Civilities: Steven Petrow and GLAAD's Tiq Milan on Transgender Etiquette (July 15, 2014)

Jul 15, 2014

Columnist Steven Petrow took questions about LGBT and straight etiquette.

This week featured special guest Jody M. Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG.

This week GLAAD's Tiq Milan joins me for the hour to talk about "transgender etiquette." He'll be answering your questions about what pronoun and name to use for a trans person; what not to ask a trans person; why the sudden visibility of trans people in the news, and much more. In addition to this work with GLAAD, Tiq is a contributing author to the upcoming anthology Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, and is the Co-Chair for the LGBT taskforce of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Welcome, Tiq.

Hi Steven. Thanks so much for having me and I'm looking forward to our chat. 

According to a Pew study, only 8% of Americans say they know a transgender person. I'm hoping that after our chat today, people will come away saying they've now 'met' a trans person -- Tiq Milan -- albeit virtually. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure, I'm Tiq Milan Senior Media Strategist of News at GLAAD. I work mainly on our transgender advocacy efforts here and I've worked with gay and trans youth for many years as well as a mentor and educator. I'm also a freelance music journalist. I started my transition 7 years ago and I've had the opportunity to work with some amazing trans folks along the way. 

Let's start with some definitions. In fact, I told my 80-something year old mom the other day that we're going to be having this discussion and she said: "Ask, what's the difference between transsexual and transgender." So, let's start there.

Your mom asked a great question and one I hear alot. Simply put transgender is an umbrella term that includes the multitude of gender variants and identifications from cross-dresser to gender queer to trans male or trans female. 

Transexual refers to someone who has medically transitioned with hormones and/or surgery. Not all people who identify as transgender have medically transitioned nor do all transgender identified people want to. 

I answered this reader question last week; I'm curious as to what your answer would be?

Dear Civilities: I have a lesbian daughter who has just come out as a transgender man. I will be introducing him as my child in our city’s pride celebration later this summer. How exactly should I do that? Do I say: “This is my transgender son?” or “This is my transgender daughter?” I’m sorry if I sound confused, but I want to make the correct introduction to my friends that also have gay children.

My parents asked the same question when I transitioned.  It's great to see supportive parents reach out for resources. Since he has transitioned and identifies as a man, than he should be addressed and introduced as her son. 

Tiq, going back to definitions for a moment. In my experience, some well-meaning people use the wrong words (and pronouns, which we'll come to in a moment): When that happens, what's a good response from both people?

First, I think people should get into the habit of asking others  what their preferred gender pronoun is if they aren't sure. I'm sure that feels new to a lot of folks to ask, but it's ok to inquire very politely: "I want to be respectful so can you please tell me what pronoun you prefer."  I'm sure the person being asked would be greatful for the space to define themselves and it makes for less awkwardness later. 

If  you're in situation where someone is repeatedly using the wrong pronoun, it's ok to pull them aside and explain to them the situation and to act accordingly 

A commenter posted this on my page after I wrote about Laverne Cox being on the cover of TIME. It wasn't the only message laced with antipathy. Why are we seeing that? And, not to mention, so much violence against trans individuals?

“I think the TIME magazine story is ridiculous. What kind of civil rights do they need… This is what makes everyone say the gay community is looking for special privileges. When a fringe group says they want MORE, it reflects poorly on all of us. This cover wasn’t a ground breaking move for LGBT… it was a giant step backwards.”

Transgender people aren't a fringe group. We've existed for thousands of years in cultures all over the globe. 

The fact that gender is not not as cut and dry as most people may have thought evokes a lot of fear in people. And that fear is sustained by misrepresentation in the media and a lack of representation in our legislation and policies. Only 8% of people actually know a trans person, so for 92% of the population everything they know about us is what they see in the media. Laverne Cox is completely shifting the narrative of our lives and creating space for trans folks to tell our own stories about our authentic lived experience and that change doesn't sit well with a lot of folks. However, that is the nature of social change. There will always be people who aren't ready to handle social shifts. Also, this idea that trans people having leadership within the broader LGBT movement will some way take away from LGB folks is quite frankly, nonsense


For the questioner who asked who Laverne Cox is: She's a trans activist and actor; first trans person ever nominated for an Emmy (for her role in Orange Is the New Black). Here's her website:

I'm sorry to say that there's resistance from certain factions of the LGB community to transgender people. I don't know the percentage, but what I've encountered has been surprising, especially from lesbians. The same hardheaded bias that has been thrown at the LGB community by straight people seems to be repeating itself with some LGB folks against transgenders. They say oft times the oppressed will look for someone to oppress in turn. What's your take on my point?

First, let me point out that transgender is an adjective, not a noun. So, "...some LGB folks againsts transgender people." :)

Yes, you're right. There has been push back from some folks in the LGB community. I think this comes down to a basic misunderstanding of what being trans is and what it isn't. It is an actual lived reality. It's not dress up. It's pretend. It's not accompanied by some ulterior motive. This is our lives. We are not the boogeyman

I think the more visible trans people are, the more space we have to tell our stories with the LGBT community and outside of it, the more change we'll see. 

I understand that the correct pronouns are important to a transgender person. What I'm not sure about is when 'she' becomes 'he' or vice versa. Is it when a person starts taking hormones, has surgery, presents him or herself with a new identity?

I've probably gotten more questions about pronoun use from readers in recent weeks. What's your advice here?

This best thing to do is ask. The transgender community isn't a monolith and the experience varies. You can ask, "What pronoun are you going by now?" Or "What pronoun do you prefer." It's really up to the individual. 

