Since today is Trans Visibilty Day, I wanted to discuss a short video:
“7 Things You Should Never Ask a Trans (or Gender Non-Conforming) Person” with Hari Nef. In the video Hari Nef, a transgender actress, model, and writer, discusses her list of forbidden questions. Because this video was intended for Teen Vogue, it is very accessible to a large audience but is still educational and contains useful reflections. I would like to provide further commentary on Nef’s list.
1. Are you a boy or a girl?
This question may seem harmless, considering it could be used to determine the correct pronouns. However, if someone is non-binary, presents differently than they identify, or somehow doesn’t align with your assumptions, “Are you a boy or a girl?” reveals itself as an invasive question, targeted at putting someone into one of the two binary boxes that we have been conditioned to. With genuine respect, it is appropriate to ask someone which pronouns they use. “Which pronouns do you use?” is free of assumption. “Are you a boy or a girl” exemplifies an assumed sex-gender-pronoun correlation, which does not exist.
2. Have you had all the surgeries or will you fully transition?
Even with personal relationships and friendships asking anyone “What kind of surgeries have you had?” is usually not appropriate. This question, in simple etiquette, should not be asked. This shows how entitled people may feel to information about trans bodies. When someone is outside of the “sex = gender” binary, they do not require detailed explanation for existing.
3. So does this mean you’re gay now?
This question is equating sexuality with gender identity. The two are not correlative. A person’s sexuality is an identifier that they do not have to link to a particular gender (of their own or their partner’s).
4. What’s your real name?
Like the surgery question, this is a matter of respect. Trans and gender non-conforming people do not owe any more personal information than gender conforming people. The right to someone’s previous identity is irrelevant in almost every situation. One’s “real name” is the name they use, really. Hari Nef brings up the great point that many trans and gender non-conforming people associate their birth name with their assigned gender at birth, and changing that name can be a pivotal process in transitioning. As Julia Serano states in Performance Piece: “ I am sometimes accused of impersonation or deception when I am simply being myself.” Being asked for a “real name” is a subversive way of saying “ I know you aren’t who you say you are.”
5. When did you know?
This question is interesting. It’s implications are subtle but essentially it is implying that there is some grand (binary) revelation. Discovering gender is typically not a moment of “Oh, I’m not really a boy, I’m a GIRL!” It is more likely multiple stages occured in the process of someone realizing their current gender identity.
6. What happens if you want to go back?
This question goes along with question 5, as well. As someone is going through the process of exploring and identifying their gender, they may question their actions and their desires, but that doesn’t make them any less of a man or a woman or a gender fluid person or any other identifier they use. Gender should not be treated like an on/off switch. In reality someone can transition from a more masculine gender to a more feminine gender and back to a more masculine gender, in a fluid manner. This does not mean they were a man, became a woman, and “switched back” to a man.
7. Where to you get the strength to be so brave everyday?
Although this question seems to be supporting trans and gender non-conforming individuals as they live as an oppressed group, it can come across as infantilizing or other-ing those who are not cisgender. As much as anyone is trying to just live in a comfortable way, trans and gender non-conforming people, are doing the same. A trans person making toast in the morning is no braver than a cis person making toast in the morning.
After watching this video, I was reminded even more of Julia Serano’s Performance Piece. She gives several reminders to her readers that you cannot view gender as a performance, meaning everyone is actively living their gender, thinking things in their own mind— and it is not our place to question it or label it. Although the video does not take a stance on gender being a performance or construction, Hari Nef speaks of gender mostly as “how you want to be in the world,” which is a nice statement regarding gender as existence, not an act. Viewing the questions above, as questioning the way someone exists, reveals how aggressive and unpleasant they can be to hear.
Julia Serano, “Performance Piece,” in Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2013), 105–8