AbleismIntersectional IssuesPersonal StoriesRepresentation

Now Any Questions?

I’m in the process of rewatching one of my favorite shows, Avatar the Last Airbender.  One of the funniest scenes of the series is where the characters are trapped in the desert and low on water. One of the characters, Sokka, runs up to a cactus he finds and drinks from it. Of course the cactus ends up having hallucinogenic properties. It’s unfortunate for him but hilarious for people watching the show. His sister points out how he doesn’t know anything about the local cacti and shouldn’t have drank from a suspicious plant. Sokka doesn’t learn from any of this and later in the episode attempts to consume another unknown substance (this time off a cave wall). The lesson being that you shouldn’t do things just because you are curious about it, and that you need to actually use what you learn about the world to shape your behavior and attitude.

In other news, I just got back from the Secular Student Alliance national conference in Phoenix. Funny enough, my second night there I instinctively grabbed at a cactus without properly realizing how bad of an idea that is.  More to the point, I had the chance to have a lot of interesting conversations with people about gender and about disability.  This included answering a lot of questions people had.

I knew prior to becoming vocal and outspoken about my various identities that I’d have to answer a lot of questions. Even if they’re personal. I decided for myself that I was ok with that, and I tell people all that time that I’m happy to answer any questions they have. But part of my responsibility as an activist and educator is to inform people that asking certain things can be harmful.  Being curious about something is not always reason enough to ask someone about it. What exactly makes some questions inappropriate and unproductive? I don’t just mean things like “don’t ask trans people if they’ve had *The Surgery*”, and I don’t just mean things that are blatantly hostile and bigoted. Some well-meaning questions, and reasons for asking them, originate from a place of dehumanization rather than from a sincere and constructive desire to learn from other people’s experiences.

This difference is subtle, and I wasn’t sure how to explain it before this weekend.

Marginalized people choose to share our perspectives because we believe that it will in some way benefit our lives and the lives of others like us. We do it for ourselves. We don’t do it for people who are already privileged, who are already part of the system that is oppressing us.

When I answer the questions people have I expect them to carry that knowledge with them. I want them to do better, to learn how to be less harmful and oppressive towards myself and to others. Far too often this is not the case and I feel used. Far too often they have no interest in learning more or in reexamining their own behavior and attitudes. They don’t desire to listen to other people or read what others have already written (as if knowing me at all fulfills some sort of quota on exposure to trans issues). And even then they clearly have no interest in listening to me unless it’s on their own terms.

What gets to me about how some people approach asking questions is that I can tell when someone is doing it just to quench their own curiosity. What’s so frustrating about it is that the people who do this will carry on their merry way as if my perspective wasn’t the least bit significant or meaningful to them. As if it was just a fun factoid about this strange existence that they will never understand and which will never impact them.

People like this walk away without considering how the challenges and erasure we face are intimately entwined with the lives of people who benefit from our marginalization, including them. The questions they choose to ask have nothing to do with our lives being connected in this way, or about our perspectives having the ability to change their understanding of their own life. The questions they ask treat our experiences as isolated events and our identities as objects meant for their curiosity and entertainment alone. Our struggles aren’t meant to be used as quirky background scenery to make life more interesting for privileged people. This is one reason why it’s so dehumanizing and tiring for people to expect us to explain everything and to answer every question we encounter.  Even if they aren’t particularly personal or intrusive questions. Even if we usually enjoy talking about our experiences and personal identities.

Many people including myself still love answering questions for people. We love to educate people and share our experiences because we know the good it will do. When you ask a marginalized person questions about their life and identity, it should be out a desire to give that person the chance to be heard and to learn from them.  You should want to learn so that you are able to understand perspectives that you didn’t have access to before. You want to learn so you can improve yourself, so you don’t continue to harm the people around you.  But you also need to know that it isn’t about you.

(Disclaimer: nobody at the conference asked me questions I was uncomfortable with. This idea was sparked by someone asking me how to go about asking someone questions without being intrusive).

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Caleb is a genderqueer activist who just graduated with a degree in law, politics, and society with a focus on gender studies and philosophy. They recently relocated to the Pacific Northwest where they’ll continue their activism and keep managing their inattentive-type ADHD, depression, anxiety, and a small collection of other mental health problems.


  1. June 23, 2014 at 2:35 pm —

    As someone not intimately familiar with trans issues, I would find it easier to grok what kind of questions feel using, with examples of such questions.

    • June 23, 2014 at 4:59 pm —

      Sure! I wanted the post itself to be general and applicable to other forms of oppression such as disability. Example are definitely helpful though.

      This is different person to person. Some trans people are more open to talking about, say, transitioning, than others might be. Some trans people find questions about sexuality to be really invasive; others don’t. I tend to be pretty open about most kinds of questions, but I’ve noticed that the motivations behind those questions make a big impact on how I feel about it. Here’s an example: I’m usually open to talk about what I want to do or have done to transition, but sometimes these questions can creep me out. If someone I don’t know very well asks me if I want bottom surgery and what such a procedure would be like, it sets off red flags. I feel like they just find my life mysterious and bizarre so they want to figure it out by.. asking me about my genitals? It’s degrading and dehumanizing. But then if someone approaches me and asks me about what transitioning is like for nonbinary people and what I want to do to transition and be more comfortable with myself, then I’m completely up for answering that! It’s more likely that they want that information so that they can learn about our experiences and lives as human beings so that they can properly understand our issues. Other nonbinary people and I may benefit from them gaining that knowledge.

      • June 23, 2014 at 5:17 pm —

        Haha, yeah, you don’t normally ask acquaintances about their genitals, and doing so signals disregard for their comfort level. Thanks Caleb, that was super helpful.

        • June 23, 2014 at 8:28 pm —

          Not a problem. I do want to stress that the primary rule is asking people if it’s ok to ask them questions about personal topics before doing so =).

  2. June 24, 2014 at 8:14 am —

    I’m someone who doesn’t find most topics and questions invasive at all (which also means I need to watch what topics I bring up with others more), but some things can really make me panic, and it’s usually not what people expect. When people ask me about trying some new therapy or technique, I usually get really badly stressed. I’m not even talking about the ‘oh yeah my cousin’s friend has that and she tried mindfullness and it completely changed her life, why don’t you do it?’ people. When my aide asked if it was maybe an idea to try a wall calendar/organiser type thing to see if it could help me initiate tasks, I reacted much worse to it, because those former questions coming from strangers or vague acquaintances are things I take much less seriously.

    I’ve been badly overestimated and pressed into trying things and then to function at a higher level than I’m capable of so much, that I now often panic at the thought or mention of trying something else, even if it turns out to actually be really helpful.

    I also get very agitated if people ask me how I am or how my day was, because these questions are far too broad and vague for me. They send my mind in strange loops that take me quite a lot of work and resources (that are limited to how much I have to get through a day with) to get out of.

    As examples from an autism perspective. It might not be what you expect and be different for any given person, so it’s probably easier to first ask them if they’re bothered by certain types of questions as well as topics.

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