What not to ask a transgender person

This week is National Inclusion Week, which of course raises the question: how can we improve belonging in the workplace? While it is never appropriate to ask intrusive questions, it is something marginalised groups including the transgender community face on a regular basis under the guise of being inclusive and trying to understand.

Some examples: “I don’t want to ask too personal a question, but have you had a sex change operation? Are you gay? When did you know? What is your real name? How did your family take it? So, what toilets do you use?”

Making the workplace a safe space for trans employees:

How can HR be a trans ally?

Stonewall CEO: creating a safe space for ideas key to trans inclusion

HR has the opportunity to lead on trans and non-binary inclusivity

Being open-minded, wanting to learn and genuinely being interested in someone is one thing, but at best it can feel like it is coming from a place of nosey curiosity.  

Would you ask a cisgender person equally intimate questions? Consider that trans people may well have suffered from dysphoria, anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome and microaggressions. 

So what are the best ways to be inclusive and what questions should we ask people in the trans community, and what should we very definitely not ask? 

Asking questions about our gender pre-transition can trigger dysphoria. Equally, we don’t want to talk about the medical journey we may have been on or our genitalia, which really has nothing to do with anyone outside of that person and perhaps their partner.

I don’t want to be misgendered or to have to correct someone repeatedly.

It is also really important to never out someone or share confidential information or gossip about someone who might be feeling truly vulnerable.

Trans people don’t usually want to answer questions or debate contentious issues. Most of us don’t want to be a spokesperson about issues like the fairness of trans people competing in sport, or baited about the corruption of today’s children, or asked to explain how non-binary people can seriously say they have no gender.

Many of us aren’t political and some of us are struggling because we are isolated. We don’t want to justify ourselves or our community. We just want to be ourselves, to belong and to live our lives like anyone else.

To show you care about belonging, a trans person feels respected when asked what pronouns we use. We feel safe when asked if any information shared should remain confidential.

Remember we are all on different journeys and some of us may be out, and some of us may be partially, or just not yet or perhaps may never feel safe to be out. 

Some of us just want to seamlessly be part of the team and don’t need to be checked on, but others would appreciate it when asked if there is anything that can be done to support us, especially when transitioning.

We all want the option of not having to live with secrecy, imposter syndrome and shame. Who wouldn’t?

As part of best practise, we need to notice if we ourselves are making assumptions about someone’s gender. When being curious, do it in a sensitive way and ask yourself if you are making the other person feel comfortable in the conversation.

We all need to take time to assess whether we are making marginalised minorities feel included, part of the team; like they belong.

Joanne Lockwood is D&I consultant at SEE Change Happen