Listen up cis people, I want to talk to you today about intent. However, not in the intent isn’t magic sort of deal. Well, that might be a lie. I want to focus on compliments though, especially the one that goes a little bit like, “I would never have guessed!”. I get it. I understand the intent. It’s meant to be a compliment. Now, I want to address that this is my opinion on the subject. It may not be shared by you, and that is ok! I just want people to know that there are many people who take offense to statements like this and other statements like it.
By telling someone you would have never guessed they are trans*, you tell them they are passing. That’s great! Many people want to hear that. However, you are also implying that being visibly trans* is a bad thing. That to be visibly trans* is not how that person wants to be seen. That being visibly trans* is something that no one wants. You also enforce the idea that cis is the norm and the default for people. There is another companion to this quote, one just as well intentioned (insert quote about Hell and good intentions), but infinitely worse.
“I would have never guessed you used to be a boy/girl”, is the much worse companion to this statement. Once again, the intent is to tell the trans* person that they pass. Now, that is all fine and dandy, however, you are implying that the trans* person used to be a boy/girl. Many trans* people never identified with or were their assigned at birth genders. That was never them. Once again, this may vary from person to person, but I believe better safe than sorry and respect for all. Intentions are good and all, but they do not erase the oppression and harm these statements can cause. There is an even worse statement than either of these.
It should be pretty simple to figure out why saying something like “I would have never guessed you were really a boy/girl” Is offensive. Trans* people are not the gender they were assigned at birth, that is exactly why they are trans*, is it not? Trans* people are not really their assigned at birth gender, trans* people are the gender they say they are, whatever it is. Thus, saying a statement that they are really a boy/girl, is extremely incorrect and offensive. These statements, while usually in good intent, are identity erasing. They imply that the gender the trans* person was assigned is the “real” gender or that the cis people saying the “compliment” knows who the trans* person is. This statement is steeped in the trope that trans* people are deceivers as well, out to trick people. This is untrue.
Never are these statements said about cis people. You never compliment a cis person on how they look especially cis. In fact, there are people who use people looking trans* as an insult. How often has one heard that a certain cis female looks like a t-slur? It’s considered an insult to be trans*. By using these types of compliments, you are reinforcing that notion. Trans* people should be treated in the same line as cis people are thus, statements saying how they pass extremely well are steeped in this idea that trans* people should be treated differently and that being visibly trans* is bad. My using statements that point out their trans* status, you are partially erasing their identity while also othering them.
So, how should you compliment a trans* person? Compliment them as you would any cis person. Treat them no differently. Comment on how that blue shirt matches their eyes, or how they look especially good today. Do not comment on how they look more feminine/masculine/androgynous or anything of that matter unless explicitly asked by the trans* person. Basically, do not issue these types of compliments unless the trans* person has explicitly stated they are ok. I would advise not asking either. Let the trans* person lead the conversation. Outing oneself as trans* is something that is extremely personal to some people and should not be taken lightly, it is a sign of trust for some people. While other trans* people may wear their trans* status on their sleeve in a way, others may not, no matter how visibly trans* they may be. This is to be respected. Think before you speak, would you say this compliment to a cis person? If not, it’s generally not ok to say to a trans* person.