Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Can I Ask: Have You Had Surgery?

Can I Ask: Have You Had Surgery?

(image credit: ThinkStock)

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“Can I ask you a personal question?”

It almost always starts this way, always with the same softness of tone, eyes suddenly lowered any relative number of degrees as reflects the life experience of the person asking to inquire, sometimes nervous and shifting, sometimes gesturing vaguely with their newly-leaned-in posture and locked eyes toward some self-imagined form of conspiratorial allyship, sometimes a furrowed brow involuntarily aligned with pure curiosity, most often made with no ill intentions, honestly just wondering, pretty please, if I could talk to them about my personal medical history, including the implied request to know how my genitals currently look.

I believe most cis people understand why it’s wrong (inherently even!) to ask about a transgender person’s medical choices, to ask—I say again—for a description of the most private part of their body.

But many don’t! I would know. It happens frequently enough that I’ve become quite adept at defusing what is readymade to be a very awkward interaction.

Oh, that’s the other thing: when this good faith transgression is made, not only do trans people get stuck navigating how to extricate themselves from this exchange but we must do so gracefully, with the utmost tact, which includes, I am pained to say, comforting the cis person who thought it was a good idea to ask the question.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.”

I have just told the person in as calm and comforting a voice I can manage that it’s generally frowned upon for anyone who is not a medical professional actively engaged in assessment to ask about a person’s medical history—any person, not just trans people—and that there are overwhelming financial and cultural barriers to life-saving, transition-related health care and I offer a quick “but don’t worry, let’s just move on” and I mean it.

They cannot move on.

“I really am so sorry. I don’t know why I asked that.”

And now, I have the distinct pleasure of listening to this for about twenty seconds. In that time, it is important that I don’t indicate with my nonverbal communication that I am somehow upset because trans people who navigate inappropriate behavior toward them don’t get to choose—not really—how we’re perceived to have responded — notice the word perceived.

I tell them that it’s fine (by now, it is not fine) in order mercifully kill this conversation and attempt to claw my way back to happiness in some other part of the room.

Cis people are inappropriately asked about their medical histories, too. I don’t at all want to suggest otherwise. This is not a trans-only experience, but the motivations feel different, which is enough to be upset, I think?

For example: how much thought has this person devoted to my genitals and workshopping questions to ascertain info about them? Where does one think about these things? I hope it’s in the junk drawer hours of the brain’s processes, the autopilot and idle moments right before bed or getting ready for work, so that I play a mere supporting character to whatever the hell else is clanking around in their noggin.

Again, most cis people don’t do this, which is certainly great news but simultaneously makes the intimate interrogations stand out all the more.

Any given cis person being progressive helps, I guess, but offers no guarantee of privacy for trans and non-binary people. I think that’s what has surprised me most on this particular matter since coming out. I have met highly-educated progressives who work in politics and somehow never got the memo not to ask strangers about their private medical history.

I have rolled this over so many times in my mind, and it’s hard not to wonder if these people, coming from every background, know if they’re objectifying my body and sexualizing me.

Many of the questioners have that shotgun apology ready with such a quickness that I can’t help but feel I’m watching the final draft of a conversation they’ve already had with a hypothetical trans or non-binary person while scrubbing the dandruff off their skull in the shower.

That is to say: it feels quite anticipated. They knew it was wrong to ask, but they decided to roll the dice and have the apology ready in case things went south, my feelings about this very intimate matter being an afterthought.


It comes across as gawking, like tapping the glass and peering inside a zoo exhibit. It doesn’t feel good.

Please don’t do that.

Though they are rare, there are some trans and non-binary people who feel completely comfortable chatting with total strangers about their personal medical choices, and bless them for taking on that labor. That is their choice.

But like every marginalized community, we are not a monolith, and when a cis person sets out to ask for private information from a trans person and justifies it by saying they have a trans friend who talked to them about their surgeries, I can’t emphasize enough how much of a fucking dork we think you are. I say that with kindness.

I do have good news: Google is a subscription-free service. It costs nothing! Anyone can go to that website and willy-nilly search for whatever the hell intrigues them. There are countless millions of experiences conveyed by trans and non-binary people online, and an enterprising cis person who is acquainted with the technological wonders of mouse and keyboard will certainly learn a thing or two by doing the work themselves.

In the meantime, let me buy you a drink, and we’ll talk about fun and interesting topics that allow you to see me as more than a collection of body parts.

Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is Charlotte’s Web Thoughts, my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.

Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte Clymer is a writer and LGBTQ advocate. You've probably seen her on Twitter (@cmclymer). This is the podcast version of her blog "Charlotte's Web Thoughts", which you can subscribe to here: