Linda Lewis Griffith

Tips for how to relate to transgender people

Caitlyn Jenner’s debut was big news, and the term transgender has gained ho-hum status. Still, most of us are woefully undereducated about transgender Americans and the physical and emotional challenges that they face.

According to the report “Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans” on the GLAAD website, between 0.3 percent and 0.5 percent of Americans identify themselves as transgender. That translates to nearly 1 million adults across the nation.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual uses the term gender dysphoria to describe people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one with which they identify. This replaces the diagnostic term “gender identity disorder.” This change was an effort to avoid stigma and ensure adequate clinical care and access to appropriate medical and psychological treatment, the DSM-5 states.

Gender dysphoria is manifested in a variety of ways, including strong desires to be treated as the other gender or to be rid of one’s sex characteristics, or a strong conviction that one has feelings and reactions typical of the other gender. These symptoms must be present for at least six months.

In 2011, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey queried a diverse sample of 6,450 transgender and gender nonconforming participants. The data revealed dramatic findings:

Discrimination against transgender Americans was pervasive, with people of color (especially African-Americans) receiving the worst treatment.

Respondents lived in extreme poverty. They were four times more likely to earn less than $10,000 annually, despite the fact that 87 percent reported having completed at least some college and 47 percent reported having obtained a college or graduate degree.

An alarming 41 percent said they had attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of the general population. Attempted-suicide rates rose for those who lost a job because of bias (55 percent), were harassed or bullied in school (51 percent), or were victims of physical assault (61 percent) or sexual assault (64 percent).

Twenty-six percent had been physically assaulted at least once because of anti-gender bias. Transgender women and transgender people of color were much more vulnerable to violence, especially at the hands of law enforcement.


Confused about how to relate to a transgender person? Follow these tips:

Respect transgender people unconditionally. Treat them as the gender they prefer. Never participate in office gossip or tell anti-transgender jokes.

If you don’t know which pronoun to use, listen first to how they refer to themselves. If it’s still unclear, don’t be afraid to ask.

Watch your past tense. When talking of the past, avoid statements like, “when you were a previous gender,” because many transgender people feel they have always been the gender they’ve become.

Don’t make assumptions about a transgender person’s sexual orientation. Gender identity is different than sexual orientation. Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight.

Don’t ask transgender people what their “real name” is. For some transgender people, their birth name can be a source of anxiety or a part of their lives they’d like to forget.

Respect the transgender person’s need for privacy. Knowing a transgender person’s status is personal and it is up to them to share.

Avoid backhanded compliments or “helpful” tips. Statements such as “You look just like a real woman,” or “You’d pass so much better if you had a better wig,” can be hurtful and insulting.