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What not to say to a transgender person

By T Cooper, Special to CNN
updated 5:38 PM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
  • Inquiry about the anatomy of transgender women has been in the news
  • Author T Cooper, who is a transgender male, says those questions are out of bounds
  • Gender does not boil down to simple anatomy, the author says
  • Cooper offers pointers for appropriate language and topics when talking transgenderism

Editor's note: Kristin Beck, a transgender woman who served for 20 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL, has a simple question for you. How will you answer it? Learn more about Beck's story as CNN Films presents, "Lady Valor," Thursday, at 9 p.m. ET/PT. This piece was originally published January 15, and has been updated.

(CNN) -- Transgender women, it seems, are all the rage.

Or more accurately, a great deal of transgender women seem to be popping up in mainstream media, their lives (and their lives as they lived them in the past) offered up for both audiences and journalists to pick through and scrutinize—and yes, sometimes marvel over.

In some cases, there has been a gratuitous outing, like in Grantland's story about the inventor of a "Magical Putter".

In others, there have been some ruffled feathers, as the mainstream world bumps up against the fact that transgender people are not only among us, but their lives are not so neatly summed up as having been "born into wrong bodies."

Former male model Andrej Pejic revealed to People magazine in July 2014 that she has undergone sex reassignment surgery and is now Andreja. She is one of a few high-profile transgender people. Former male model Andrej Pejic revealed to People magazine in July 2014 that she has undergone sex reassignment surgery and is now Andreja. She is one of a few high-profile transgender people.
Transgender celebrities
Photos: Transgender celebrities Photos: Transgender celebrities

This over-simplification of transpeople's lives was most recently on display when CNN's Piers Morgan seemed to follow fellow journalist Katie Couric's script of reducing transgender lives to "Before" and "After."

Couric, as you may recall, interviewed model Carmen Carrera and "Orange is the New Black" star Laverne Cox on her daytime talk show. Cox and Carrera are both male-to-female transsexual women who are enjoying a level of mainstream success in their respective fields, and they were interviewed for an episode of Couric's show dubbed "Transgender Trailblazers."

As a male transgender trailblazer myself -- meaning I was designated female at birth and transitioned to male later in life -- I watched the "Katie" show with fervent hope that the time had finally come when a transgender subject was not going to be asked about their private parts.

My hopes were swiftly dashed the moment Couric stuttered to Carrera, "Your, your, your private parts are different now, aren't they?"

Transgender Victoria's Secret angel?

Carrera, clearly taken aback, handled the question with poise, politely informing Couric that she was uncomfortable talking about such personal information as her genitalia.

As anyone might be.

When Couric raised the question to Cox later in the show, Cox deftly added that focusing so much attention on transgender people's bodies objectifies them. More critically, she noted, the focus on private parts diverts the cultural discussion from more relevant and pressing issues, such as the violence and discrimination transpeople (and transwomen of color especially) face every day in this country. (In a later show, Couric addressed the response to her questions about their anatomy.)

As someone who has also been asked on multiple occasions by complete strangers what might or might not be happening in my pants, I thought this was a good time to suggest eight things NOT to say to transgender people, a handy list which just might make your office parties, family reunions, jury duty -- or interviews in front of millions of viewers -- go more smoothly.

1. "You look so real, I never would've known!"

While usually said with good intentions, this is one of the more undermining statements. We don't need nontrans people to affirm our gender, nor does the subtle implication that we are fake -- or dressing up and trying to fool you -- ever feel very good. Transgender people are not cubic zirconia.

2. "What do you do with your wife?"

What do you do with yours? Don't assume I -- or any other transgender person -- want to be asked about my sex life any more than you do.

Transgender homecoming queen crowned

3. "I thought you were going to be scary, but you're so polite and normal."

A woman who chauffeured me around a book fair once actually told me this, before admitting that she'd left her children at home when she learned whom she was tasked with driving. I think she thought it was a compliment, but it wasn't. Not even the "normal" part.

4. "I don't care; you'll always be a girl to me."

It's true that your experience is your experience, and mine is my own. But it's simple, common decency to refer to people by both the pronouns and the names they prefer. (So don't continue to use a birth name if you happen to know it, and don't ask, "What's your real name?" if you don't.) Women have been taking their husbands' surnames for centuries, and generations of humans have had little problem making the switch along with them. It's not that difficult to be respectful, so maybe lay off lamenting how hard somebody's transition has been for you.

5. "Aren't you afraid of getting beaten up?"

Thanks for reminding me about that. There was a time early in my transition when a pack of kids on the subway pulled a knife and taunted me, "You think you're a tough guy or something?" I'd managed not to worry about being a victim of a hate crime for a while before you brought it up!

Breaking the trans glass ceiling

6. "Meet my friend Tyson; he's a transgender!"

It's not cool to out a transperson without his or her permission. It's a matter of respect and privacy. Sadly, it can also be a matter of personal safety. (Also: don't use "transgender" as a noun, while we're at it.)

7. "When did you realize you were gay?"

I know this is confounding, but it's important to understand that sexuality (whom you're attracted to) and gender identity (what gender you identify as) are two different things, and often unrelated. Trans people can be gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, really into gym socks -- basically any sexuality a nontrans person can express.

8. "When did you have 'The Surgery'?"

And this brings us back to Couric's question about Carrera and Cox. There is no one surgery, and the fact is, transpeople have a wide variety of situations going on "down there," and everywhere else. Some have surgeries; others don't. Some take hormone therapy; others don't. Some can afford neither surgery nor hormones; some do one, but not the other. Others can and will do it "all," so to speak.

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No matter the specifics (nor how patriarchal the society), gender does not boil down to the presence or absence of a penis. Unless someone volunteers to talk about the subject, transgender people's private parts, like everybody else's, are best left private.

So my hat goes off to Carrera and Cox for -- regardless of what's in their panties -- having the balls to say "No" to Couric's impolitic line of questioning.

T Cooper is a novelist and author of the memoir "Real Man Adventures," a meditation on masculinity. He is co-founder, with his wife, of, a new empathy project for young adults. His newest book is "Changers," a young adult novel which published February 4.

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