Communicating while transgender
Engaging in workplace banter. Using public transportation. Dining out.
These are daily activities for many people. But for transgender Canadians, these common communication encounters can contribute to social isolation, says matthew heinz, vice-provost of graduate and interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University.
His recent journal article, Communicating While Transgender, explores just that. It’s the first known study of its kind to explore communication, apprehension and willingness to communicate in a Canadian transgender sample.
“I enjoyed communicating with others before I transitioned, now I dread it,” states a participant in the study conducted with assistance from community volunteers. Forty-four Canadian transgender people from five provinces completed three social science surveys and responded to open-ended questions.
Participants were asked to speak about their communication experiences and to generate recommendations for cisgender people who want to be supportive.
“It’s very important to gain more knowledge about the significance of those communication dynamics,” he says. “Studies consistently show that communication plays a large role in the life quality of transgender people and their families.”
heinz says cisnormativity is deeply engrained in our society—from the colloquial use of the phrase, ‘ladies and gentlemen’ to the predominance of gendered washroom facilities. Cisnormativity is the assumption that everyone has a gender identity that aligns with their assigned sex at birth.
“Trans, gender fluid, non-binary or gender non-conforming individuals get the message that they’re excluded from society. Our very existence is repeatedly erased by common language use and communication patterns—or politicized to a degree that creates tension. This contributes to the everyday experience of minority stress,” he says.
Participants in his study revealed fear of judgement as a stressor in every day interactions.
“I don’t want to always have to ‘out’ myself,” states a participant. “If I do ‘out’ myself, I worry that I’ll be expected to educate them; I worry they won’t see me for who I am but just get caught up in me being trans.”
Those stressors forced participants to avoid conversations, withdraw or keep interactions superficial. Survey results showed high degrees of communication apprehension and loneliness and relatively low degrees of willingness to communicate.
Most commonly, heinz says participants suggested cisgender people follow the verbal and nonverbal communication cues of transgender people. When that happens, conversations tend to be positive and enriching. They also recommended signaling openness, lack of judgment and basic human respect.
“I would appreciate it if they saw me as human first and followed my lead on what I’m comfortable disclosing,” a participant states.