5 Questions You Should Never Ask a Trans Person

August 2nd 2015

I like to think of myself as a pretty liberal, sensitive, and open-minded person. Which is maybe part of the reason why I found myself at an impasse when it came to learning about the transgender community. What are the questions I should ask? What are the things I should know without having to ask? Stuck between wanting to know things and not wanting to be rude, I sat in fear of the topic.

Then recently, while filming season four of Catfish, I met a transgender woman named Arista. (but wait, do I write “transgender woman” or “woman in transition” or just “woman”?) See, even in writing this article, I’m painfully aware of how much I don’t know. I texted Arista to ask, and she preferred I say simply “woman.” So the learning begins.

Now, if you aren’t close friends with someone who is transgender, these sorts of questions might feel awkward or rude. And, to a transgender person you’re meeting for the first time, they might definitely seem rude. That's why I’m writing this guide with Arista...for us to all get on the same page.

1. Don’t ask me if I’m gay.

"Although we do share the LGBT community and we're proud of doing so, transgender is not the same as gay," Arista told me.

So, if they aren’t the same thing, what is transgender and what is gay?

From the GLAAD Media Reference Guide:

Transgender man
People who were assigned female at birth but identify and live as a man may use this term to describe themselves. They may shorten it to trans man. (Note: trans man, not "transman.") Some may also use FTM, an abbreviation for female-to-male. Some may prefer to simply be called men, without any modifier. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.

Transgender woman
People who were assigned male at birth but identify and live as a woman may use this term to describe themselves. They may shorten to trans woman. (Note: trans woman, not "transwoman.") Some may also use MTF, an abbreviation for male-to-female. Some may prefer to simply be called women, without any modifier. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.

Sexual Orientation
Describes an individual's enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to another person. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would identify as a straight woman.

2. Don’t ask me if I’m a boy.

"I'm not a boy; I'm a transgender female born physically male," Arista said.

This can be really tricky, especially when trying to refer to somebody in conversation. A gay female friend who is often mistaken for a man recently told me about how she was at a restaurant the other day, and when the waiter came over to take their orders, he knelt down beside her and said, “Excuse me, what gender pronoun would you prefer I use?” She was flattered that he would ask and pleased to have been given the courtesy. So, if you want to know what gender someone identifies as, one solution could be to politely ask.

3. Don’t ask me if I’ve had surgery.

"I feel as if people want to know this to define your gender themselves, but being transgender has nothing to do with whether or not you've had surgery," Arista explained.

From GLAAD's Tips for Allies of Transgender People:

It would be inappropriate to ask a non-transgender person about the appearance or status of their genitals, and it's equally inappropriate to ask a transgender person those questions. Don't ask if a transgender person has had "the surgery" or if they are "pre-op" or "post-op." If a transgender person wants to talk to you about such matters, they will bring it up. Similarly, it wouldn't be appropriate to ask a non-transgender person about how they have sex, so the same courtesy should be extended to transgender people.

4. Don’t ask me how long I’ve been 'that' way.

"There's not a time we choose to be transgender," Arista said. "There is a time we choose to transition."

From GLAAD's Tips for Allies of Transgender People:

Some transgender people access medical care like hormones and surgery as part of their transition. Some transgender people want their authentic gender identity to be recognized without hormones or surgery. Some transgender people cannot access medical care, hormones, and/or surgery due to lack of financial resources. A transgender identity is not dependent on medical procedures. Just accept that if someone tells you they are transgender - they are.

5. Even if I’m outwardly comfortable with my gender, don't assume that I’m not struggling on the inside.

"I wish people knew the struggle and unhappiness that we go through being different because of the barriers society has put on the transgender community," Arista told me.

The good news is that we can all be in this together, and feeling comfortable talking about it is the first step. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to keep learning about and promoting acceptance of the LGBT community.

Here are some more helpful articles:

Words can hurt. Learn the right ones.

Avoid “You’re so brave” and other backhanded compliments. Helpful Tips for Allies of Transgender People.

10 Ways You Can Take Action and be an Ally to Trans Friends.

Are you a journalist? Learn how to correctly write about transgender.

How to Respond to the Caitlyn Jenner memes.

How to spot offensive Trans stereotypes in the media.

How to be an ally as a public figure.

Think you might be Trans?

Know your legal rights.

Check out ATTN:'s recent video on the transgender community's battle over bathrooms:


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