I have begun to notice a lot of questions that I get asked with some frequency, and I've decided to do the typical thing of jamming my common responses all in one place.
To be clear here, I'm not writing these angrily with two fingers because I'm tired of answering them necessarily, but because it's interesting and damnit, I'm procrastinating! So if you've asked me these in the past, please don't instantly think it's a passive-aggressive sledge aimed at you or anyone else specifically.
As always, these answers are a combination of my own experiences, talking to other trans people, and reading articles & books on these subjects. So please be aware that, as always, if you are talking to someone who isn't me, they may happen to prefer different terms, have different answers, or be bothered by different questions than me.
Q: So should I call you a lesbian, then?
A: Short answer: Sure. Long answer: If you like. This is one area where I am largely okay with whatever label you prefer. While I am predominantly attracted to women, I have on rare occasion had feelings for men, albeit not really in the realm of sexual attraction. When I refer to myself, I tend to just use 'queer' as a term, unless I have reason to be very specific. While I don't expect my sexual preferences will change (at least, certainly not as a result of HRT, which tends not to alter sexual preferences), I am also cautious not to make any more assumptions about myself, given how well I was able to sit in denial about my gender dissonance for so long.
Q: When I'm referring to you in the past-tense, should I call you Elissa?
A: Yes. Anything else would be deadnaming (referring to someone by their pre-transition name).
Q: What about your gender identity in the past tense? Do I refer to you as 'he' back before you came out?
A: No. Generally speaking, it is polite to use someone's preferred pronoun retroactively, regardless of how aware or public they were about their gender identity at any stage in the past.
Q: What about the extremely past-tense? Would I be okay to say something like 'when she was a little girl'?
A: This is where it gets a bit fuzzy. It does seem a little strange to use a specific term like that, as even though at a very young age I felt deeply uncomfortable and 'wrong' being referred to a boy, and even explicitly knew I didn't "want to be a boy", but I did not actively think of myself as a girl. But generally, I'd say this: there's no need to use gendered terms in that way. "When she was a little kid" works fine.
Q: If terms and pronouns get retroactively applied, does this mean your past relationships should also retro-actively be referred to as lesbian relationships?
A: So, here's the thing: at the time of all my past relationships, I thought of them, as did my partners (I presume) as heterosexual relationships, as did (presumably) anyone who saw us together or knew us as a couple. So to retro-actively declare them 'lesbian relationships' seems both not-quite-right and also dismissive and unfair (to me, anyway) to people who are in lesbian relationships and have to deal with whatever social issues these relationships cause.
The only complexity here comes in, I guess, with my most recent relationships, where I became accepting of my gender identity before the relationship ended. But even then, I still think it wouldn't feel 'right' to attempt to classify the relationship as lesbian.
This is a personal one, though, so please don't assume my feelings on the subject are somehow reflective of all trans people in similar situations.
Q: Are you going to get sexual reassignment surgery?
A: Short version: Why are you asking me this? Long version: I want you to imagine talking to a cis woman friend of yours. Imagine asking her, "So, hey, are you happy with your vagina and other lady-parts? Have you thought about a vaginoplasty? A labia tuck? Or have you considered a hysterectomy?"
It seems incredibly rude and invasive to ask such a personal question. And if you knew the person well enough to actually want to broach a subject like this, you'd probably be incredibly cautious about your wording and the context in which you asked it.
The same is true here. That it's okay to just randomly ask trans people about their genitals is a bizarre thing that people often seem to independently decide is okay, when they'd never dream of it with people they assume or know are cis.
Personally, I am generally okay with discussing this with my closer friends. But it's generally not my close friends who ask - it's often random strangers (no joke). So, please be cautious when asking this question of ANYONE. Just think of the vaginoplasty / hysterectomy example I used above and consider whether you'd be cool asking that instead.
Q: What does 'cis' mean and why do you use it?
A: Cisgender or cissexual are terms to denote someone who isn't transgender or transsexual. And like how the latter two terms tend to not be used so much these days, 'cis' or 'trans' tend to be the two ways of defining whether or not somebody's gender identity is in sync with the gender they were assigned at birth.
The reason for the term 'cis' existing is the same reason the term 'heterosexual' exists - because if you didn't have such a term, you'd be implicitly indicating that being hetero or cis is 'normal', and that somehow the other is 'abnormal' or even wrong.
It is not intended to be unpleasant or dismissive, and if you're cis, you probably have no more reason to constantly declare yourself as such any more than I have to prelude everything with how I'm trans.
(Oh, and if you're curious the etymology of 'cis'? It's taken from latin, as is 'trans'. Where 'trans' means 'across from', 'cis means 'on this side of'.)
Q: Shit. I just mis-gendered or deadnamed you! I'm so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?
A: That's okay. The best way to deal with this is just to correct yourself quickly and move on. If you dwell on it, you'll probably just make things awkward or uncomfortable for both of us and maybe others around.
The thing is this: especially if you've known me for a long time, the mental leap to changing your subconscious instinct to call me a different name or use a different set of pronouns for me can be tough to shake. So I don't hold it against you. It's only if it seems you're doing it constantly and not correcting yourself that I may really be offended, as that comes across as either lazy or malicious.
