Yesterday, my dear friend, Paris Lees of Trans Media Watch appeared on Breakfast TV, prior to Trans Media Watch making a submission to the Leveson Inquiry. Now since Paris runs a WordPress blog, she’s able to see what sort of search terms people are using to find her, and yesterday lunchtime she tweeted this:
“paris lees before he was a woman,” “is paris lees post op” & “paris lees on the game” – just a few of the Google searches done on me today.
As an aside, this is a WordPress blog too, so if you got here by googling about my genitals, I’ll know and will be daydreaming about doing unpleasant things that you won’t enjoy, even if you are kinky.
Anyway, this got me thinking about how many cis people think very differently about etiquette around the subject of trans people, our bodies and our identities, than someone embedded in the trans community tends to. I appreciate that I probably used to before I consciously identified as transgender too, but that was a very long time ago and I can’t really remember it very well. As a result, when this difference is thrust visibly into my path, it can cause a moment of cognitive dissonance.
See, I’m a trans woman, and I have many trans people as friends, as well as many people who also have trans people as friends. Generally these people observe a sort of etiquette around bodies and identities that I would regard as “polite and healthy”. I’m not attempting to formalise this in any way, but roughly it’s like this:
- You don’t ask someone about their genitals.
- You don’t ask someone what their old name was.
- You don’t volunteer the old name of someone else.
- Or yourself.
Obviously there can be exceptions, and they usually involve people who know each other very well, and well understood and/or negotiated boundaries.
Lots of cis people (and actually some trans people) don’t seem to follow this etiquette, however. I generally regard this as “rude and unhealthy”, but it does, alas, seem to be common.
Lots of people know my old name. Sometimes they use it. This makes me feel violated..
Lots of people who I don’t know very well ask me about my genitals. This makes me feel violated.
People have asked me what the old name, or surgical status of one of my friends is. This makes me feel awkward, like I’m being ask to violate someone else.
People have revealed the old name of a mutually known trans person, or if they’re trans, have revealed their own old name without asking if it’s OK to do that. This feels like a violation of one or both of us.
The last two perhaps bear some explanation. I know a lot of trans people. Some I know the old names of (mainly because I knew them pre-transition), most I do not. Some I know the genital surgical status of, some I do not. What seems to come as a surprise to many cis people is that I don’t want to know what the old name or surgical status of a random trans person is.
With surgical status, it’s usually just a case of it being not relevant; it’s something I don’t care about (unless we’re about to have sex). That said, I’m usually happy to discuss surgery with other trans people and sometimes, cis people, on my own terms.
When it comes to old names, it goes beyond me not caring – I actively do not want to know.
Many cis people seem to find this attitude odd. Even people who have a morbid curiosity about trans people seem to mentally respect the fact that someone else might be indifferent. What seems harder to grasp is the idea that being told someone else’s old name is something that leaves me feeling violated.
When someone reveals their old name to me, I appreciate that’s their prerogative, but I’d really rather not know and my first reaction is, “pass the brain bleach!” Actively forgetting something is quite difficult, in a not Losing The Game kind of way. Sometimes people have had their old name blurted out by their parents or something, and that’s really awkward. For the avoidance of doubt, you generally shouldn’t do this.
Imagine if you and I were good friends, and we were sitting down in a cafe chatting, and we’d got to dessert. I’m eating a lovely steaming chocolate fudge cake. As I take a mouthful of runny chocolatey gooey goodness, you suddenly and in a high level of detail, describe your previous bowel movement, complete with telling me about how it had bits of undigested sunflower seeds poking out and everything.
Two things would happen. One is that I’d probably not finish my dessert. The second is that I would decline our next meal date.
I appreciate that I wrote a LiveJournal transition blog, and that it was quite popular, and in it I revealed my old name a few times. I’m sorry about that – I didn’t realise how one can come to feel about this, and I can only apologise. In my defence, most people reading it at the point where I did reveal that info already knew it. For anyone seeking out my transition blog, be aware that it does that (I’m not going to retroactively censor it, but if I ever transfer it somewhere else it might get edited a bit).
