Since stepping foot in journalism school I’ve been reminded of my own ignorance with each new assignment. I’ve been surprised and delighted at the variety of communities and issues in my surroundings. I’ve learned about sexual assault on college campuses, settler/aboriginal dynamics, and this week I’m taking on the topic of gender neutral washrooms on campus.
For individuals like myself who have seen the world through a binary lens for most of our lives, it can be difficult to know how to navigate this new gender spectrum. I came across a post by Big Bro’s Barbershop about how to rephrase some common “Trans 101” questions journos ask to ensure a positive, respectful and useful discussion. I reposted it below as I found it really helpful:
“What is your gender/do you identify as transgender?”
Similar to: “Are you gay?”
This question may be relevant to your piece and the answer may not necessarily be a secret, but it’s an offputting first question. While asking for someone’s pronoun is socially similar to asking someone’s name, asking for someone’s gender – especially if clarifying whether or not this person is trans – is a touch more intimate.
Suggested modification: “How would you best describe your gender?” (do not use as first question; if the person does not disclose that they are trans in their response, do not press for more information)
“How do you identify?”
Similar to: “What are you supposed to be?”
While it may seem to be a very similar question to the suggested modification above, try to avoid leaning too heavily on how someone identifies, or their “preferred” pronouns – remember that this person IS their gender, and their pronouns are either correct or incorrect.
Suggested modification: see above.
“Are you on hormones/how long have you been on hormones?”
Similar to: “How long have you been taking antidepressants?”
If you are asking about someone’s hormone replacement therapy, you are asking about their medical history. Some people will be more than happy to talk about their progress on HRT, but do not expect your subject to be excited to discuss their prescriptions with you.
Suggested modification, general: If it’s not relevant to your piece, don’t ask.
Suggested modification, if relevant: “How has your life been affected since starting hormone replacement therapy?”
“Have you had the surgery/any surgeries?”
Similar to: “Pardon me, ma’am, but do you still have a womb, or have you undergone a hysterectomy?”
General rule of thumb: unless your interviewee brings it up first, never ask about a person’s genitals. Ever. The ONLY exception in which a surgery-related question is appropriate is if you are doing a story/project about the surgeon, and you are looking for subjects who have had work done by that person. In that case, put out a call and don’t ask strangers.
Suggested modification: Just don’t ask this question.
“Have you experienced any harassment as a trans person?”
Similar to: “Have you ever been sexually or physically assaulted?”
Some clients will be happy to talk to you about the difficulties they face as a trans person, but keep in mind that many will have a traumatic history with transphobic violence. Ask about their experiences cautiously.
Suggested modification: “Have you encountered difficulties at other barbershops/salons/businesses based on your (perceived) gender?” (Phrasing on this question isn’t hugely important, but express your context accordingly – are you asking about workplace discrimination? Housing? Social?)
“How have your parents responded to your transition?”
Similar to: “How does your husband feel about your career choice?”
Many trans narratives are told from the perspective of those “affected” by their transgender loved ones in order to keep stories relatable to the public, rather than the perspective of the person who is actually trans. Those who have perfectly fine relationships with their family may be happy to discuss this; those who have been turned away may not wish to speak to you about that.
(On a personal note: I’m happy to talk about how accepting my family has been about my transition, but my mother passed away in 2012 and that was a really difficult time – it’s kind of uncomfortable talking about family with strangers if I don’t want to get into my mother’s death. Family is complicated! -Jessie)
Suggested modification: “Have you felt supported in your transition?”
“…Biologically male/female…”; “…Female/male-bodied…”; “…Born a boy/girl…”
Similar to: “Before coming out as a homosexual six years ago, Jared was born a male heterosexual.”
Phrasing around trans bodies can be a challenge. Consider: is it relevant for your piece? If a trans woman has a body, then it is her female body; if a trans man has genitals, those are his male genitals. Each transgender person has a different relationship to their body, but regardless, it’s their own body, not someone else’s! Some women have penises; some men have vaginas.
Suggested modification: If mentioning a person’s body type is important for your piece, try explaining someone as AFAB/AMAB (Assigned Female/Male At Birth) or CAMAB/CAFAB (Coercively Assigned Male/Female At Birth). Stating that someone is a transgender man or transgender woman will usually communicate everything you need as far as binary genders go; CAMAB/CAFAB and AMAB/AFAB come in handy if needing to discuss a non-binary person’s backstory. (These can be helpful terms across the board: if you are a cisgender* man, you could also describe yourself as AMAB.)
*cisgender = non-transgender; used to avoid implications that some people are “normal” or “biological” while others are not
“What is your real name/what was your name prior to your transition?”
Similar to: What was your abusive ex’s favourite pet name for you?
If you are asking your subject to sign a legally-binding consent form, it is appropriate for you to ask them to sign it with their legal name. Otherwise, it is not necessary for you to know or have access to any name other than the one your subject introduces themselves with.
Suggested modification: Do not ask this question; if you happen to know the person’s legal name, do not use it or comment on it.
“What bathroom do you use?”
Similar to: “What feminine hygiene products do you use?”
This is another question that comes down to context. If your story is about trans inclusion in bathrooms, then variations of this question are very helpful in order to make change! If this is the case, follow this up with a question about what bathroom trans people would like to use, and why. If you are asking out of morbid curiousity, mind your own business – this is another genital-related question, with loaded societal expectations piled on top.
Suggested modification: “How do you navigate public bathrooms? Is there anything that can be done to make bathrooms a less stressful situation?”
“How do you have sex/who do you have sex with?”
Similar to: “How do you have sex/who do you have sex with?”
Put yourself into your subject’s shoes, and determine from there if these questions are appropriate. Are you doing a study on HIV transmission among MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) and you are aiming to be trans-inclusive? In that case, these intimate questions would be very appropriate for your project. Otherwise, mind your own business.
Suggested modification, general: Just don’t.
Suggested modification, medical: “Of the following sex acts, which do you routinely participate in?” “What were the genders of your recent sexual partners?”
*Hint: For more ideas about appropriate vs. inappropriate questions for transgender people, watch some Laverne Cox interviews on YouTube, and consider her responses to questions about her body and physical process!
4) It is often expected that trans people will set time aside in their day to discuss their lives and struggles with cisgender people in exchange for hopeful social change, while their interviewer is able to cash in their project for a salary or school credit. If you really want to impress your subject, offer them something – anything – in exchange for their time!
Another helpful beginner article: