Trans Etiquette is Everyone Etiquette

manners can be fun bookI couldn’t bring myself to title this post “Everything I Know I Learned from My Sex Change,” because I’m not a fan of Jackson Browne, but it is true that I’ve gleaned some stellar lessons through the gender transition experience, many of them “scalable” to life more generally. Here are but a few of those pointers.

When someone tells you they’ve made a major, life-changing decision, don’t poo-poo them but offer your support instead. Yes, deciding to move across the country for a new love/job/crisis/etc. is hard to hear, and yet a smile is all that is needed from you, the recipient of the news. After all, it’s not about you, it’s about your friend and their upcoming period of adjustment. They’re going to need your love, just as you someday may find yourself grateful for their support when something big is happening for you. So steer clear of interrogatives and raised eyebrows. Also, never ask “Are you sure?” If they’re telling you about something huge in their life, they’re sure.

Avoid asking too many background questions of new friends and colleagues, and let them offer details to you if they choose. We transfolk are practiced at not answering the “What was your old name” and “Which surgeries have you had” questions. They’re intrusive, and none of anyone else’s business. So it helps me to remember how I bristle at these when I’m meeting someone new; I don’t ask how many marriages they’ve had, if they have any health issues, or if they’re engaged in any nefarious activity. I do ask if they’re interested in watching the newest Terence Malick movie at the cineplex.

When conversing with someone less experienced in an area than you are, try not to be a know-it-all jackass. I’ve got stories of folks just starting transition who ran into a veteran and came away with all kinds of unsolicited advice. Hearing that you’re doing it all wrong never helps anyone and actually can shut down their progress or push them into second-guessing themselves. The saving grace for transfolk is that we’re fairly uncommon and don’t trip over other trans people all of the time (unless we’re in a gender nonconforming intentional community, for instance). But as a parent I can’t walk down the street with my wee one without some well intentioned Parent of an Older Child telling me how their experience was, what I’m doing wrong, or what I should know about next. Please, other parents, I’m begging you: Shut up. Unless you see me leaving my kid in some kind of imminent danger, don’t reach for your phone and your speed dial to Child Protective Services. We all get to find our way as adults here.

Ask people how they’d like to be addressed. This is such a nice, respectful little piece of manners that I’d love to see restored to our culture. In trans and gender nonconforming spaces we ask each other what pronoun to use. Of course folks mess this up from time to time, but we aim for supporting our acquaintances’ wishes. I tell people right away that friends call me Ev and if they want to use Everett that’s fine, too. My wife’s grandmother specifically told me to call her Mrs. G——, and I have never called her anything else. Even if I hope she someday lets me shift to Grandma.

Revealing big secrets about someone is dangerous. Many transfolk don’t want their status or history broadcast to the rest of the community, in part because such chatter can have legal or other consequences for them. So it is in the general population; don’t discuss someone’s suicide attempt, drinking problem, etc., with say, their coworkers. Certainly don’t post pictures of the same on Facebook or Twitter. If you are very concerned for your friend or colleague, there are other ways to handle your anxiety–like talking to them directly or letting it go.

Let the individuals in your life be just that–individuals. I do not represent every transsexual in America, nor would I want to if it were possible. Just because Chaz Bono makes a sound bite in an interview about what the trans experience is like, please don’t assume that’s been my experience. My mother is nothing like Cher. And the same goes for anyone from a marginalized community or minority group. We may come into contact with the same societal forces, but we have lived experience, and nobody likes the assumptions made about their personal history. That’s why they’re called stereotypes.

I’m a friend of manners, and I put my foot in  my mouth more times than I can count, so I don’t claim to be anywhere near perfect when it comes to etiquette. I’d like to think I’m getting better as I get older, but I suppose that statement can’t always be true, or else Newt Gingrich wouldn’t make the kind of statements he has regarding janitors and inner-city youth. I suppose we all have room for improvement.

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Categories: ponderings, popular culture

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