How do you compliment a transgender person? On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve found there’s more psychology involved that you might think. Recently, my close friend told me about a conversation she ahd with someone we both work with, who said I was looking very pretty lately. My friend told the coworker, “You should tell her.” Our coworker’s response initially surprised my friend. When my friend told me, I was surprised as well.
The coworker confided to my friend that she hadn’t been sure if she should compliment me on my dress, because she thought it might make me uncomfortable, or make me feel singled out. Our coworker was on to something. It is true, that most trans people just want to blend in. When we first begin transitioning, we feel we already stick out enough. We’re self-conscious about our appearance. We feel the stares of people who have clocked us (realized we some features that are inconsistent with the gender we’re presenting), and it’s uncomfortable when we feel their eyes from across a dining room at a restaurant or other public place. Sometimes, I’m tempted to turn to them and say something immature, like “Why don’t you take a picture next time?”
Our coworker’s instinct was based in reality, although I didn’t understand it until my friend also passed on our coworker’s explanation. It got me thinking about the fact that many people are afraid to say the wrong thing to — or ask the wrong question from — a transgender individual.
I definitely understand that. When I first began to meet other transgender people, long before I even considered a transition, I felt uncomfortable speaking with them and didn’t know if I was saying something insulting or embarrassing. Most people are afraid of overstepping boundaries, in general. I asked a couple coworkers to pretend they didn’t know me as well as they do, then tell me what they might want to know about me, but be afraid to ask. The responses were enlightening:
- “What’s the process of your transition, like how long does it take?” (I’ve been asked “How do you know you’re done?”)
- “We’re reporting on bathroom laws and policies every day now. How do you navigate the bathroom issue, and which bathroom do you use?”
- “Why did you wait until this point in your life to transition and what triggered it?”
- “Have you had surgery…you know, down there?”
- “You were married to women. Are you attracted to guys now?”
- “When did you know you were transgender?”
- “What steps did you have to take to get your name and driver’s license changed?”
When I first came out to my tight-knit group of coworkers, word spread pretty quickly around the company. I think people were very proud of me, and wanted to share the news with others. Several people with whom I’d never had a conversation, wrote emails or came to me in person to say how brave and courageous I must be, or wish me well. A couple people prefaced their encouragement with, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but…”
I’m forced to be more open than some transgender individuals. Because I’m a journalist with my name on stories that live on the internet, and because I deal with some of CNN’s 1,000+ affiliates every day, I realized long ago that I didn’t have the luxury of transitioning under the radar. I understood early-on that I would have a public transition, and that I would never live in “stealth mode,” under the radar of most people. Some transgender people are able to have very private transitions, where only the people closest to them see the process.
Because of my very public transition, I felt I had a responsibility to be as open as possible, and to help educate others about what it means to be transgender and what’s involved. I told people when I came out to them that I understood they would have questions, and I hoped they would feel comfortable is asking me to learn more. I also decided I would write about being transgender, what it means, and about my transition. I feel it is my responsibility to be a source of information for the public, and a source of information and encouragement to other LGBTQ people. This public role isn’t for everyone, and not every trans person should feel obligated to fill it. But I have the gift of communication, and I can explain things in a way, at least I hope so, that puts others at ease, and allows them to feel safe asking me things they wouldn’t someone else.
Since my own CNN story published, I’ve had many people reach out to tell me their own stories of transition, of still being closeted, or simply to say thank you for writing it. I’ve been helping a few of them by giving them guidance, counsel and encouragement. I’ve shared my own detailed experiences and stories with them. I’ve answered many questions, about nearly everything you can imagine a person would want to know. Being able to help these people has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve felt more gratitude the past few weeks, than in the entire sum of my life up to this point. I’ve always found it rewarding to help others, and and when I can put smiles on faces. I’ve been able to do that on an industrial scale, and I’m forever thankful for this experience.
My first reaction when my friend told me about her conversation with our coworker, was feeling flattered. It made me feel really good for someone to notice that I had begun to wear dresses, and appear more feminine by getting better at applying makeup and matching outfits. The surprise of hearing her hesitance was followed by flattery. It made me feel more secure in how I appear to others, and of course I understand her not wanting to offend me, or even make me feel uncomfortable. But I was very happy, when just a few days later she looked at me and said, “Wow, you’re really looking great, Dani! Look at you, all dressed up and fancy!” That’s how you complement a transgender person. You just do it.