It’s Throwback Thursday! This classic column originally appeared at the barbershop notebooks in 2006. Edited to include updated links.
Question to the Sexpert:
“Someone I work with is transitioning from male to female. I have so many questions but we’re not close enough for me to feel like I can ask such intimate things. All I know is he wants to be called ‘she’ now and will be going by a different name. Our HR people held a small meeting where they explained this change is not going to affect much around the office. So I was wondering what it really means to change sex. What is the process? How do I act toward this person? I really don’t want to say something offensive.”
Kudos on being open to learning about your co-worker’s situation and being sensitive to the potential intrusiveness of your queries. Trans folks often have to talk endlessly about the process to people they barely know and the questions can get way too personal real quick. Can you imagine having some near stranger from accounting just saunter up to you and ask about your plans for your genitals?
“So, what are you going to do with your… uh… junk?”
“Not much, really. My new vagina and I are thinking of taking in a show this weekend.”
Each person’s experience of transitioning is unique. For some people, the process is only complete once the physical body has been altered through surgery, hormones and other alterations that help someone ‘pass’ in society as their identified gender. For others, whose idea of gender is more fluid, simply going by a chosen name is just as legitimate of transition.
For some, the question is not what they want to change about their bodies but what they can get. It’s possible to have bad reactions to hormonal treatments, for instance. Others find the extreme expense of top (breast removal or implants) or bottom (genital alteration) surgery to be cost prohibitive, since health insurance rarely covers these interventions. And before any of these measures can be taken, a person must see a counselor and a medical doctor regularly and live as their identified gender for at least a year to get all the necessary professionals to sign off on surgery. That alone can be extremely costly!
Not knowing your coworker specifically, I can’t speculate what her particular transition is going to be like. She might change how she dresses, may have laser hair removal over most of her body, possibly undergo training to make her voice sound more feminine. There are surgeries to feminize her face, throat and buttocks in addition to the more operations on the breasts and genitals. Which, by the way, because I know you’re salivating with curiosity, is tantamount to making an outie and innie. Surgically, I was told by a doctor who routinely performs such procedures that “it’s easier to make a hole than a pole.”
If your coworker is taking hormone injections she’ll essentially be going through another round of puberty. And you remember how much fun that was. Imagine all the fun and joy of junior high but picture it happening just to you while everyone else watches, curiously!
And, the trickiest part of all may be dealing with how everyone else around her reacts, including her family. Hopefully everyone in the office is as concerned with being supportive as you are and no one raises a sanctimonious stink about who gets to use which bathrooms or anything. Transition can be an intense experience. So many hopes and fears are wrapped up in this process and the support of friendly people can mean the world!
Here’s what you can do: make it clear (in whatever way seems authentic to you) that you are an ally, a safe person who respects her. Use the name and pronouns she prefers and correct those who don’t. Since you’re not close friends there’s no need to go overboard and invite her to be in your wedding party- but making a simple friendly comment as you pass in the hall should be appropriate and can be impactful.
For more information on being a good ally, check out these links:
- Tips for Allies
- What NOT to do
- Misconceptions about being an ally
- Baby steps to more advanced allyship