Eric Marcus

GLBTQ&A Rules

Filed By Eric Marcus | November 23, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: gay youth, GLSEN, PFLAG, PrideWorks

This past week I did a presentation at the annual GLSEN Hudson Valley PrideWorks conference on how to answer the questions we all wind up getting asked by parents, friends, strangers, and colleagues (and often get asked over and over again until we want to scream!). For example:

• How did you know you were gay?
• Who plays the husband, who plays the wife?
• Why do gay people want to get married?
• How did your parents react?
• Don't gay people already have rights?

In preparing for the workshop (which was attended by about 50 people--mostly middle- and high-school students and a handful of educators and parents) I came up with a set of rules about how to most effectively answer the questions GLBT people are likely to be asked (like the ones I've been asked and answered over the past thirty years both personally and as an author).

It turns out that my list of rules was hardly complete. The attendees had a long list of additional suggested rules based on their own experiences. There was little time for the attendees to take notes, so I said that I'd write up a summary for this week's blog post so they could refer to "The Rules" whenever they needed to. So the following is the complete list (absent your suggestions). I hope "The Rules" come in handy for you, too!

GLBTQ&A RULES

Be Prepared
Your reaction and demeanor will indicate to the person asking the question how you expect to be treated. If you're hesitant, nervous, or embarrassed, they will respond in kind. So by being prepared, by anticipating that you're going to get questions and then by responding in a self-assured, unembarrassed, and respectful way, that will indicate to the person asking the question that you expect to be treated seriously and with respect.

Know Your Facts
Facts are your friends and your weapons. You don't want to be left sputtering like a fool because you don't know your facts. Think of yourself as a roving ambassador. So that means you need to know the basics. When did the gay rights movement begin? How many gay people are there? Can gay people get married? Where and since when? When were gay people first protected by law? What is the Defense of Marriage Act?

Keep It Simple
You're not giving a seminar or presenting your dissertation. Make your point, back it up, maybe tell a personal story and get out. Then ask if they've got another question.

Always Say It With A Smile and Use Humor When Appropriate
A smile is always disarming. Getting angry or impatient will get you nowhere. Use humor when you can, but don't make jokes where you put down yourself or other gay people.

Make it Personal
This is your life. This is your experience. Talk about yourself and your experiences. People are moved by personal stories, not slogans and legal arguments. Talk about your hopes and dreams. These are the things people relate to. For example:

- Did you get your ass kicked because some jock decided he didn't like you?
- Did your parents flip out when you told them you were gay?
- Did your grandma tell you she loved you and then ask if you wanted a glass of milk?
- Did your best straight friend try to fix you up on a date with another gay person?
- Do you hope to get married one day?

Put The Other Person in Your Shoes
Turn the question around. So if someone asks who plays the husband and who plays the wife in your relationship (not the most thoughtful question in the first place), ask that person who plays the husband and who plays the wife in their relationship. And then watch them think about it.

A mom who attended my workshop said that when her twelve-year-old son came out to her she asked him how he knew for sure. He turned the question around and asked her how she knew she was straight and when she had her first crush. That made her think about her own experience of her sexuality and sexual development and helped her understand that her son was not going through a phase and meant what he said.

Be Honest If You Don't Know the Answer
It never hurts to say, "I don't know." You can always do a little research and get back to the questioner with an answer later.

You Don't Have to Answer
If you're asked a question that's too personal or makes you uncomfortable, you can always say, "I'm not comfortable answering that question." Instead of answering directly, you can recommend a web site or book or other resource that provides the information that you're not comfortable conveying.

Be Patient and Open Minded
It can be annoying when people ask what feel like obvious or stupid questions. But the person wouldn't be asking the questions if he or she thought they were obvious or stupid. So it's important to be patient and open minded because losing your temper will only mean a lost opportunity to be informative.

Remember Who You're Talking To
You can't talk to your grandparents the same way you would talk to your ten-year-old nephew. So make your answers age-appropriate and use language that the questioner can understand.

Be Understanding of Where They're Coming From
Everyone comes to this subject with a different perspective based on his or her relationship to you and his or her past experience and beliefs. So you need to consider that when crafting an answer. For example, if the questioner is traditionally and deeply religious you may want to answer a religious quesiton in a way that will avoid a confrontational back and forth over the Bible (unless you're a Bible authority and enjoy that kind of discussion).

Be Respectful
Not everyone will agree with what you have to say so be as respectful as you can when there's a difference of opinion. In my own experience, it's never terribly effective to call someone a f#*%ing idiot no matter how tempting it may be.

