Better questions to ask trans people

During my recent interview on the Godless Business podcast, I was asked whether I was “pre-op” or “post-op” – terms which refer to whether a transgender person has had genital surgery. Since this wasn’t really the focus of our conversation, I just answered the question and moved on. But after we were done, it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to be said about this, such as how relevant the pre-op/post-op distinction actually is in trans people’s lives, what kinds of questions would more accurately reflect our experiences, and when it’s appropriate to ask about these things.

To start with, it’s really important to understand that unless they’ve indicated that they’re willing to talk about this, trans people might not want to answer just any question about being trans. Agreeing to talk about it in the context of an interview is one thing, but in our everyday lives, respect for boundaries is important. Think about it: There’s a difference between “Hi, how are you doing?”, and “Hi, how are your genitals doing?” The latter can be intrusive and presumes a degree of personal familiarity that usually isn’t there.

If you wouldn’t say that to someone who’s not trans, then why would you say it to someone who is? Unless you know them really well and they’re okay with talking about it, don’t just assume that they’ll be fine with this. For a lot of trans people, being trans is something that’s already on their mind a lot, and sometimes, the last thing they want is to talk about it with random people who may not even understand them and are potentially hostile.

Having a body that isn’t fully in step with your identity is a pretty personal thing, and like anyone else, you can’t expect trans people to be completely open about their own private history. Recognize that the usual norms are still in place – about asking people how they have sex, what their genitals look like, the surgeries they’ve had and the medications they’re on – and understand that for trans people, these can be even more sensitive topics. And just because you heard one trans person voluntarily talking about this, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is therefore a subject of casual conversation that’s suitable for all occasions. Treat it as opt-in, not opt-out.

Of course, that only covers people who you already know to be trans. If you don’t know that someone is trans, then you definitely shouldn’t just ask them about it. If they are trans, and they haven’t told anyone, consider that they simply may not want people to know. Confronting them out of nowhere would be disrespectful, if not extremely unnerving.

But aside from the matter of when it’s improper to ask questions, it’s also worth examining what kinds of questions would be more fruitful when the topic is on the table. Whether someone is pre-op or post-op tends to be one of the most common starting points for those who are trying to understand trans people, but it’s far from the most useful. It’s easy to see why this is the first thing that would come to mind: most of the world still regards gender as being defined by genitals, and this is a quick way to eliminate an unknown and determine where trans people fall within that system.

The problem is that this system is incomplete and inaccurate. What’s in someone’s pants is only one small part of who they are as a person. To trans people, this tends to be obvious, but to others, it may not be. Maybe it’s just something you have to experience firsthand: if your body, identity, and presentation are all in sync, you might think your genitals have something to do with the fact that you’re seen by others as your gender and treated appropriately. But for us, it’s clear that whether we’ve had genital surgery isn’t usually relevant in our day-to-day lives.

When body and identity are no longer linked together and restricted to being all-male or all-female, it becomes obvious that genitals don’t always matter all that much. We don’t go around pulling people’s clothes off to tell what gender they are – we use other clues. The way that someone goes about life as their gender usually hinges on features other than their anatomy, so while it may be personally important to some trans people, modifying our anatomy is far from our only means of exerting control over this.

At times, it can be artificially forced into greater prominence in our lives by laws in some areas that prevent us from receiving identity documents that match our gender until we have surgery – a requirement that’s all the more troublesome when such operations are undesired or out of reach. Yes, not all of us seek that kind of surgery. The dichotomy of “pre-op” and “post-op” depicts it as something that either happened already, or hasn’t happened yet. This ignores that for some of us, it may be something that never happens – there is no “yet”. Some people can’t have it for medical reasons. Many just don’t have the means to afford it. And some of us simply don’t want it – we’ve decided that we’re satisfied with what we have.

So, what sort of things are more relevant to our goal of going about life as our preferred gender? Well, you could ask what made us realize that this was something we wanted for ourselves. You could ask us when and how we came out – we each have our own stories, much as with anything else you have to come out about, and this tends to be one of the first steps in the process of transitioning. Another major milestone is presenting full-time as our intended gender, something with much greater significance to our everyday lives than the state of our genitals. You could ask what sorts of interesting things we’ve noticed as a result of having lived in two different genders. You could ask us about what kind of difficulties we’ve faced as a result of transitioning. And you can ask what you can do to support trans people in a meaningful way.

Just as with anyone else, there’s so much more to our lives than surgery. And when we do have the opportunity to learn from each other, it would be a shame to miss out on the full breadth of human experience.

Better questions to ask trans people

32 thoughts on “Better questions to ask trans people

  1. 1

    I’m a little bit curious whether men and women ask nosy questions about genitalia at the same rates, or whether the former group is more dick-obsessed.

