Nonpliments: How Not to Give a Trans Person a Compliment

October 30, 2012

According to Urban Dictionary, a “nonpliment” is a back-handed insult disguised as a compliment, and trans* people hear a lot of them. Sometimes the insult is actually intended, but as often as not, an insult isn’t what the nonpliment giver had in mind at all; they genuinely thought they were praising the recipient.

But let me tell you, being on the receiving end of a nonpliment isn’t flattering. It just doesn’t give you the same glow that a true compliment does. Here’s the classic trans* nonpliment: “Wow, you pass really well.”

What’s wrong with that? Well, for starters, there’s the word “pass,” which has connotations of forgery and deceit—to pass a bad check, to pass a fake off as the real thing.

Wow, that’s insulting.

And what’s the opposite of “pass”? If you ever took a class for credit but no grade, you know the answer to that: it’s “fail.” So a trans* person who doesn’t meet your standard of gender presentation has “failed”? Again, insulting.

Plus, “pass” carries the idea that it’s incumbent upon the trans* person to get their gender-presentation “right.” To successfully mimic whatever gender they want the world to perceive them as.

Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl says it beautifully:

“The crux of the problem is that the words ‘pass’ and ‘passing’ are active verbs. So when we say that a transsexual is ‘passing,’ it gives the false impression that they are the only active participant in this scenario (i.e, the transsexual is working hard to achieve a certain gendered appearance and everyone else is passively being duped or not duped by the transsexual’s ‘performance’). However, I would argue that the reverse is true: The public is the primary participant by virtue of their incessant need to gender every person they see as either female or male.”

A better word, and one that many trans* people prefer, is “read.” As in, “The clerk at the DMV read me as male and called me Mr. McCallum.” Now the act of perceiving my gender is where it belongs, in the eyes of the perceiver. If the clerk reads me as female, then it’s the clerk, not I, who has failed.

But you’re not out of the weeds on your nonpliment if you just substitute the word “read” for “pass.” “Wow, you really read as male,” still has a whiff of “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-real-man” about it.

Here are some “you pass” nonpliments in disguise. Can you spot them? These are all drawn from my personal experience in the last month, all said by people who genuinely like me and would never consider themselves transphobic.

A long-time friend I don’t get to see in person often: “Wow, you look really great! I’d never guess you were trans*.”

An acquaintance who hadn’t seen me since I let my facial hair grow in: “That’s amazing. It’s just like a real beard.”

My dentist: “I have three other transsexual patients, and you’re definitely the best of any of them. I mean, you actually look like a real guy.”

I left each of those encounters with an uncomfortable, rubbed-the-wrong-way feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, because in each of those cases I didn’t for a second doubt the good will of the nonpliment givers, and they were all moved to say what they did because they wanted to acknowledge my transition.

And let’s be honest, I do want to be perceived as unambiguously male. I want to look “like a real guy.”

But the thing is, I am a real guy. Remarking on my “realness” just highlights the fact that they don’t think of me as “real.”

Another aspect compounding the problem and leading to nonpliments is the fact that transition often entails quite dramatic physical change. Especially for someone who hasn’t seen you in a while, when you are in the middle of transition you can look very different from one meeting to the next. Oftentimes so different that someone not remarking on it would make you wonder if they’d even looked at you at all.

The last time I had my teeth cleaned I’d been on testosterone for a little less than a year, I was clean-shaven, and I was still binding down large breasts. Although I was often read as male, I was still sometimes read as butch female. In the six months between appointments, I crossed some invisible line, one a pun-minded friend dubbed “the untranny valley”—NB: “tranny” is a deeply offensive term and should never be used to refer to a trans* person, but the pun was too amusing to pass up—and was being read as male approximately 100% of the time in my day-to-day life. I’m post-surgery flat-chested, bearded, tenor voiced, and my hairline is starting to recede a little: of course my dentist noticed!

So how do you tactfully remark on a huge change? How do you give a compliment instead of a nonpliment? The most important thing to remember is that a true compliment never needs a qualifier. Here’s my favorite:

“You look great!”

It works for just about any situation.

Your formerly out-of-shape friend has toned up:
Compliment: “Wow, you look great!”
Nonpliment: “Wow, no one would ever guess you used to be fat.”

Your middle-aged patient dyed her hair bright red:
Compliment: “Wow, you look great!”
Nonpliment: “That’s a great color. It really covers the grey!”

Your neighbor had plastic surgery:
Compilment: “Wow, you look great!”
Nonpliment: “Your surgeon did an amazing job. You don’t have a Jew nose at all anymore.”

No, wait, that one’s just a straight up insult. But you get the idea.

If you want to get specific, here are some ways to extend a compliment so that it acknowledges your trans* friend’s transition.

“Wow, you look great! A beard really suits you.”
“Wow, you look great! I love what you’ve done with your eye makeup.”
“Wow, you look great! That’s a fantastic outfit.”

And best of all:

“Wow, you look great! You seem so confident and comfortable. I’m really happy for you.” (by Zach McCallum)

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