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How to Talk to a Tranny

And, yes, even this headline would be considered offensive.

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Though the now-infamous video of a former Memphis police officer beating a transgendered inmate didn't include audio, the victim claims the officer called her "he/she" and "faggot."

While such slurs are obviously inappropriate, other terms commonly used to describe transgender men and women fall into a gray area. Is it okay to call someone a transvestite? How do you determine a transgender person's preferred pronoun — he or she — without being offensive?

Casey Lanham, co-founder of local trans support group Perpetual Transition, attempted to answer these questions in a lecture titled "How to Talk to a Tranny" last week at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

"A lot of people tend to want to ask what pronoun to use, but if you ask, then that implies that you've already read them. You're assuming that a person is trans," says Lanham. "The best thing to do is listen to the person and follow their lead."

Because some trans people are living as "stealth," a term used to describe someone who is private about their trans status, it's considered inappropriate to assume gender identity.

"Some people wave their trans flag proudly, but others would rather sit back and be accepted as they are," says Lanham.

There are also many levels of transgenderism, a broad umbrella term that applies to crossdressers, transsexuals, and intersexed people. Crossdressers have no desire to change the sex of their birth but enjoy dressing as the opposite sex, while transsexuals believe their gender identity is at odds with their birth sex. Intersexed people were born with chromosomal anomalies or sexual anatomy that doesn't fit the definitions of male or female.

According to Lanham, there are several terms one should never use when referring to a transgender person. Some, like "chick with a dick" or "shemale," are self-evident. But other inappropriate terms include "transvestite" and "tranny."

"'Tranny' sounds cutesy and dismissive and is, therefore, a bit disrespectful," says Lanham, who named the workshop "How to Talk to a Tranny" as an example of what not to say.

Other no-no's include asking a trans person about his or her sex life or genitals and whether or not he or she has had gender reassignment surgery or is taking hormones.

"Most people ask inappropriate questions, and most often, they ask about genitals," says Darlene Fike, an intersexed person who identifies as female. "Even if they're asking how far along I am in transition, that's actually a question about my genitals."

Lanham says many trans people also take offense to questions about their relationship with their family, their former names, and requests to see childhood photos.

"Even well-meaning questions sometimes come off as not-as-well-intended as they are meant to be," says Lanham. "Simple curiosity is not justification."

So what can one say to a trans person? Lanham says people should remember the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"And if you make a mistake, it's okay," says Lanham. "Just say you're sorry and correct the problem next time."

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