In the end, it’s impossible to tell you how to relate to a transperson.
Sure, we can put down a list of guidelines and such, but the truth is that every transperson is one of a kind, with their own unique mix of experience, skills and attitude. They are a unique individual.
TBB was talking about new people coming into her workplace. Because they know they are going to meet a transperson, they are prepared, she told me.
I suggested one other factor at work. She has worked hard to build relationships with her co-workers. That means when a new person comes in, they can watch lots of people interacting well and easily with her. This gives them models, template of ways that they can interact with her. If other people seem to have a good connection, then new people know that they can have a good connection, too.
The way people find common ground is by approximating stereotypes. When I meet you, I need to make some assumptions about you, based on what you show me. I assume you speak English, for example. That may not be true, and I may have to correct that assumption if I find you are a tourist, but around here, that’s a safe assumption 99.99% of the time, even if the odds are less than that in NYC, for example.
We guess at a way to communicate and connect with you, and then, as we learn more about you, we tighten our understanding, hopefully getting more effective and focused as we learn more about each other.
There are times when these assumptions are just blocks to communications. If you assume I am a devotee of Rush Limbaugh, for example, we will have trouble finding common ground. And if you then figure out I am not a devotee and assume I am an idiot not to be a ditto head, we will still have trouble finding common ground.
The approximating assumption system works for humans who are open to learning, though. It is the best we have found.
The problem when you meet a transperson is trying to get the initial assumptions right, then understanding what the answers mean.
In other words, when they meet a transperson, people want to know “so what game we are playing here?”
Should I assume you think you are passing? Should I assume you think you are in costume? Should I assume you are out and trans? Where the heck do we start with this conversation?
Some would say that you should never assume, because it makes an ass out of u and me, but asking every person we meet what their preferred pronoun is would only seem to work in social justice settings. I do know people who have buttons announcing it, but in my experience the worst way to convey your gender is to tell someone; much better to show them, as my writing teacher always told me.
It was a big day for TBB when she started making clear, reasonably early in relationships, that she was out as transgender. This let others breathe a bit, not having to police themselves so much around her, and that openness started to work better than when she just kept her head down, even if every new announcement felt a bit risky. After all, what if they judge her or choose to project their binary view of reality over her own expression?
Of course, this wasn’t magic. There is still so much about transgender lives that is not in the common understanding, the common vernacular, that communication blocks are bound to come up. Even inside the interlocking communities around trans we don’t have many common conventions, which leads to lots of projection of our views and assumptions onto others. Often we can’t even convey our experience and understandings because we have no common experience or language to share these things.
There is another transwoman in TBB’s organization who has moved upstairs to the office. Her expression just isn’t so polished, so it takes longer for new people to develop a framework for communicating with her, even if those around her have it down now.
TBB acknowledges, though, that her being out made the organization easier for TBB to join, because more people had confidence and tools to engage a transwoman.
And TBB has continued that tradition, taking the time to build relationships that then both model for others how they can interact with a transperson and allow people to carry those models forward with them to others they meet.
This is a big underlying secret about trans: when you learn how to engage people as unique individuals, you don’t just do better with transpeople, you do better with everyone you meet, because each of us is a unique individual.
My 1996 flyer about Transgender For Employers, which was used by gender programs, comes to that conclusion. Being better and more open about figuring out what game we are playing here means being better at all relationships.
There are no fixed rules about how to deal with a transperson. The best you can do is be open to who they tell you they are, open to what they are trying to communicate, even if you need to open your own worldview to understand. You have to meet them where they are, in other words.
And that is often the start of a very useful and warm human game.