by Ms. Alternative

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This is the first issue of “Ask Ms. Alternative”, the Freak Nation’s regular advice column. Ms. Alternative is available for questions on any topic you like from sex, love and romance to etiquette to “what should I do about my annoying roommate?” What credentials does she have to give advice, you may ask? In her own words:

Ms. Alternative is the sort of lady who reads Judith Martin for entertainment, as well as comedies of manners. She was raised by diplomats, and has been in the employ (indirectly) of the White House Chief of Protocol, as well as diplomatic duties. Ms. Alternative currently resides in San Francisco, which is known as a hotbed of alternative living, and participates in several of those interesting practices when she can find the time.

Ms. Alternative also recognizes her own limitations, and will politely ask her pool of friends (and readers) to advise her on subjects where she lacks personal expertise. Some of her acquaintances are considerable experts within the fields of sexology, BDSM, Internet protocols, pastry-making, and other subjects which may or may not be relevant.

Dear Ms. Alternative,

I recently found myself in an argument with some acquaintances over the difference between “transsexual” and “transgender” and “transvestite”. Now I’m confused. Can you help me?

 — Trans-worded
Dear Worded:

The first two are close; the second is a bit different. However, your Greek and Latin roots will help you out here, as the words still mean more or less what they ought to.

“Transvestite” contains “vest” which refers to clothing; that’s an easy way to remember. It’s similar to “cross-dresser”, although not always quite the same. Both refer to clothing, and not anything that may (or may not) be underneath it. “Cross-dresser” is generally taken, by those who do it, to refer to occasional cross-dressing, “drag”, or swapping to the opposite gender’s clothes for comedic purposes. Cross-dressing is not necessarily convincing in its results, whereas transvestitism more often aims to be (although not always). Transvestitism in the purest form refers to someone who enjoys dressing in the garments of the opposite sex or gender for pleasure or sexual gratification, regardless of their own gender or how they feel towards it.

“Transsexual” has fallen out of favor somewhat, except with Rocky Horror fans, but is approximately the same as “transgender”, which is now preferred. The difference between “sex” and “gender” can get confusing, as can attempting to define “gender”; better scholars than Ms. Alternative have been caught in that quicksand. For these purposes, we shall say that “sex” generally refers in these instances to the actual organs and chromosomes, whereas “gender” is a self-construct or a construct of society. Sex is male and female; gender is masculine and feminine (and in some lists, neuter, butch, queer, and a host of others.) As a very weak example, the wearing of skirts is considered to indicate a feminine gender in most Western societies, except in Scotland, where a kilt is masculine in its gender.

Transgender behavior is sometimes used to refer to males who wear skirts, or things like that, by queers who like to use “transgender” as a statement of gender-defiance and breaking of gender norms. However, the meaning of “transgender” (or “transgendered”, although this is sometimes taken to mean the completion of something which may or may not be complete, so “transgender” is safest) when applied to a person is generally this: the person has chosen to live their life, full-time or nearly, as a person of a sex/gender they were not born to. It is politest to refer to such a person by the gender pronoun appropriate to how they present themselves, regardless of body parts.

Let’s try some examples. Bob dresses in full girl-drag (makeup, heels, wig, and evening gown) on Wednesday nights at the club and performs as Sweetness Lyte. The rest of the time, Bob dresses and behaves as a man and considers himself to be male. Bob should be addressed and referred to as “he” unless he is in drag, at which point he should be called a she, Ms. Lyte, or “girlfriend”. (Note that it is irrelevant to the pronouns to wonder if Bob is gay, straight, bisexual, or into vegetables.) Being a drag queen, Bob will probably not mind if you refer to him as “she” outside of drag, but may be a little peeved if you call Sweetness a “he” when she’s just spent three hours getting girlied up.

Fred often wears women’s skirts to goth clubs and parties, and occasionally whole dresses for special occasions. Fred has a full beard, does not shave his legs, considers himself male and acts as a male. Fred should always be “he”.

Jane is a sub to Beth, and often appears in public dressed as a schoolboy to Beth’s nun. Like Bob’s drag persona, Percy the naughty schoolboy is a persona of Jane. If Jane is “out of persona” on a cigarette break with you, it’s probably fine to call her Jane, and a she. If her mistress is hauling her about by her tie and presents Jane to you as Percy, Percy is a he.

Todd was born Tawana, and female, but Todd these days lives his life almost entirely as a male, and appears male. Todd is a he at all times (unless you are Todd’s gynecologist, in which case it is an understandable mistake to tell Todd that “her” Pap smear came out fine). Note that (unless you’re his gynecologist) Todd’s actual anatomy, chromosomes, sexual preferences and/or surgical status are irrelevant; Todd is a he.

And now a difficult one Chris is introduced to you at a party as “Chris, my friend from work”. Chris is a slight person whose clothes, face, bearing, and presentation give no clues as to what Chris’ gender may be (aside from “waif”). Is Chris (however it’s spelled) a he or a she?

Ms. Alternative would attempt to dodge the use of pronouns until she could catch the person who introduced her again somewhere quiet, and ask them which pronoun Chris prefers. If the introducer is currently quite busy being strapped to a St. Andrew’s cross in the back room, and there’s no one else around who might know, Ms. Alternative will simply have to ask Chris, politely and a little apologetically, which pronoun Chris prefers. Some persons who live androgynously or outside of conventional gender barriers may not care which you use, or may even prefer something like “zie”. (Ms. Alternative considers it a bit much to go asking people to make up new pronouns when “they” or “them” can generally be substituted, but not everyone agrees.) And while it may be a bit embarrassing to have to ask someone if they’re a bird or a bee, it’s far less dreadful than not ever finding out or getting it wrong. As for the androgyne’s own embarrassment, generally persons of interesting or unusual genders, much like people with interesting or unusual facial tattoos, are prepared to deal with a bit of questioning or confusion. But they do appreciate the proper term.

Of course, Chris may get rather huffy that you “can’t tell by looking”. You may then demur, saying something mumbled about how rude it is to make assumptions, and charitably consider that Chris may be going through hormonal changes that make puberty look like a slight case of indigestion and therefore may be a bit out of temper.

Dear Ms. Alternative:

Can you tell me why I should even bother being polite and mannerly to people who are being rude jerks? It doesn’t seem fair.

 — Cranky
Dear Cranky:

For one, because you are better than they are, aren’t you?

Two, because manners are like lube; they make even the most regrettable things a little less painful, and many of the pleasant things much nicer and easier. Good manners are social lube, in fact.

Three, because when you have been polite as possible to someone determined to be rude, you may feel a nice warm glow of self-righteousness for having done so. Also, it often makes the rude person very irritated. (Ms. Alternative would like to think we’d all be polite to each other without needing to feel superior, but Ms. Alternative was not born yesterday, and she’ll take what she can get.) If good manners fails you and you feel the need to move on to less polite methods, at least you (and Ms. Alternative) will know that you tried to solve the problem without resorting to the kinds of behavior that get people jail terms and hefty fines.

Fourthly, because you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Although Ms. Alternative is not sure why anyone would want to catch flies this way, the metaphor stands. Ask anyone who has ever worked in customer service.

Ms. Alternative Manners is a biker-jacket freak lady who has dedicated herself to the advocacy of good manners. She teaches that politeness is to human interaction as lube is to sex. It may not be strictly necessary, but it makes things a great deal less painful, more comfortable, and more fun, especially for large groups, first meetings, unusual situations, and special occasions. You can send her questions for this column at advice (at) REMOVEfreaknation daht see-oh-em.