Q: Do anti-discrimination laws mean that I will be fined or arrested for using the wrong pronouns?

A: You are not going to get in trouble for accidentally using the wrong pronouns.

Now, if you deliberately and persistently use the wrong pronouns for someone in an effort to hurt their feelings, this would count as harassment in some jurisdictions, and you might get sued (especially if you do it at work, and you do it to your coworker so much that it interferes with their ability to do their job).  If you’re a medical professional and you refuse to treat a trans person, your using the wrong pronouns might count as evidence against you in a discrimination lawsuit. If you beat up a trans person, your using the wrong pronouns might count as evidence that the beating is a hate crime and you targeted the victim because they were trans.  But you’re not going to get into any kind of legal trouble just for making an honest mistake.

What do anti-discrimination laws do?

I’m going to focus on anti-discrimination laws in the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia.

Anti-discrimination laws typically make it illegal to target someone for bad treatment based on one of their protected characteristics, such as race, gender, or disability, or trans status. Anti-discrimination law might govern:

  • Employment: Employers can’t refuse to hire someone, fire them, or pay them less, just because they have a protected characteristic that’s not relevant to their job performance.
  • Housing: Landlords can’t refuse to rent to someone just because they have a protected characteristic.
  • Health care: Health care providers can’t refuse to give someone adequate treatement just because they have a protected characteristic.
  • Voting: States can’t stop someone from voting just because they have a protected characteristic.
  • Harassment: Individuals can’t single out someone on the basis of a protected characteristic and harass them.
  • Hate crimes: A violent crime might receive a more severe punishment if it was motivated by prejudice against one of the victim’s protected characteristics.

Outlawing discrimination against trans people isn’t about giving us special treatment; it’s about requiring people to give us equal treatment (in other words, it makes it illegal to single us out for worse treatment). Because anti-discrimination law in the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia is typically formulated in terms of protected characteristics, adding “gender identity and expression” to the list of protected characteristics also makes it illegal to discriminate against cis people for being cis.

Why are so many people afraid of getting in trouble over pronouns?

There’s an interesting story of media disinformation behind this fear.

In 2016, Canada’s federal government passed House Government Bill C16: An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The bill did two things.

  1. It amended Canada’s Human Rights Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on protected characteristics like race, religion, age, sex, marital status, and disability. This means that, for example, an employer cannot refuse to hire somebody because they are Aboriginal, pay them less because they are a woman, or fire them because of their age. Bill C16 added “gender identity or expression” to the list of protected characteristics. So now, it’s also illegal to discriminate against people because they’re trans. (For more information about the Canadian Human Rights act, go here.)
  2. It amended a part of Canada’s Criminal Code: the part that gives sentencing guidelines for breaking the law. Before Bill C16, judges were urged to give harsher sentences for crimes motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on a protected characteristic. It’s illegal to beat someone up whether or not you do it on the basis of their race, but you might get a harsher sentence if you beat them up because of their race. Bill C16 added “gender identity or expression” to the list of protected characteristics, so now you might also get a harsher sentence if you beat somebody up because they’re trans.

In other words, bill C16 made a small, reasonable amendment to existing anti-discrimination laws in Candada. It essentially says that discriminating against trans people is illegal, just like discriminating against women or Aboriginal people is illegal.

A psychology professor at the University of Toronto called Jordan Peterson claimed in a viral YouTube video that using the wrong pronouns was hate speech under Bill C16, and that some things he said in his lectures would get him fined or sent to jail for exercising his right to free speech. None of that is true, but Peterson’s media campaign has been influential (not to mention lucrative for him).

Further Reading

Q: Are trans people deluded about their bodies?

A: No. Many cis people have a very limited understanding of how trans people’s bodies work. When trans people report things that are at odds with cis people’s preconceptions, this is typically not because we are delusional, but because cis people have misunderstood what we are saying, or because cis people are missing crucial information.

