name] was assigned male/female at birth, but is transitioning/has transitioned to reflect their authentic gender.”

3. “I was born a [gender] and you’re more beautiful than me!”

Why it means well:

There are several common variations on this theme, including, “Wow, I could never tell you’re trans!” and “You look just like a real [gender]!” Typically, a person saying one of these phrases is trying to compliment the person’s appearance and note that they look happier and more “like themselves” when presenting as their authentic gender.

Why it misses the point:

Despite the truly kind intentions behind them, compliments like these betray a hidden, possibly subconscious belief that an attractive transgender person is a rarity. Comments like, “You’re so beautiful for a trans person!” contain the hidden premise that trans people are, in general, unattractive compared to cisgender people.

It also assumes that “looking transgender” – in other words, falling outside of traditional cisgender-centric notions of beauty – automatically makes one unattractive, and that only those trans people who can convincingly pass for cisgender are worthy of compliments. (For more opinions on why the concept of passing is harmful to trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people, see my previous post.)

Depending on what kind of phrasing is used, many of these kinds of sentiments heavily insinuate (or even state outright) that only people who were assigned a given gender at birth are legitimate members of that gender. A cisgender woman attempting to compliment a trans woman’s appearance may say, “It’s not fair! I was born a woman and you’re still way hotter than me!” In addition to linking back to the problems with the notion of being “born” a gender as outlined in the previous section, these statements express a kind of indignation or jealousy that someone who was never “supposed” to be a member of a gender could conform so well to the expectations for beauty designated for that gender.

What you should say instead:

“That [clothing item, hairstyle, etc.] suits you.”

“You look so happy!”

“You’re beautiful.”

4. “I’m a straight guy, so I only date women and trans guys.”

Why it means well:

You can extrapolate this type of statement to any monosexuality – for example, a gay man who says he is open to dating “pre-op” trans women. (In a future article, I’ll detail why the trans community would be better served if we altogether abandoned categorizing people according to whether or not they’ve had transition-related surgery.) People who say this believe they are being inclusive and broadening the tent by being open to dating anyone with the particular genitals and/or secondary sex characteristics they prefer. It’s another way of saying, “I could date anyone with the parts I like, even if they’re trans.”

Why it misses the point:

Let’s take the example of the straight guy. Men who identify as straight are interested entirely or almost entirely in women, right? And they don’t typically like to be with men, right? Then by definition, they should not be dating trans men, because trans men are men, period, no matter what their genitals look like. No matter if a trans guy is taking hormones, had any kind of surgery, or even has short hair, he’s still a man. The same goes, of course, for trans women – they are women and therefore not the typical partner for a self-described gay man.

I’m not here to police people’s labels or argue that people who aren’t attracted to certain types of bodies are bigots or transphobes. I’m a non-binary person with two partners who both identify themselves as straight men despite me not being a woman, and they have every right to do so. They both are attracted to women 99% of the time and I am the one exception to that rule, so they choose to keep the heterosexual label, and I am comfortable with that. (Again, this is a topic I will go into more detail about in a later post.)

What I am less comfortable with is – if we continue with the example listed above for continuity’s sake – straight men conflating cisgender women and transgender men simply because they may share similar genitals and other sex characteristics. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to both cisgender women and transmasculine people, but I’d advise that you rethink calling yourself heterosexual if the attraction to transmasculine people is more than incidental. I believe that people should be able to label their own sexualities… within reason. If a woman calls herself totally heterosexual but only ever has sex with other women and is sexually repulsed by men, that label is not an accurate one for her. Similarly, a self-identified straight woman who is more than occasionally attracted to trans women is probably not using the appropriate label, because trans women are women.

What you should say instead:

“I’m a straight guy, so I date women,” meaning any kind of women.

Or, if you’re more concerned about the genitals than the gender, “I like vaginas, so I date people with vaginas.”

5. “[Name], who was born/formerly known as [birth name]…”

Why it means well:

Journalists often use this phrase and others like it to give readers context and background information, especially when covering a person who was already well-known before coming out as trans. For example, this article from The Guardian, which was released days after director Lilly Wachowski came out as trans earlier this year, briefly mentions her previous name for context before returning to her current name.

Why it misses the point:

It’s fine to use a person’s previous name when the name change is relatively recent, such as in an article announcing someone’s coming out, but after a certain amount of time, it reaches a level of absurdity. It’s been over a year since Caitlyn Jenner became public about her gender identity. Almost everyone who pays attention to news media now knows that she is trans and used to be called a different name – and if they don’t they can find out in less than 5 seconds with a Google search – yet even some recent articles still find a way to work in her previous name. The above Guardian article mentions the previous name of Lilly Wachowski’s sister, Lana, despite it having been four years since she went public with her transition. It then goes on to caption an image of a masculine-presenting Lilly with yet another reference to her previous name, this one wholly unnecessary after having already explained the name change.

So why do news articles and people in daily conversations continue to purposefully refer to trans people by their old names, even long after their names have changed and the public at large – or, in the case of everyday trans people, their social or professional circles – has been made aware? Most will argue that it’s in the interest of making the readers aware of who the person is by using the name they became well-known under, but as I stated earlier, there comes a point when this is no longer a valid defense. When’s the last time you saw an article referring to “Miley Cyrus, born Destiny Hope Cyrus”? It seems to me that it’s mostly for a shock factor, or, as Callie likes to put it, the “trans people are icky” defense. When someone points out that a person who used to have a feminine name now has a masculine one or vice versa, they’re drawing attention to the “otherness” of a person who “used to be” one gender and is now another. (As a pointed out above, it’s not the case that a trans person who has started a physical transition has changed their gender, but it may seem that in the mind of the speaker.) There are those who do so maliciously and derisively, of course, but even people with good intentions sometimes engage subconsciously in this kind of othering.

As with most rules, there are exceptions, but most trans people who have changed their names to better reflect their gender don’t like being referred to as their previous name, even if the events being spoken of occurred before the change of name. Constantly making reference to a famous trans person’s previous name in news articles gives the impression to cisgender readers that it’s okay to use someone’s deadname in their daily life.

What you should say instead:

Just call them by their current name! You wouldn’t keep referring to a married person by their previous last name all the time, especially after it had been months or years since it had been changed, so don’t do it for people’s first names either. Unless the person specifically gives permission, it’s never okay to use that person’s deadname.

If you think I’m letting trans people off the hook, don’t worry… In the next few weeks I’ll be posting a similar article, this time a list of terms and phrases common among trans people that I believe should be retired.

What’s a phrase you hear allies use that you wish they wouldn’t? Leave it in the comments!