“Why would you ask that?”

May 19, 2014 § 15 Comments

One of the commonest complaints that trans people have about our interactions with the wider world – and one that many cis people find almost impossible to believe – is that we’re utterly sick of being asked about our genitals. What they are, what we do with them, if we like them, how they work, do they work, are we going to have ‘the op’, have we had ‘the op’, who paid for ‘the op’…it goes on and on.

I’ve been dealing with this for a good ten years by now – I wrote about it last in 2011 – and I still don’t know what to say when people start asking. I’m usually still too shocked, hurt, to think of a witty rejoinder – sometimes I’m just glad that they’re not groping me ‘to check’, as a small minority of cis people have done.

I was preparing for my latest gig on Friday night – after sound check, about half an hour before the show. It was an LGBT bar, and I was curled up in an inconspicuous corner with a pint of water and my lyrics sheets. A woman came over, very clearly the worse for wear, and asked if she could sit by me because her friends hadn’t arrived yet. Her questions were, in order:

– “So are you a gay or what?”
– “So you want to be a boy?”
– “So you had your boobs cut off?”
-“So what are you going to do with your ladyparts?”

That last one clearly bothered her – she returned to it several times, asking me if I wanted a penis, because I would need one if I ‘wanted to be a boy’. There was obviously part of her that realised how rude she was being – she kept interrupting herself with a ‘oh, do you mind if I ask?’ before barreling straight on. A lot of cis people do that, in my experience – add a ‘do you mind if I ask’ or ‘this is a bit personal but…’ before continuing to ask, ignoring my discomfort, or outright refusal.

I didn’t want to tell her to fuck off, or mind her own business – she was obviously in distress (she explained that her partner had just left her) – and I just wanted to prepare for my set. So I told her that I was comfortable being myself, and needed to be alone before I performed – played my set, enjoyed the next band, met some lovely people, got back late to my hotel room and cried from the sheer frustration, the exhaustion, of dealing with the same shit over and over again. It woke me up in the middle of the night – things I should have said, to her and to other people. Something to shift focus away from me – something I can feel safe saying, and hope will make someone think about what it is that they’re actually asking from a stranger.

I don’t know if this will work – but, next time, I think I’m going to try “why would you ask that?” – because that’s not only what I want to know of that particular person, but of the entire cis obsessions with trans people’s genitalia. I keep trying to make sense of it, but the only sense I can determine – that people are so in need of clinging to the security of the system they know, where gender is decided and fixed by genitals, that they’re happy to ignore all common social rules – feels too much to try to challenge in a brief interaction.

But, perhaps, that question might act as a small spur to challenge themselves? Maybe stick in their memory as a gentle interrogation that didn’t let their interrogation pass unnoticed?

If that was all, though, I wouldn’t have needed to write this post – I could have kept it private, or shared with close friends and compared notes. But I wanted to write it here because I know that some of you reading this would have asked those questions, or something similar, yourself – and I wanted to know why.

What is it you really want to know? What do you expect us to feel, when you ask?

Why do you feel entitled to an answer?



§ 15 Responses to “Why would you ask that?”

  • Maeve says:

    I think you have the answer here:
    “people are so in need of clinging to the security of the system they know, where gender is decided and fixed by genitals, that they’re happy to ignore all common social rules”

    I’m constantly amazed to think back just a few short years when I was exactly that cis person, and honestly, my only defense is that we just have no concept of how damaging it is.

    To me it feels similar to the desperation to know someone’s old name (though of course, asking about genitals is above and beyond in terms of invasiveness). But cis folk are so rocked by the concept that anyone can move through, or opt out, of the gender binary, I think that knowing these things gives us a sense of stability, because we can then pop you into whichever box goes with whatever answer you’ve given.

    Which is bullshit, of course. And really just a way of denying whatever else you may have said/done to assert your identity.

  • Tracy says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a bit, but I don’t recall if I have ever commented. If not, Hello!

    I am by nature curious about things that are new to me. Luckily I was also raised with a little common sense and a firm grasp of borders so I can’t imagine any circumstance where I would ask those questions of anyone who wasn’t a very close friend. I think most people really don’t mean harm they just were not raised to be polite or taught that you don’t blurt out everything that pops into your head. I unfortunately have a few people with this personality in my life and have no problem picturing them saying something completely out of line and assuming because they were just curious and didn’t really mean it negatively that it’s okay.

