5 Things Everyone Should Understand Before Discussing Trans Issues
2015 was something of a banner year for conversations about trans folk and the many issues we face. It was my own year of coming out and while I am definitely something of a neophyte I have done my best to catch up. Some things come up time and again that do nothing to move the conversation forward, because they are based on some fundamental misunderstandings.
Take for example a certain feminist writer who suggested trans women aren’t women because we don’t act and sound like women. Setting aside the question of whether trans women are women, this statement makes two highly inaccurate assumptions, one that there is a correct way to be female, and two that trans women are incapable of meeting this standard. Both assumptions are provably false (and not things a sensible feminist should assume in any context) but it demonstrates a need to establish some basic facts that I think everyone should know before trying to engage in any discussion about gender non conformity.
5. Everyone is different.
The human machine is the most complicated thing in the known universe, there are over seven billion unique configurations of human and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s possible. Chromosomes are something people tend to focus on when it comes to trans folk, the reason being we have a test that can determine whether someone is likely to be male or female.
But chromosomes don’t actually make someone male or female, they make us both, they make us human. They carry a complete set of instructions which includes every possible male and female attribute. The test I spoke of focuses on a single distinction, one specific set of instructions that tells the gonads of a developing fetus to become testicles. From there the development of the human body involves countless variables.
Every part of the human body can develop into a masculine or feminine state, growing towards one or the other, or somewhere in between, or both or neither or fluid or whatever else. The most important thing to understand is that we don’t actually understand all that much. We do know that no specific trait is exclusive or universal to either gender. Not every man has a penis, while some women have a Y chromosome, men can have breasts, women can have an adams apple and so on.
Studies have shown that no one, no human being alive has completely male or female attributes, and that people who trend one way or the other are uncommon. Most people contain a fairly even mix of male and female qualities, especially when you look at the brain. It is impossible to categorize the whole world, all we can do is self identify. We need to stop looking at gender as a way of defining people, and instead as a means for people to define themselves.
4. No one chooses their gender.
I shouldn’t have to point this one out as its something pretty much all parties agree on, but it comes up as a straw man far too often. No one chooses their gender identity, no one I’ve ever read about has claimed to. Transgenderism is not a fad, or a lifestyle, there’s no practical reason or tangible benefit for an otherwise cis (non trans) person to decide they want to become trans.
The truth is I never particularly wanted to be trans, and in fact still don’t. That’s not to say I want to be a man, though at one point I certainly did. I remember asking myself so what? So what if I’m really a woman, why can’t I just live as a man anyway. I’m attracted to women, and I’m going to have a lot more options if they see me as a man. Well I’ve since walked that road, and in addition to the immense stress caused by living against my identity, that’s a really awful thing to do to the people I care about most.
Lady was the reason I came out, she had a right to know who she was falling in love with. My mother and father have a right to know who their child is. Trans folk all around the world have a right to know they are not alone. What I’m saying is the only choice I ever made regarding my identity was whether or not to tell people. Keeping it a secret didn’t change anything. I was never a man, despite looking and acting the part.
3. Privilege, marginalization and intersectionality.
Many years ago I was taking classes at a place called Black Belt School of Karate, which was exactly what it sounds like. It was run by Grand Master Tate, I’ve had some pretty great martial arts instructors over the years and he was definitely my favorite. One day his brother was visiting from out of town, and I was waiting in the lobby for a ride. So I struck up a conversation, it was pleasant and light, typical small talk. As I was leaving he said he was surprised that I had talked with him, because he is black.
This was my first exposure to the concept of privilege and marginalization, though I didn’t know those terms at the time. Privilege refers to problems you don’t have to deal with, marginalization is when your problems are invisible to the bulk of society. Obviously people of color experience completely different problems than trans people. It’s just as important to appreciate that trans people of color experience both sets of problems, along with problems that are unique to being both, a concept referred to as intersectionality.
This is why it’s so very important to listen and ask questions before offering an opinion. There are a wide range of issues affecting trans people, and many of those problems are heavily influenced by other factors. You don’t understand these problems if you haven’t lived them.
2. Oppression is not freedom
The phrase ‘religious freedom’ is the most horrifyingly ironic statement I have come across in recent years. The word freedom in this context refers to a right to oppress, which is the opposite of freedom. History is filled with religious oppression, individuals invoking religion to justify their atrocities. Religion is meant to make the world better, make people better, to ease suffering rather than cause it.
I consider myself to be a fairly religious person. I go to church every week and volunteer when I can. I sleep with a bible next to my bed and pray regularly. It absolutely breaks my heart when the values I grew up with are used to justify harm. Your rights apply to you, when you actively restrict the rights of others – rights that don’t affect you one way or another – you don’t get to call it freedom, it’s tyranny plain and simple.
What about my right to the presumption of innocence? My right to move about in peace and goodwill, to love and be loved, accepted as part of a community and share whatever gifts I have to give? This is the whole point of religious freedom, I can have my beliefs, you can have yours, and we can still treat each other with respect and dignity. That’s freedom, the other thing is called bigotry, and trying to call it something else doesn’t change the fact that it’s terrible.
1. No one is asking for special treatment
Quite the opposite actually. When I go job hunting, I want to know I’m being judged on my ability to do the job, rather than what customers and coworkers might think of me. When I’m out shopping I want to focus on the things I’m interested in buying, rather than rude comments, rather than the fact I’ve had too much coffee and don’t know whether it’s safe to pee. I want to walk on public streets without fear of being attacked. I want to have a relationship with someone who isn’t afraid to introduce me to their family.
These are just a few examples, as I’ve mentioned above there are trans folk who have to deal with things I’ve never even thought of. Problems that are the direct result of being perceived as trans. Problems that wouldn’t exist without biased preconceptions. People ask ‘why should our daughters and granddaughters be traumatized by seeing a trans person in a female space?’ Why indeed, whatever the reason it has nothing to do with us.
I’ve heard a few pundits say that trans people should not be allowed in the military because the military is not a social experiment. This is an ignorant thing to say, trans people are already serving and doing a fine job. Most of the people they serve with don’t realize they’re trans, and I see no good reason why it should matter.
As stated I never wanted to be trans, and a big part of that is because I knew it would change the way people see me. I just want to be treated like everybody else, and the conversations around transgenderism are so important because currently that’s simply not the case.
The way trans people are treated is unacceptable. The way people of color are treated is unacceptable, so is the way women are treated, the way religious minorities are treated, the way disabled people are treated. Racism, sexism, ableism, zealotry, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia the list goes on. All of these are flavors of bigotry, excuses and justifications to mistreat and condescend, to deny reject and abuse. It’s all terrible, it’s all disgusting, and the only thing we want is for people to stop it. That’s the conversation we’re having, please join in 🙂