How to talk to (and about) your clients when their gender identities are complex

October 29 |
Photos by Crimson and Clover Photography.
Gender identities are complex, and the words we use to talk about gender are constantly evolving. I think eventually we're going to get to a collective place of understanding and clarity, but I'm pretty sure no one will dispute that it'll take a while. While gender descriptors are sometimes complicated in day-to-day life, they're often times brought front and center at weddings.

At this point (my fifth year as a wedding photographer) I've shot quite a few weddings at which one or both of the people getting married were gender ambiguous. This isn't relevant to most of the way I work the wedding — I'm not going to break out my "queer lens" — but it does matter in two critical ways:

  • the way I talk to my couple
  • the way I subsequently talk ABOUT the couple

When I blog the wedding on my own site, I want to make sure the language I use accurately reflects the identities of the couple… and if the wedding is published on a wedding blog or in a magazine, I want to make sure the publishers also reflect the couple accurately.

Whether or not you spend a lot of time in a gender-ambiguous world, you need to know that it's important to be aware of the different ways people can gender identify, and that it's even more important to respect those identities. It's not always easy to discern someone's gender identity by sight, so here are three different ways I've gone about determining how my clients identify in a subtle, respectful way:

Pay attention to conversations around you

As a wedding photographer, I spend a huge amount of time around not only the couple, but their friends and family. Of course I love to participate in conversations with them — but it's also really easy to just sit back, do my job, and listen. If you're wondering how the friends and family of one of your couples speaks about them, you'll find out pretty quickly. Do you hear a lot of "he" being used to describe what you might have identified as a bride? Are people using the words "ze" or "cis" instead?

This isn't always fool-proof: family members are especially prone to use the gender descriptor the person in question was assigned at birth. This doesn't always mean it's because the family members are being awful — it takes time to rewire years of referring to a daughter as "she" or a son as "he," and they're doing their best.

Avoid pronouns completely, and stick with first names

Whether you're working with the couple the day of, or blogging the wedding on your own site later, it's remarkably easy to just use first names (or first initials) when talking about your couple. You might feel like it's a little repetitive, but I think it's better to use the same name over and over again than to make a gender identity decision FOR your couple. If someone presents as gender ambiguous, it's not your place to decide for that person how they should be described.

If all else fails, just ask

I considered putting this suggestion first, because I think it's the best course of action. I chose not to, however, because I understand that "just asking" can be nerve-wracking for some people. Let me just say this: one of the biggest lessons I'm teaching my son (who wears AFOs/leg braces, so it's relevant to his life) is that if you have a question about someone, you ask that person. Want to know why that guy doesn't have hair? Ask! Are you curious about that woman's wheelchair? Be polite and respectful, and maybe she'll talk to you about it.

The same goes for gender identity. You can politely and quietly pull the person in question aside and simply say, "Hey, I know that how you self-identify is important to you, and I want to make sure I'm respecting that. What pronoun(s) do you prefer I use when I'm speaking to you and/or writing about this wedding on my site?" I've done this before, and both times the client was super happy that I took the extra ten seconds and asked, and I felt great because it turns out that it feels awesome to respect people.

We know we've got tons of trans readers and we'd love to hear from you — what advice do you have for wedding vendors about working with trans clients?

  1. I have found in my job that it is easier and more respectful to all, to ask these kinds of questions of everyone, rather than just those you think are "different". This serves a several purposes:
    ~ It gives you lots of practice asking, so it gets easier over time.
    ~ It provides an easy explanation as to why you are asking (i.e. "I ask all my clients this question…)
    ~ It respects all clients by showing you are not making assumptions or singling them out as different.

    One more note… ask about the wedding party, too. In our wedding party we had one male who frequently gets mistaken for a female (which he hates!), and a female who feels more comfortable in masculine attire. Thank goodness our photographer asked.

    15 agree
  2. I have to disagree about "just asking" people about physical differences – My brother is a burn survivor, and among burn survivors it is considered *extremely* rude to ask people about their scars/grafts, as it can bring up very painful memories. I can't speak for any other type of disability, but it would be great if people didn't ask such very personal questions of total strangers.