    Here’s a bunch of other rude things (that are less rude)to underline the general point that personal questions about other people’s bodies, especially genitilia and reproductive organs are mighty intrusive.

    Don’t ask women with large abdomens about pregnancy unless you are pretty damn sure. Don’t ask pregnant persons whether they got pregnant by accident. Don’t ask redheads about the color of their pubic hair. (It still stuns me that Felicia Day got this question, archly phrased, at Blizzcon a few years ago.)

    1. 1.1

      When I was pregnant with my daughter, while my trans (then male- and gay-identified) ex lived with her boyfriend in another state, I had to go get maternity uniforms (I was in the Marines).

      So, the woman at the counter said, “Oh, you and your husband must be so excited!” (I was wearing no ring.)

      I told her we were separated.

      “Oh, well then maybe you’ll get together now!”

      “No, I don’t think so.”

      “Oh, why not?”

      “He lives with his boyfriend now. Also, it’s not his.”

      She sacked my clothes in silence and moved on after that. I swear, how hard is it just not to dig into personal details? What people do with their junk, when, where, and why, is no one’s business. Every time I have to mention to someone that my ex is trans* (a therapist for my son, for instance), they always ask the “pre- or post-op” question, and I just want to pull my hair out because what, do they think that my eight-year-old was conducting regular surveys of his parents’ junk? What the fuck is wrong with people? My son knows that his daddy is now a woman, and is fine with that because he knows she’s happier being herself. There. Boom. Not hard.

      1. You know, I have to say, I’ve never given the slightest thought as to the state and appearance of my parents’ genitalia/related bits beyond my mother’s cancer history. Very sort of “need to know” relevance there. I can’t imagine why it would be relevant in general to any other kid.

        1. Yeah; you’d think that the therapists would feel the same way, but nope. He mentioned private parts once and one extrapolated that he is “obsessed with private parts.” They automatically jumped to the assumption that it was because he was confused about what makes you a boy or a girl. Shit; I don’t know what exactly makes you a boy or a girl, so that takes two of us. Also, imagine that: an eight-year-old curious about anatomy. This must be the first case ever or something. I didn’t bother to ask if the only kids who mention private parts are the ones with trans* parents because I get the feeling the answer would have been nasty.

          A second therapist asked the question and I curtly answered that it was not germane to the conversation and that I expect a therapist to feel the same way if I work with them.

          1. Kids!? Interested in naughty bits and anatomy!? Good gracious, how bizarre and scandalous! Seriously, I’ve heard of few kids who weren’t at that age.

            Count me in as also confused.

            And I don’t blame you one bit for wanting to work with a therapist who was professional and not a bigot.

    2. 1.2

      Anecdotal obviously, but as someone who’s been openly trans for a while I’ve never noticed any difference in how often I get the question. It’s pretty much the first question out of everyone’s mouth when they find out.

  2. 2

    I have to say, I found myself very taken aback by that section of the interview. Thanks for addressing this in a post that will be handy when I need to point out to others why some questions aren’t just invasive, but less *useful* in terms of understanding others’ identities.

    1. 2.1

      As the other interviewer, I was also a little surprised when the question was posed as I saw it as irrelevant. I was more interested in ZJ’s path and what forms of discrimination are typically encountered. I can understand Oliver’s curiosity, however I also cringed a little when he asked the question. In future I will interject and point out it may be inappropriate.

  3. 3

    “pre/post-op” is an attempt to sound kewl and with-it. Kinda asking an African American how to play the banjo and cook fried chicken. It shows how insightful and knowledgeable you are, even though you’re obviously not a member of the community.

  4. 6

    “I will happily describe my genitals to the radio audience, so long as you describe your own first.”

    “I have a _____”

    “Oh, but just naming it isn’t enough information. Lots of pre-op transsexual women call their genital shafts ‘clits’ – and there is good reason for that not just psychologically, but biological developmentally as well. Talking about surgery is much more revealing than naming one’s genitals. So go ahead, describe yours? How long? How thick? Different color from the skin on your thighs or the same? Cute and cuddly? What? Please, do tell us.”

    “I don’t think that it’s appropriate to describe one’s genitals on the radio.”

    “Well now I know that you’re lying – or just messing with me. You obviously think that this is a perfect topic of conversation for your radio program since you introduced the topic on your own!
    So, please, go ahead and give us a good description of your genitals.”

    “Look, let’s talk about electrolysis…”

    “Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to do that. Clearly genitals are on your mind quite a bit, especially my genitals. Since you seem to be thinking about my genitals so devotedly, I want to give you a chance to hear all about mine. Please just go ahead and give us a good descriptions of what you have in your pants.”

