Now that Bruce Jenner has publicly come out, there's increased public interest about what it means to be transgender.
Much of the reaction to Jenner's interview has been positive, but some have taken the opportunity to reveal their own ignorance about matters of gender identity. While Jenner's coming out has helped dispel many myths about being transgender, it's clear there's still a long way to go to ensure everyone understands what makes gender complex and personal. To be better allies (and sympathetic human beings) we can start by getting rid of the following phrases completely:
1. "You aren't a real man or woman."
What is it, exactly, that makes any individual a "real" man or a woman?
Gender isn't about what an individual has between their legs, but the birth of a baby usually means a gender assignment based on the child's anatomy. Hospital staff swaddle male-assigned newborns in blue blankets and wrap female-assigned infants in pink blankets, beginning the lifelong conditioning that a person's gender is tied to their genitalia. This happens well before any person has the chance to understand and confirm how they identify.
That's why it's important to recognize gender identity is really about one's understanding of themselves. Each person should have the right to self-determine how they identify. Trans people are who they say they are — and their identities deserve respect.
2. "Why are you so upset by media coverage? We need to know."
Questions about Bruce Jenner's gender identity have prompted a media frenzy ever since the paparazzi snapped him* leaving the plastic surgeon for a tracheal shave in 2014. Jenner's identity and body became a public spectacle and a subject for news fodder, with unbridled curiosity about every aspect of his appearance. And as he said Friday, the onset of heavy media scrutiny of his gender even pushed him to the brink of suicide.
Illustrating why such sensationalized coverage hurts many trans people, trans writer and journalist Janet Mock turned the tables on Fusion's AM Tonight host Alicia Menendez in a video, asking, "Do you have a vagina?" and "When you were going through puberty, did you feel trapped by the changes your body was going through?
Posing these questions to a cisgender woman sounds ridiculous, and that's the point.
Discussing the role reversal with Menendez, Mock says, "When I was asking you the questions, I came from a space of entitlement of saying that you need to prove to me that your identity and your body is real." Even though the public still has much to learn about truly understanding trans lives, questions should respect personal boundaries.
3. "Stop calling me cisgender."
Cisgender isn't a dirty word, yet some take offense when they are labeled as such. The term simply describes those whose birth-assigned sex and gender identity are aligned. It's not a word to denigrate people who aren't trans, but instead allows people to discuss gender with specificity while acknowledging our differences.
4. "I don't have privilege because I'm a cisgender person. That's ridiculous."
Cisgender privilege refers to the things made easier by having a gender identity that aligns with that assigned at birth.
Cisgender privilege is not having to think about the threat of harassment or violence for not complying with traditional gender norms everyday. It's about being able to use a public restroom without others questioning whether one really belongs there, and having one's gender identity legally codified as a protected class. Cisgender privilege is having access to the proper healthcare necessary based on one's body and gender identity. It is having one's expressed name and gender pronouns respected by other people and various institutions, and not understood as an unfair and unrealistic imposition.
The list continues, but one thing is clear: Cisgender privilege exists, and with that privilege comes responsibility to realize some people don't have it.
5. "If you haven't had surgery, you're not really trans."
Whether or not a trans person receives gender-affirming surgery isn't really anyone else's business. Questions about surgery oftentimes play into tropes of trans people as mere pretenders or predators, ways of policing the authenticity of someone's gender identity — and furthering the assumption that genitalia determines gender.
Gender-affirming surgery is costly and invasive. Due to institutional barriers ranging from healthcare access disparities to transphobia in medical establishments, these procedures aren't readily accessible to all transgender people. Undergoing major surgery of any kind represents a crucial life decision, one that not all trans people may desire for personal reasons. And because gender isn't about genitalia but rather about an individual's internal sense of who they are, having a vagina or a penis doesn't diminish anyone's gender identity.
6. "Your appearance makes me uncomfortable."
Trans people don't exist solely to make other people feel good. As Mic has noted before, trans and gender-nonconforming people "aren't trying to make others uncomfortable or afraid, but instead are simply trying to navigate the world in a way that makes them happy." Implying they should consider how they make others feel makes trans people a scapegoat for one's own ignorance about gender identity and expression.
7. "You don't look enough like a man or a woman."
Following Jenner's interview, some reactions on social media questioned whether or not he appeared womanly enough. This criticism only perpetuates rigid gender roles not only for trans people, but for cisgender people too.
There's no single right or wrong way to "do" gender identity. Cisgender people typically don't have to concentrate on "passing" as a man or a woman. But some trans people are discriminated against based on how their outward characteristics align with their gender identity. Statements about an individual's ability to "pass" only continues to force some trans people to choose to hide their identities.
8. "Using the word 'tr*nny' isn't a big deal."
Actually, it's a slur that has long been used by cisgender people to humiliate and call out trans people for any number of reasons — be it that they aren't "passable" enough or to assert a deeply-held belief that trans people are freaks. Needless to say, it reeks of transphobic discrimination and outright disrespect. The word often goes hand-in-hand with violent attacks against transgender people, especially trans women of color, who experience a disproportionately high risk of violence based on their identity.
9. "You should use the restroom based on your birth-assigned sex."
That may be easy for someone whose gender identity and birth-assigned sex match, but it's not as simple for trans people. Unfortunately, public restroom usage prompts anxiety for many trans people who must navigate others' questions about their appearance and gender expression. Or worse, the experience may increase their vulnerability to anti-trans violence. Roughly 70% of trans or gender-nonconforming people reported being denied entrance to, assaulted or harassed while trying to use a restroom, according to a 2013 Williams Institute study. While some fear that transgender people will take advantage of others in bathrooms, we know this simply doesn't happen.
10. "You're just confused."
Transgender people aren't confused about who they are. It's the general public that has to catch up. Statements like these are just a lazy excuse for not taking the time to learn about gender identity.
Jenner's interview offered a major opportunity for millions of people to better understand what it's like to be trans. Use this moment as an invitation to become better educated — not as a sorry reason to increase the discrimination and alienation many trans people already feel.
*Jenner has requested to use male pronouns and the name he was assigned at birth until a date to be determined.