This Perspective Wednesday’s Guest Post was written by Warren Oaks
When I was in preschool, and interacting for the first time with persons outside my immediate family, I realized something was different about my peers and I, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I knew that I was a girl, because my parents had told me so, but it just didn’t sync with…whatever it was that was going on inside of me. There were twins at the preschool, Luke and Mark, and I felt more like myself when they included me in their games and interactions. Something about being included with the boys felt right.
Whatever was different about me, I concluded that it needed to be hidden or corrected, so my childhood and teenage years were spent trying on different identities and personas in an attempt to find something that I felt comfortable in. I grew my hair to a ridiculously long length, tried to be “girly,” tried to be funny, tried to be vulgar, tried to be sullen, tried to be introverted. The closest I got to something that felt right was the “tomboy persona,” but for reasons I didn’t understand, it still just didn’t work.
What I did not know at the time was that I am a transsexual—a person whose body and associated gender role don’t synchronize with their sense of self. It wasn’t until late middle school or early high school that I was introduced to the concept, and then the identity shuffle became an exercise in deflecting any possible attention away from who I really was.
My uncertainty of my own identity continued well into college, where I would alternate between a commitment to enjoy the freedoms college offered, and a paralyzing fear of how people would react to my identity. I was severely depressed at this point, but because I had never really felt differently, I didn’t consider it a problem until that depression was one of the factors that nearly led me to commit suicide in my junior year.
Thankfully, I got help, and among the other changes I made, I decided I didn’t want to live my entire life pretending to be someone else. Not wanting anyone else to have to experience what I went through to get to this point, I’ve since spent a lot of time talking with people about my gender identity, and Nora Nur asked me if I’d consider writing something similar to her 10 Things I Want Non-Muslims to Know About Being Muslim.
10 Things I Want Non-Trans People to Know About Being Transsexual
- It is different for each person. If you were to take seven different people who identify as trans, and asked them to define what “trans” means to them, you’ll likely get seven different answers. Like taste in humor, gender identity and expression varies from person to person. So, while we all have very similar experiences, no one trans person can speak for everyone’s perspective; I’m not acting as a representative of all trans persons in this list, I’m just speaking for myself.
- Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all related, but different. People have written literal volumes on the subject of human gender expression and sexuality and still weren’t able to cover every detail, but in a nutshell: Most folks understand that if a person has feminine reproductive organs, genital structures, hormones, and chromosomes, that person is a woman. However, these folks are conflating sex and gender, which are two different things entirely. Sex is a biological state of being, and can be medically assessed. But it’s still not as black-and-white as most people think—there are people born with ambiguous genitalia, extra sex chromosomes, and all matter of variations on hormones and reproductive organs. http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersexTo address how many variations you can find in gender expression, take a moment to think of Michael Cera and Jason Statham. No one would mistake one for the other, but both are unequivocally men. The best way of determining someone’s gender is to examine what they “feel” like, and how they would like to interact with the world. Finally, sex and gender are different from sexual orientation. Human sexuality is an incredibly complex and nuanced subject in and of itself, and well beyond the scope of this list, so let me just leave you with this very nice graph that someone has made, which shows the spectrums on which people can fall: https://lovefromtheothersidecom.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/1e079-blank_graph.jpg
- “Transgender” is an umbrella term for a host of identities, “transsexual” is just one of them. One of the best analogies I’ve found for explaining how the umbrella term “transgender” applies to descriptions like “transsexual,” “pangender,” “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” and any other terminologies you may have heard thrown around is this: All bicycles are vehicles. Not all vehicles are bicycles.
“Transsexual” means that a person was born with a particular set of genitalia, and so was assigned a corresponding gender at birth, but their internal sense of self does not align with this assignment. Sometimes, they feel their identity is so divergent from their body, they feel that the only way to resolve the conflict is to pursue hormonal and/or surgical alterations.