    5 agree
    • That's interesting and something I'm very glad I know about now; thank you for sharing. I will always remember to be respectful of burn survivors.

      I have a severely mentally challenged sister with Autism and Down's Syndrome. Honestly, I would much prefer polite questions. I would love to spread awareness, especially about her Autistic behaviors. I can't answer questions you don't ask. Despite social etiquette that it's impolite to stare, in my experience, many people do. I'd rather teach than feel like a side show. When people ask questions, I feel relieved!

      I'm sure each disability and each unique case feels differently about this issue though. It's hard to know exactly what to do. I just try and always be as respectful as I can.

      5 agree
      • I would love to spread awareness, especially about her Autistic behaviors. I can't answer questions you don't ask. Despite social etiquette that it's impolite to stare, in my experience, many people do. I'd rather teach than feel like a side show. When people ask questions, I feel relieved!

        Exactly this — that's a huge part of our reasoning. Our son also gets his fair share of people muttering "poor thing" around him, when he's running around and jumping and climbing stuff (while wearing the braces). It's infuriating for me, and confusing for him, because he doesn't get why someone would think anything about him should be pitied. I know it's not easy to ask people questions like that because you never know how someone would ask, but as his mom it's so so so much better when someone just takes a moment to politely inquire about what's going on instead of tut-tutting or making up their own version of the story.

        4 agree
        • Sometimes (always?) it can suck to *have* to be an advocate. But I think the more often you are as open as you can be, the more pain you might be sparing someone else.

          My example is in family planning- do I want to share my journey with everyone? Not especially, but the people I do speak to about it don't always know what people in my position are going through in terms of medical procedures. I'd rather just tell people up front and matter of factly to spread awareness and hopefully make people understand my situation in a positive way that asking 'when are you having kids' is not the best way to phrase that question unless you're prepared to hear the answer.

          • Similarly (sorta?) I always hated when people would comment on my (freakish) height as a child/teenager. My adoptive parents are 5'4 and 5'7. I was 6'1 at 12 and people would always ask "why are you so tall" or "do you play basketball?"

            A) I don't want to tell strangers about my family's makeup, and certainly don't want to always have to out my parent's infertility to the world or explain why I haven't met my 'real parents' (as a kid, now I talk about reunion openly).

            B) I would never dream of asking a short person if they were a jockey or an oompaloompa. Ya know?

            3 agree
          • Totally this: I don't loooooove that we're in a position that requires some kind of advocacy for our son, and I don't love that he has to grow up with this extra information swirling around him, but he does and we do and this is how we're choosing to tell others about it. We spent about 2 years not really talking about ANYTHING — if someone asked us about him, we always said something about this being personal information that we didn't want to share. That's still true — I don't broadcast everything that's going on and few people know his actual diagnoses — but now the questions are more frequent. He's out in school, we get out of the house a lot, and most people are frankly just curious. I guess it comes with the territory, and different people and families choose different ways to present/explain/etc.

            2 agree
    • I have a disabled sister, so I know what you mean. I don't think the implication was to just stop people in the street and ask them about what makes them different. It is about people you are just starting to have a relationship with, personal or professional. If it was relevant, it is usually much easier to talk about these things in the beginning. It is also different coming from another disabled person, but I wholeheartedly agree that when you are going to be talking about someone, you should ask about their gender–imagine if you were a woman with a masculine look in a pantsuit who identified as female marrying a f2m transperson and they pronounced you husband and husband, or something like that!

      4 agree
      • I don't think the implication was to just stop people in the street and ask them about what makes them different.

        I tooootally didn't mean just ask random people questions! I'm sorry if that wasn't entirely clear. In the context of parenting, I'm definitely talking about people my son sees on a regular or semi-regular basis.

        Basically I'm trying to teach him that it's better to ask someone you know if you're curious than to talk about that person behind their back, or to speculate and come to a conclusion that's not entirely — or at all — accurate.

