Guest Blogger

The art of complimenting trans people

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 15, 2010 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Transgender & Intersex, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: complimenting trans people, Drew Cordes, proper terminology, trans 101, transgender women

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Drew Cordes is a transgender woman from Albany, N.Y. She is a 2004 graduate of Vassar College.

meface.jpgThe next time you encounter a transgender person, do not tell them "You're very brave" or empathetically smile while offering a knowing "You look good." We hate that shit.

We know in your mind you're trying to be nice; you're trying to let us know "Hey, I'm cool with transgender people. I support you." Undoubtedly, these comments come from a good place. However, you should know they land with mixed feelings at best, and resentment at worst.

While these statements are supportive on the surface, the subtexts contain things a trans person never wants to hear. The very first thing that occurs in the mind of a trans person when they hear compliments like these isn't "Oh, thanks! What a nice person," it's "Fuck. They know. They read me as trans. I'm not passing as well as I thought I was."

Granted, some of us know we'll never pass, and have made peace with that. Some of us aren't trying to pass. But you can't telepathically discern each trans person's personal approach to passing. Better to err on the side of caution.

In the same vein is "You pass very well." Well, obviously not if you just said that. Furthermore, why would we care what your thoughts on our passing ability are? I'm always tempted to respond, "Thanks! You're somewhat believable as a man yourself!" If we want to know your thoughts on our passing abilities, we'll ask. And as stated above, quite a few of us aren't concerned with whether we pass or not.

Personally, one of my most hated "compliments" is "You're so courageous." Why exactly am I so courageous? Because it must be difficult to be me? Because you couldn't possibly imagine what it's like? How taxing, how exhausting, how trying it must be to be me. Actually, I like me. It took me quite a while to be able to say that, but I do. There are a few things I'd change if I had a magic wand, but that's true for all of us.

Additionally, the "courageous" comment rings hollow for my experience, because as I see it, my path was anything but. I denied my feelings for as long as I possibly could. Only when I'd hit bottom, did I do something about it. I acquiesced when my options became either severe depression/eventual suicide, or take control and do whatever I had to do, even if I didn't like it. I see that as fairly cowardly. Essentially, I chose to transition when I had no other choice. So, do not presume to know our stories. Each one is different.

If you want to know what to do and what to say ... simply treat us like everyone else in your life. Is tapping a stranger on the shoulder to tell them "You look pretty today" something you normally do? Then don't do it if you spy a trans person.

As opposed to using these compliments to impart to us that you're accepting of trans people, just use the right pronoun and interact with us like any other person. We don't need to be told outright who's queer- and trans-friendly. We can tell by your actions and words.

Tell a trans woman who doesn't pass that you like and support her even though she don't pass -- she may be genuinely appreciative, and she may secretly resent you for shining the light on her passing ability. Treat that trans woman like any other woman and I guarantee you'll make her happy.

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PanoramaIsland | September 15, 2010 2:50 PM

You're right, of course. Another problem with such compliments is that they imply the assumption that one is necessarily -trying- to pass - i.e., that one feels oneself to be at one or the other end of the gender spectrum, or else considers it too dangerous to be visibly variant.

I've gotten occasional compliments which fell doubly flat because the complimenter clearly thought that I was trying to pass and was failing. I am a psychologically and physically androgynous person; the only circumstance under which I would try to pass would be if I felt that I -had- to, in order to avoid a dangerous or seriously awkward situation.

Interestingly, I most often get those "compliments" when passing isn't a factor -- such as at LGBTQ functions where I just talked about being trans.

They still sting, or smack of condescension. I think my favorite was when I had talked about being trans but someone had to ask me "what direction are you going?" When I told her I'm a trans woman she said "Oh good, you make a very good looking woman but you wouldn't be as hot as a man."

I couldn't tell if she was hitting on my or just trying to compliment the trans person in the room. Either way, my only reaction was: "I actually do make a really hot man when I'm in drag -- you should see it some time."

You may have been getting hit on. LGBT functions tend to attract some low social skills types who never learned how to non-creepily hit on people.

chelsea hopper | September 16, 2010 2:13 AM

i had someone ask which direction i was going, twice...several months apart. made me feel so happy, i could shit.

