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Gender-identity conversations used to leave me confused and uncomfortable. I nevertheless tried to raise my children with a conscious rejection of traditional gender stereotypes.

For example, my oldest son got dolls for Christmas when he asked for them; my youngest son didn’t because he never asked for them. Dinner conversations included frank discussions about how boys and girls are sometimes treated differently.

We always talked openly about love being what makes a family, regardless of who lives in or outside of someone’s household. We even talked about how hard it must be for someone to feel like a boy on the inside and look like a girl on the outside, or vice versa.

And yet, despite my ability to mostly say the right words, I still struggled to understand the concepts of transgender and nonbinary.

Finally, I had an epiphany: It isn’t my job to understand or validate someone else’s identity. My responsibility is to accept people as they are and respect each person’s unique experience. I was, at long last, on a path to becoming a genuine ally to the trans and nonbinary community.

I learned that the stakes are high. Due to anti-trans stigma — which is exacerbated by the current political climate — trans and nonbinary individuals are more likely than cisgender people (those whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex) to experience intimate-partner violence, as well as discrimination in employment and education. This kind of inequity is linked to a range of health issues, including substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and more.

Transgender people are also less likely than cis people to be covered by health insurance and are often excluded from social services and healthcare, including the gender-affirming care they deserve.

Together, the threats against the transgender and nonbinary community constitute a public-health issue: As a society, we can’t be healthy as long as marginalized populations face this disproportionate risk of illness, violence, and discrimination.

Each of us can take part in build­ing a healthier society for everyone. The first step is educating ourselves about the issues facing trans and nonbinary people, so we can be a supportive presence in our community. Keep in mind that you likely know someone who is transgender or gender non­conforming, even if they aren’t out to you.

In learning to respect the diversity of human experience with gender identity, you might also learn something valuable about yourself.

Ways to Show Respect to Individuals

  • Use each individual’s name, and ensure that you’re pronouncing it correctly. Ask as many times as necessary to get it right.
  • Use each individual’s pronouns. This can be tricky, especially if the pronouns are new to you. When in doubt, ask. You are also usually safe using they/them/their. If you mess up, apologize and correct yourself, then move on — don’t make it the responsibility of the person you’ve misgendered to comfort you.
  • Keep in mind that some people may present themselves differently depending on the context. For example, one nonbinary individual I know (pronouns: ve, vim, vir) presents as a woman and uses vir legal name and the pronouns she/her/hers at work, because ve fears the repercussions of being out professionally. The same individual presents as nonbinary and uses a masculine name in vir personal life. Take your cues from the person, and if you’re unsure, ask.
  • Never use “it” to refer to a person, and never make someone’s identity the subject of ridicule, whether they can hear you or not. Dehumanizing people is inappropriate, disrespectful, and harmful.
  • Do not “out” anyone as trans or nonbinary. Use each person’s name and pronouns and leave it at that. Remember: For many trans and nonbinary individuals, being outed can threaten their safety, their income, their housing situation, and their health.

Questions to Avoid

“If you’re not male or female, then what are you?”

Just as some people are taller or shorter or somewhere in between, many people experience their gender along a continuum.

Try instead:What are your pronouns?”

“How do you know?” / “Are you sure?” / “What if you’re wrong?”

Any time a person is facing a tremendous amount of resistance to be themself, assume that they know what they’re talking about. They’ve done more research, had more conversations, and spent more sleepless nights trying to work this out than you can imagine.

Try instead: “How can I support you?”

“What’s your real name?” / “What did you look like before?”

Avoid any questions about biology, physiology, or emotional trauma. For a trans person, being “deadnamed” (being called by the name assigned to them at birth, instead of their chosen name) can be distressing and harmful.

Try instead: “It’s a pleasure meeting you.”

“Have you had the surgery?”

There’s not just one surgery, and surgical procedures are only a fraction of what’s involved in a transition. More important, what’s going on beneath another person’s undergarments is almost never any of your business.

Try instead: Basically anything else.

Disrupt the Gender Binary

Share your pronouns when you introduce yourself. For example, when I meet someone new, I could say, “Hi, I’m Amy C. Waninger. My pronouns are she, her, and hers.” Specifying your pronouns helps normalize differences and challenge assumptions.
Update your social-network profiles and email signature to include your pronouns. At networking events, put your pronouns on your name tag.
Ask people for their pronouns, particularly if you have already shared your own. Don’t assume, based on someone’s appearance, that you know what pronouns they use.
Avoid stereotyping behaviors or emotions as “girly,” “manly,” “feminine,” or “masculine.” Avoid chastising children for showing an interest in something traditionally associated with a different gender. Don’t use “like a girl” as a criticism or “for a girl” as a compliment.
If you are in charge of any registration or identification processes, allow individuals to self-identify beyond the traditional labels of “male” and “female.” Include options such as “nonbinary” and “transgender,” or simply leave a blank space so that everyone feels they can answer the question honestly. Provide space for individuals to list their pronouns.
Educate yourself by reading books by and about trans people. Some trans authors and icons I’ve learned about include Jennifer Finney Boylan (author and professor), Laverne Cox (actor, producer, and activist), Martine Rothblatt (lawyer, author, and entrepreneur), and Vivienne Ming (scientist and entrepreneur).

Gender-Identity Terminology

Assigned gender: The gender proclaimed at an individual’s birth (typically male, female, or intersex). Assigned-gender terms are sometimes abbreviated AMAB (assigned male at birth) and AFAB (assigned female at birth).

Gender identity: The gender with which an individual identifies (typically male, female, or nonbinary).

Gender expression: The way an individual presents their gender identity, through behavior, clothing, and other style choices. Someone’s gender expression can vary depending on the setting or how they’re feeling that day, and that expression may not conform to “masculine” or “feminine.”

Cisgender, or cis: Someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth. Avoid using the terms “normal,” “real man,” or “real woman” to describe cisgender people.

Transgender, or trans: Someone whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Avoid using the terms “transsexual” or “cross-dressing” to describe trans people.

Gender confirmation: A medical process whereby a person’s physicality is altered to match their gender identity, often via hormone treatments or surgery. Avoid using the term “sex change.”

Transition: The process of changing one’s gender identity and/or gender expression, regardless of whether one undertakes the gender-confirmation process.

Genderfluid: A person who does not identify with one gender, or whose gender expression is flexible.

Gender nonconforming: A catch-all term for genderfluid and nonbinary people, and sometimes for individuals whose gender expression diverges from societal norms.

Genderqueer: More often used by gender-nonconforming people, this term carries an additional connotation of political activism. Avoid describing someone as “queer” (adjective) unless you know that the individual self-describes that way. Never use the word “queer” as a noun.

Amy C. Waninger

Amy C. Waninger is an inclusivity expert and founder of the consulting firm Lead at Any Level. This article was adapted from her book Network Beyond Bias.

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