Supporting the transgender community is more than deciding on pronouns


Supporting members of the transgender community can be as simple as letting them set the tone of the conversation, including which pronouns and which words to use in describing them, according to Ted Hoover of Persad, who spoke to a group of about 150 last week at the William Pitt Union.

The workshop “Supporting Transgender Community Members,” sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, was a primer on current thinking about gender identity from all perspectives. Persad is a Pittsburgh-based human service organization whose mission is to improve the well-being of the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities.

Hoover cautioned that his talk was just 101 training “cracking the door open … to a new place of understanding about what gender is.”

“It’s really important to remember the experiences of a middle-aged, white, gay man and a 13-year-old trans girl of color — I mean, we’re talking like different planets,” he said.

A bit of alphabet soup

Language, in particular, is ever evolving and sometimes it’s hard to keep up.

“The goal is treating people with professionalism and respect, and these words can help,” Hoover said. “You and I both know you can use the most correct language and be unbelievably offensive. But if you’re coming from a place of respect, and maybe you said an old-fashioned term or incorrect term, you’re gonna be cut some slack. And when you make a mistake — and you will — just apologize and move on.”

Beyond the lesbian and gay in the LGBT acronym, there are bisexuals. Hoover said many people think this isn’t real, that it’s a phase or transitional. “But there is a legitimate community of people who are attracted to both genders,” he said. “And I think come the glorious day when all hatred has vanished, we’re going to find out that community’s probably a lot bigger than we’d like to acknowledge.”

Then we come to the “big T,” Hoover said about transgender. “I do this training with law enforcement, and when we get to this, it gets very quiet in the room. And they’ll sit up very, very straight. Because this scares people, and it makes people really angry because it seems to strike at some fundamental things that we were taught as young people. And there’s so much bad information out there, about the trans community.”

Trans people are ones who don’t conform to traditional ideas of gender, which can take in several groups. The gender identity is an interior knowledge, Hoover said, like knowing if you’re left- or right-handed.

Another useful word to know is cisgender, who are people whose gender identity and birth identity are the same. This is the appropriate word to use, instead of saying “normal.”

Hoover said there are 26 letters in the alphabet and he’s willing to add as many as we need to make everyone feel included.

Other initials in use

Q: queer or questioning. The latter describes youth who are still trying to figure out their identity, but “queer” is a bit more complicated. The word previously was used as a hateful slur toward many LGBT people, but during the 1990s, AIDS activists decided to make the word their own and “defang it.” Still many in the gay and straight communities weren’t comfortable with it, so it once again fell out of favor.

Hoover said it is being revived now by millennials and younger people who “don’t have a memory of that word being so scalding.” Many are attracted to “queer” because of its ambiguity, and Hoover believes it will one day be the word of choice. “I will say that we’re not there yet. So if you happen to see two people talking to each other, don’t be like, ‘hey, queers, how you doing?’ You’re not invited to that party.”

I: intersex. This is for people whose sexual organs are blended; formerly called hermaphrodite.

A: allies, asexual (without sexual feelings) or agender (without gender)

N: nonbinary. Non-conforming to the Western concept that there are only two gender options.

P: pansexual. People who don’t see gender. Hoover said this is popular with young people who want to say, “I love who I love and I don’t need labels.” The more ambiguous terms like this, also help protect privacy.

Transgender spectrum

Hoover said that the transgender community is now at the point gays and lesbians were 100 years ago, where many don’t even want to admit they exist.

Saying someone is transgender does not identify who they are attracted to. The thinking used to be that transwomen were gay men who were embarrassed about being attracted to other men. But transwomen can be attracted to anyone — male, female, nonbinary, etc.

Groups included under the transgender umbrella, all based on gender identity not sexual attraction, include:

Cross-dressers: While they may dress in clothing associated with another gender, cross-dressers are not necessarily gay, lesbian or bisexual. Indeed, Hoover said, the percentage of LGB people in this community is the same as in the larger population.

Drag queens/kings: This flamboyant cross dressing often is done only for performance.

Transgender: What in the past was called transsexual means a person’s birth-assigned gender differs from their gender identity. It’s wrong to assume a transgender person will or even want to have gender-affirmation surgery (the preferred term over gender transition, sex reassignment and, the most offensive, sex change). Most don’t. It’s a process that can involve voice classes, hormones, different clothes and more.

And it’s definitely wrong to ask if they’ve had surgery. “Generally, it’s wrong to ask what’s going on in someone’s pants,” Hoover said.

Acceptable words to use: transgender (not transgendered), trans, transwoman/transman, or just take trans out of it and say woman or man.

Sometimes you don’t know what the person’s gender identity is. First ask, do you need to know? If so, how do you find out without being offensive? Hoover suggested asking the person’s name or what pronouns they use is the best and easiest way.

The trouble starts, he said, when you start guessing. Trans people expect to encounter mistakes, but it matters whether it was intentional or not.

Unacceptable and offensive words to avoid: trannie, shim, she-male and it. And avoid using their “dead” or previous name.

And what about those pronouns. We currently don’t have a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Using s/he or he/she is awkward. Some new pronouns have been proposed: ze, hir, xe, em, ve, fae. But even though English teachers cringe, the word “they” solves the problem, Hoover said.

“We have a living breathing language,” he said, pointing out the Associated Press and the Washington Post have changed their style manuals to say “they” is acceptable as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Hoover said we’re just beginning to understand the trans experience. For instance, in a 2015 survey, 40 percent of transgender adults said they had tried to commit suicide. Of those, 92 percent said it happened before they turned 25. He also said 35 percent of the trans population is denied medical care — not just for gender-affirmation surgery, but for anything.

Transgender and other non-binary people just want to know, “Have you thought we might show up?” Are events set up for male-female couples only or married and singles only, thereby excluding anyone else?

“We may never come out to you,” he said. “But we’re constantly looking for safe people.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.