As a very out and open HIV+ transwoman, I'm often approached by well-intentioned people at conferences and other events who tell me about how they support the transgender community, but that they don't exactly know how to interact with the trans people in their life and/or in their work. They want to be able to ask them about their lives and their gender history, yet they're often unaware of how to do that in a way that is culturally sensitive to the needs of the trans community. These questions nearly always arise from a place of curiosity and good intention, yet they're also ones which, when asked in the wrong way, can really alienate a trans person or make them feel uncomfortable.
While it's certainly understandable to have these questions and curiosities about a trans person's gender history or identity, the way you broach the topic is critical to helping the trans person feel comfortable. Especially for people who do not identify as transgender, the story of how someone became who they are today is unique and interesting, but unless the trans person you're talking to is exceptionally open about their own history or you are a close friend to that person, most of these types of questions are simply inappropriate to ask in general conversation.
I think that the key to understanding how to talk to trans people is to remember the Golden Rule -- to treat others as you would like to be treated. Expand that idea to include the types of questions you would feel comfortable answering about your own body, your own gender identity or history, and your own sexuality into that idea, and you've got a good starting point for gauging whether your query is an appropriate one.
Over the next few months, I'll be writing a series of blogs about how to best interact, support, and just plain talk to the trans community. I know that the subject is very complicated, as many people are uncomfortable talking about such sensitive issues as sexuality and gender identity, however I feel very strongly that only through open dialogue and discussion can minds be challenged and changed for the better. I know I won't be able to cover everything, nor can I go into every detail of the intricacies of what it means to be a true ally of the trans community. However, my hope in writing these pieces is to help those who want to increase their own cultural competency around trans issues, especially those affecting and impacting the HIV+ trans community.