The PII Blog

Gender Identity and Investigative Interviews

By Nora Rohman

Trans people have always existed, both in and outside of mainstream culture. Now, governments at the state and federal level are attempting to legislate which bathrooms trans people can use, which sports trans girls can play, and which Title IX protections extend to transgender students. On a larger scale, the country is reckoning with how to handle changes to firmly held ideas about the gender binary (the idea that gender is either male or female).

As someone who frequently trains on gender identity and investigations, I am often asked about how to handle investigations involving trans individuals.

Trans people frequently experience stigma, discrimination, and trauma as a result of living and moving through the world as themselves. Because of this, there may be an added layer of distrust around the investigatory process, and as trauma-informed investigators we need to mitigate potential harm as much as possible throughout the investigation.

In most investigations, in order to effectively gather the facts, we strive to establish good rapport with the person in front of us. What follows are some best practices for building trust and rapport and for mitigating potential harm when interviewing trans individuals.

  • Introduce yourself with your pronouns. Ask, “What pronouns do you use?” Make this a part of your general practice. It is becoming more common, particularly on college campuses, to also include your pronouns in your email sign-off.

Remember: You can’t look at someone and know their pronouns.

  • Keep your questions relevant. This is a world where we often need to ask uncomfortable questions. However, just as you don’t need a full inventory of someone’s past sexual history in a sexual harassment investigation, you don’t need someone’s “trans coming out” story if it is not relevant to the facts.
  • Acknowledge when you do not know something. Labels and terms relating to gender identity can evolve and shift, and they often have different regional or historical meanings. In addition, the trans community is not a hegemony. Celebrities like Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner are perfect examples of this, as they are both trans women, albeit with extremely different political views on trans lives.

Remember: It’s less crucial that you understand a term in complete depth and historical context. What is important is that you understand what it means to the person in front of you, especially if it is relevant to the facts.

  • Mistakes happen. What matters is what you do next. If you use someone’s wrong name or pronoun, acknowledge that it happened and apologize. It’s important to then restate the sentence using the correct name or pronoun. This shows respect and that it matters to you to get it right.

Remember: The last step is to move on. You shouldn’t apologize repeatedly, as this can make the person uncomfortable and feel as though they need to take care of you!

  • Offer to do further learning. One thing you can do to build rapport is to offer to do some learning outside of the time you have together. Trans people are frequently asked to educate others about their gender identity over and over again. Offering to do some learning about a term or concept that is unfamiliar to you shows that you respect the person’s identity, as well as their time, and it can go a long way to building trust and rapport.

Some helpful phrasing: “That is a new term for me. I can look into some resources and take the time to understand outside of our time here together. It’s important today that I understand what it means for you personally. Can you tell me more about that?”

  • Be mindful of language. Trans people face disproportionate stigma and discrimination on societal and institutional levels. Trans people may be coming to the table with an added layer of anxieties that stem from these experiences. When discussing intimate body parts or sex acts, be particularly mindful of the language you are using, and try to be as gender neutral as possible. A part of being trauma informed when interviewing a trans individual is defaulting to the language the person uses to describe their own body.

Remember: Transparency and respect are key. Be clear that while you will default to using the terms they are most comfortable with, you may need to clarify meanings to make sure you are on the same page. At the end of the day, trans people are the experts on their own bodies.

The truth is that the above best practices can be helpful for any interview subject. However, trans people in particular will likely have added barriers to building trust and rapport, which can come from negative experiences of discrimination and transphobia. As trauma-informed, neutral investigators, it is on us to mitigate potential harm, build rapport, and show respect so we can conduct the best investigation possible.

Nora Rohman is a Senior Investigator at Public Interest Investigations. They have a degree in Gender Studies from Concordia University, as well as extensive experience with education and activism in trans and queer communities.