I would love that "which direction are you going" comment. Haven't got it yet. My answer would have to be UP :P

After living as my true self for 13.5 years, I find worrying about people's hidden meaning behind every sentence they speak a waste of time and energy. Who cares? This is newbie stuff. My newbie partner worries about these things and I console her when it bothers her. But for me, I spend my energy living my life, doing my job, buying groceries, paying bills and providing love and support for my sweetheart. After all, isn't living a life as close to (I hate this word) "normal" as possible the true goal? I suggest you revisit this article in 10 years and see how much of this you worry about at that time.

Gee Monica, thanks for dismissing everyone else's concerns. No, I beg to differ, it's not just "newbie"... it's that people have different ways of relating to one another.

That was sort of my first instinct too, it felt sort of like old news. But I think Gina's right, not everybody is in the same place, and certainly, society at large needs the constant reminders.

But I think where you do have a point is that a part of our transition is learning to get past these comments and caring what others think. Which is a long process, but we do need to stop giving others power over us and how freely we live our lives, in this way.

Mercedes, that was my point. Many of us reach a point that we just live our lives and don't spend time or effort dissecting every comment people say to us to try and read in what they really mean. I even agree with Radical Bitch on this. I am also on the butch side and I also get compliments on my abilities, and I get compliments at work for the things I do there. It's form of real life.

Trans people have to live a complicated life as it is. I see this article as adding to that complication with needless worry. Yes, ginasf, not everyone is in the same place. But, what I have seen from most all trans people (men and women) I know who have at least 8 years living this life have stopped worrying about passing, their voice, their face, their height and even large or small hands. It's because they become so comfortable in their skin that it doesn't matter what others say, positive or negative. This is why I consider the article as something new people find important. Nothing wrong with that. Time changes one's viewpoint.

And I've known people who transitioned 25-30 years ago who are still upset about some of these issues. Guess what, these feelings are not linear... and can be highly impacted with other aspects of one's life.

Here's a thought... maybe some trans people care more about their appearance than others? I honestly believe some trans women ID more as women than as a transgender person who IDs as a woman (and that's not about HBS, WBT or anything on that level) and such comments are just intrinsically more upsetting to some than to others. And no one, not myself, nor Drew should have to defend our experience. Please, let's not dismiss people's feelings as "you'll grow out of it" because that reeks of condescension and certainly isn't a way to foster unity as a community of women.

If this article had been strictly about he feeling and perceptions of trans peeps then you might have something there but the focus is for cisgendered peeps and how they deal with us and most of them are newbies :P

Speak for yourself, I love it when people tell me I look good

I'm a Judith Martin acolyte, and she says it's impolite to make unsolicited comments about how others look or are dressed. It makes sense - even when someone says something they think is nice it can trigger negative feelings.

I've had several people say that I'm brave, courageous, strong or something like that for transitioning and I always tell them that just being myself isn't any of that for me.

Being brave or strong is my continued decision not to take the easy way of killing myself and every day choosing to live, regardless of transition.

I never understood the "courage" compliment until I was watching a tv program about aerial dogfighting. At one point the show referenced a quote from Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, America's leading ace of WWI, who said, "Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared."
I know during my transition and RLE, and before my GCS I was scared a LOT!!!! If being scared yet doing it anyway translates into courage, then yes, I am courageous.

I agree with Jenny here. Sorry, but as a trans person, I /do/ feel that I, and others like me, are courageous, and I don't mind that people recognise that. I do take it as a compliment, and I choose to assume they mean it as such.

We have an annual day of rememberence for the trans people killed each year for just being trans. How is walking outside the house as a transitioning or transitioned person /not/ courage?

When the day comes that we aren't killed and beaten for who we are, I will reject such statements. But in my experience, almost everyone that I've met who says it does so because, yes, they can't conceive of what we go through, but can certainly see how society as a whole rejects us.

I am also vain enough to take a compliment of 'you look good'. Not so fond of 'you pass well', but life is life. I am in the crowd that will never 100% 'pass', and as you say, I have accepted that. I take compliments where I can get them. =)

I read a book on golf years ago, and it had all kinds of information about the rules of the game, and how to grip the club, and how to swing and so forth. But it emphasized that the MOST important thing to do in golf, more important even that shaking hands with the other members of your foursome, is to never ever ever ever ever ever ever compliment someone on their shot until you see their reaction to it. That book changed my life. I'm really careful about complimenting anyone on anything, ever.

Your last paragraph: "...she don't pass." NO! it's "she DOESN'T pass." Your trans passing ability may or may not be excellent, that's arguable, but your grammar definitely sucks.

Srsly? Here. Let me help you remove that stick from your ass.

Thanks, Drew, for this insightful piece.

I'll have to say that it's pretty traditional for women of my generation to trade compliments, and at my age I'm happy to accept them anytime. I live in Colorado, used to live in a ski community, and most often dress like a granola muffin ski bum. On those days that my friends tell me I look nice, that's their code for, "Wow, you're wearing more than cycling or ski clothes and sunscreen on your face," It's all good.

While several folks here have mentioned appreciating compliments, but what I hear Drew talking about here isn't exactly the same thing. Sometimes folks tell me that I look nice, I hear their sincerity, and I'm happy to hear it. Sometimes they look me up and down as they say it with a look of desire on their face and I flirt back.

Other times they say it with a slight tone of surprise, as if they hardly believe a trans woman could look nice. Sometimes it's said with condescension as if saying I look nice... for a trans woman. Sometimes they say it with a sense of encouragement, which might be nice except for the frequent undertone that I must be plagued with low self esteem and in desperate need of validation.

The first kind of compliments I'll gladly accept, but it's not just what is said but how you say it. I'm not stupid and if someone isn't well intentioned I can pick up on it. And it happens a surprising amount of the time.

Even when it's well intentioned, sometimes compliments can be pretty policing, particularly when it's done by people who don't take into consideration the way you identify.

For example when you are on a butch identity it can be pretty tiring when people only compliment you the days you dress in a bit more feminine way... And while this isn't specific to trans people, I have the impression that it is reinforced in this case because many cis people assume trans women always want to be very feminine and trans men very masculine (so you can't compliment a trans girl on her butchness because she will obviously burst into tears, while congratulating her on her feminity is always a safe bet...)

Personally, being a country woman who works on her own car, does electric, plumbing and drywall work around our home and rarely does high femme unless I'm speaking somewhere or actually doing my work as a priestess, I suppose I come across quite butch at times. If someone commented on that it wouldn't bother me. After all the context is butch woman.

Not to mention we have a lot of very butch women as regular visitors to our home.

Compliments I get tend to be about my skills and admiration that I can still do them even with my physical limitations (I'm disabled)

Agreed, Tobi. That's how I read the post too. There's a difference between "Hey, you're looking good, baby!" and "Wow, you look good (and I expected you to look like a man in a dress)" the second part of that example isn't said usually, but it's definitely understood and the message is received.

Great guest post, Drew.

I get most of these, but not the "courage" one. Granted, I'm not trans, but I do appreciate when straight people tell me I'm brave for being out. Especially because I don't feel particularly brave, it makes me feel good about myself. And it's especially gratifying when I've experienced homophobia that day: makes me feel better about myself, makes me feel like, "Hey, that guy couldn't have called me a fag if I weren't TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME."

I'm not all that impressed with any of these comments OR the article itself. What's the big deal anyway? Furthermore, why do we still have such provincial thinking as to Transgender being lumped in with G-L-B folks? It's time for the Transgender community to stand alone and stand up for itself and stop hiding behing Gay/Lesbian/Bi-sexual people. Really, what's the connection? At some point all the "freaks" were thrown in the same bucket? I have met many transgender folks and they are often heterosexual so what's the common thread? Also, it holds back the GLB community when most people can accept GLB but go from zero to "no way" when it comes to Transgender or gender identity issues. I'm a supporter, but not at the cost of my own gay rights. Just my thoughts...

Patricia Harlow Patricia Harlow | September 19, 2010 1:40 PM

'My own gay rights', you've been lied to.

Drew, thanks for this wonderful essay... it needs to be said. I have an issue with cis women friends who repeatedly say "you look good" and never, ever use what I would consider a "gendered compliment" (ie you look pretty... you look beautiful). I have had people who didn't know about my trans status say that to me, but NOT people who know my history and it's a point of emotional separation between us. I also have issues with certain cis women friends of mine who love to bring up how tall I am (I'm 6'). Yes, maybe they're projecting their own feelings about their bodies, but even after I've explained to them that someone talking about my being tall is equivalent to their weight being commented on, they continue to drone on about how "tall" (in my mind... formerly male) I am.