  5. Jac

    That part of the interview was a face-palm for me. People need to read a little Transgender 101 before interviewing a trans person. Unfortunately, the nature of privilege that the dominant group doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about the sub-group.

  6. 9

    Speaking strictly for myself, and at the risk of sounding self-righteous, I don’t see it as any of my business. Why would or should anyone ask?

    I don’t really see a need for me to know except if I were to be personally, romantically and/or physically involved with a trans person. Unless that’s the case, to me they’re people, no other word needed.

  7. 11

    I mean… I get it, sort of. For us ignorant folks, transgender people can be sort of a mystery*, to the extent that even knowing what questions and how to ask can be a difficult thing. On the other hand, if I had a podcast or radio show, I think I’d probably broach the subject OFF THE AIR, so as not to potentially put the interview subject on the spot like that. On the one hand there’s the sort of “genderblind” thing that left0ver1under seems to be talking about, but on the other hand all of those “blindness” responses tend to disappear the character of other people that comes with their specific situation.

    *And I’m halfway sure that “trans people are a mystery” is the wrong way of putting it.

  8. 13

    The first question I ask trans* people when I meet them is usually some variant of ‘how are you doing?’ If they bring up the fact that they’re trans I might inquire about when they began transition or something similar, but it’s not really a topic I introduce. It wouldn’t occur to me to ask about the genitals of anyone I wasn’t about to go to bed with. Even if I am about to go bed with them, my questions are more about what sorts of things they do or don’t like done regarding their genitals than what their physical appearance is. I’ll learn that soon enough anyway, after all.

  9. 15

    Number of times I’ve been asked whether I’m contemplating surgery: must be in the dozens.
    Number of times I’ve been asked whether I’m changing my name: half a dozen, maybe almost a dozen times..
    Number of times I’ve been asked whether I’m full-time yet: zero.

    So yes, another datum for the “it’s all about your privates” attitudes.

  10. 16

    Only just got around to finding Zinnia’s blog – unfortunately due to the TF debacle. Hope it’s ok to get something off my chest that is vaguely relevant… Having read this I empathise with the interviewer as I think there is a probably a lot of not having a clue how to engage or talk to trans people about their gender identity. I’ll definitely include myself in that as is apparent below.

    My only reading on trans issues was from Germaine Greer’s book ‘The Whole Woman’ I think – I may be wrong it was a while back. In there the post-op state was thoroughly derided, from memory, as being insulting to women to say they are just a man without a penis, this seemed reasonable to my proto-feminist self. It was further stated (dodgy memory again) that supporting a delusion of being a woman is not good for the trans person either. This was backed up by some suicide figures showing post-op trans people are just as likely to kill themselves. I’m afraid I sort of filed this in my reasonable arguments as to why sex-ops on the NHS in the UK shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers. I did think that the suicide figures are likely to be skewed since a trans person post-op is not going to be magically accepted by a prejudiced population.

    Literally my only experience of trans people (I think) in the real world was when working as a teenager in a diy store. A couple of what we after described as ‘blokes in dresses’ would pop in to buy whatever and we would laugh about their stubble or adam’s apples. The only positive I can get from this is that I was fortunately not an outspoken twit like some of my colleagues so ‘only’ joined in when they had left.

    I think I need a ‘Transgender 101’ like Jac mentions above – does it actually exist? I’m very aware that as Jac say’s I don’t know what I don’t know about the trans group!

    1. 16.1

      Germaine isn’t a reasonable source when it comes to trans issues, especially the cited opinion that it is not good for the trans people to be supported in their preferred gender – does she similarly believe gays and lesbians being partnered with people of their preferred gender is not good for them either and they should not be supported? Somehow I doubt it.

      Personally I would love to have a cis-woman’s body in all it’s aspects, but it’s not possible starting from the wrong body template, so Ms Greer’s view (as well as that of a few other trans-exclusionary radical feminists) is pretty much, sucks to be you.

      1. Yeah I had a quick look on wikipedia and saw Germaine was involved in some pretty nasty discrimination against someone because they were trans and not a born-woman. Shame as I quite like her and I don’t see how something that is so unproven (As per alephs links below) could be used to make any conclusions. Fundamentally treating people as equals and not discriminating because of things they cannot change seems perfectly reasonable!

        Your statement on wanting a cis womans body was interesting as Germaine also asserted no one would really want ovaries etc. I must say I disagree with that as it reminded me of Ian M Banks and his Culture sci-fi novels where it is perfectly accepted that people change gender, born-men become women have babies go back to being men etc. If that was technologically possible and as frictionless as presented then why wouldn’t I want to give that a go for a while at least? Even if it would be a tremendously mind-fucking experience I imagine that I’d only gain from it. I suspect the trans community would become the norm pretty quickly – unfortunately that is fantasy and at the moment I assume you *really* need a lot more than whim to transition to a different gender.

