Ask Dr. H: Week 2, Fall 2016

Dr. Jill Hoxmeir, Public Health Professor

Dear Dr. H,

I think a classmate of mine is transgender but hasn’t come out to the class or me personally. We are in a group project together, and sometimes, I just feel awkward. I’ve never met someone who is transgender, and I just don’t want to offend her by using the wrong pronoun or making assumptions about her sexuality. How do I avoid looking stupid by saying something wrong but also avoid feeling awkward by not saying anything at all?



Great question! So often people wait until after they have offended someone or, like you mention, say something “stupid” to ask for help on how to remedy the situation. Consider yourself one step ahead by wanting to pre-empt any potential hurt feelings. However, feeling awkward in silence doesn’t help anyone either, so this might be a great opportunity to reflect on some assumptions we often make about gender identify.

Gender, different than one’s sex, is socially constructed. Commonly, we base one’s gender identity on how they talk, dress, or act. If your classmate talks, dresses, or acts differently than what you might expect for the sex you assume them to be, perhaps this is the basis for your conclusion. But, you can’t tell someone is transgender just by looking at them.

More and more, the traditional gender norms and expectations assigned to the binary options “man” and “women” are simply too rigid to capture peoples’ gender identity. Some people will identify as transgender and others do not. Gender non-conforming, gender fluid, agender, and gender non-binary are all ways that people can, and do, identify.

You mention that your classmate hasn’t “come out” as trans, and that you have never met a trans person. Although we commonly use the term “coming out” when someone who is gay, lesbian, or bi openly discusses their sexual orientation, trans people don’t necessarily “come out” in this same manner to disclose their gender identity.

Some trans people believe it is disempowering to be perceived as any gender other than the one they identify with, so a formal, “Hi, I was born male, but I identify as a woman” moment should not be expected from trans folks. Similarly, it is not appropriate to ask of someone whom you suspect is trans, “But what were you born?” And, although I hope this goes without saying, it is absolutely unacceptable to ask a trans person about their anatomical parts – we don’t ask cisgender people about their penises and vaginas, so that remains the rule for trans people.

You use the feminine pronouns “she” and “her” but, from your letter, it is difficult to know whether your classmate is a transwoman (someone who was born male but identifies as a woman) and you are, in fact, using the pronouns she uses for herself or whether your classmate is a transman (someone who was born female but identifies as a man) and you are actually using the pronouns he does not use for himself.

If you are unsure, you can listen to how others refer to your classmate because perhaps someone else may know better about their gender and use the correct pronoun. Something more direct – and perhaps quicker to lead you to the correct, non-offensive pronoun choice – is to introduce yourself to your classmate along with the pronouns you prefer people use when referring to you. Perhaps they will follow suit. This is a great opportunity to broaden our understanding of how gender norms and expectations impact everyone and how assumptions based on talk, dress, or behavior can be damaging and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

For more information, check out this great resource from GLAAD:


Dr. Jill Hoxmeir is a public health professor at CWU.

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