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Trans-Dar: A Quick Course in Gender Identity Intuition

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When you look up “transgender” in the dictionary, you’re not going to find a picture of an individual who defines the term—because that person does not exist. The transgender identity can contain many diverse elements, but if you pay attention—and mind your manners—you can learn to pick up on the cues that will help you figure out who is cis and who is trans.

  Cultural Markers

In contrast, when people talk about “gaydar” they are looking for cultural markers: clothing, gestures, hairstyle, language, etc. I realized that I use the exact same thing when identifying trans people. Having spent a lot of time in trans spaces I’ve become aware of a lot of hair styles, types of clothing, common language, etc. that are widespread among trans people. In this way, I’m not looking for signs of a hidden maleness or femaleness, but rather symbols of a not-so-hidden “transness.”

I do not “pass” as a woman, because I am a woman. I pass as cis. I am not “read” as a man, because I am not a man. I do get read as trans. In my life, I am almost always seen as a woman, the only question is whether I am seen as cis or trans. In the same way, I’m not looking for if someone is male or female – that is always consciously and often clearly communicated—but instead looking for if someone is cis or trans.

Even when I do look to various biological features, they often affirm a trans person’s gender rather than invalidate it. Trans women tend to have tall faces, which is currently considered feminine and quite attractive. Trans men more commonly grow out their facial hair, which is traditionally considered very masculine.

It’s important to keep in mind that this whole process is still guesswork. Some cis women are tall with long faces and a-line hairstyles. Some cis men are short and stout with full beards and wear baggy sweatshirts. We’re talking comparative likelihoods, not assurances.


When discussing visual cues that identify people as trans, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss what to do with that information. A lot of trans people have to deal with harassment from random people on the street who identify them as trans and feel entitled to intrude into their lives with inappropriate questions. They’ll ask, “Are you a guy or a girl?” or they’ll follow telling everyone, “That person is trans!” (only with less respectful language). I’ve even gotten the “So, um, pre-op or post-op?” inappropriate demand for deeply personal medical information. It should be obvious, but it has to be said: treat trans people with the same respect (or more!) that you would a cis person, don't invalidate their gender, don’t out them, and don't bring up whether or not they are trans unless they do.

Of course, that leaves us with a tricky situation. What if you have some valid reason to talk about trans stuff. Perhaps you're trying to do outreach to the trans community for a group you are a part of. Or your brother just transitioned and you’d like the chance to put him in touch with another trans person in your small town. Or you are trans yourself and just want to connect over the shared experience for a moment.

First and foremost, make certain not to say anything that could out them to others. If they are with folks who look like coworkers or family, perhaps just drop it for safety's sake. Even with no one else around, asking them directly if they are trans or otherwise implying that you know they are trans is usually considered very intrusive. Additionally, a lot of trans people have internalized the cis-supremacist concept that being seen as trans is a failure or that it means their gender is less valid. Telling a trans woman that you know she is trans, for example, can sound like you are saying you know she is “really a man” even if that's not what you meant.

The best thing to do is to strike up conversation, as appropriate to the situation. Then bring up trans related topics that are relevant to you, again, as appropriate to the situation. Mention the work that your organization is doing and toss in the stuff around trans people. Talk about your family and how your brother just came out to you as trans. Mention something going on in your life that relates to being trans. And if you’ve got the chance, mention these things to other people in the vicinity too. Beyond anything else, put yourself out there as someone available to talk to. Then it is in their hands whether to come out to you or not. And if they choose not to, be respectful of that decision.


so well written!!!
I get so tired of the pre-op or post-op question.


Pre-op / post-op is rampant in the community as well as outside (perhaps more so inside).

I was at a trangender social/support group a couple decades ago. There was one transwoman there who asked me, as each person walked in, "does that one have a cock and balls?" As if I would know, and as if it should matter.


I had a girl about 8 or 9 ask me once while I was out inline skating (hat, shorts, sports bra, no makeup, sweat) if I was a man or a woman. My answer was "Yes". She thought about that for about half a second then smiled real big, said "Cool!" and went on playing with her friends. There IS hope.

And my answer to the "pre/post/non" op question is always that I don't discuss my genitalia with anyone except my doctor and my sex partner - and they don't have a chance of becoming either one.


very well written!


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