#ProunounsNotPrivateParts: What to Ask (and What Not to Ask) Trans People
I don’t know why, but a lot of cisgender people are fascinated by transgender people’s genitals. It’s as if it never occurred them that genitals do not always equal gender. I understand that cis people want to know more about what it means to be transgender, and I have no problem telling them my story. But honestly, as my friend Callie Wright says, the only people that need to know about my genitals are my primary doctor and the person I’m going to have sex with.
Of course that doesn’t mean every cis person who asks a trans person about their genitals is an outright bigot. In fact, what makes these conversations more awkward is that it’s usually well-meaning cis people who ask invasive questions. For example, I was sitting outside my local coffee shop smoking a cigarette the other day when a man from my Unitarian Universalist fellowship came over to chat with me. I recently revealed during service one Sunday that I was a nonbinary trans person, so he asked me about it. Since there aren’t a lot of nonbinary trans people where I live, I have no problem telling others what it means.
Unfortunately, at one point he asked me, “What were you born with?” I think I paused for about a good minute thinking about how to answer that. I know he didn’t mean any harm, but I also didn’t want to give him a free pass either. Eventually I inhaled deeply and said, “You really shouldn’t ask what trans people were ‘born with.’ It’s very uncomfortable for us because you wouldn’t ask non-transgender people that. I’m just going to say I was assigned male at birth.” Fortunately he got the message.
A few weeks earlier at the same coffee shop, though, I was placing my order when the barista behind the counter said, “Can I ask you something?” I said yes. She said, “What are your pronouns?” My eyes grew wide and I smiled the biggest smile ever as I said, “They/them/their!” It was literally the first time anyone had asked me about my pronouns. After a year of dropping hints to the public—lipstick, women’s jeans, nail polish, and my Genderflux t-shirt—someone finally got the message. Normally people assume I’m just a femme guy. This barista, however, knew something else was going on, and she asked the one thing trans people actually want to be asked.
Not only is it hella uncomfortable to be asked about your genitals, but by doing so, it’s basically telling transgender people that their identities don’t matter. Like I said, I know most cis people who ask about genitals don’t mean to be assholes, but trans people get enough shit from transphobes who say our identities don’t matter, so we don’t need would-be allies to suggest we’re invalid either. If you ask us about our pronouns, though, that’s acknowledging who we are really are. It gives us the chance to tell our stories for ourselves instead of letting society dictate who we are “supposed to be.”
That’s why I propose a new movement in 2016: #PronounsNotPrivateParts.
Last week on my podcast, I talked to my friend Stephanie Guttormson about Christmas from the perspective of two transgender atheists. During our conversation, we talked about how annoying it is when cis people ask us trans people evasive questions about our genitals. I suggested that we should start a new line of t-shirts that say, “Ask me about my pronouns, not my private parts.” Stephanie laughed and said, “Yes, Pronouns Not Private Parts!” I jokingly said that will be our new campaign for 2016, but after thinking about, I really think #PronounsNotPrivateParts is a great way to further to conversation about trans rights. We can share stories online about being asked invasive questions, about being misgendered, and about allies actually letting us tell our stories. I always believed in the power of storytelling, and by sharing our stories, I hope we can change people’s minds.
2015 was a landmark year for transgender awareness: Caitlyn Jenner coming out, the Amazon show Transparent, MTV’s True Life: I’m Genderqueer special, etc. Although we’re still years away from total trans acceptance, cis people are finally starting to understand that we exist and we’re human beings. Let’s hope it continues in 2016!