Just a final thought for when you think you're sick of answering questions. Keep in mind that by answering questions knowledgably and persuasively, each and everyone one of us can help in his or her own way to make the world a better place for GLBT people. Each of us is a mini-ambassador who can help spread the truth and promote understanding. It starts by simply being yourself and answering questions about your life as honestly and openly as you can--when you can.


Recent Entries Filed under The Movement:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


Hi Eric, thanks for the great tips. Even as a seasoned outreach worker, I found a lot of great reminders in here about how to be a good ambassador, as you so aptly put it.

And also, rememeber: If you're going to be flying the GLBTQ&A banner, remember it's not always about sexual orientation. Gender plays a role too, and a very different role than sexual orientation.

If you're not comfortable with talking about gender, or if it is not part of what you believe in, drop the T (trans) or I (intersex) parts or the spectrum. You could do more damage than good by not answering trans or intersexed people with the answers they need.

Eric,
This is great stuff and very useful. I have probably been in front of nearly a hundred college and university classes on different subjects, and in different states. One of the first "rules" I tell them is, "I'm not afraid of any question you might ask me, as long as you aren't afraid of the answer I give you." It seems to set the tone for my presentation.

You might want to address the B in LGBTQA a bit instead of just framing everything in terms of gay. Also in terms of the fact that Bi and I imagine Trans people often have to answer questions coming from gay people.

Actually, most gays I run into are arrogant enough to speak for me and shout me down on trans stuff. Gays are also the most disrespectful, and transphobic population I have ever encountered.
I laugh when my straight friends bully gays into using the correct pronoun and school them on respect.
Gays never ask, nor do they apologize. Displays of simple respect are unheard of. Has never happened in my life.
I suspect it never will, either.

So, the "rules for trans should be: "Gays, STFU, and empower trans voices."

But...I ain't holding my breath. This crowd is well known for its entitlement issues, now, isn't it?


Dear Alyssa,
Thanks for your comment. It must be incredibly hurtful to have anyone speak for you who doesn't know what your life is like. Being shouted down is even worse--unforgivable. It's important for all of us who aren't trans (is it okay for me to use "trans"?) to hear about your experiences. There is no reason for us to be adversaries or disrespectful with one another. Best, Eric

Thanks.

Acknowledgement goes a long way towards making it better.

Some folks do not like trans...I use it freely. The fact that you troubled to ASK makes all the difference!

regrettably, I have seen entirely too much queer strife in my time. As a trans woc, it leaves me with an ugly choice.

Do I remain silent, and endorse it? Do I do this for some nebulous "common good"- one that typically excludes me?

Do I echo society at large by permitting more privileged types to shit even more on me and mine?

Do I risk demanding respect and accountability and do I have the energy and time to pay the price for doing so?

These are all hard choices that I make as a qwoc. I cannot escape them.

I cannot "simply leave," as one white gay male so glibly said. There is simply no place to go for qwoc who are also trans.

The man who said it assumed his experience of being able to just move on to the next place was also mine.

And, regrettably, this is by no means the worst experience I have had with white gay men over my multifaceted life.

But, you ask me to be "respectful." While your statement does carry a twinge of privilege behind it, you at least had the courtesy to engage me, not deny me, and to validate my experience as much as your own experience allowed.
So, you brought it, big time. And I am not only grateful, I am duly impressed.
I hope my note to you hear carries the same level of courtesy that you have chosen to display with me.
I also hope it serves as an example of an alternative way to deal with trans rage to those who would attempt to silence with privilege.

And I do know this: Being equal in this society means owning up to our mistakes, and not beating down folks who raise them so that they might be addressed... and hopefully fixed.

How we handle our own tells the world a lot about who we are.

-L

Dear Alyssa,
Oops! I didn't mean for my comment to sound like I was asking you to be respectful. From your e-mail I had no reason to think you weren't being respectful (you were expressing anger, which I have no reason to dispute). That's what I get for writing too quickly.

Forgive me for asking, but what is a qwoc? I just turned 50, so I'm a little clueless about some of this (I hope it's not ageist of me to use my advanced age as an excuse for not knowing!). Best, Eric

qwoc = queer woman of color. No offense taken.

A leftover from my women's studies coursework, and my way of saying more that just Latina.

Because, there's a lot more to queer than just me and mine. I just get cranky when folks forget this and in particular that me and mine are just as valid queers as anyone here.

Most of my anger comes from my experiences at Uni here in rhode island. The local GLBToken group was pretty much a horror show in this respect.

Bad enough that the uni police had to intervene. But, this was not my only negative experience with gay on trans bad behavior.

