Being a Transjender Jew often invites many questions, so it is important to understand some trans-etiquette, writes Surat Shaan Knan, in the fifth instalment of The Ponderings of a Transgender Jew.
Surat Shaan Knan is a female-to-male (ftm) transgender person on a transitioning journey. Click here for previous instalments
“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Throughout the High Holy Days period, I had many wonderful, reflective conversations about my recent coming out as a Trans Jew.
I chatted with community members from all walks of life: young and not so young, gay & lesbian, non-LGBT Jews, their partners and friends.
Since my last blog ( Twilight Journeys: What’s in a name for a transgender Jew?) many progressive rabbis have stepped up and expressed their support and commitment to making our communities more welcoming to trans, intersex and gender-variant Jews.
I’m grateful for this. Flitting from one congregation or community to another (as one does), I felt almost everywhere very welcome and included.
I enjoyed sharing my story with such a great bunch of people. But, as only too often, there seems to be a ‘but’ – just when you think things are running smoothly in the twilight zone.
Opening up to people also means having to face questions that feel uncomfortable. At times, some comments left me angry and sad. So, on this occasion, what was being said?
I’m pretty sure that most of the questions that I found rather upsetting, were asked innocently and meant no harm.
It’s natural to be curious.
Still, talking to a trans person is not an invitation to ‘a free for all’.
Here are some of questions that I was asked; and I believe you should not ask a trans person.
I hope you find my suggestions on how to improve one’s Trans etiquette useful.
1. ‘Are you planning to have full-surgery?’ or ‘Have you had the operation?’
What this really means is, “Tell me about your genitals.” As common courtesy, we don’t go round asking people about their private parts, and same etiquette applies when talking to a trans person.
Curiosity can’t be a justification for everything.
By the way, there is no ‘one operation’. Trans people have many surgeries or no surgery at all. Some people can’t afford treatment or surgery; not everything is covered by the NHS, and waiting lists are long. (I have experienced this myself, and was lucky to have some private cover through my family!).
For some people, it’s enough to state that they are transgender, and they don’t want hormones or medical procedures. Other people are health-wise unable to have medical treatment. But more than anything, transitioning is not all about genitalia – in fact, the social aspects of transitioning can complex and compelling.
What was my response? Well, there’s no such thing as one answer, but on this occasion I used a bit of comic relief to deflate this otherwise rather awkward situation: ’Well, unless you’re asking me to go to bed with you, my naughty bits should not be of concern. And if you are asking me to sleep with you, then you gotta show me yours first, before I make a decision!’
2. “Which bathroom (or changing room) do you use?”
This is a funny one.
Why would anyone want to know where I do my business or get changed? Do they want to join me?
Well, I use the bathroom (or changing room) that is right for me, just like most people use the bathroom that is right for them.
Sometimes it isn’t possible to use the bathroom that matches the gender that someone is presenting. Often, gender-variant people or people while transitioning find the standard binary female/male arrangement of public facilities quite challenging.
I am experiencing this currently at my fitness club. To be honest, I have always felt uncomfortable and out-of-place in the female changing rooms. There are no un-gendered facilities (such as disabled).
Recently, I stopped using the gendered gym facilities altogether. This is mainly because some female gym members started showing signs of discomfort and stress (one woman even had a screaming fit and called the gym manager!).
But I’m nowhere near using the male facilities without putting myself at risk of being mobbed or worse. When I contacted the Virgin Active management, the meek response was that this had never happened to them, and their policy was that trans people should use the facilities of the gender that they present. No can do.
3. “You haven’t really changed. You still look like a woman [or a man].”
‘Oops, did I forget to zip up again?’ Joking aside, most trans people would prefer not to be constantly reminded of their previously assigned gender, if you will.
In whichever way you remember this person in the past, it’s best to keep it to yourself. Yes, it might be hard to let go of or see differently, but it would mean a lot to your trans friend if you tried.
This is about respect and showing acceptance of the present.
A useful tip: before you make such statements or ask intimate questions, it might help to replace the word ‘trans’ with another personal characteristic such as, for instance, ‘obese’, or something that you find complex and challenging about yourself.
Imagine, you have been over-weight and really struggled with self-image all your life. Now, you have completed the first course of a new detox diet, you have lost a few pounds, and you feel proud and full of joy.
Then, at this event, someone tells you that you haven’t changed one single bit and are as fat as before. Now, see how you’d feel!
There’s of course no need to lie when responding to a person in transition – or any life transformation. You don’t have to say e.g. ‘Oh, you are so skinny and perfect now!’, but it would be supportive and caring to say: ’Yes, indeed, you are really looking happy/beaming with energy etc.’.
4. ‘Don’t you think you should start dressing more masculine? [feminine].’
‘Thanks for your advice. Now, as for what’s wrong with your looks …’
Ouch. This statement came, as always, from a well-meaning, lovely person. Yet, it really made me feel patronised.
I was gobsmacked.
First of all, the truth is I have not worn one single women’s item of clothing in over 20 years. In any case: why would there be any need to fix the way I look? Everyone is entitled to their own taste and style and that’s ok.
The bottom line is, please don’t tell trans people what is appropriate to their gender. Like cisgender people, we have varying forms of gender expressions. And I really believe we could set each other free by being more supportive and less judgemental about individual choices.
Generally speaking, always ask yourself: Would you ask someone who wasn’t trans that sort of question?
Asking questions is a good thing. It’s a way of learning, and after all, Judaism encourages questions, indeed the entire Pesach Seder is dominated by asking questions.
During the Days of Awe and the whole new year, we can use questions to reflect on our lives, and the path we want to follow.
Taking ownership of what we are asking is a first step to greater awareness, inner growth – and getting positive answers.
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