And I agree with Toby's comment how "you look nice" is often said with a subtext of, "wow, someone like you actually looks nice, because most of you look like men in dresses."


Your statement, "What's the big deal anyway?" shows that you onbviously don't really understand the issues we face. Or you just don't care. I suspect that you don't care, and that you may have some hostile feelings about transpeople in general (as illustrated by your referring to us as "freaks")

We don't hide behind gay, lesbian, bisexual people. We stand WITH them. We always have. And while a segement of the trans population may identify as hetero, the majority of transpeople I have known identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. I myself ID as lesbian. So should I absent myself from the GLBTQ community because I am also trans?

The "T" in GLBTQ is there because we are all fighting for the same rights and protections that the hetero normative population is granted as matter of course. To my way of thinking ALL citizens are entitled to the same rights and protections, and it seems idiotic to have to legislate such protections ot keep covering different aspects of society. Yet we do have to. As long as any segment of society is denied rights and protections, simply because of a factor of who they are, simply because of some inherent part of their very being, then we should all fight for their rights. We stand stronger and have more power when we work as a united group, than we do if we each try to stand alone.

You wrote:

"As opposed to using these compliments to impart to us that you're accepting of trans people, just use the right pronoun and interact with us like any other person. We don't need to be told outright who's queer- and trans-friendly. We can tell by your actions and words."


After reading this article, I'm torn. As an out-coming Transwoman I am constantly put between both sides of the situation of passing, acceptance, and surviving. Day to day right now, I KNOW that I don't pass 100% of the time, which is obvious to almost anyone I interact with. I have worked to change my voice slightly, but it is by no means in the perfect feminine 'range' at this time. When people pass me on the street, I periodically get second glances from others, and I know there's little I can do about that. When people interact with me, many, MANY people (especially women) will often seem to look right past the telltales, and truly and honestly treat me like a very pleasant woman. Those days are some of the happiest of my life. Other days, when I'm around my /true/ friends, they will comment on my appearance, even critique my look -- and again, I couldn't be happier! Why? Because I KNOW they care. Even my coworkers who see me blending my appearance day to day as I'm officially moving towards full time life in the workplace tell me that they see 'Angel' bleeding through more and more, and that her inner (and outer) beauty will certainly be driven home in time. I BEAM at the positive comments, because it makes me feel like my efforts were not in vain.. I know that the woman inside was always there, but to hear people, strangers even, tell me that double-takes and actually hearing me speak is what it took them to 'determine' that I must be trans, well, means that people are taking me at face value, and that I must really and truly be a beautiful person, inside AND out. Some day, maybe 20 years down the road, when hormones have allowed me to age as gracefully as possible, and my voice has been brought into more appropriate keys, if people still challenge the notion of 'Well, are you a MAN or a woMAN?' then my tune may change.. or maybe not. *shrug*

There appears to be an issue here that remains to be discussed: Who is doing the complimenting, and does the person know that the person receiving the compliment is trans because of prior knowledge? Many years ago, an important person in the government complimented me because of my courage. He knew I was trans, so I didn't have an issue with it. I would feel much differently if a total stranger complimented me about my courage or my ability to pass.

Couldn't have said it better myself. I pass very well, huh? Yeah, at six feet tall, 175 pounds, with a jaw like a polar icebreaker I pass. I'm brave? Just as you say, Drew: I ran around like a headless chicken for half a century, denying who and what I am as if saying "NO!" long enough would make any difference whatsoever.

I've gotten so many remarks like that at my work (I'm a cashier for Goodwill), that I feel like wearing a little badge: "Trans Woman. Please Do Not Feed Me Compliments."

They mean well but it's a back-handed intent. See Serano's analysis in "Whipping Girl". What we're getting is pity, NOT empathy. (Oh, it's an attempt and perhaps we should congratulate them on not fumbling too much...) It's sunshine liberalism and I wonder just how liberal those complimentary folk would be if we were their next-door neighbors or sat next to them in church or if they might accept an invitation to coffee or lunch. As long as it's NIMBY, it's cool, innit?

Sooo, what I'm getting from this is that I can't tell my trans friends when they look nice.

As IF. If you're analyzing compliments as cissexist thrashings, you need to fucking pull your head out of your ass and grow a pair.

I don't think that the post meant you shouldn't compliment your trans friends, simply that putting the focus on their transness isn't the best way to do so.