Again, thanks for stopping to ask, and not have a privileged fueled hissy fit.

-L

...

@ Cathryn
Sorry, dear, I almost forgot you.

*Tosses you a token, and drives on through.


Dear Eric.....
How DARE you use the word "trans" without being cleared to do so? Are you unaware that fifteen minutes ago "trans" was declared an insult by proclamation in a toll booth outside of Atlanta by the newly formed "TG liberation Army? (membership, 2)

Alyssa, in all seriousness, while the attitude you talk about is definitely out there, it just as definitely is not universal.

eric,
You can use "trans" if you want, along with "transsexual, transgender, FtM, MtF, trans men, trans women, trans community, and transgender community," We would hope you would refrain from using "trannie, transvestite and she-male." Since the majority of the community feel this way, then you will be fine. There just maybe a small minority who would not be satisfied what you use.

Good summary. I should probably add to that, Monica.

The single most important thing you can do is honor the person's stated gendered pronouns and language. We go through a lot to be who we are, and many die for it. The least you can do is respect it in all ways.

This quote is an illustration of how NOT to do it (real quote from self identified white gay male poster less than a day ago)

"How can I be misogynist? You aren't even a real woman?"

While I get this from the white gay male crowd a lot, you should not follow their example.

Oh, Dyssonance was a witness to this, just in case anybody should flounce in here and claim that it is "baseless."

Eric,
Monica aside....
The proper way to refer to a woman who transsexed is woman.....period. If you absolutely must use a modifier, woman of transsexual history. "Transgender", as Monica is well aware, is considered by many if not most of us in that place a deadly insult.....like the "n" word for someone black. Please, do not use the word "transgender" as an all inclusive umbrella term. I'll explain it for you and hopefully not suffer the usual insults for doing so. Someone who was born with the neurological intersexed condition formally known as transsexualism (when it still had a real meaning) knows from earliest childhood what their gender (sense of who you are) is. They NEVER "trans" or cross it. It is just as consistent as your own gender identity. The problem is the mind/body mismatch and so are driven to correct the body to the maximum possible in order to achieve "congruence" of body and soul.......they trans the physical sex. Once they have done so, they wish mainly to get on with their lives now on a level playing field with the rest of the world in at least that respect. It's actually a rather simple concept.

I was commenting on Eric's comments on generalities. When talking with an INDIVIDUAL, then use what they want.

No matter what trans women want to call themselves, a 1000 years in the future, an anthropologist will lay our bones out and pronounce us "male." They won't see vaginas, or breast implants, and especially what was in our brains. You got plans to argue with them? I'd sure like to hear it.

Being mosaic.....maybe your bones will be labeled male, mine will be either female or indeterminate.

No matter what trans women want to call themselves, a 1000 years in the future, an anthropologist will lay our bones out and pronounce us "male." They won't see vaginas, or breast implants, and especially what was in our brains. You got plans to argue with them? I'd sure like to hear it.

Monica, I don't really understand how this is relevant, useful, or accurate. I mean, first off, I'm struck by impact the argument has of denying trans voices. You're constructing a scenario which literally is designed to strip away any agency trans people have to self-definition and self-advocacy. That's only achieved by rhetorically killing trans voices and stripping us down to our bones. And to what point? You're not arguing that the lack of post-humus self-definition is a justification for taking away self definition in the present, are you? I've only ever heard this argument used by virulent transphobes. What benefit could it serve you here? If your intent is solely to antagonize someone you disagree with, you might want to at least consider using something that isn't directed at all trans people.

And second off, it just doesn't seem accurate. In most cases, you don't just get access to bones alone, but at least a tombstone, maybe a county death certificate. Or if you someone gets cremated, just an urn and a plaque. But really, how likely is it that future historians are going to be going through our bones. We kinda have a social and legal prohibitions of that. In all likelihood, future historians will have better access to this comment thread than to our bones. And with the documentation and record keeping going on these days, they might have access to a lot more.

If you're really thinking into the future far enough for our societal record keeping to fall apart, then I would imagine the field of archeology would progress beyond the institutional tendency to erase trans experiences that we see today. Who knows what archeology will look like in 10,000 years.

Hey, I have an idea. We can have a doctor engrave the words, "I'm really a woman!" on our pelvic bones. That should satisfy the anthropologists . . . not.

I plan to have "hecho en México" engraved on mine.

