How to Talk to Someone About Gender Identity (And What *Not* to Ask)

Lisa Bain
Photo credit: Brad Gregory - Getty Images
Photo credit: Brad Gregory - Getty Images

From Prevention

"Boys to the right, girls to the left.”
Ladies’ room is over there, men’s room is down the hall.”
Boys vs. girls!

Ever since we were put in our pink or blue onesies as babies, it’s been drilled into us in countless ways that gender is an either/or thing. For many of us, it’s simple to check either the “male” or “female” box at the doctor’s office or choose which bathroom to use. But for those who don’t fit neatly into the male or female category, such choices become much more complicated. The conundrum has come to light more and more in recent years, bringing much-needed attention to something that has always been true: Gender is not a black-and-white binary, but a spectrum with many shades of gray.

What's the difference between sex and gender?

First, it’s important to understand these two terms. Sex refers to biological characteristics of maleness or femaleness (indicated by chromosomes, gonads, hormones, and genitals), while gender refers to a person’s internal sense of their own maleness or femaleness. Gender is internal; you can’t see it, and a doctor can’t predict it at birth. Neither what someone wears nor what’s between their legs tells you that person’s gender. You can only truly know if they tell you. (And FYI: Someone’s sex or gender tells you absolutely nothing about their sexual orientation, meaning the sex or gender of people a person is attracted to.)

Cisgender (cis) is a term meaning that the sex someone was assigned at birth—what
the doctor puts on the birth certificate—matches the gender they identify as. For example, someone born with a vagina, ovaries, and XX chromosomes who identifies as female is cisgender. Transgender (trans) people have a gender identity that is not aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, someone born with a vagina, ovaries, and XX chromosomes who identifies as male is transgender. Studies have shown that about one in every 250 adult Americans identifies as transgender (although because of reporting bias, that number is lower now than it is expected to be in future studies).

Though we were taught that there were only two sexes and two genders, the truth is that both sex and gender exist on a continuum. For people who have both male and female sex characteristics, the term intersex applies. For those who don’t identify as 100% male or 100% female on the gender spectrum, many terms exist, including nonbinary, enby, gender fluid, genderqueer, a-gender, and gender nonconforming.

Photo credit: Brad Gregory - Getty Images
Photo credit: Brad Gregory - Getty Images

Why it's important to respect gender identity:

If you’ve never conceptualized gender in this way, relearning what once seemed so simple can be difficult. But when your coworker, your in-law, or your child lets you know that they identify as, say, nonbinary, it’s important that you don’t let the confusion over something new to you get in the way of being respectful and supportive. If you are cisgender, you may never have had to think about what your gender was. Having that privilege offers you the opportunity to be an ally for those who do not have it.

First and foremost, when someone tells you their gender, your only job is to believe them. Treating this as a fad or a phase they’re going through is disrespectful and incorrect. Try your hardest to reflect back the language they use about themselves. If they tell you they’re now going by a different name, use it.

How to ask someone about their pronouns:

We’re very accustomed to gendering everyone we meet—thinking a person is either a he or a she. But for those who are trans or gender nonconforming, these pronouns don’t always fit. Before you know someone’s affirming pronouns (the pronouns that match that person’s gender), it’s generally a safe bet to use they/them/their pronouns in the singular (“They’re wearing a hat”; “I’m excited for you to meet them”). This may take some getting used to, and that’s OK—I promise, it doesn’t sound as awkward as you think (I’ve been doing it throughout this article!). If you slip up, apologize and correct yourself, but please don’t tell a nonbinary person that their affirming pronouns are grammatically incorrect or hard for you to use. Remember, this is not about you; it’s about supporting them.

People usually welcome being asked about their pronouns. Say, “What pronouns do you use?” or “What are your affirming pronouns?” Or volunteer, “My pronouns are she/her/hers; may I ask what yours are?”

What not to ask:

This is important: Don’t ask anyone what genitals they have or if they plan to have surgery. Some, but not all, trans or nonbinary people have surgery or take hormones to help make their bodies more congruent with their gender identity. For many, this is crucial and even life­saving. For others, medical intervention doesn’t feel as important. Regardless of their choice, other people’s genitals are none of your business.

While some nonbinary folks—especially those you’re very close to—may welcome questions, it may be better to turn to Google or a therapist to work through any confusion or anxiety you have. No one should need to justify their gender to you or compromise who they are to make you more comfortable. Remember, knowing someone is transgender or nonbinary tells you only a very little bit about them. So continue to treat them with respect, curiosity, and compassion, just as you would any other human.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Prevention.

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