I am participating in Trans*forming the Dialogue, Simmons College’s
Online MSW Program’s campaign to promote an educational conversation about the transgender community. By participating in this campaign, I will be offering my perspective on what TO ask and what NOT to ask trans*people.
I offer the answers to these questions from the perspective of a mental health professional who works with this community. Though I will preface these answers with the ‘warning’ that I am not a typical ‘therapist’. I do not work as the expert in the room, rather I allow each and every client that I see to be the expert of their lives. I only take on an expert role when I am simply conducting an assessment to write a letter for a trans client, and need some black and white information from them in order to be comfortable with the writing of that letter.
What are the do’s and don’ts when asking a trans*person about their experiences?
What are some questions that one should NOT be asking a transgender person?
1. Will you have/Have you had surgery?
• Or anything about surgery, unless someone explicitly invites you to ask them, or unless you need to know this answer for a specific and clearly articulated professional reason.
2. What’s your real name?
• Sometimes, for professionals we need to know a legal name, and so it’s okay to seek that info, respectfully, by using the term ‘legal’ rather than ‘real’ and if the client as already legally changed their name to their preferred name, I never ever ask them their birth name, as it is just not ever relevant.
3. Are you trans?
• If a client wants you to know this and believes this information to be relevant to their hopes from your services to them, they’ll tell you. I don’t believe that even as a counselor who works with this community, asking this question is ever a necessity. I have had clients in my office who came to me as heterosexual individuals, and I never knew them to be trans until they revealed that information halfway into the first session or even later than that. And had they not told me, I would not have asked, even if I suspected that to be the case.
4. What bathroom do you use?
5. Anything that is JUST based on your curiosity.
• I think that too often professionals get morbidly curious about their client’s lives, and with this community more so than usual. I think we should be incredibly disciplined to never let that curiosity guide us, or the questions we ask.
What are 2 – 3 questions that one SHOULD be asking a transgender person?
1. What are your very best hopes from our work together?
2. What are your preferred pronouns?
3. If you only know their legal/birth name, “what is your preferred name?” (This is a question on my intake form, and once I know a client’s preferred name, I solely use it.)
4. Is there anything I/we can do to help you feel more comfortable here?
5. What would you like me to know about you or your life?
6. I’ve asked you some questions; do you have any questions for me?