Transmissions: Very personal questions

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday September 20, 2023
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

My partner was usually by my side when I was in the long process of coming out to our friends and family. Nearly every time, one of the first questions would be to ask if they were OK with my transition.

Eventually, they got a T-shirt to make this clear: it simply read, "Yes, I'm OK with all this." It was easier that way.

I was remembering that the other day after having a discussion with a couple of other trans friends about the questions we are always asked by our well-meaning but oftentimes clueless friends — or, in some cases, from crass, boundary-lacking strangers.

I want to separate this from those who are "just asking questions" not out of genuine curiosity or even puerile interest, but in an attempt to harm transgender lives and livelihoods. We have seen plenty of this over the last few years, with those seeking to convince people that transgender people are, by our very nature, predators and perverts.

Their questions are, quite frankly, wielded as weapons, seeking to cause the maximum harm. In short, don't expect the answers to those here: they simply do not deserve more than my contempt and derision.

No, much like that which was answered on a custom T-shirt, I mean some of the questions that those of us who are transgender get asked by friends and family with alarming regularity, usually prefaced with the biggest leading query of them all: "Can I ask you a personal question?"

If you start to ask a question of nearly any transgender person, no matter how well you may know them or how chipper they may be, I can assure you that behind that friendly smile each of us is mentally bracing for what comes next.

Yes. It's about genitals. It's almost always about genitals.

For those of you who do not identify as transgender, I implore you to take just the briefest of moments before you ask a transgender person about their genitals and/or what they intend to do with them. In that momentary pause, consider how you might feel if you were asked about the appearance and configuration of your own genitals, what you may do with them in a bedroom or at a "Beetlejuice" performance with your partner, or even what sort of modifications you may consider making to them.

If you would be uncomfortable or offended, please consider that the person you intend to ask may well feel exactly the same way. I'm not saying don't ask — surely there are some rare times for such questions — but I am telling you that you may not get the result that you thought.

Another common inquiry is this: "How do you know you're really transgender?"

I suspect, in asking, you do mean well. You know that being trans isn't an easy path to take in life, particularly nowadays. As our lives have become politicized — let alone demonized — it has become a lot harder to just be ourselves in this world.

As such, I am sure you are just trying to help a friend or acquaintance to make sure they are really ready for such a monumental step.

Once again, take a quick step back. First and foremost, understand that the person you are about to ask has likely spent much of their life already puzzling over that question, trying to figure out why the gender they were assigned, and have been treated as a member of, is so ill-fitting.

It is quite likely they have already spoken with other trans people, with medical and therapeutic professionals, and others about this long before they decided to come out to you. They have probably done a lot of deep soul-searching on this topic.

In short: they know. It's quite unlikely that you will present any new light on such a subject.

Also, much like the other question, consider for a moment how you would answer. How did you first come aware of your own gender, and how do you know it's the right one for you? Note as well that this isn't about trying to change your gender any more than you could change mine or any other trans person's.

As a corollary, I might also add that declaring that a trans person is not transgender isn't likely to be well received. We are the experts of our own spirits and our own skins.

Really, there are quite a few more questions that might come to mind, such as asking a transgender person if they might be "going through a phase," or if their trans identity is something else entirely.

I would give you questions in return: is it important to you that your friend not be transgender? Does your friendship hinge on their identity being one that you are comfortable with, or at least willing to settle over, rather than one that you might find disagreeable?

I ask this because, really, that is what it sounds like.

I want to leave you with one final thought when it comes to the questions and views you may share with a friend when they first come out: when a friend chooses to share their trans nature with you, please view it as the honor that it is. They felt you were enough of a friend to them that they could share a deeply personal aspect of their life, one that they may have entrusted with very few people.

You should feel very appreciated — and I dearly hope you will ask them questions that show how much you value and respect them as well.

Gwen Smith may have been the person who made that T-shirt. You'll find her at

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