Anyway, the take home message here is, please don’t casually toss around surgical status and old names, because these things are likely to upset people, and make them feel violated, and hurt. If you continue to do so with the knowledge that you’re probably hurting people, that’s your choice, but I probably don’t want to know you.
Phew, that was heavier than I intended. To lighten the mood, I’ll finish with an anecdote that this called to mind, about how trans women can develop a very odd attitude towards genital surgery ourselves (those who’ve sat in on a bunch of drunk post-op trans women talking about surgery will appreciate this). Last year, I bumped into my own erstwhile surgeon at a meeting in London. The person with whom he was chatting made to introduce us:
Third party: Do you know Sarah?
Me, interrupting: Yes, extremely intimately, although I was asleep at the time.
Surgeon: It’s OK, I’ve just about forgiven you for that.
Few things make me go bright red and giggly, but that did.
I am the mother of a transman and one of the things I find most difficult is relatives who have known him since he was born, who persistently use the old name as if it’s not a big deal (eg on Christmas cards – – sometimes to him! I just chuck them). Also, people who look at me with a little smile and go “Ahhh well, she’ll always be little Rosemary to me” (name changed of course!) They think this HELPS, ironically! Quite HOW they think it helps either my son or me, I really don’t know. As for the relatives who go “Oh, you shouldn’t have let her do that!” (ie transition) as if it’s all my fault for being a too-indulgent parent – – ARRRGH!
“Ahhh well, she’ll always be little Rosemary to me” (name changed of course!)
Ah yes, I remember getting that, from people who thought it would do something other than make me feel like bursting into tears. Never did understand that one.
That happens when they care more about their memories of you, than about you. So the answer is “if that’s so, please confine yourself to interacting with your memories – please don’t involve me!”
The one that REALLY gets me is “oh, I can tell you were born a girl. Look at your hands – they’re so small and cute!”
Yeah, ‘cos that’s not going to knock my self-confidence right down! #sarcasm
I have it on good authority that breaking the etiquette over names is just as embarrassing for cis-partners as well – and certainly more liable to provoke a nasty reaction chez nous. I don’t bite but A. certainly does.
I have an 81 year old father who couldn’t remember my name immediately when it was the one he gave me (he’d sometimes go through the whole list of his 6 kids and my mother before he’d get to my name). When I transitioned, he first wanted to disown me, but has since come to his senses.
That having been said, he cannot ever remember my true name, and can’t seem to stop referring to me in the wrong gender when talking to others. This makes things extremely difficult when one has a co-signed loan with him, and during a re-finance process, the underwriter calls you and says “So uh… did I have a wrong number? [Name] answered, but kept referring to you as [old name] and [old gender]…?”
Nothing is more humiliating than having to take your name change paperwork down to the bank and play 20 questions (yes, including the “have you had the surgery” one) to prove your identity.
Thank you for writing this. I hope it saves others from experiencing that humiliation.
Interesting, I didn’t know that “not even your own name” part, but I can see how it would gall, it has all the same implications. New etiquette rule added!
The above had a few new etiquette pointers for me, so these are noted, and thank you for performing this service for cis-folk like me.
You may be amused to note that LJ took three days longer to post your feed than DW! Wtf?
It gets remarkably frustrating that I’m still having occasionally to teach trans 101 and it’ll be forty years since transition later this year!
I run the website http://transgenderuk.org and It never ceases to amaze me when I view the search terms that people have Google’d to reach the site. Paris features quite regularly but I’m glad to say most are positive.
Funny as it is, MY blog had been found by people searching “Paris Lees as a man” and “Paris Lees before pictures”.
I’ve also had “Natale’s Reed’s real gender” and “Is Natalie Reed biologically a man?” come up. Fun fun fun.
Despite aiming to have a laid back attitude toward people using my old name occasionally, “I won’t be offended but I may ignore you because I’m not used to answering to my old name anymore”, it does ache a bit. I do find effusive apologies from people who genuinely accidentally used my old name even more annoying than the use of the name. I try to be kind to people but end up not being kind to myself on this point.