What The Fab Five Get Right About Meeting A Transgender Person For The First Time

Photo: Tibrina Hobson/WireImage.
Queer Eye is back, and the second season of the reboot is still showing us stories that we would never have seen on the original series. Last season, we watched the Fab Five makeover a gay man for the first time, and this time they're helping a transgender man who recently had top surgery (which, for trans men means breast removal).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this episode begins as the Fab Five are driving to meet the man, Skylar. In the car, styling expert Tan France makes a confession: He's never met a transgender person before. Later, Skylar and France sit down for a talk. "I'm hoping this is a safe space and I can ask you whatever I want," France begins. After waiting for Skylar to say that he's comfortable with questions, France asks how it would feel if he had gotten Skylar's pronouns wrong. It would feel terrible, Skylar says. Even just noticing the curve of his chest when he hugged someone made him feel disconnected from his body. That kind of disconnection is something France had never considered, and he explains that before speaking to Skylar, he didn't understand why some transgender people choose to go through something as "traumatic" as top surgery.
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France handled his ignorance around transgender experiences well, by first recognising that he didn't know what he was talking about and then trying to educate himself (with Skylar's permission). But, meeting a transgender person for the first time won't always go that way. Nor should it, says Lolan Sevilla, a training coordinator at the New York City Anti-Violence Project(AVP).
"If we're just meeting someone, we're not necessarily going to get the person's entire history in the first five or ten minutes," they say. Yet, with transgender people, there's a tendency for people to automatically ask invasive questions about surgery, hormones, and how their families took their coming out. If you were just meeting anyone else, you wouldn't ask such personal questions. "We always say at AVP, never go sightseeing into someone's life," Sevilla says. "It's no different than meeting anyone whose background is different from yours. We wait for the cues that makes sense to get deeper in the conversation."
Those cues are what made France's experience with Skylar different. The episode opens with footage from Skylar's top surgery, so it's clear that his transition is a big part of the story the Queer Eye guys are going to tell. And because of the emotional nature of the show, they had to get intimately acquainted with Skylar. But most people won't get that deep with someone they just met, whether that person is transgender or not. If someone has already started sharing personal information about their transition, then it might be okay to ask questions and continue the conversation. Otherwise, keep your invasive questions to yourself. "Whenever you meet anybody new it's second nature to learn someone's name and where they come from," Sevilla says. "Those are the questions that we inherently ask and are our bridges to connection."
Yet, there's one other question they suggest everyone begin asking: What are your pronouns? This is a question that Sevilla suggests asking everyone, not just someone you assume is transgender or gender non-conforming. "Whenever I meet someone, I'll extend my hand and say, 'My name is Lolan Sevilla, my pronouns are they/them/theirs,'" they say. Offering their pronouns not only tells the person they're meeting how to refer to them, it also allows the other person to share their own pronouns.
Of course, it can feel awkward and clunky to start sharing your pronouns every time you meet someone new. But Sevilla says it's like strengthening a muscle: The more you do it, the easier it gets. You might meet some people who don't understand why you're saying your pronouns, but that's an opportunity to educate them on why it's important. Sevilla suggests saying something like, "It's helpful for me to know how to refer to you." But, more than educating others, sharing your own pronouns tells the transgender and gender non-conforming people you meet that you truly care about their experience.
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