Monica.......this is just another example of you attacking the womanhood of women such as myself. Why you do it is not important, that you include yourself in it is not important. What is important is this is exactly the behaviour you and other transgenders complain about from the "cis" world and then do to us. Nothing could illustrate any more clearly why we wish no association with those like you and your term "transgender". Your constant refrain to those of us with female bodies that we will never be "real" women puts you in the exact same camp as Julie Bindle, Janice Raymond and the worst of the religious fundies.....we only get it from them and you.

Unfortunately, referring to a woman of operative history or of transsexual history as just "woman" is not terribly helpful in a Q&A format. I would suggest using the common polite-intent terms transgender, transsexual, trans, so that the audience that maybe knows "Transamerica" and not much else can get a starting point. Then go into the etiquette of asking the individual what pronoun they want, what they consider a plural term for those like themselves, and so on.

Face it - to 95% of the population, trans, bi, and even lesbian and gay aren't all that well-defined in their minds, or at least as the members of these groups define themselves. And I confess that I get confused when the younger generation starts in with variations on "genderqueer" (not common Midwestern usage yet).

ED NOTE: This comment has been removed for Terms of Service violation. Our comment policy can be found below each post. Please keep in mind:

While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Nancy,
In spite of what a very small minority try to make people believe, the word "transgender" is NOT offensive to a "large segment." Saying it over and over does not magically make it so. Just keep this in mind. Many of the MtF trans activists are post-op and don't have a problem using the word. Also, trans men are always left out of the discussion, because they don't fit the "mold" or "mindset" being pushed here. So, Nancy, do the math. It's simple. Nearly all trans men and all but a small minority accept the word. That doesn't add up to a "large segment," unless you use fuzzy math.

ED NOTE: This comment has been removed for Terms of Service violation. Our comment policy can be found below each post. Please keep in mind:

While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

How many of you are fans of Stargate SG1? Do you remember toward the end, the Ori? The Ori was this totally evil entity whose only purpose in life was to convert all non-believers, or destroy those who resist. They had no sense of humor and always believed they were right, to a fault. Somehow, their superiority was shown to be only an illusion and they were defeated in the end by the "good guys." Whenever they spoke, the proper response from their minions was, "So say the Ori." Remember this.

Monica,

There seems to be quite the slugfest going on over the use of "transgender."

I missed this lil war.

Can you explain to me what this is all about?

Alyssa,

My understanding is that there's a disagreement in the trans community over whether individuals who have transitioned can/should still be labeled as 'trans.' (Of necessity, I'm using the term 'trans community' to include men and women who do not believe 'trans' is an appropriate identifier for themselves.)

Specifically, MonicaHelms left a comment about how to refer to trans individuals, saying, in part:
You can use "trans" if you want, along with "transsexual, transgender, FtM, MtF, trans men, trans women, trans community, and transgender community,"

However, Cathryn came at the issue from the opposite side, and replied with, in part:
The proper way to refer to a woman who transsexed is woman.....period. If you absolutely must use a modifier, woman of transsexual history. "Transgender", as Monica is well aware, is considered by many if not most of us in that place a deadly insult.....like the "n" word for someone black. Please, do not use the word "transgender" as an all inclusive umbrella term.

It certainly sounds like all involved agree that, when referring to an individual, you should use whatever description they feel is most appropriate. However, when referring to 'the trans population,' it becomes a sticky issue because each perspective is somewhat mutually exclusive - either it is 'the trans population' or it's not, it's the 'population with a trans history.'

That's my understanding of the general disagreement, and how it played out in this discussion specifically (at least, as a very brief summary). For my two cents, I do I identify as a trans woman, and am not uncomfortable with the term, and I don't know many trans individuals who feel differently. From my perspective, 'trans' is a modifier of the designation 'woman,' and does not supersede it. Likewise, a friend who is diabetic could be a 'diabetic man' without his diabetes canceling or nullifying his identity as a man - my identity as trans can exist, for me, without nullifying or obliterating my identity as a woman.

-R

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 30, 2008 7:24 PM

I've only ever heard this argument used by virulent transphobes.

Hey, I'm trans and I thought it was a good argument.

I'm with Monica, here. I get so tired of people arguing "post-op" that we're no longer transsexual. I personally understand the word carries a lot of pain and baggage, but why not acknowledge that along with the fact that it IS the term society uses to describe our condition. After transition, we are NOT just men or women. We were born with gender-identities that are opposite to the sex of our bodies, and Monica is right: if our skeletons are dug up centuries from now, with no other identifying information, we will be sexed as male or female according to our birth sex.

If HALF the energy and time spent arguing about this terminology were spent instead working on campaigns for equal rights, I venture to say we'd be further along than we are right now.