Similarly, being fat I find it great when friends tell me I look nice, but I am quite pissed when it's like "this shirt is wonderful, it makes you look thinner"...


Likewise, it's about complimenting trans people you meet at random.

To build on Butch's example, imagine you're fat and someone in line at Starbuck's tells you: "that shirt is wonderful, it makes you look thinner"...

Most of my compliments take the form of "May I help you, ma'am?" or "What can I do for you today, ma'am?"
The really special ones involve a little flirting to go along with the service, or some friendly middle age man, sweetly flirting with this middle aged woman in a grocery store or other public place.
No one has complemented me on or criticised my presentation in at least five years.
I do sometimes get an admiring comment about what I am wearing. Always from other women.

Of course, many transgender people don't want to fit in, or make little effort to give off the correct clues. If you haven't grown up expressing your gender, it can be tough to learn how to be a lady -- or a guy.

Thanks for this post. I think it's a good reminder to well-intentioned folks. My least favorite compliment has been, "oh, I would have never had known."

regardless of gender the only time I compliment strangers is for something specific, hair/makeup/outfit/shoes etc. I wouldn't just say "you're beautiful" or something general like that unless I was trying to hit on them or something. the only time I would make a transition-specific comment would be responding to something someone close to me had expressed, or to a speaker at an event (that would be about what they said, not their appearance). i agree with the writer, that the best way to show support is to use appropriate terms when speaking about transpeople and that it's obvious you're supportive by your behavior. actually the only time i've complimented someone with an "ulterior motive" is if they looked like they were feeling down and it might make them smile but even then it's specific and genuine. although I can't speak from experience, I think it's an improvement when someone is misguidedly trying to be supportive rather than very clearly showing that they're not. it's hard to try to understand feelings you've never had, so at least they're more receptive to learn even if they make mistakes at first.

I've gotten the whole "courageous" bit several times, but not from total strangers. Rather it has come from former classmates, co-workers and so forth; people to whom it was no secret that I had been through a few changes over the years.

I simply tell them that I am no more courageous than someone standing in the road that dives out of the way of an oncoming semi; rather than courage it was simple self preservation.


Monica H. says: It's because they become so comfortable in their skin that it doesn't matter what others say, positive or negative. This is why I consider the article as something new people find important. Nothing wrong with that. Time changes one's viewpoint.

I transitioned in early February 1973, and I agree with what you say here, Monica. If transition was right for you, at some point you get over what others say, and you just live your life as best you can. That doesn't mean that you allow people be disrespectful to you, but inane, stupid remarks are just that and require no response.

Mary: Exactly.

My response to the government official was that it would have taken more courage NOT to have transitioned.

I think some of thie conversation about these issues here on Bilerico refers to something I have discussed here before. I call it "the Unholy Trinity" of shame, guilt, and fear. It takes some transitioning persons longer than others to get over these. Some never do, and they live less fully than their potential. They are always looking over their shoulders and listening for unpleasant comments. To that I say get over it and get on with your life. The vast majority of people really don't care if we are trahs or not. There will be some who will accept us because we are, and they become our allies. There are some who reject us because we are trahs, and I no longer worry about them or their hurtful and mean-spirited comments. I simply ignore them.

In my opinion going stealth in the age of the internet is nearly impossible. There are just way too many records to change.

Michelle Kelley | September 17, 2010 11:56 AM

I'm one of the group who will _never_ pass successfully - and am still working hard at overcoming my feelings of shame about that. But, at the tender age of 64, I'm finally starting hormones and I never say "never" about transitioning. I just want to thank all those who commented. It was a great article in my opinion - but I enjoyed even more the spread of discussion it generated.

Cheryl Cristello | September 17, 2010 12:41 PM

Some times I think passing is more attitude than anything else. It was only when I learned to hold my head high, proud of who I am, and SMILE that other people seemed to stop noticing me. Do other people somehow know or guess that I'm trans? Don't know, don't care, I'm just me a normal woman.
With that said it is not unusual for other women to comment on my jewelry, or shoes, or even ask for advice on something. Conversely, I do likewise. It feels really good, both ways.
Courage or bravery, do folks mean my choice to live openly honestly as myself rather than resorting to suicide? I see myself as neither brave or courageous, I'm just me, a woman, trying to live my life to the fullest, and loving every day.

You get all worked up with someone paying you *compliments*? And you don't think that's called privilege?