    I’m sorry it hurts your feelings, you are more than the sum of your parts.

  • Squid says:

    CN.. You are so incredible for putting up with this and sharing this. I admire you for keeping your cool and playing afterwards. Your empathy and power to self control are kind of like a martial art ..

    How utterly ill bred of these people. Very upset for you.

    I sort of want to make u a virtual cartoon fog horn that appears at a click of the fingers and booms out “SO UNCOOL” together with wrong answer gameshow noises that comes with a crane to gently lift away the offending article and drop them nice and far away from you or anyone they can bother.

    The other idea is a ice cream in a cone shaped device that announces “Pervert!” in a tennis umpire voice and makes them disappear in a cloud of edible glitter.

    The third idea has something to do with a large friendly Komodo dragon..

  • Maeve says:

    Further thoughts –

    I wonder if there’s also something in the perceived public ownership of trans bodies? Something about a public rejection of the gender given at birth (and all the usual social and medical baggage that goes along with that), that gives people a perceived right to enquire about the most personal details.

    I’m sort of relating this in my head to a similar issue with pregnant bodies, and of folks who’ve recently given birth – there seems to be a similar ownership that other people assume, where it’s considered acceptable to speculate about personal medical choices, what labour “will do to your undercarriage”, and of course to touch someone without their consent.

    (sorry if that’s a derail, soon-to-be student midwife here, and the intersection of trans bodies and pregnancy is something I think about a lot!)

    • cnlester says:

      Don’t be sorry, it’s really interesting!

      Wondering what it says about us as a society that the groups who seem to meet this line of questioning most often are pregnant people, trans people and people with visible disabilities? And where the overlaps and divergences are?

      • Maeve says:

        Ah, great point! I overlooked visible disabilities, of course. Guess the themes are clear – anyone that differs from our society’s ideal cis-white-able-male is therefore open to public scrutiny. Guess we should just accept our lot and get on without complaint*

        *raise hell and not let the bastards grind us down

  • Eoin Madsen says:

    Thank you for another informative blog. I’m sorry this happens so much. I’m a little reticent to muse about something that I know is a real problem that I don’t actively experience but… I have two different thoughts at the moment as to the why, and perhaps there’ll be something useful in one of them.

    1. It seems like many cis people include their genitals and other physical aspects as defining characteristics of their own gender identity. I think it’s also fairly common for people to compound gender identity with sexuality (e.g. the hetero-normative “I’m a man because I like women”). I would wonder then if the need to know about other people’s genitals and sexual behaviours might be related to group categorisation (in terms of e.g. Social Identity Theory). Categorising people removes ambiguity about how to behave around them (I’m thinking Schema Theory here). So essentially, it becomes an attribute people feel they need to know so that they can rely on implicit stereotyping in lieu of thinking.

    What surprises me is that the ambiguity itself doesn’t increase caution – I become increasingly introverted the more ambiguous I am about how I should behave. There are few if any situations where the social convention on not asking strangers personal questions (especially about their genitals) would be lifted. But I wonder if there is some particular schema or attitude that can become active or salient when a person is interacting with someone else who is socially transgressive (especially in terms of sexuality or gender) that leads to this error in judgement and consequent insensitivity. Although to still persist when you don’t respond by meeting their expectation that you’ll enthusiastically think this is a grand line of questioning… I don’t know.

    2. Introspectively, I wonder if this bizarre compulsion to ask might be related to how we use our imaginations to process the world. In the same way that there is often an unbidden desire to know what some of the faceless people we meet on the internet look like in real life, I think perhaps we desire to be able to imagine genitals and probable sexual proclivities in order to thoroughly imagine the person in physical scenarios. Personally, I tend to mentally simulate different social interactions with people both as a way of preparing for possible exchanges and to test my feelings about things. Possibly I reveal too much about myself here, but it would not be uncommon for me to also imagine some sexual scenarios.

