By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
Last night at work I was asked a question. I get asked a lot of questions, frankly, and this was not a notable or strange question. I’d barely even mention it if not for the fact that I thought it was the right question, asked in the right way.
The person who asked me was someone I have come to know well enough through some months of working with them. Restaurant work tends to breed a particularly close and rough intimacy. I won’t say it’s like a war zone, but it is a high-stress environment that absolutely requires a high level of cooperation and synchronization to function efficiently, or even, just to function at all.
Also, what you should know about me is that I have varying levels of filters that I employ depending on the people I am with, the situation, and the context. I have to consciously employ these filters because left to my own default settings; I actually have very few filters. Being in a high-stress environment with people I need to trust tends to lower those filters dramatically. So much that I sometimes worry about my tendency to “story tell” when it’s slow at work. I have a lot of stories, many of which are decidedly not suitable for work.
Anyway, all of that is to explain that it was entirely within the bounds of contextual reason for this person to ask me questions about trans stuff.
The question asked, which I’d like to share with you here, was (paraphrasing), “Is it appropriate for me to ask a trans person about their experiences being trans?” To be clear, this wasn’t asking permission of me personally, that permission was already implied by the context explained above. This was in reference to other trans people this co-worker knows.
It’s kind of a 101-y question, which I usually avoid here in my search for deeper complexities. But basics are still important to remember sometimes. So I’d like to share my answer to them, as well as to the small crowd of co-workers gathered around this exchange, with you.
What I told them was that it depends on several factors, which must be taken into account. Are you friends? Acquaintances? Co-workers? Family? Most importantly, how close are you to this trans person? Do you have a relationship where you share personal things? Would you feel comfortable asking them about personal, or even intimate, details? More importantly, would they be comfortable being asked about personal, intimate things? Are they comfortable asking these sorts of things of you?
If the answer to these last couple of questions is yes, or even maybe, then you might be on solid footing asking a trans person about their experiences.
There are also a few other factors worth taking into account, however. Where are you? Are you chilling together on the couch at home? Hanging out at the bar? Or, are you at work? Are you alone, or is there a larger group?
To answer these additional questions, consider what you yourself might feel comfortable being asked about and talking about in these situations. Would you be comfortable sharing an intimate and very personal story, one that opens you up and makes you potentially quite vulnerable?
You have to consider all of these things. It’s a flow chart of context and consideration.
Of course, if you’re playing the home game, you will realize by now that even this fairly 101-y topic ends up becoming quite complex. There is no, “Yes, it is appropriate.” Or “No, it is not appropriate.”
That’s why I’m always encouraging people to think for themselves. Because as much as we’d like to live in a simple world; the world we actually inhabit is not. People are not.
Of course, in the context of closing the night down at a restaurant, I conveyed all this in a more condensed and slightly bawdier fashion. I also threw in a couple of anecdotes and expansions. I mentioned how often people will ask me about the state of my genitalia before we have even been introduced; something which the gathered crowd immediately connected with as incredibly inappropriate. Thus bolstering my previous point.
I’m nothing if not a skilled polemicist.
I also threw in a couple of things to never do, things that are worth sharing here.
Never tell a trans person that you could totally tell they were trans before they told you, even if you genuinely feel like you could and did know. It’s just rude and it sometimes hurts. On the flip side, never tell a trans person that you totally couldn’t tell that weren’t a “real boy” or a “real girl” as the case may be. We are real boys and girls. Period.
Additionally, it’s very poor form to say to a non-binary trans person, “Yeah, but which are you more? A boy or a girl?” Just don’t.
Okay, before I finish, one last thing. Go back and see how I managed to avoid unnecessarily gendering anyone I was talking about in this column.
See how easy that was?
*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: email@example.com.