You’re at a social gathering, standing there in a small circle with your sweating drink in hand, the residue of that handful of mixed nuts you just ate in your teeth.
The conversation suddenly shifts to Caitlyn Jenner, and you feel the sudden urge to disappear. Your stomach gets tight, you begin to sweat. You are uncomfortable.
The conversation swirls around you, and there you are standing with your sweaty drink and your sweaty face looking like you’ve been living in a cave for the past six months.
You have nothing to say because you don’t know what to say. Everyone else around you seems to be talking so easily about the subject, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
So you just don’t say anything.
Sound familiar? I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all been in situations where we didn’t know what to say because we were uncomfortable or didn’t know how to talk about the subject.
Learning the language of a group or culture you are not a part of is intimidating. I get that.
I am trans-identified and I struggle with insecurities around making sure I am the most up-to-date on my language because it changes so quickly and seemingly all of the time.
I, too, am worried about saying the wrong thing.
So today I’ve compiled a 4-step process to help us all speak with more confidence when speaking about trans identities/concepts/lives.
Step 1: Do your research.
Look up things you don’t understand. Look up basic definitions of terms and concepts. This Transgender FAQ from GLAAD is a great place to begin. Attend a training like my Trans 101: The Essentials. Read books. The internet is a wealth of information. Just make sure you’re getting that information from sources who know what they’re talking about (i.e., experts on the topic).
In general, try not to make individual trans people in your life responsible for educating you on all things trans. We are each experts on ourselves and our own gender identities, but we cannot and should not be asked to speak for “the trans experience” (which doesn’t exist).
Take responsibility for your own learning. One exception here is around pronouns. It is always, always better to ask someone directly about their gender pronouns than making an assumption.
Step 2: Be willing to make mistakes.**
We’re all going to get it wrong sometimes. That’s just the truth. So give it a go. I get the fear of saying something wrong. I get the fear of being called out. I do.
The truth is: sometimes people need to be called out and corrected. Otherwise, how can change occur? Someone might need to know that it’s not cool to use the term transvestite anymore unless a person who identifies that way specifically asks for you to use that term when referring to them (more about this in an upcoming post). Someone might need to be reminded that this particular trans person uses female pronouns.
If the mistake isn’t addressed, how can we move forward?
And, yes, there is a range of ways a mistake can be called out, which could be an entire post in and of itself. For the sake of brevity today, check out this badass article on the art of “calling in” rather than calling out.
**The willingness to make mistakes is really for friends, family members, and allies of trans and gender nonconforming folks. The wonderful people who make up the medical establishment and other service-based systems should have adequate training to serve trans and gender nonconforming people with competence and dignity. For real.
Step 3: Learn from your mistakes.
If you make a mistake and someone points it out to you, or you realize you made a mistake, do something different next time! If you use the wrong pronouns for someone, correct it in the moment, move on, and use the correct ones next time.
For me—and I clearly do not speak for all trans people—I don’t expect perfection in my interactions with others around my trans identity. What means the most to me is when someone makes a mistake, they apologize and then make a change. Because I can see intention in that. The intention to learn and to grow because it’s important to me and, therefore, important to them.
I want to acknowledge that it is human to feel defensive when someone calls you out. We don’t like to be wrong. We all carry varying degrees of shame around with us.
Remember that sacred pause I mentioned in my last post? I encourage you to practice that here as well.
The best thing you can do when someone says, “But I’ve told you 50 times to call me by the right name! What’s your problem?!” (or some variation of that) is to step back, take time to think about your reaction, and remember that that person wants to be loved and accepted and seen for who they are, just as you do.
The worst thing you could do is say, “Hey, this is really hard for me because you’ll always be Marge to me! I don’t know why you have to get so mad, it’s just a name!”
It’s not just a name. It’s their identity and sense of being in the world. You have no say over that. And, ultimately, it’s not about you.
Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3.
Learning is a process. So be prepared to repeat these steps. There is no level of knowing to “arrive” at here. There is a foundation upon which things can be built, yes, but there will always be more to learn.
You can either feel overwhelmed and discouraged by that, or you can feel inspired by the fact that there will always be new ways to allow for people to be who they are.
There you have it.
Are there any steps you would add to this process? What pieces, if any, of this 4-step process seem challenging or easy for you? Let me know in the comments.
Know someone who could use some more confidence when speaking about trans stuff? Share this post with them.
We all need to be able to speak about those who are different from us with respect and knowledge. Why? Look around you. Unless you live in a bubble, we are interacting with those who are different from us all. of. the. time.
We need to be having conversations about trans identities and experiences rather than sitting in silence because we are afraid of getting it wrong. Why? Because it’s important.
Because conversation = visibility = existence = worth = life.
Thanks for being part of the conversation with me.