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TED Residency

Jackson Bird: How to talk (and listen) to transgender people

Filmed:
1,268,132 views

Gender should be the least remarkable thing about someone, but transgender people are still too often misunderstood. To help those who are scared to ask questions or nervous about saying the wrong thing, Jackson Bird shares a few ways to think about trans issues. And in this funny, frank talk, he clears up a few misconceptions about pronouns, transitioning, bathrooms and more.

- Digital storyteller, activist
TED Resident Jackson Bird is using digital storytelling to demystify the transgender experience. Full bio

Hi, I'm Jack,
00:12
and I'm transgender.
00:14
Let me take a guess at some of thoughts
00:17
that might be running
through your head right now.
00:19
"Transgender?
00:21
Wait, does that mean that they're
actually a man or actually a woman?"
00:22
"I wonder if he's had the surgery yet ...
00:25
Oh, now I'm looking at his crotch.
00:28
Look to the right,
that's a safe place to look."
00:30
"Yes, I knew it!
No real man has hips like those."
00:32
"My friend's daughter is transgender --
00:35
I wonder if they know each other."
00:36
"Oh my gosh, he is so brave.
00:39
I would totally support his right
to use the men's bathroom.
00:41
Wait, but how does he use the bathroom?
00:44
How does he have sex?"
00:46
OK, OK, let's stop
those hypothetical questions
00:48
before we get too close for my comfort.
00:51
I mean, don't get me wrong,
00:52
I did come here today to share
my personal experiences being transgender,
00:54
but I did not wake up this morning
wanting to tell an entire audience
00:57
about my sex life.
01:01
Of course, that's the problem
with being trans, right?
01:03
People are pretty much always
wondering how we have sex
01:06
and what kind of equipment
we're working with below the belt.
01:08
Being trans is awkward.
01:12
And not just because the gender
I was assigned at birth
01:15
mismatches the one I really am.
01:17
Being trans is awkward
01:19
because everyone else gets awkward
when they're around me.
01:20
People who support me and all other
trans people wholeheartedly
01:24
are often so scared to say to wrong thing,
01:28
so embarrassed to not know
what they think they should,
01:30
that they never ask.
01:33
Part of what was so nerve-racking
about coming out as transgender
01:35
was knowing that people
wouldn't know what I meant.
01:38
And when someone comes out as gay,
01:42
people know what that means,
01:43
but when you come out as trans,
01:45
you have to face the misconceptions
01:46
that will color other people's
impressions of you
01:48
even after you've educated them ...
01:51
And you will have to educate them.
01:53
When I came out,
01:55
I wrote at 10-page encyclopedic document
01:56
with a zip-file attachment
of music and videos
01:58
that I sent to every
single person I came out to.
02:01
(Laughter)
02:03
And I kept it in my email signature
for months afterwards,
02:04
because you also
don't ever stop coming out.
02:07
I came out to the accountant
helping me with my taxes
02:10
and the TSA agents who didn't know
which one of them should pat me down,
02:14
the man or the woman.
02:17
I mean, I just came out
to everyone watching this.
02:19
When I came out to my dad,
02:23
to my great relief, he was totally cool
with me being trans,
02:25
but as soon as I started talking
about physically transitioning,
02:28
he freaked.
02:31
And I quickly realized it was because he,
like so many other people,
02:32
think that physical transition
means just one thing:
02:36
the surgery.
02:39
Now, listen,
02:41
if there were one magical surgery
02:42
that could turn me into a tall, muscular,
02:44
societally perfect image
of a man overnight,
02:47
I'd sign up in a heartbeat.
02:50
Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.
02:52
There are dozens of different
gender-affirming surgeries
02:54
from chest surgeries to bottom surgeries
02:57
to facial feminization and man-sculpting.
03:00
Many trans people will only ever undergo
one procedure in their lifetime, if that.
03:03
Maybe because they don't
personally feel the need
03:07
but also because they're expensive,
03:10
and health insurance
is only beginning to cover them.
03:12
Instead, the first step for a trans person
seeking physical transition
03:15