        My son has a LOT of questions about people in our lives, and we don't always know those answers. We, his parents, also receive a lot of questions about our son (in addition to the AFOs he has a medical bracelet for another condition), and we usually tell people they can ask HIM if they want to know — he has his information and will let you know if he's cool with sharing it. Sometimes he tells people, sometimes he just says, "No thank you."

        In the past, he's had people tell him they would prefer to not talk about something he's asked about, and he's learning to respect that. This is part of a greater effort to empower him to be his own advocate, if that helps contextually.

        8 agree
    • Whoa-le. That *heavily* depends on the burn survivor. I am a burn survivor and I heartily support the 'just ask' model. I would far prefer people ask me. It's not like I don't see them pretending not to stare.

      3 agree
      • Your last sentence is exactly why we started the "just politely ask" policy. It's not like staring isn't obvious, and the idea of my son staring at someone and then whispering about them? I can't deal. I hate when I see people do that to him.

  3. Sometimes whenever I talk about people in general, I use the pronoun "they," even if I am referring to just one person. This is very common in everyday American English speech (at least in my experience). Besides, "they" has been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for centuries.

    10 agree
  4. I would *love* if the question "what pronouns do you prefer?" became commonplace, because not everyone who uses "they" or "zir" or binary-pronouns-you-might-not-expect presents as non-gender-conforming to the naked eye, so to speak. Ask everyone! Put it next to the first/middle/last names bit on your intake forms! (Which, frankly, is at least as sticky a point as pronouns: falsehoods [people] believe about names –it's directed at programmers, but is a valuable point for a LOT of customer-service folks. And gets almost no love.)

    2 agree
    • We had a great post on Offbeat Families kind of about this: http://offbeatfamilies.com/2010/12/this-3-year-old-knows-more-about-gender-than-you-do

      "Andy shares some great perspectives on how children with transgender parents learn to deal with questions about gender: you ask. As he says, 'You don't guess or dance around the subject or hope somebody else clues you in or wait for another person to use a pronoun so you can use the same one. You ASK.' Unlike many of us adults who stumble around trying to read cues from other people, stressing over using the wrong words, kids learn to just ask: 'Should I use boy words, girl words, or something else to describe you?'"

      2 agree
  5. There are a few issues with this. Firstly

    "Are people using the words "ze" or "cis" instead?"

    Cis isn't a pronoun, it's a word that means someone who isn't trans*.

    In general, it is a bad idea to do anything other than straight up asking for pronouns when you suspect that someone is trans* or non-conforming (though really it's good to ask everyone as people may present totally different to how they identify) You don't ask their gender' and you DEFINITELY don't ask what they were assigned at birth- if they want to share that information they will. Messing around waiting to get your cues from someone else is not a good idea, as they may be polygender and not use the same pronouns all the time, or they may just be being misgendered.

    Asking for pronouns is not the same as asking about a person's disability or injury which may be embarrassing or upsetting for them. Asking for pronouns (not gender) is considered the polite thing to do in queer communities, and if you're not sure, use singular 'they'. It may feel awkward to you, but if it stops someone being misgendered on one of the most important days of their lives, that's a small price for you to pay.

    I would also say it's a bit iffy comparing gender presentation to disability.

    4 agree
    • I'm not meaning to make a direct comparison between gender presentation and disability at all — as a parent of a child who has a disability, I'm cool with and encourage polite questions about what's going on with him, so that's the comparison I made. This is all just based on my experiences, and I'm TOTALLY aware of the fact that what works for me doesn't work for everyone. I am also open to learning and am cool with being told that I'm wrong, or that I need to rethink something. Thank you for the comment, and hopefully I clarified that last part for sure.

    • THIS: "Asking for pronouns (not gender) is considered the polite thing to do in queer communities, and if you're not sure, use singular 'they'."

      Also, please please please, cis humans of the world, google a trans* 101 (there are gazillions of them, read more than one if you've got five minutes) so you know not to ask questions that may seem harmless to you but can be really uncomfortable/offensive/inappropriate to trans* and/or gender non-conforming/non-binary folks.

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