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From merely awkward to truly troubling: Questions trans people face - and how they answer

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - At a party, in a checkout line or out to dinner, transgender model Arisce Wanzer has this to say about routine, uncomfortable questions from strangers and acquaintances:

"Why are you jumpin' into my underwear from the get-go?"

We asked Wanzer, 27, in Los Angeles and two other trans people — Janet Mock, 31, and Joy Ladin, 53, to share how they handle chance, intrusive encounters.

"As an educator, I believe it's really important for people to ask questions, but at the same time I'm a person and not a public billboard," said Ladin, an English professor at Yeshiva University in New York and author of "Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders."

Added Mock, whose memoir "Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More" was released in February: "It's just so interesting to me how we're just kind of stripped of that common human decency. They go straight for the jugular. It's because of the way the media have framed trans people's stories from the very beginning, where you see the body as a specimen you can dissect."

Navigating those troubling moments:



Ladin: Asking intimate questions about someone's body is the same whether that person is trans or not, so if you wouldn't walk up to someone at a party and say, 'Do you have one testicle or two?' you probably shouldn't ask a trans person if they've had genital surgery.

I think it's important for people to know that trans people often don't feel safe. We might not feel safe because we're in the early stages of transition and that's often when we get asked questions, but we also might feel vulnerable just because we never know how somebody is going to feel about talking to a trans person. So when I feel safe in a casual encounter I'm pretty happy to talk about gender identity. It's an interest.


Ladin: Yeah, I've felt different ways about that. Early in transition I was pretty happy about that. I took that as a compliment. I think if it were phrased, 'You really look like a woman,' that would be a little more problematic.

At this point I feel like I'm just living as myself, so I'm not trying to pass as anything, so it takes me aback a little.


Mock: I usually challenge people by asking questions back. Just saying something like, 'I don't know why that's relevant to our interaction with one another? Why is that important for you to know?' They usually don't have an answer and realize how insensitive it was.

I tend to be not someone who would say, 'You know, not a big deal.' They say that they're curious and I say, 'Well, curiosity can be great in terms of learning, but I don't see how it's relevant.'


Mock: I say that's been a lifelong process. There wasn't a moment in which I transitioned. They want to pinpoint a time in my life when it happened. It's just a life's journey. It's a continual process of self-revelation and discovery.

And then they ask, 'When did you start taking hormones?' Because that's what people understand now. Hormones. I say, 'That's between me and my doctor,' or 'You can go read my book.'

In my personal life I tend to not even bring up trans unless people ask me about what I do for a living. That's the comfort I have in being someone that people consider gender binary, what a woman is supposed to look like.

Because my work is about talking about transness and trying to teach people and bring them along, in my personal life I'm kind of incognito.


Wanzer: I usually say, 'Why, are you trying to sleep with me?' I think they're interested in trying to pity you, but it's just like dating for anybody. They think we're so different. We are not aliens. We have normal dreams, normal aspirations.

I'm very open. I put all my stuff out there, but not everyone wants to.


Wanzer: I think they wonder whether they themselves would be accepting, but I have the coolest family in the world. No one cares. I've had a really supportive family. No one ever shamed me for being who I was, so I refuse to be shamed by knowing who I am.

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