is usually hormone replacement therapy.
03:19
Hormones are why I have a deeper voice
and some sparse whiskers on my neck
03:22
and a giant pimple on my chin.
03:26
Basically, they put you
through a second puberty ...
03:29
it's a blast.
03:32
(Laughter)
03:33
Now, because our transitions
are slower and steadier
03:34
than historic misconceptions
can lead people to believe,
03:38
there can be some confusion
03:40
about when to call someone
by their new name and pronouns.
03:42
There's no distinct point
in physical transition
03:45
at which a trans person
becomes their true gender.
03:48
As soon as they tell you
their new name and pronouns,
03:51
that's when you start using them.
03:53
It can be difficult to make the change.
03:55
You might slip up here and there;
03:57
I've slipped up myself
with other trans people.
03:59
But I always think to myself,
04:01
if we can change from calling
Puff Daddy to P. Diddy,
04:03
and if we apologize profusely
when we've used the wrong gender pronoun
04:06
for someone's pet cat --
04:10
I mean, I think we can make
the same effort
04:13
for the real humans in our lives.
04:15
Now, there is no topic that makes other
people more awkward about trans people
04:17
than public bathrooms.
04:22
Ah, the bathrooms --
04:25
the latest political flash point
for LGBT opponents.
04:26
Here's a fun fact about bathrooms:
04:29
more US congressmen have been convicted
of assaulting someone in a public bathroom
04:31
than trans people have been.
04:35
(Laughter)
04:37
The truth is we trans people are so much
more scared of you than you are of us.
04:39
It's a huge point of discussion
in trans communities
04:43
about which bathroom
to start using and when,
04:46
so we don't attract attention
that could lead to violence against us.
04:48
I personally started using the men's room
04:51
when I started getting confused
and frightened looks in the women's room,
04:53
even though I was petrified
to start going into the men's room.
04:58
And often we opt to just
not go to the bathroom at all.
05:01
A 2015 national survey of trans people
05:03
found that eight percent of us
had had a urinary tract infection
05:06
in the past year
05:09
as a result of avoiding restrooms.
05:10
These bathroom bills
aren't protecting anyone.
05:13
All they're doing
05:16
is ensuring that when trans people
are assaulted in bathrooms,
05:17
the law will no longer be on our side
when we report it.
05:21
Being trans means a daily onslaught
of these misconceptions.
05:25
And I have it pretty easy.
05:31
I am a white, able-bodied guy
05:33
sitting nearly at the peak
of privilege mountain.
05:35
For non-binary people,
05:39
for trans women,
05:41
for trans people of color,
05:43
it is so much harder.
05:45
So I've given you a starter pack
of trans knowledge
05:48
that I hope will lead
to more learning on your own.
05:51
Talk to trans people.
05:55
Listen to us.
05:57
Amplify our voices.
05:59
Take the heat off of us
and educate those around you
06:01
so we don't have to every time.
06:04
Maybe someday, when I say,
06:06
"Hi, I'm Jack, and I'm transgender,"
06:09
the only response I'll get is,
06:12
"Hi, nice to meet you."
06:14
Thank you.
06:18
(Applause)
06:19

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About the speaker:

Jackson Bird - Digital storyteller, activist
TED Resident Jackson Bird is using digital storytelling to demystify the transgender experience.

Why you should listen

After publicly coming out as transgender in 2015, Jackson Bird has been committed to amplifying the voices of transgender people and breaking down the stigma attached to their experiences. He shares the stories of fellow transgender people on his podcast, Transmission, as well as on his ongoing YouTube series, "Queerstory."

Bird is also known for his work with the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a nonprofit that activates online fan communities towards social action. A 2017 TED Resident and 2016 YouTube NextUp Creator, Bird was also a 2015 LogoTV Social Trailblazer nominee and hailed by MTV as a "Social Media Warrior Who Helped Restore Our Faith in 2016."  

Jackson is currently a Craig Newmark Organizer-In-Residence at Civic Hall and runs the monthly LGBTQIA+ Creators Group at YouTube Space NY. He currently lives in New York City.

More profile about the speaker
Jackson Bird | Speaker | TED.com