People often think of transgender people in terms of how well they “pass,” as if there is a universal goal among us to hide who we are. There isn’t, but there are times when I do try to pass for the sake of my safety, convenience or self-esteem.
Many people treat transgender women worse than cisgender women. It can be helpful to know who these people are at times, but for many interactions, for instance while making a purchase from a cashier, that knowledge only serves to make the world feel more hostile. It is important to me that I sometimes have the option to pass. In the interest of that, I do some things like voice training that I wouldn’t do otherwise. This can make a lot of interactions much more comfortable.
However, I don't always get to make that choice myself, and there are a lot of people who have never had the option of passing. There are many people who do not even enjoy the freedom needed to visibly fail to pass, or even present in a way that is considered unusual. This is especially common among younger transgender people, who are often afraid of the backlash they would face from their families if they were to change how they present. This backlash can range anywhere from an awkward conversation to abuse and abandonment, and most people who do come out to their families as transgender are unsure how dangerous their situations are before their status is revealed.
There is a complicated visual language associated with the transgender community that incorporates wardrobe, makeup, body language, posture and inflection, along with more direct signifiers like flag colors, to identify membership. A member of the community who uses a lot of these signifiers will be treated differently than one who does not. This means that in addition to the privilege of passing as a cisgender person, there is also a less widely-considered privilege of passing as a non-conforming person.
If a person is suspected of being transgender, they are treated differently in a number of ways aside from being made a target for bigotry. Speaking from my own experiences, when I stopped being read as a man, people started asking me for my pronouns or avoided using any pronouns, and instructors became much more likely to ask an entire class to state their pronouns while I’m present. People became more cautious of telling crude or misogynistic jokes around me. I became expected to avoid the men’s bathroom rather than the women’s.
There are some drawbacks to these things — I almost never swim anymore because there are not a lot of public locker rooms I feel comfortable changing in right now — but I generally consider these positive changes, and I am happy that most people don’t automatically call me “sir” anymore. These are courtesies that many others would like to enjoy but do not.
A lot of people feel comforted by transgender people fitting a type of femininity or masculinity they find familiar. It’s easier for them to infer how these people want to be treated. If they consider themselves friends or allies to the transgender community, the risk of an uncomfortable political conversation is low, and it is easy for them to keep thinking of themselves as friends and allies. Community members are not immune to this line of thinking either. It is much harder to broach this topic while harboring fear or misguided empathy toward people who consider transgender status a bad thing and may be insulted by someone questioning their genders. People tend to hesitate to ask others about their gender without a certain amount of visual cues present, even when they aren’t completely sure. Even more commonly, people will assume without a second thought, considering it normal to assume everyone is cisgender until contrary evidence is presented.
This behavior hurts transgender people by making society more hostile to people who are not visibly gender non-conforming, and forcing people to fit a particular type to be seen as worth questioning. Nobody should need to “earn” a pronoun, and everyone’s situation is different. There are likely very few people who would choose to hide part of their identity if there were no reason to suspect people would respond poorly to it. I would rather be completely certain that my friends consent to the way I address them than let my words or actions hurt them.
People’s lives can be made a lot easier just by having someone ask about pronouns. When I do, people usually tell me nobody has ever asked them before. People usually just guess, so it follows they will sometimes guess incorrectly. While the rate of transgender youths continues to increase rapidly, is a safe assumption that those of us who usually guess a person’s gender based on their appearance will hurt people by doing this, and probably already have. We can and should do better.