        1. Absolutely I would want ovaries rather than what I’ve got, functionally and aesthetically: built-in source of feminising hormones versus being on exogenous hormone therapy for the rest of my life? No contest, even considering the incidental problems with ovaries themselves, e.g. PCOS.
          In my part of the world transition is very distant from being a whim; we don’t have the informed consent model, instead it is psychiatric gate-keeping run rampant, people attempting to jump over the arbitrary hurdles to receive medical treatment, which will often be denied if there is any co-morbid condition or if you fail to meet the pshrink’s gender role expectations.
          Moreover, when my gender variance asserted itself the slightest bit of non-conformity was mercilessly mocked by my peers, which put me off transitioning for many years; there seems to be a nice bit of momentum now that simply wasn’t there when I grew up (prior to there being a world wide web).

    2. 16.2

      This was backed up by some suicide figures showing post-op trans people are just as likely to kill themselves. I’m afraid I sort of filed this in my reasonable arguments as to why sex-ops on the NHS in the UK shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers. I did think that the suicide figures are likely to be skewed since a trans person post-op is not going to be magically accepted by a prejudiced population.

      Here are a couple studies (1,2) which both found improved life satisfaction after transition. The first one did, however, distinguish between satisfaction as related to the surgery and general life satisfaction. For the former, the study found that most trans people were satisfied or very satisfied, for the latter, significantly less satisfied than the general population. I think the implications of that are pretty clear.

      Of course, it is difficult to decide whether or not to place significance on these studies, given the incredibly small sample sizes, but that’s going to be a problem with ANY research on trans people at the moment.

  11. 17

    Thanks for the suggestion that we ask if the person wants to share their story – that is perfect! Non-intrusive way to show support and interest, with an easy opt-out.

  12. F

    It boggles my mind, the sorts of questions people think are interesting or relevant (or maybe it’s just what comes out of their mouths when they’re at a loss). Apparently shutting up and moving on is not an option.

    When you are doing an interview, you should be a bit more prepared.

    But right now, I’m just trying to imagine myself having a conversation with someone and coming to the point where I’d ask such a thing as, “Are you pre-op or post-op.” If I try to force that question in, I have a mysterious and sudden change of career and I’m like an intake nurse at a hospital or doctors office asking this because it is medically relevant to whatever the person came in for.

    Thing is, though, I’ve found a lot of people to actually be interested in the state and disposition and various qualities of other people’s genitals. So the interviewer in Crip Dyke’s script would either just say “yeah, WTF is wrong with me?” and apologize, or admit that they are, yes, actually followers of the Genital News, but apologize for being a bit too familiar and forward and a bit insensitive.

  13. 19

    I really don’t understand trans people and issues as well as I wish I did. I imagine that like most people it’s difficult to identify with these issues without knowledge. I pride myself in expressing my lack of understand with curiosity instead of hate.

    I like to compare it to a friend that is really into body modification: tatoos, piercings, implants, suspension. I don’t understand it, but I talk to him about it and I guess it pleases me to live vicariously through him and just understand it better.

    Wish I had a trans friend I could chat with about it over coffee.

  14. X

    Why is it that so many people are apparently so defensive and secretive and in need of mundanity and predictability?

    If a stranger were to ask me “Hi, how are your genitals doing?” I would likely tell them “Good.” What is the big deal here? Are you that sensitive? Are you that uncomfortable with who you are? Are you that beholden to moronic social taboos? Can’t you handle anything slightly out of the ordinary?

    People ask “Hi, how are you doing?” all the time, and mostly it is nothing more than an expression of a habitual (and boring and predictable) hollow social ritual. It would be much more engaging and interesting to me if someone asked me about my genitals. At least if someone asks how your genitals are doing they are more than likely doing so based on some actual sincerity and real curiosity.

    It reminds me of how young children are censured by their parents after innocently asking a nearby stranger in the street a personal question that is deemed “inappropriate” by the norms of the day/society. It kills curiosity.

    Curiosity if one of the best qualities that humans possess. It is responsible for much science, philosophy, art, creation, exploration. I think it should ideally be a joyous gift to answer someone’s curiosity.

    I don’t understand how anyone who is genuinely supportive of free thought could actively espouse “appropriate questions” and the avoidance of “sensitive topics.”

    I mean why don’t we all just safely discuss the fucking weather for the rest of eternity….jeez…….No wonder I’m bored out of my mind by the majority of people and social situations.

  15. 21

    I took the pic on the left with Bryan Cole from his upcoming MEN ON EDGE shoot for Kink. Bryan is such a wonderful guy. Really great model and super sweet to boot. Looking forward to more of him.

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