With the popularity of Laverne Cox in Orange Is The New Black and author Janet Mock hosting her own show on MSNBC, influential transgender women are having an important moment in the spotlight. Even trans narratives like Amazon’s Transparent are moving away from small safe spaces and into Golden Globe nomination ballots. This would have been a pipe dream ten, even five years ago, but it’s 2015 and things are slowly starting to look up for the transgender community, especially transwomen.
Well, scratch that, things are getting better in terms of representation in the media, but that doesn’t mean that things are all peachy for transgender women in general. Transgender women are still subject to violence and ignorance. In the past month alone, five transgender women of color have been murdered; unfortunately, this isn’t a rare stat, especially for transgender women of color. In January, the suicide of a transgender teen girl by the name of Leelah Alcorn made waves after she posted a lengthy suicide note on Tumblr, citing her parents’ refusal to accept her for gender identity, their forced isolation and her belief that she will never be able to transition in the way she wanted as her rationale.
It’s important not to separate violence against transgender women and people’s misunderstanding of what it means to be transgender. Whether it’s jokingly using the word tranny or inquiring about genitalia, these are both act that can be used to perpetuate unsafe and degrading conditions for transgender girls and women.
I chatted with blogger, illustrator and activist Kat Blaque about what you should never say to transgender girls. If you think you’re all about transgender rights, you might be mistaken!
Ashley Reese: So, what are some things that people ask transgender women that really bothers you?
Kat Blaque: At the top of the list—and this is a really big one for me—is a lot of the time people ask questions about genitalia. “Have you had surgery, are you interested in having surgery?” Like, they’ll ask basically what the specific genitals are. And that’s something extremely invasive! You know? Very very disrespectful. You shouldn’t do it, you should not go there. At the end of the day it’s none of your business. People like to use trans bodies as public domain. They like to go to transfolks and say, “Well, you’ve had all these surgeries, da da da da da, I want to know all about it!” It’s understandable to be curious but it can really mess with someobdy’s day if you question it. I think so few people actually go through their life having to have these questions asked to then so it’s something that people should stray away from.
AR: Like you said, the curiosity is there but it’s almost as if—I’ve heard people ask this too to transgender women—and it’s almost like they’re trying to prove their humanity.
KB: I think a lot of people have this thing where it’s like, “I’m not going to respect your gender util you have had your surgery. I wont treat you as a girl or as a woman if you don’t have the surgery. If you don’t have any vagina between your legs, I’m not going to respect you.” Now, I’m somebody who is non-op, meaning that I’m not going to have that surgery. I’ve never really dealt with people having that issue with people not respecting my gender because at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter.”
AR: What are some other things at the top of your head that you can’t help but think, “ah don’t ask that, do’t say that.” Even if people mean well.
KB: I know there’s definitely pet peeves that I have…I think that there are some things that I wouldn’t want other people to ask me that other transgender people would. Like, pronouns is a big one. [I’ve] never really dealt with people not referring to me by my proper pronoun but there’s this thing that people are doing—and I’m in support of it!—because it doesn’t erase. Theres more than just he, she for people who are gender queer. So they use Z pronouns and things like that. So the idea of doing a pronoun check in is very much trying to normalize the fact that just because somebody looks a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that their pronoun is that. I understand it, but sometimes it makes me feel strange. But for some people it’s not necessarily that clear cut.
I think one of my big pet peeves is when a guy would talk to me or a guy would date me, a constant question I always got was, “So was your boyfriend gay?” “He likes men so does that he’s gay? That was the big one for me. And I had this question even when I was my most hyper feminine in college, my most “college co-ed”. And people would still ask me this [effing] question. It just really blew me away. I’m not a man, why would you say that? So yeah, asking what sexuality your partners have been.
AR: I know that I’ve witnessed some girls who, you know, if you confronted them they would claim that they have nothing against people who are transgender. But they use the word tranny…
KB: Oh yeah, that’s a big one, that’s a big one too. The way I look at it is like…there are trans girls who are okay with that word. They’re okay with that word, they’re fine with it. But I think that it’s something that we should never give a pass to. Because it’s definitely a word that has been used to sexualize, commodify and sell transwomen. And so I think that when it comes to that word, much like a lot of words—the N word, the F word—there are people who have reclaimed the words and made them their own…if a transgirl calls herself a tranny I don’t really care about that. You know, I do probably care if a cis person is like, “oh you’re a tranny!” No, you can’t say that.
AR: So what do you think should be the big focus right now when it comes to transgender girls? Like, what resources do you think they need right now?
KB: I didn’t know until I was well into my ‘20s that there were free services in Los Angeles for me to get hormones. There’s a lot of stuff out there, especially with LGBT clinics, where they will offer free hormone treatments specifically for girls who are minors. So I think it would be really great is to have maybe kind of like a collection of places where you can go and get your treatment. A lot of people don’t know about those places. I wouldn’t have found out about the place I went to if somebody didn’t tell me. So that to me is really important. Because a lot of girls, esepcially young girls, are very fixated on getting hormones and how to go about it. And that’s kind of a compicated conversation to have and ac omplicated situation to be in. There’s a lot of information out there and it’s pretty hard to find what works for you. So that’s to me is super important, just knowing that it exists. I always tell girls, if you want to start your hormones, start with the LGBT centers. If you have one around you, go there and ask them about it. That’s probably the best advice i can give to anyone.
