How Not To Be A D*ck To Trans People: 7 Social Habits, Pro Tips & Basic Human Decencies

You can always learn a little more!

Staff Writer
McGill students and allies gather in support of trans rights. Right: People participate in Montreal's Trans March 2023.

McGill students and allies gather in support of trans rights. Right: People participate in Montreal's Trans March 2023.

Trans identity has been on the frontlines of anti-queer sentiment for many decades, but increased political animosity towards trans people has reached a fever pitch in Canada and the United States in recent years. As a certified local trans blogger with a column about being nice to people, I would be remiss if I didn't use this platform to uplift trans rights and reaffirm that transphobia has no place in Montreal, or anywhere else.

To bring this column together, I spoke with my community of trans friends, activists, and acquaintances to get a sense of what we, as a collective of different people with distinct experiences, wish to see in the world. Overwhelmingly, the response was a desperate, exhausted and/or apprehensive plea to stop f*cking up people's pronouns. So, obviously, that's in here.

But what's also expressed in this non-exhaustive list is a fervent desire for connection, recognition and community, based in empathy and love for other people, including — not despite — their gender expression.

So here's one trans person's non-comprehensive guide on how not to be a d*ck to your local trans friends, neighbours and strangers.

Be chill about pronouns – even if it's "hard"

Nearly every trans person I spoke to for this piece mentioned one thing above all others: pronouns.

Use the right ones, check with someone before you assign them a gender in your head, and don't make a big deal out of it if you mess up. Continue using the right pronouns even when the person isn't in the room.

When you're discussing a trans person's past, it's generally best practice to use the right pronouns even if that makes things sound a little anachronistic. It's also a good idea to just ask the person in question how they'd prefer to be referenced.

For transmasculine me at this stage of my transition, referring to my younger self as "she" or a "girl" is comfortable, since I lived as a girl for many years and I still feel a relationship with womanhood as a lesbian. For other trans people, hearing the wrong pronouns for their younger self can be extremely uncomfortable or even triggering.

Leave deadnames in the past

Unless someone has given you express permission to refer to them pre-transition with their name given at birth, it's best to avoid mentioning a trans person's "old" name, which many of us call "deadnames" since they no longer refer to a living version of ourselves.

If that's too confusing, just think of deadnames as "wrongnames." As in, it's the wrong name to call this person. Add to that the massive psychological weight of uncomfortable gender norms and closetedness, and you're approaching an empathetic understanding of one type of trans experience.

If you're trying to talk about a trans person before they chose their name, you can either ask them how they'd like to be referred to, or you can simply avoid using their name at all.

Ask questions respectfully, not invasively

It's fine and good to be curious, but it's also important to be respectful and not intrusive — you don't owe anyone information about your body that you don't feel comfortable sharing, and that goes both ways.

Think about how your "curious question" might come across. Would you ask any random seemingly cis person on the metro about their genitals, or their personal relationship to the patriarchy? Probably not. If you said "yes," then I don't know how to tell you this, but maybe you're the problem.

Keep your eyes to yourself

Staring is nearly always rude, and trust me, trans folks can tell when you're giving us an extra-long glance — or is that a glare? If you think you've clocked someone (this means "noticed someone is genderqueer/trans"), keep that information to yourself, and give them a friendly, non-patronizing smile, just like you hopefully would for anyone else who crosses your path.

Transfeminine folks are especially often the target of vicious gazes thanks to a special hell called "transmisogyny" — the specific gender-based violence experienced by trans women and women-aligned genderqueer folks. Look at you, learning all the lingo!

Be normal to transfeminine people

"Trans-misogyny," trans writer and activist Julia Serano writes, "is steeped in the assumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of, maleness and masculinity."

There are plenty of ways this expresses itself socially, and some of them are normalized so much that you might not recognize yourself playing into these tropes. Laughing at jokes whose punchlines can be reduced to "haha, that's a man in a dress" is an easy way to make transfeminine people in your life know you aren't a safe person to confide in.

It's just about treating trans women like people, as one transfeminine friend told me. "It's the little things: the smiles on the bus, the help with checking my runny mascara, being invited into women's spaces by my cis friends," they told me over Twitter. Like most ways of not being a d*ck, leading with love and respect can go a long, long way.

Be equally normal to transmasculine people

Transmasculine people and trans men also deserve to be treated like people, surprising no one (I hope). There's a tendency, which many of my transmasc peers have noted, to infantilize trans men into "soft," "small" or "delicate" little beans, which is often invalidating and also just plain weird.

Trans men also aren't evil for "surrendering to the side of manhood" as some trans-exclusionary folks might claim, any more than any other man is evil for the simple fact of being a man.

Be extra kind, not extra judgy, to your trans loved ones

If you're not a d*ck to trans strangers but you ARE a dick to your trans friends and family, I hate to break it to you, but you are still being a d*ck to trans people. Sure, you may have known your brother since long before he was your brother, but that doesn't grant you special privileges to erase his actual gender in favour of your memories of him.

But it doesn't matter what I say, because I'm not your brother: I'm just another transmasculine person with their own set of preferences, boundaries, likes and dislikes.

To avoid being a d*ck to trans people, you just have to do the same thing you do to avoid being a d*ck to anyone: engage openly, with kind and empathetic curiosity, and trust their accounts of their own subjective experience.

If you or someone you know is struggling with harassment or discrimination related to gender identity or sexual orientation, please reach out to a trusted peer, parent or health care professional, or refer to these resources available in Montreal. If you need immediate assistance, please call 911 or go to your nearest hospital. Support is available.

This article's cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.

Willa Holt
Staff Writer
Willa Holt is a Staff Writer for MTL Blog, often found covering weird and wonderful real estate and local politics from her home base in Montreal.