Not all of transsexuals think hormone replacement therapy is right for them. (I don’t.) Not all of us want to change our names. (I did.) Not all of us want to pursue all of the surgeries that are available to us. (I plan on the removal of my breast tissue, but forgoing genital reconstruction and hysterectomy.) Again, each person’s experience is a little bit different, and their reasons for why they want what they do vary.
- Unless you did it on purpose, I personally don’t care if you got my pronoun wrong. Even though I lower my voice, it’s still pretty high, and there is no clothing yet created that can convincingly hide my chest. So unless I or someone else has told you I’m trans, it’s completely reasonable that you assumed I am a woman. (I’m often mistaken for a particularly butch lesbian.)In fact, I may not have told you I’m trans at all. The folks at our utility company don’t know I’m trans, because this information is not necessary to ensure that we’ve got hot water coming out of the faucet. Many people in my hobby’s local scene don’t know, because when I come to an event, I’m there to play some board games, not go over terminologies and identity politics with a total stranger. My doctor’s office knows, but we’re in agreement that it’s in my and their best interest to keep myself listed as female in my medical files.So I get called “she” a lot. Sure, it bothers me, but in the grand scheme of things, I’ve got other things I want to put my attention toward. Sometimes, it’s just that I haven’t yet found a moment to tell someone when it wouldn’t make it awkward or embarrassing for one or both of us. Or they’re making a sincere effort, but pronouns are a thing you take for granted until you have a reason not to, and switching over isn’t a skill that comes naturally after you’ve known someone a long time (or if you’ve never interacted with a trans person before).
When you catch yourself accidentally misgendering someone, the best response is, “sorry, he,” and then continuing with whatever you were talking about. You’d be amazed at how many well meaning people derail the conversation to try to address the mistake, without realizing that they’re, at best, turning a minor gaffe into a point of embarrassment for the trans person. (Remember this when you get to #10.) At worst, it becomes a moment in which the person who made the gaffe “performs virtue,” by talking about how supportive they would otherwise be, and it makes them the subject of the conversation. (Remember this when you get to #5.)
If it had bothered me, I’d have said something. It’s usually pretty easy to tell when someone calls you by the wrong pronoun because they meant to do it, or if it was an innocent slip up. I’d be a real jerk to hold the slip ups against someone.
- No, really, I don’t care that you got my pronoun wrong. You didn’t do it on purpose, mistakes happen, and it’s really hard to overlook what we see, even if we know something else to be true. The only person I actually get angry at if he calls me “she” is my spouse, which is totally unfair, since he has more reasons than anyone for the occasional slip up.No, really, we’re okay. Yes, I know that you would never do it on purpose. No, I’m not mad. Yeah, I know you have a lot of other trans friends. Can we move on, now?
- We are not a protected class. I have lost count of the number of people who have indignantly informed me that it’s illegal to fire someone for being trans, and I should have sued when it happened to me.
Gender identity and expression is not a legally protected class in most states, including the right-to-work state I live in. This means that it is, in fact, completely legal to fire someone for being trans. Even in cases where laws do protect the trans person, it can be very difficult to prove that this is why they were fired, and, be honest, how would you feel about returning to a work environment that has proven itself hostile to your very identity?
Similarly, we do not enjoy protections to ensure that we will not be discriminated against for housing or medical care. Recently, a federal judge issued an injunction barring a transgender (and abortion) nondiscrimination requirement in the ACA. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/12/31/federal-judge-issues-injunction-against-obama-administration-abortion-transgender-regulations/]
Still, it could be worse. I’m a citizen of the United States of America; there are plenty of countries out there in which I would fear execution. I won’t link it here, as the content may be a bit more graphic than Nora Nur would like on her site, but a quick Google search will show you what I’m talking about.