AR: So, I know that being an ally is very important but it’s also very fraught. It can be probematic, it can be iffy like any other movement. So what do you think someone who says, “I want to be a transgender ally” actually need to do beyond saying that they support transgender women?
KB: It’s funny because I have a video on my channel that I made about this. There’s a YouTuber Arielle Scarcella and she’s done a lot of transvideos. She touts herself as a trans ally. The problem is that most of her videos are spreading a lot of misinformation about trans people.
AR: Like what?
Well, for example…I’ve interacted with her in several different situations. First time I interacted with her was when she made a video called “Butch Lez Or Transguy?” I think that the crux of her video was supposed to be, in theory, that you can’t necessarily determine somebody’s gender identity by their gender expression, which I think is a great point to make. However, the video very much went down the route of “well, could you tell the difference between this transguy and this butch lesbian?” And if you talked to transmen, that is an issue they face all the time, where people just assume that they’re just butch lesbians. They don’t understand that they’re transitioning, they don’t get it, they just think that they’re really, really butch women. So as someone who is an ally, that’s something that’s very problematic to bring up. So I made this video, basically just very kindly addressing her and being like “hey actually this is why you shouldn’t do that because it’s really not supportive of trans people.”
Her response to that video was to get upset, and to get offended, and to start going on social media basically saying the same [crap] that’s she’s saying. She went as far as to say that it’s a compliment for me to say that a trans guy looks like a lesbian because a butch lesbian is masculine. That is not what an ally should do! I ended up making a video “How To Not Be An Ally” because she’s just the perfect example of how to not be an ally. An ally is somebody who is willing to be supporters of a cause, and is willing to listen and to take their personal ego out of it and help the person they’re claiming to help.
The problem with Arielle is that it was all about her ego…she’d act like I was attacking her. And it’s just like, look, if you’re actually an ally you’re going to listen. The truth of the matter is that as marginalized groups we almost expect people that are allies to to say something…I don’t expect for every white person to understand what it’s like to be black in this world. I expect respect when we’re talking about it. Not trying to tell me what it’s like to be a black women…I don’t need to hear that. Listen, if you’re there to support me, you’re there to support me. Same goes with trans stuff.
And also realizing that you can be wrong, and realizing that it’s not the end of the world.
An ally’s job is to amplify the voice of marginalized minorities. It should never be about you. The moment it becomes about you that’s when you’re not an ally.
AR: That’s so real, and it also makes me wonder if another thing that can get under your skin is, “Oh wow, you look so much like a woman.”
KB: There are a lot of really gorgeous transwomen so you shouldn’t expect for us to not be good looking. Really good looking. Transmen, transwomen…and we’ve been around for a long time now. It’s not new! I know that the media is just now talking about it but we’ve existed for quite some time. So it shouldn’t be surprising to you that we look good!
I think that the real woman part is the thing that really bothers me. Real woman, as if I’m a fake woman! Like I’m a parody or a knock off. We’re both real women. I’m real, I’m tagible, I exist, so respect that. I don’t need the qualifier to say that I’m pretty.
It seems to come across as complimenting the ability to pass.
Some people really do give those compliments to make themselves feel like they’ve done something great today. I say thank you but I let them know that I’m very aware that I look good…’cause I know. But thank you anyway!
AR: Is there anything else that you want to add in general Something that cisgender girls might not think is offensive but actually is…
KB: I transitioned in college, and it became a very interesting situation because I had about a month of awkwardness but then I was quote unquote passable. There were a lot of situations in which my teacher just thought I was a girl, but I had one class in particular where whenever the teacher would refer to me as her or she, people would giggle. As if people could every believe that I’m a girl.
When someone tells them who they are, who their identity is, what their name is. Don’t challenge it! Don’t like say, oh, I don’t like that name, or maybe we should do this name. If someone says, hey these are my pronouns this is my name, I understand that you’ve known me for X amount of time in one way or another, but this is who i am. accept it! dont’ challenge it, don’t make a joke about it.
People don’t understand that for some trans people a little bit of misgendering, esppecilly when it is unintentional, it can be really really hurtful. It can ruin your entire day, it really can. I’ve cut people out of my life if they couldn’t get it in X amount of time. If they dd’t get it they didn’t get it and I wasn’t associated with them anymore.
I just remembered a really big one for me: Outting trans people, that’s my biggest pet peeve. In my last year of college…I told one person, thinking that I could trust them. Then this person’s roommate started getting really into me and she felt the need to tell him, and he freaked out and told another person who told another person who told another person. Something like that can get somebody killed. That wasn’t the situation for me but people don’t understand that transgirls get killed all the time simply because a man was attracted to them and they couldn’t process that attraction, and a lot of guys react with violence. So it’s super important to recognize, you know what, that’s their job to tell someone. If they’re not telling anybody, don’t offer it for them.
Do you have any other questions about what is and isn’t appropriate to say to a transgender woman? Are you a transgirl who has gotten a lot of awkward questions? Tell us in the comments!