From issues in the workplace, to advocacy from major groups, to portrayal in media, to legal rights, I feel like anything involving transgender people is inherently put on the back burner until after lesbian and gay (and maybe bi, if they're acknowledged) people are addressed. It's my experience that a lot of LGB people and orgs hold this view as well, and that's particularly frustrating. What can people who aren't trans do to make sure that trans/gender identity related rights and issues aren't an afterthought?

Tiq, This question is related to one you just answered but seems important in a different way

Issues facing the transgender have been on the back burner for awhile, but the tide is changing. Social media had been integral to getting the stories of trans folks out in the media and has resulted in significant organizing and even policy changes. I think the best way for an ally to keep trans issues at the forefront is to share these stories. Post them online, on twitter. Write about them. Spark dialogue with other folks. Being able to share information is a powerful tool. 

My 15 year old former daughter, now son, told us last year that he was transgender. This was surprising to us since he was never a tomboy and seemed like a typical girl although he did strongly dislike the skimpy clothing that girls wear and the teen girl drama. While I love him whether he is a male or a female, I struggle with understanding his choice. Do you think it's possible that the increase in transgender teen boys may be due to them rejecting our society's traditional roles for women (i.e objectification, focus on physical appearance)? My son says he feels more comfortable as a boy. I wonder if that's the same as saying he doesn't feel comfortable as a girl. I mean, what does being a boy vs being a girl really mean in western society where women can pretty much do everything men can do? MTF transgender women make much more sense to me because our society is really not accepting of men showing emotional or physical femininity.

We have to move away from this idea that being transgender or the transitioning process looks one certain way. He didn't have to be masculine prior to his transition. What's happening here is a conflation of gender identity and gender "performance." What we're learning is that being a man isn't intrinsically to traditional  tropes of  masculinity and being a woman isn't intrinsically linked to traditional tropes of femininity. They are two separate things that meet at various points for various people. However, I think that the increase in people transitioning comes from the fact that folks now know that they don't have to be the gender they were assigned at birth or have to engage in the idealogy behind the M or F on their birth certificate. Gender and sexuality are a spectrum. Not a straight line (no pun intended. lol)

This may seem like a very ignorant question, but when someone is referred to as a trans man, does that mean they were born female but now identify as male or the other way around? Thank you for conducting these chats!

Yes. A transgender man is someone who was born female and is now male identified. 

So, please stay with us, too.

We're trying to get to as many of your questions as possible.

Are there any other terms that we should define or discuss?

We  rarely discuss gender variants or gender queer folks when we discuss trans issues. Gender variants and gender queer refers to folks who don't necessarily identify as male or female. Or they identify with aspects of both. These folks are usually left out of the discussion unfortunately. Discussions around gender variants can be nuanced and complex but I think it's important to not leave facets of the trans community out of the conversation.

Standing and applauding. Why won't people see that not all men and not all women look and act the same?!? Is my husband "less masculine" because he hates sports and reads books? That's a sad commentary on the limits people impose on heterosexuals, let along LGBTQ.

If we are supposed to call people what they want (which I agree with) and use the terms they use to identify their bodies (which I agree with), why are people whose bodies and minds conform called "cisgender", a word most of us have never heard of, let alone identify with?

Cisgender refers to the folks whose gender identity and gender they were assigned at birth are in aligned, which is most folks. Having this term is a way of not making non-trans folks the default. For example, without this term, one could say, "John is a man and Tiq is a transgender man." This makes me into some sort of other....something other than a man. So saying cisgender and transgender creates a context of equity. I personally prefer the term, non-trans. 

Thanks for this conversation! I know that language continues to shift in this area, but I'm confused about your statement that transgender is an adjective not a noun. When I worked with a transgender man he explained to me that for him the word transgender was equivalent with male or female. Therefore, he did not like "transgendered" because we don't say someone is "maled" the are "male." However, we do say "males" for a group of men. Why then is it incorrect to say "transgenders?" I'm not trying to be argumentative, just trying to understand. Thank you

To say I'm a transgender is to NOT say I'm a man. Transgender is a process. It's a way to identify the space we created to live as our authentic selves. It describes how we came to be the men and women we are. 

Also, transgendered is verb. That's a no no as well. 

You can find more info at the link below

When I met my husband over 15 years ago, I had never met a transgender person before and I was barely out of the closet. My husband was an activist back then and taught me many things. Flash forward to today; a few months ago, a contractor I've seen for years at work transitioned. I don't know her at all, but was just mildly surprised, not at all shocked. Not that many years ago, she would likely have left her job and started over when she started transitioning. Nope. She did it at work. He left work one Friday and she came in the next Monday. I wanted to applaud, but politely just acted like nothing out of the ordinary happened.

That's amazing!! With so much happening around ENDA and its lack of inclusion and the heartbreaking stories of trans folks losing their jobs or never being considered for one, this is a nice pick me up! :)

I have a trans friend of long standing who is in her late fifties and adamantly corrected me when I suggested in a casual remark, early in our friendship, that she had been a gay man before she was trans. Can you help explain to me why my comment was wrong?

Maybe she never identified as a gay man. Maybe she identified as a woman prior to her transition. It may be worth to ask her if you want to understand her transition more. 

And to everyone who joined us today. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions. I'll see you here in two weeks.

In This Chat
Steven Petrow
Steven Petrow is a respected journalist and the go-to source for modern manners. Petrow writes the "Civilities" column for The Washington Post as well as "Manners Hero" for Parade and "Medical Manners" for Everyday Health.
Tiq Milan
Tiq Milan is the Senior Media Strategist of National News at GLAAD. Before joining GLAAD, Tiq was a staff member of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, where he mentored LGBT youth.
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