“Though this should be common knowledge by now, the words “tranny” and “shemale” are slurs and amount to hate speech.”
In early January, after sitting for a fifteen minute interview to waitress at a sports-themed restaurant, I waited nervously for that moment after being hired when I’d have to hand over my license. Though I’ve taught in academia for over a decade, published widely in national literary journals and several anthologies, received numerous awards for my poetry, earned a master’s degree and will have finished my Ph.D. next month, it’s difficult, it seems, to teach in Virginia if you’re transgender. In early November I accepted an offer to teach freshman composition courses at a local community college. But after explaining that I’d recently transitioned from male to female, and my driver’s license still listed me as a male with my old name, an uncomfortable silence settled over the hiring committee. Someone mentioned that the student population was largely from rural areas, but then awkwardly promised no one would be upset if they discovered I’d once lived as a man. A few weeks later came the call and apologetic explanation: schedules had to be shifted around and my courses were given to more senior faculty members. So when the restaurant manager did ask for my license and social security card, I gave her an old university ID showing an exhausted-looking guy with a full beard and short haircut. That used to be me, I told her. She was instantly confused. But after offering her my driver’s license (where I appear more like I do now than years ago) and explaining that I was waiting for court authorization for a name change and DMV authorization for a gender marker change, realization slowly spread across her face. Luckily, I’d read her personality well enough. She was fascinated by the process of transition. Then came the questions, and suddenly my boss was asking about my genitalia.
It is with this experience in mind that I’d like to offer some thoughts about how to interact with transgender people. No matter your level of support or curiosity about transition, asking questions about someone’s genitals is never acceptable unless you’re in an intimate relationship with that person. Though curiosity may instinctively seem like a valid reason to ask a transgender person about their body, such questions are by their nature invasive, and can trigger waves of dysphoria. We have vast amounts of information at our fingertips; rather than invade a transgender person’s privacy, spend a few minutes online attempting to answer those questions for yourself. It’s also important to know that pointing out someone’s status as transgender in public can instantly place that person at greater risk for discrimination, verbal abuse, physical violence, and death. Remember that someone who is transitioning from male to female probably never considered themselves male to begin with, just as someone transitioning from female to male likely never considered themselves female, even if they presented as such in the past. So when referring to someone’s pre-transition life, use their current, preferred pronouns. Though this should be common knowledge by now, the words “tranny” and “shemale” are slurs amounting to hate speech. Keep in mind that transition is by definition a temporary state, and that many transgender people may not wish to identify as such once this process is completed. But perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer is to treat us as you would like to be treated. Instead of focusing on aspects of transition, engage us in conversation about our interests or careers, our successes and triumphs, all that moves forward with us past transition itself, for it is always in the necessary dailiness of life that we connect and become most real and vibrantly present with one another.