Last month, Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece titled “Engaging the T,” in which he lamented how difficult it is to write about or discuss transgender topics. The article, which focuses on actress Laverne Cox’s disinterest in discussing which surgical procedures she’s had done, refers to trans people as “furious,” “touchy,” and “neurotic.” He includes lines like, “Sorry, Laverne. But if you’re out there explaining yourself, you’ve gotta explain all of it.” By “all of it,” Sullivan is referring to the intimate details of Cox’s body.
“Most people are just completely ignorant, and have never met or engaged a trans person, and so their misconceptions and misunderstandings are inevitable and not self-evidently a matter of bigotry or prejudice,” Sullivan rightly notes. “I think we should be understanding of this, as open as we can be, and answer the kinds of questions some might feel inappropriate or offensive. That’s the basis for dialogue, empathy, and progress.” There’s a problem with that second half, about how trans people should open up and answer the inappropriate questions: It completely ignores the fact that there’s already a wealth of information on trans people and their experiences available out there, information you’d already know about if you’d bothered to look.
I understand that less than 10 percent of the public actually know a trans person, and therefore many people may not be up to speed on issues of gender identity, gender expression, or non-binary pronouns like ”they/them” or “zie/zir,” or even be familiar with even the basic definition of transgender. But unfortunately, a request to be “educated” is all too often deployed as a disguise for “I’m unwilling to do the basic self-education necessary to become an ally to trans people.”
Writers, activists, and professional educators like myself have chosen to use our time to instruct individuals on these matters; but it really, truly needs to be stressed that it is not any individual trans person’s responsibility to educate others. For most, being transgender is only one facet of their existence. They can be teachers, lawyers, doctors, or accountants, and they should not feel obligated to take on the role of educator in addition to these already time-consuming careers. And for many, having to repeat educational information is emotionally draining or serves as a painful reminder of negative experiences they had while coming to terms with their identity.
Think of it this way: I may not have ever had a professional baseball player sit me down and explain the rules and the history of the game, but I’ve still managed to learn the difference between a “ball” and a “strike.” How did I accomplish this? By consulting the glut of information readily available on the subject online and in print. Interrupting people while they are playing the game to ask basic questions is rude, and moreover, would not be viewed as something players should take the time to address. If I want to call myself a baseball fan, the onus is on me to get up to speed. The resources exist, and if I persist in not understanding baseball, it’s willful ignorance on my part. So how is the learning about or becoming an ally of transgender people any different?
All you have to do is be willing to take a moment to type something into Google or visit a trans resource website. I’ve personally written more than 200 individual articles about transgender issues, taking it upon myself to make sure others have the ability to quickly find whatever resources they need to become well-versed in these issues ranging from why trans women are actually women to why it’s essential for insurance policies to become trans-inclusive to the unique needs of transgender children.
The existence of trans individuals is not a new phenomenon. In fact, trans people have existed for thousands of years. The reason these issues feel new is that for one of the first times in history, large groups of trans people are speaking up. Individuals like Cox, writer Janet Mock, filmmaker Lana Wachowski, Chaz Bono, and punk musician Laura Jane Grace are helping shine light on the many issues and injustices trans people face throughout our lives. While these issues may be very new and interesting to you, the process of explaining them may be exhausting to the trans person you’re asking if they’ve been asked to, in effect, explain themselves 100 times before.
This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to be curious about trans issues, or to want to educate yourself; rather, I’m asking that you try to understand how demoralizing it must be for trans people to have these same, easily searchable questions constantly thrown their way, and often in ways that sound less like questions and more like demands. That said, while some “educational” questions are merely tiresome, others, like the one Sullivan defends, are weirdly and offensively intimate. Questions about one’s genitals will always come off as coming from a place of entitlement. To argue that someone should have to answer questions about their personal medical history as a means to educate others is utterly absurd.
It’s been well-established that unless volunteered by the person in question, the status of a trans person’s genitals are off-limits. Simply put, unless you are this particular trans person’s lover or doctor, whether they have an ‘innie’ or an ‘outtie’ really isn’t any of your concern. Still, no matter how many times this obvious point of etiquette is repeated, there will always be those who argue that they have a right to know what’s in a trans person’s pants, often framing this, like Sullivan, as simply a desire to be “educated” on the matter.
Where did we get the idea that genitals are an intrinsic part of one’s identity as a transgender individual? To be clear, reconstructive surgery is no more a trans “rite of passage” than a coronary bypass surgery is a rite of passage for men over the age of 65. Yes, in both cases, individuals may well have undergone these procedures, but a trans woman who hasn’t had surgery on her genitals is no less a woman than a man who hasn’t had major heart surgery is not a man. Less than half of trans people have had any sort of genital procedure, and there are a fair amount that choose not to, even if they have the resources to do so. Obsessing over individual genital status will do very little to advance your understanding of trans people as a whole—for evidence of that, look no further than Piers Morgan’s terrible journalistic treatment of Janet Mock.
The genital inquisition is just one of the reasons we need to stop allowing people to use “I’m just trying to be educated” and “How will I learn if you won’t teach me?” as cover for prurient curiosity. If you are serious about your trans education, get online or open a book. What’s the difference between a gender-fluid individual and a bi-gender individual? What does “dysphoria” mean? Why do some trans individuals get reconstructive genital surgeries while others don’t? What does “cisgender” mean? All of these questions can be answered in a matter of seconds. If you truly want to be an ally to trans people, you’ve got to start by doing your homework.