    Genitals are perhaps the only “significant” physical attributes that are really hidden – but as long as we stick to strict binary gender presentations, the genitals can always be inferred from other visible features. The moment that cisheterocentric view is challenged, we suddenly find ourselves needing to ask you how you fuck. Perhaps our imaginations are so privileged by the normal prevalence of this apparent information that there is a sense of entitlement that becomes manifest when it’s absent.

  • Joyful Girl says:

    I love your post (sorry you have to deal with such jerks!) and I agree with a lot of the comments. I have an additional theory that people subconsciously feel that etiquette rules don’t apply to people who are breaking gender rules… or any other social rules for that matter. As though you’re CHOOSING to deviate from the acceptable binary, so I have the right to ask you questions to help me “understand” you, and you owe me explanations that allow me to put you back in a box to feel more comfortable. Someone once told me that I need to tolerate people’s intolerances because I’m choosing to live on the fringe. The implication is that I shouldn’t expect the same acceptance or courtesy if I’m not mainstream. It’s my job to educate people; I can’t just expect everyone to stretch to respect me.

    Then again, I’ve also heard people ask insensitive and invasive questions based on ethnicity, religion and body weight. So maybe people are just rude and lack basic empathy for anyone who is different. We have a long history of viewing anyone who is “other” as less than human.

    I think “why would you ask that?” is a fantastic response. I also like hearing trans people turn the questions back on their cis questioners:
    “Why don’t you tell me about YOUR genitals? Have you had them since you were born? Do they work all the time? What kind of maintenance do you have to do to keep everything looking good down there and how much does it cost? Does it feel awkward for me to ask you about your genitals? That’s because it’s RUDE.”

    Sometimes people who aren’t compassionate enough to imagine the impact of their words before opening their mouth need to have the conversation turned around on them to get how it feels.

  • Ricky Leach says:

    I’m sorry you had to deal with this rubbish. What a daft lady. I think there is no obligation to be charmingly educative or especially graceful in response. I find like Joyful Girl says that there is an assumption that you can get away with offering less respect and politeness. Also I think maybe, framing this in the same way that some can’t distinguish between drag and trans people, that there is an assumption that anyone crazy enough to do this would be the kind of flagrant extrovert who would only really ever want to talk about their genitals at any given or not so given opportunity, whereupon they would simply start screaming about them, jewels and handbags flying.
    As a qualifier, when I came out to my friends they’d soon ask something along the lines of ”how far I’ll go’ or if i’ll have a sex-change, which is clearly more of an enquiry into the depth of things. It is no doubt not the most civil reaction but I try and be tolerant as I am no better than this, on a huge range of issues, although I still think it’s important to consider their motivations as I am critical of my own when I slip up. It usually seems like they are a little inappropriately curious, more sympathetic friends just ask about my welfare and seem concerned for me rather than panicking about the nature of this unfamiliar concept. I do think it’s important to be a little patient if no harm is consciously made as I usually find people really struggle and the whole thing is really upsetting for them, and one often talks nonsense in that state of mind. In the case of when a twat starts being a twat at you though, just make them know that they are being one.

  • I have not been in a situation like this, where I am concerned with the questioners current mental state. Generally my response to this line of questioning, assuming my safety is not at risk, is to ask them if they are interested in having sex with me.

    I am not in the least bit interested, however this usually puts the genital questioner in the same uncomfortable position I am in, and now that we have a common understanding of how conventional social interactions are supposed to work, we can now move forward.

    The only people who should be asking me about my genitals are my sexual partners, of which I have one, my wife, and she already knows about my current, past, and future genital reality. So she generally doesn’t ask.

    What I find, after these conversations abruptly end, is that regardless of how I answer them, regardless of whether I am snarky, nice, reserved, or lost & searching for an adequate response. I am always left with a feeling of hurt, inadequacy, less than human, objectification, and a second class other almost human; because if the genital questioner thought of me as an equal, they never would have thought to ask the original question.

    No matter how I act, the question always leaves me feeling hurt.

    Thanks for sharing this piece CN.

    -Maddy Love
    A Minnesota Trans-Atheist podcast

  • […] countries I do not have to worry about whether my gender will be recognised. 29. I am never asked what genitals I have. 30. I have never been rejected for a job because of my […]

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