As Slate’s primary comment moderator, I see a lot of rude, poorly worded, or clueless questions about transgender people. Sometimes they are even sincere! Although all these questions have answers, they are often presented as if they represent a sort of trump card—inquiries that I, as a transgender person, won’t have heard before. So, as a public service to the people asking these questions—and those who, like me, grow tired of re-answering them—I’ve collected them into one big politically incorrect trans FAQ. They are hereby settled definitively for all time.
Doesn’t everyone have an obvious, natural birth gender, which is the only gender grouping that they could ever really be said to be part of?
There are a large number of conditions (called intersex conditions) that make the task of assigning every baby a binary gender at birth impossible and/or arbitrary. Some of these conditions are chromosomal, others are hormonal, and it’s not impossible that even subtler intersex conditions exist and that these lead to trans people experiencing what we call gender dysphoria, a deep, pervasive discomfort with aspects of one’s birth gender. One day, we may better understand the biological and cultural underpinnings of sex differences, but right now we can definitively say that nature has given us a more complex system than a simple binary of male and female.
OK, but other than intersex people, I can tell what gender a person was born into by looking at them, right?
Leaving trans people aside for a moment, there are tall cis women who get mistaken for men quite regularly, sometimes even to the extent of being challenged when using the women’s bathroom. There are cis men, usually with long hair, who likewise get misgendered. The sex of babies and children is distinguished by clothing color and haircuts, not by any visible trait. Aging makes women appear more masculine than they appear in youth. And, of course, many trans people “pass,” meaning that their trans history is not apparent to others.
If you overconfidently believe in your ability to spot the trans people, you will inevitably end up rudely misgendering a tall cis woman with angular facial features or a small-handed cis man with some feminine mannerisms. Even if you’re not concerned about the feelings of actual trans people, perhaps this possibility will give you pause.
I still think I am a more accurate judge of other people’s gender than they are. Do I really have to use transgender people’s preferred pronouns?
To intentionally call attention to the fact that another person is trans and that you, personally, question the legitimacy of trans identities does not make you a bold truth-teller any more than the 12-year-old who calls her grandmother out for the ugliness of her Christmas sweater is a bold truth-teller. You are, of course, entitled to your opinions, but basic politeness dictates that you not needlessly antagonize or humiliate other people in public.
My Christian church believes in strict gender roles. What does the Bible have to say that I can use to condemn transgender people?
Although any Bible passage that mentions men and women could theoretically be used as a clobber passage against trans people, the scriptural case for two rigidly enforced, immutable genders is very hard to make. In the Torah, scholars say that one of the deepest mysteries is the nonbinary nature of God, who encompasses both male and female. Androgyny in humans may even have been taken as a sign of the divine in ancient Jewish culture. In the time of Jesus, eunuchs—who had been castrated and existed somewhere outside of the two binary categories of gender—were commonplace, and positive references to eunuchs and castration in the New Testament are interpreted by some as a biblical acknowledgement that some people do not neatly fit into male or female categories.
If feminists believe that gender is socially constructed, then doesn’t that mean there’s no such thing as transgender people? Please pat me on the back for being the first person to expose this liberal hypocrisy.
Not so fast. Although it is surely true that believing gender is 100 percent socially constructed is not compatible with the view that transgender identities are 100 percent inborn, there are a great many ways to merge an understanding of the socially constructed aspects of gender with acceptance of transgender people’s innate desire to transition. As with most complex traits, there are likely genetic and environmental factors contributing to this thing we call gender. You have not blown anyone’s mind, and this is not an unresolvable conflict within liberal thinking. Next!
What are the essential qualities that make a man a man, or a woman a woman, if it isn’t only their biological sex?
Ah, a philosopher! Some people believe that “man” and “woman” are convenient social constructs that human cultures have overlaid on a messier, less binary set of natural world conditions. Other people believe in a platonic ideal of “male” and “female” that exists in some objective sense, apart from our construction of it—perhaps on some higher plane of ideal forms, or in the mind of God, or what have you. Both these positions are perfectly compatible with respect for trans identities.
I am unable to remember which trans people are trans men and which ones are trans women. I’m not trying to offend anyone, but how can I keep the two straight in my mind?
My own mother used to have this problem. It helped her to mentally insert the word to between trans and man or woman. Thinking trans-to-man or trans-to-woman helped, because it reminded her that trans men have transitioned to be men and trans women have transitioned to be women. Here’s hoping it helps you, too.
Is this whole transgender thing a fad?
Sure, if by a fad you mean that there’s been a recent surge of interest in trans people and their ongoing fight to live safely and with dignity. That doesn’t mean that people desiring to live as members of the opposite sex are new or that large numbers of people are being influenced to change their genders.
What happens when men claim to be transgender in order to infiltrate women’s bathrooms? Can any pervert in a dress enter the ladies’ now?
If a man seeks to infiltrate a woman’s bathroom for the purpose of assaulting or harassing women, that’s illegal, regardless of whether trans people are allowed to use the facilities. A man claiming to be trans to enter the women’s bathroom for nefarious purposes will be caught and punished for the nefarious purposes, and rightly so. Men have entered women’s bathrooms and assaulted or peeped in the past without donning women’s clothing or claiming to be transgender—laws that target transgender people will not prevent this, but they will not enable it either.
If your concern is not about harassment or assault, but simply that some people using the bathroom might be sexually interested in other people using the bathroom, then gay men and lesbians would, in theory, be equally unfit to use multi-stall restrooms. If the concern is that you might feel uncomfortable knowing a penis might exist somewhere in the same room where you relieve yourself, I don’t know what to say except that your mild discomfort seems irrational to me.
If you’re transgender man, does that mean you have a penis? (Or, if you’re a transgender woman, do you have a vagina?) How and when will you be obtaining this essential equipment?
There are many medical interventions that transgender people avail themselves of to more closely match their bodies and appearance to one that will allow them move through the world as comfortably as possible. Genital surgery is one of these, but there is also chest surgery, facial surgery, and of course hormone replacement therapy. Genital surgery was once seen as necessary for a gender transition, but over time it’s become clear that not all trans people feel the need for genital surgery in order to live comfortably as their post-transition gender. One driver of this has been the experience of trans men, many of whom find the current surgical options for constructing a penis inadequate.
Trans bodies may fascinate you, but unless you’re seeking a sexual relationship with a transgender person, there’s really no pressing need for you to know about their surgical status or their plans in that area. If you think that a penis or vagina is required for every male or female person, reread the resources on intersex conditions.
I believe that some transgender people are legit, but a particular friend or family member of mine seems like a total poser. Can you validate my lack of faith in my friend/relative?
I’d advise you not to worry so much about the motivations of your friend or relative. Not everyone who experiences gender dysphoria or experiments with different gender presentations in youth ends up transitioning. You should let them figure things out for themselves and practice accepting them and loving them, regardless.
So, there you have it. All your rudest, trolliest, most needling questions about trans people answered in one place. If you have a question I didn’t answer, please leave it in the comments.