Cis confusions about terminology

A trans man is somebody who was classified as a girl when he was born, but who now considers himself a man. Notable trans men include Chaz Bono, Ben Barres, Wilmer “Little Ax” Broadnax, and Chella Man. Likewise, a trans woman is somebody who was classified as a boy when she was born, but who now considers herself a woman. Notable trans women include Laverne Cox, Emi Koyama, Julia Serano, and Chelsea Manning.

Some cis people get this the wrong way around, using the phrase “trans men” to refer to trans women, and “trans women” to refer to trans men. The error is sometimes a deliberate attempt to undermine trans people by insinuating that we are not what we claim to be. (For example, the hashtag #TransMenAreNotWomen, which briefly trended on Twitter in November 2018, was started by transphobes in an attempt to invalidate trans women.) Basic confusions about terminology may give rise to other kinds of confusion about trans people, our bodies, and our experiences.

We are not deluded about how biology works.

Trans people sometimes make claims that strike cis people as surprising. For example, some trans people claim to menstruate or give birth, even though they are not women. They often go on to say that they prefer to deal with these aspects of their bodies in ways that are not gendered; for instance, they don’t like it when their menstrual products are called “feminine”, or when their doctors speak of giving birth as something only women do.

These trans people are neither deluded nor lying. They include trans men who were assigned female at birth, and who may have uteruses, menstruate, or give birth. They also include some nonbinary people, who consider themselves neither men nor women, but who may have uteruses, menstruate, or give birth.

People sometimes assume that trans women must be the ones asking for less gendered experiences of menstruation and birth. This assumption is false. Trans women (who were assigned male at birth) don’t have uteruses, and they typically don’t mind being classified as women.

We are not deluded about the shape of our own bodies.

Cis people sometimes misread trans people’s reports about our gender as reports about our bodies. For instance, when a trans man says “I am a man,” a cis person might hear “I was born with a penis.” But this is not what trans men are saying, first, because it’s typically considered rude to talk about one’s genitals in public, and second, because trans men typically don’t believe that they were born with penises.

Trans people know how our bodies are shaped. We don’t always like it, and we may seek to change it with hormones and surgery. But we change our bodies because we know how they’re shaped, and we can tell when the facts don’t line up with what we want.

If you have difficulty believing what trans people say about their bodies, it’s a good idea to examine your own preconceptions.

Q: Are trans people trying to erase and de-legitimize intersex people?

A: No. Trans people and intersex people are distinct groups with different needs, but we have some common interests, as well as some overlap in membership (that is, there are some people who are both trans and intersex).

For trans people, a common problem is denial of access to types of medical care, such as hormones and surgeries, that are both helpful and desired. For intersex people, a common problem is non-consensual medical treatment designed to bring their bodies into line with other people’s expectations. (Note that performing an unnecessary surgery on someone without their consent is a human rights violation.)

But trans and intersex people also have common interests, such as:

  • that medical treatment be provided on the basis of informed consent, not as an attempt to make our bodies conform to someone else’s arbitrary stereotypes
  • being treated as individuals with points of view, rather than as amusing theoretical examples
  • recognition that we are all human beings with a right to bodily integrity
  • an end to body-shaming

Sadly, there are some trans people who try to appropriate intersex experience in order to make their gender nonconformity seem more legitimate. This is understandable but ultimately counterproductive. It’s also very understandable why intersex people would find such behavior upsetting.

Gender variance is legitimate whether or not it has a biological explanation. Trans and intersex people have plenty of room for common ground and mutual understanding. We shouldn’t let ignorance, foolish binary assumptions, and respectability politics drive a wedge between us.

Further reading

Q: Do people transition in order to become more attractive to the opposite sex?

A: No. Transitioning is a personal choice, and often has little or nothing to do with making oneself attractive to potential sexual partners. People may transition to alleviate psychological and physical discomfort, ease social interaction, and/or prevent harassment and violence.

True, some people might transition partly to have the kind of sex or sex life that they want. (After all, transitioning can help a person feel more comfortable in their own body.) But sexual attraction need not be between people of “opposite” sexes or genders at all.

