When James Becomes Janice: What Not to Ask a Transgender Friend
Someone I knew decades ago when I was in college identified as transgender pre-op. Lately, this person looked me
up online and started an e-mail chain. They informed me they had changed their name from a distinctly masculine one to a
gender-neutral name, but didn’t really explain. On the one hand, since we discussed the transgender issue quite extensively
back in the day, I feel that basic politeness and, of course, an interest in catching up would suggest that I inquire about
whether the person has fully changed gender. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to be intrusive around a potentially delicate
topic. Is there a polite way to ask, “Did you have surgery?” – Spencer Cox
Your heart’s in the right place, but I’m afraid “Did you have surgery?” is the wrong question for two reasons.
First, it’s too personal (this is true of asking, unprompted, about any surgical procedure) but more important it’s not likely
to give you the answer you’re seeking. The better questions are: “What’s your pronoun preference?” or "I see you changed your
name; how’s everything going now?” Either should be a soft enough lob to encourage your friend to explain the name change and
to get at the heart of the matter.
(I do want to commend you, however, for exemplary use of pronouns in your letter. Without knowing a person’s gender identity,
“they” and “their” is the way to go, even if Strunk and White disagree.)
More than anything, though, your question highlights a major misconception about transgender folks. “One of the biggest
education deficits we have is that trans has something to do with surgery,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National
Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), told me. “It’s irrelevant.”
Why? Because our body parts are not the sum total of our gender. Chaz Bono (formerly Chastity Bono) described the notion of
gender identity, I think, perfectly: It’s what’s “between your ears, not between your legs.” The bottom line is that each of
us is the gender that we feel we are, that we identify as.
That’s why those who transition, which is to say change their gender, may follow along any number of paths. Some simply change
their first name (Armand to Amanda, for instance) or the way they dress. Some take hormones to encourage the physical
characteristics of their new gender. Some choose full sex-reassignment surgery, whether that means genital changes, breast
reduction or augmentation, hysterectomy or some other gender-related procedure. What is most important to understand is that
someone may live in their new identy long before having surgery — or may never have any procedure.
As a society we’re generally very underinformed about trans issues and people. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned
people have shared their confusion with me about which pronoun to use and which questions are appropriate. It’s much the same
place we were in the conversation about gays and lesbians a generation ago, when Miss Manners (a k a Judith Martin) was asked
by an anxious letter writer: “What am I supposed to say when introduced to a homosexual couple?” Her perfect answer: “How do
As Ms. Keisling explained to me: “There’s always a level of anxiety when people are learning new things — especially
when it’s about identity. The challenge is that the public is starting to go through that process with trans people.”
Not surprisingly, inadvertent slips of the tongue only reinforce our anxieties. For instance, over the holidays a friend was
at lunch with a transgender man when she referred to him as Michelle instead of Michael (his new name reflecting his new
identity). He let it pass, but my friend was deeply embarrassed. To assimilate such changes takes time and patience, but
nonetheless the assimilation is very important.
All of this may seem complicated and indeed for those transitioning it can be. Supporting a transgender friend or family
member is not just good manners but also about being an ally to those who too frequently face bias, verbal assaults, not to
mention violence — including by their own hand. Of the 6,450 transgender and gender nonconforming people (those who
don’t meet society’s expectations of how a man or woman is supposed to look) polled for a recent NCTE survey, 41 percent said
they had attempted suicide (compared to less than 2 percent for the general population).
The small moment of social discomfort that the rest of us may experience on the way to educating ourselves about gender
identity is nothing compared to that statistic and the pain it represents. So, when in doubt, follow the lead provided by a
person’s name and other visual cues and, if still confused, ask for guidance — respectfully.
Originally published in The New York Times, March 5, 2013