For a brief, shining moment, things were really looking up for trans people in America. We came out into the light, hesitantly at first and then more confidently. Even as states and governments tried to oppress us, we fought back and won. We obtained civil rights protections and clear guidance for insurance companies. It wasn’t a clear upward trajectory, and some groups in the trans community had a much more difficult time than others, but progress looked like it was progressing.
And then the country elected Donald Trump. The president himself isn’t responsible for every single problem faced by trans people everywhere, but he’s a part of it. Conservative bigots in America are emboldened by what they see as a decisive win for hateful values, and that’s going to encourage them to strip civil rights protections. To attempt to bar us from public life. To discriminate against us and ignore us when we are brutalized. Which puts us in a terrible position, and it also puts us in a terrible position with respect to you, cis people, because many of us were more open and less careful in the last few years because we thought things were getting better, and now you have power over us.
Let’s be clear: There is always a power dynamic between cis and trans people, and we are always on the bottom end of it. There is a privilege dynamic as well. And there is a spectrum of privilege — trans men tend to be safer than trans women, white trans people are safer than trans people of colour, nondisabled trans people have advantages over disabled trans people. There are shades of nuance and complexity here.
But right now, it is very important to recognise the fact that if you you are cis and you know someone who is trans, you have power over them, both because you are cis and because you know they are trans. You may even know their deadname. This is knowledge that cannot be unknown, which means that you need to be aware of that power, and extremely careful about how it influences the way you interact with the world.
Put bluntly: If you know someone is trans, do not assume that person is out. Don’t assume that everyone else knows this person is trans, yes, even if they’re pretty open about it and talk about it. Unless the trans person is in the room acknowledging that they are trans, then don’t discuss their gender. Obviously, if a trans person is a public figure, that’s a bit different…but again, make sure you have heard them talk or write openly about their gender on the record. I know trans public figures who are not out. I know some who are casually out — a fair number of people know, it’s pretty obvious, they talk about trans issues a lot, but they still haven’t explicitly said ‘I am trans’ in a public place, and that is something I need to be cautious about when talking about them.
If someone speculates about a person’s gender, politely redirect the conversation. If politeness doesn’t work, pull a Miss Manners ‘pardon me?’ and ask why that’s any of their business. Not sure about how to do that without it feeling awkward, or without inadvertently outing the person you are trying to protect?
If someone outright speculates whether someone is trans, you can say: ‘Does it really matter?’ or ‘I’m sure she’ll say something if it’s relevant.’ You’re not confirming or denying that person’s gender, but you are making it clear that it’s not appropriate to hold a referendum on anyone’s gender. If you think it would be weird to say ‘I wonder if so-and-so is cis?’ it should be equally weird to say ‘I wonder if so-and-so is trans?’
If someone asks why a person talks about trans issues all the time, you can say: ‘Maybe because they think they are interesting?’ or ‘I know he’s very politically engaged, so it’s likely an issue he cares about. You don’t have to be trans to care about trans issues.’
If you’re assembling that supercool and empowering list of LGBQT authors/tweeters/knitters/legislators/local business owners/whatever, take the time to independently and clearly verify that every single person you want to list is okay with being on that list. Be aware that even if someone is on the public record and LGBQT, that doesn’t always mean they want to be added to a list, because these kinds of lists can be used to target people for boycotting, harassment, and abuse.
If someone comes out to you, ask them which pronouns they use and in which settings. For example, some nonbinary people use pronouns variably — maybe xe wants to be referred to as ‘xe’ among friends and in trans-safe spaces, but prefers ‘he’ in spaces that are less safe or where xe is not out. Using the wrong pronoun can out someone, and if you know a person uses variable pronouns, make sure you know when and where to use what. If you aren’t sure, avoid pronouns altogether to dodge the issue.
Similarly, explicitly ask ‘are you fully out?’ If they are, that doesn’t mean you should promptly go about shouting that Clarice is trans, but if they are not, that alerts you to the fact that you should be careful about how you discuss them. You can also explicitly ask ‘if someone asks me if you are trans, what would you like me to say?’
If you know someone’s deadname, pretend you do not. Don’t use it, don’t think about it. Clarice has always been Clarice. No formerly or once known or anything else. Clarice is Clarice. Period. If you catch someone using a person’s deadname, tell them to stop. It is extremely easy to casually out someone by using the wrong name. If you’re ‘having trouble’ with their name, remember that they have been ‘having trouble’ with being called by the wrong name for years and possibly decades. You can figure it out.
Image: Trans*March Berlin 2014, Franziska Neumeister, Flickr