- Depression, drug abuse, and suicide are serious concerns for the trans community. You know that persistent ache in you get in your muscles when you have the flu? Or the skin-crawling feeling you get watching a Surinam toad’s young emerge? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZ7b4spjXhw Or the instinctive revulsion you feel having accidentally bitten off a piece of slimy, moldy meat? A hangover headache that persists behind your eyes, hours after all the other symptoms cleared up?These feelings, if you were to combine them all at once, are similar to the sensation of gender dysphoria—the clinical term for feeling trapped in a body that doesn’t synchronize with your gender. Imagine walking around with that feeling, every day, for your entire life, with limited ability to relieve the feeling, in a society that is unwelcoming to you just for being this way.It should not come as a surprise, then, that the rates of depression among trans persons is considerably higher than that of the general population https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23398495, the same goes for substance abuse http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/070714p8.shtml or that a study published in 2014 determined that the suicide attempt rate for trans persons was close to 41%. (Compared to 20% for lesbian, gay, or bisexual persons, or 4.6% for the overall population.) http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/AFSP-Williams-Suicide-Report-Final.pdf
- Much like you did not choose your gender identity, I did not choose mine. I have, however, made the choice to embrace it. Being truthful about who I am was the most liberating decision I ever made. Deciding that I would no longer be afraid of what I am, regardless of the consequences, was the impetus for being able to live with myself, and I would literally rather die than hide that aspect of my identity again.
- Every relationship status is, “it’s complicated.” Let’s be real, here: transsexuals come with a lot of benign baggage when it comes to dating. A serious relationship involving a trans person requires excellent communication skills from both parties, as well as a considerable amount of self-awareness, communication, emotional fortitude for when things get rough, communication, dedication, and—I may have overlooked mentioning this—communication.
I’m married to a brilliant, wonderful, supportive, loving man, with whom I was able to build a partnership that was powerful enough to get me to change my mind about whether or not I was able to find that kind of emotional intimacy, or even wanted to consider marriage as a possibility in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the issues we deal with in the course of our marriage are any worse than other couples’ issues, or that they’re somehow harder. But they are different, and they’re the kind that you sort of have to learn to navigate as you go.
How do you find a balance when your spouse finds the most repulsive parts of your body arousing? Now that there’s another person whose made a lifetime commitment to you, does that effect your surgical or hormonal plans? Even if he says he’ll still love you just the same after your surgery, what if he underestimates how much his feelings will change? My spouse’s greatest disappointment in our marriage is that I absolutely do not want to bear or nurse children, how can I comfort him without giving him false hope? Thank goodness my spouse identifies as bisexual, or we’d have even more layers to unwrap.
All of this, mixed in with whose turn it is to do the laundry.
Sometimes, people ultimately decide that a relationship with someone with whom they’d have to negotiate these issues isn’t for them. I don’t hold it against them; it’s a lot to ask of someone.
- I am more than my gender identity. Years ago, I worked a job in which all of my coworkers were incredibly supportive of my ability to express my gender identity. As it was my first job in which I got to be myself, I was at first immensely happy. But as time went on, I realized that I was “the trans one.” I never got to be anything else, discuss my other interests with my coworkers, or find out about theirs.
This isn’t unusual; most of the time, upon finding out I’m trans, the conversation turns to “oh, I have another trans friend,” “hey, I think there’s nothing wrong with being trans,” or “did you hear about the latest bathroom bill?”
I don’t fault these folks. It is kind of an unusual thing to come across, people comment on things they find interesting, and they’re sincerely trying to relate with me. I’m always happy to answer questions, so long as they are coming from a place of respect. No one wants to discuss what’s going on between their legs with a total stranger, or have to justify their existence to someone, but sure, I’ll answer general questions or point someone to a good resource to find out more.
But, if you were to ask me to name five things that are I think of as intrinsic to my identity, my gender wouldn’t even be in that list. (Those would be “contemplative,”” geeky,” “friendly,” “hospitable,” and “probably a bit weird,” by the way.) I imagine that for non-trans people, gender is also not a thing they immediately think of when they think of themselves.
So I guess that’s the one thing I’d like people to take home after reading this: At the end of the day, being trans is just one part of me, and it isn’t even the most important part.