Q: I've been reading all these stories about Chaz, previously Chastity, Bono's change of gender identity, and I see that Wikipedia already says Cher has "a son ... who was born female." Even as a gay person, I'm a bit confused—especially about what's the right pronoun to use with a transgender friend. I have a colleague at work, Michael, who is now transitioning to Michelle, and we don't know what to call him (or is it her?).
A: Indeed, Chaz Bono has put the public spotlight on transgender issues in much the same way he did earlier, when he came out as a lesbian. Pause. Yes, that reads a bit awkwardly, especially the phrase, "When he came out as a lesbian." For many people, and especially those who grew up in a time or place where trans people were completely invisible, the concept of changing genders can be confusing. Actually, it's more unfamiliar than it is confusing.
I think back to my parents' generation, especially how it had trouble accepting gay and lesbian family members and friends. Why? I'd say largely because of the shock of the new ("We don't know any gay people!") plus the human family's basic, almost genetic predisposition against anything different ("Difference = Bad"). As more of us come to know trans folks, the more we'll become comfortable with the notion that gender is something that is not fixed at birth, but something that can shift over time.
As for your co-worker: If Michael is now going by the name Michelle, use the female pronoun. If you're not sure, check out her business cards, the placard on her desk, how she signs her name on office memos and the like. Another tip: If you are still stumbling over someone's new pronouns, try changing how you think about pronouns. Instead of thinking of them as ways of declaring how you perceive someone's gender, think of them as courtesy titles, like Mrs. or Ms. It's all about what the other person prefers.
Q: Not long ago I was at a party, and some guy made a nasty gay joke, which I won't repeat here. As a gay guy, who obviously wasn't being viewed as one, I didn't know what to do or say. I didn't want to be rude. On the other hand, I didn't want to let the "joke" go unremarked upon. Any suggestions for the future?
A: Nearly all of us have been in this situation, and we find ourselves torn between our polite selves and our outraged other half. Clearly, this is an advanced manners problem, yet there are several ways to respond to homophobic (or transphobic) attempts at humor. One way is to simply ignore the jokesters—by not responding or just walking away. Generally, there's no quicker way to silence the class clown than by not providing him (or her) with a stage or an audience.
Another option is to be direct about bigoted humor. Be the change you wish to see in the world. By confronting ignorance and prejudice, you can, sometimes, change someone's beliefs or actions. Saying, "I'm gay, and I really don't appreciate that," or, "I'm sorry, that's really not funny" may make the joker think twice next time he or she starts to wisecrack. You may also find that it's more effective not to embarrass the person (as much as you might want to). Taking the offender aside can have more of an impact than speaking up then and there in public.
Finally, your initial conundrum strongly suggests another reason to be out (which it sounds like you're not): The quickest way to change someone's mind about the LGBT community is to make sure they know LGBT people. (Note to straights: You don't need to be gay to be offended by anti-LGBT remarks and to speak up. Prejudice affects us all.)
Q: I'm straight, and a couple of my hetero friends in school have started using some of the slang that their gay friends use, like "queer," "dyke" or "queen." I know they're completely accepting of LGBT people, but is this cool?
A: No, even with LGBT-friendly sensibilities, straight people should avoid those terms.
Your (straight) friends are using these words because they've heard their LGBT friends say them. For instance, many younger gays and lesbians today use "queer" as a way to "reclaim" a term that was once used exclusively as an epithet. Lesbians use "dyke" in the same way, and gay men talk about their fellow "faggot" friends. These words, however, are still extremely offensive when used as epithets, and, in fact, not all LGBT people are comfortable using some or any of these "reclaimed" terms. Out of a straight person's mouth, they don't work at all.
Steven Petrow is the author of The Essential Book of Gay Manners & Etiquette. Send him your LGBT manners questions to: email@example.com.