I'm open to new uses of old ideas, but so you know where I'm coming from, here's the context I've heard that argument before (in my paraphrasing):

Men who are in relationships with trans women are just fooling themselves that they are straight. They are really icky fags. If a trans woman died in a fire and burnt all her flesh away then her bones would be indistinguishable from a man's.

and

You can't possibly know what pronouns and gender to use for a trans person who died thirty years, because when looking at just their corpse they just look like any other female. So it's just as legitimate, if not moreso, to use female pronouns. (rather than the male pronouns which the person went by in every aspect of his life).

So when I hear the same argument used here, I'm a bit distressed. You want to say that a trans person still carries a trans aspect to their experience, self, and embodiment regardless of surgical status, okay. You want to say that surgeries won't make someone cissexual, sounds like a good point.

But that's not what I'm hearing when I see this example used here. I'm hearing that biological markers will always display our birth assigned sex, and such biological markers will outlive our own self-identification. I'm not sure exactly what the conclusion from that example is, but it looks as if it's leading into an argument that biology wins out and the gender we identify as is irrelevant.

Additionally, I find it rather morbid to rhetorically kill off trans people to create the scenario of how our bodies will speak for us when we cannot speak for ourselves. It makes the assumption that it is our bodies speaking and not the cultural biases of those looking at our bodies, and then privileges those cultural biases over our own voices. I'm sure that some of those future archeologists might be trans themselves, and might be aware of how biological sex doesn't always match up to lived gender experience.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 30, 2008 11:13 PM

Tobi, I think you're really making a stretch to accuse two transsexuals in this comment thread of making the hateful arguments you say we're making.

I've been a trans activist for 17 years or so and I can't tell you how much time during that period I've engaged in arguments with other trans folks over terminology. I'm sick and tired of it. If you can't give Monica and me the benefit of the doubt that we are not arguing our points in the same way as transphobic haters, I don't know what to say.

The simple fact is, transsexuals ARE different. Our sex--reflected in bones--does not match our gender-identity. Does that mean we are not women or men! NO! Women and men are socially constructed gender categories. But to say that we are women and men just like cisgendered people are is, IMO, denial. Or wishful thinking.

Above all, it is simply not true. And I do find it disturbing that after all these years, people are still arguing it.

Brynn, you completely miss the point. What you are doing is taking away from another person the simple right to self-identify. YOU are saying that YOU get to decide who and what someone else is. If Tobi or Cathryn or I choose to identify only as female after some point in our life, WHAT MATTER IS THAT TO YOU? It is our identification, yet you claim authority over my ability to self-identify. I say I am female and you declare me male. This is the point so many above have been trying to make, albeit in some roundabout ways.

This goes to the crux of the GLBT identification issue in general. There are women who have slept with men in the past, but claim to be lesbian. Are we or you or someone else now claiming the right to overrule their self-identification? I am guessing not. So then why is it such a need to be able to overrule MY self-identification?

And BTW, the 30 years from now argument is irrelevant. 30 years from now, if I am not still living, I will be a socially and environmentally responsible pile of ashes.

You misunderstand, I'm not accusing you of having the same perspective as the bigots I reference. I'm trying to show to you the context that I am used to hearing that argument for. I'm actually trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, and asking for more clarification. I do understand the point you and Monica are trying to make better than I first did, but for the life of me I just don't understand how that example can be used without the implication that what other (read: cis) people think about our bodies is more important and more valid than what we think about our bodies.

As for your larger point, I agree. It bothers me when people claim to no longer be trans (i.e. cissexual) after surgery. I do think it is a different matter when people insist they are not "transgender" but instead "transsexual". And for that, I'm more concerned about how people do that rather than whether or not they do.

But I'm just as bothered, if not a little more so, when people call me (or all trans women in general) male. I identify as female, female bodied, etc. I think there's a decent argument that my body isn't male, and given the gray area our society didn't account for, self-identification feels completely valid in this case. Now I'll point out, I'm not saying cis female, my body is trans female. Personally, I never want to hide or erase my trans-ness, it's one of the most important parts about myself. But saying that I'm female does not deny that. And saying that a trans woman is male is neither an effective way of "proving" that they are not cis (i.e. trans), nor is it very respectful.

wow, i thought this was a pretty good list of things to think about and how to express oneself if asked "are you gay?" (this one applies to me).

i apologize for not looking at it from all of the other standpoints - i suppose we are mostly the same, though, in that fashion.

i have never been asked if i am gay. one woman suggested that i might be gay (before i knew), but that question was never asked of me. therefore, i've found this to be a helpful post. when the topic arises, i should be better able to deal with it. in the meantime, i am doing my digging into the history behind me. thanks