Q: How long does hormone replacement therapy take?
A: As my endocrinologist puts it, "we generally consider it a two-year process". As my GP puts it, "it's a process".
I am five months in at the time of writing, and am now on the highest dosage of oestrogen + progesterone I will likely ever be on. I will remain at this level for, most likely, another six months at least. At some point I will have my dosage lowered to 'maintenance' levels, and at some point physical changes will become less and less obvious and fast - although in the same way over time all peoples bodies change, I will probably continue to look more and more feminine even long after HRT has nominally been considered to be 'over', by simple virtue of weight going into different places, etc.
Q: Does hormone replacement therapy stop your beard from growing?
A: Not really, no. I am getting regular laser hair removal treatments to thin and (hopefully, eventually) remove my facial hair to both minimise any visible shadow, and stop the need to constantly shave it.
Q: Will your voice change?
A: Not really. Not as a result of any physical changes, anyway. My vocal range won't shift. That said, a few people have commented on my voice seeming 'different'. This is... largely unintentional.
There is actually quite an overlap between the typical vocal ranges of people who've been through both male and female puberties. A major factor in how we determine whether someone sounds like a man or a woman seems to be behavioural. We are trained to perform a certain way, and we often play up these masculine and feminine vocal patterns in certain situations, consciously or otherwise.
My vocal patterns might be a bit different now, and may continue to become slightly more different over time, but this will be a result of intentional vocal training on my part, or unintentional shifts in patterns.
However, it's also worth noting that I used to artificially talk deeper, when I was in denial and terrified of seeming 'girly' or feminine. I no longer do this. So what you hear now in my conversational tone and style now is natural for me; what you heard before wasn't.
You may have even noticed a shift before this - I used to tone up the machismo and deeper voice thing when I got nervous (when I was suffering from what I now know as particularly bad gender dysphoria).
But no, I likely won't magically start talking in a very high-pitched voice.
Q: So, to be clear... you're "trans"? What other terms do I need to know?
A: I am trans. More specifically, I am a trans woman. (The space between the words is important.) I was assigned male at birth (AMAB). I am currently transitioning (not trans-gendering or some other term), and that process began, effectively, the moment I realised and accepted my gender identity. This process won't really 'end' per se - and if I stopped referring to myself as being 'in transition', it's just a convenience. There is no simple way point at which to set some kind of end-goal.
Q: You don't seem to present hugely feminine a lot of the time. Are you going to do this more and more in future, or...?
A: This one's actually really complex, and needs some background. Bear with me, I'm going somewhere with all this...
Here's a good way to think of it: consider gender and sexuality as having three spectrums on which you can measure or identify yourself.
Firstly, there's gender identity. This is the gender (as different from your biological sex) you identify as. It may be man, woman, non-binary, gender-fluid, or anything else, really. But the majority of people you know probably identify as a man or a woman, and a further majority probably find this identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth based on the external appearance of their sexual organs.
(If this seems confusing or 'overly complicated', consider that about 1 in every 1500 or 2000 babies born have variations in physical sex characteristics enough for this to not be as simple as it seems - these people are generally referred to as being intersex. This can be obvious, or not obvious at all. It has no bearing on their gender identity, but can be uncomfortable if medical intervention is made at a young age to 'fix' this, resulting in a physical sex that doesn't fit the gender identity of the person.)
Secondly, there's sexual orientation. Again, this is independent of the gender you're assigned at birth and your gender identity. This indicates what the predominant pattern of your sexual attractions. This might be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual/omnisexual, pansexual, sapiosexual or... a ton of other things. These categories / terms are usually self-described. But in a sense, these get a bit muddier when you consider gender identities as well. It's also worth noting that you'll sometimes find the term 'bisexual' is avoided, as it does play up the binary / essentialist (that is, everyone is "male" or "female") view of gender that is generally increasingly rejected as both imprecise and problematic.
And thirdly, there's another that is less frequently discussed or considered: gender expression. This may or may not match your gender identity perfectly.
A man whose gender expression or gender performance is a bit more feminine than is considered 'normal' in our culture might find himself labelled as 'camp', or even some other more derogatory terms. If he's heterosexual, he might find himself called 'metrosexual', or worse. This probably has no bearing on his sexuality.
A woman whose gender expression or gender performance is more masculine might find herself often being referred to as a tomboy, or 'butch'. She may prefer more traditionally-masculine clothing stylings, or have a more 'masculine' way of talking / behaving. This probably has no bearing on her sexuality either.
Which brings me to me. I do sometimes wear dresses (increasingly, as I find I like the way they fit on me and how they look on my body) but I still tend toward pants and tops. They tend to be tighter than they might have been before, as that is comfortable and a look that I prefer for myself, but they are almost always still clothes bought from the women's section of a clothing store.
Think of the number of cis "tomboys" you've known in your life. How you probably didn't think much of it. You probably didn't make assumptions about their gender identity or sexual preferences as a result of their personal style choices, either.
The only real difference between us is (probably) that I am trans. Plenty of trans women like very feminine stylings, and plenty prefer a more gender-neutral or even slightly masculine presentation, like me.
It has no bearing on our gender identity. Our identity is our identity, and our dress sense is our dress sense.