The data suggests that most trans people are not exclusively interested in attracting members of the “opposite” sex. In the 2015 US Transgender Survey (USTS) only 15% of respondents labeled themselves as straight or heterosexual. (A heterosexual trans woman is attracted to men, while a heterosexual trans man is attracted to women.) Nor are most trans people exclusively attracted to the same sex; only 16% of respondents to the USTS identified as gay, lesbian, or same-gender-loving.

Trans people, even those who are heterosexual, may not want to look like stereotypical cis men and women. Not all trans men want to be muscular, hairy and overconfident, and not all trans women want to be hyperfeminine, curvy and nurturing. 35% of respondents to the USTS were nonbinary, meaning that they did not consider themselves to be fully men or fully women.

Trans people find gender stereotypes in society. We did not create those stereotypes, and many of us intensely dislike them. A trans person might choose to perform heterosexual masculinity or femininity; it is the prerogative of the individual to decide how to perform gender. But the desire to attract members of the opposite sex is not generally a primary reason to transition.

Q: Is it always obvious when someone is trans?

A: No. If you’re confident that you can always tell… pause for a moment to ask yourself how you could possibly know that. Suppose you were wrong, and you didn’t notice that somebody around you was trans. How would you notice yourself not noticing?

People are known to make mistakes in both directions. Nickelodeon fans, who watched Michael D. Cohen’s acting for years, did not know that he was trans until he told them. Cis women have been harassed in California, Connecticut, Michigan, and Texas because someone mistakenly thought they were trans.

Cis people have no independent way of judging whether they can tell that someone is trans. Trans people have more relevant knowledge to draw on: we notice how cis people treat us, and how their behavior changes based on their perceptions of our gender. Trust us: you can’t always tell.

Q: Are you afraid that transitioning will prevent you from having biological children?

A: Not all trans people want biological children. (Not all cis people want biological children either.) Some are happy to adopt; some don’t want children at all.

Some trans people already have biological children by the time they transition.

And it’s possible to have biological children after transition. Some people transition without hormones or surgery. It’s possible to freeze eggs and sperm before beginning a transition. Trans men, and other trans people who were assigned female at birth, have been known to give birth and even nurse their babies.

Q: When are you getting The Surgery?

A: When people ask this question, they are usually asking about genitals. They imagine that being trans is about one surgery that replaces a penis with a vagina (if the person in question is a trans woman) or a vagina with a penis (if the person in question is a trans man). It’s not clear how this template is meant to apply to nonbinary people, who do not aim to be either men or women.

There are a few things wrong with the question. First, it’s considered rude and invasive in most contexts to ask people about their genitals. If you’re not someone’s partner or their doctor, you really don’t need to know.

Second, being trans doesn’t really work like that. There are several different kinds of genital surgeries, and many trans people seek them out and benefit from them, but these surgeries don’t have the central importance that cis people imagine them to have. You perceive the people around you as women or men based not on their genitals (which you usually can’t see), but on subtle cues that are mostly controlled by hormones and grooming choices. So a trans person doesn’t have to get genital surgery in order for others to treat them as the gender they want to be treated as.

The 2015 US Transgender Survey shows a significant proportion of trans respondents who don’t especially want the genital surgeries that cis people think of as the relevant surgery. 73% of trans men did not want or were not sure if they wanted a metoidioplasty (which constructs a penis from the clitoris), and 78% did not want or were not sure if they wanted a phalloplasty (which constructs a penis from other parts of the body). Meanwhile, 34% of trans women did not want or were not sure if they wanted a vaginoplasty or labiaplasty (which constructs a vagina or labia). The numbers of nonbinary trans people wanting genital surgery were even lower.

The medical realities of being trans are complex. Fortunately, you almost never need detailed medical information about the people you’re interacting with. If you’re looking for a better conversation opener, you might try chatting about the weather, or your local sports team.

Further reading