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Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not
By Joanne Herman
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Joanne Herman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Basics: What It Means to be Transgender or Gender Non-Conforming
In the next eight hundred or so words, I'll summarize the key things you need to know. I'll include references in the text where another chapter provides more information on a particular topic. But if you read only one chapter in this book, this is the one to read.
Let's start with terminology. Individuals with an alternate gender identity (how you feel) and/or gender expression (how you look and act) often get referred to as "transgender" for expediency.
Unfortunately, because of the stigma associated with any adjective beginning with "trans," many people affected by issues related to their gender identity or expression nonetheless deny being transgender. These people include the man or boy whose feminine behavior provokes catcalls or bullying, the masculine woman or girl who gets harassed when she uses the ladies' room, the gay individual who occasionally dresses in drag (in clothes of the opposite gender), and the intersex (Chapter 3) person born with any one of a number of conditions that make their anatomical sex inconsistent or ambiguous.
Those who are more classically included under the transgender umbrella (Chapter 2) include transsexuals whotransition genders as I did, heterosexual cross-dressers who have an opposite gender presentation only part of the time, and genderqueer people who have a unique gender presentation all of the time.
Sexual orientation (who you love) has no relation to any of this. As an example, I am still attracted to women in my new life while my two best friends, also trans women, are now attracted to men. I am therefore gay but my friends are straight.
What is the prevalence (Chapter 4) of transgenderism and gender non-conformity? For many years, all we had to go on were the low numbers from the American Psychiatric Association dating from the decades-old beginnings of transgender understanding. But trans woman Prof. Lynn Conway, a brilliant computer scientist who developed technology used in most computers today, applied her analytical smarts a few years ago to come up with a better estimate: 1.5 percent of the population, or fifteen people per thousand in the population. Comparing with the Williams Institute's latest statistic for gay/lesbian prevalence, that's one person for every three gay/lesbian people.
If that seems too high, it could be because transgender people have been highly closeted in the past. Those who transitioned genders often chose to live "stealth" (Chapter 5) in their new gender-never admitting to being transgender-because of safety concerns, societal stigma, and prejudice. And as GenderPAC executive director, Riki Wilchins, observed in a 2008 Advocate.com commentary, even the gay rights movement previously forced gender-nonconforming gays into hiding to make the argument "that we are 'just like everyone else' except that we sleep with same-sex partners."
Part of the stigma about being trans comes from the fact that gender identity disorder is still in the American Psychiatric Association's catalog of mental disorders. Why hasn't it been removed given that homosexuality was removed in 1973? Because for those of us who need hormones and surgery to feel authentic in our new genders, paternalistic medical guidelines (Chapter6) still require a GID diagnosis. Some believe that the diagnosis enables doctors to provide treatment when they might fear accusations of malpractice without it.
Another source of the stigma is what I call MIDS: Man in a Dress Syndrome (Chapter 16). Women were essentially required thirty years ago to cross-dress-in masculine-looking skirt suits-to gain entrance into corporate America. But even today, when a man puts on the clothes of a woman, he is immediately presumed less capable. Sadly, this is not the only way in which overt sexism (Chapter 19) skews perceptions of transgender people.
Only 37 percent of Americans live in areas explicitly banning discrimination (Chapter 10) based on gender identity and expression according to the latest statistic from the National Center for Transgender Equality. In areas lacking protection, a simple no-match letter (Chapter 11) from the Social Security Administration stating that the gender in its database does not match the one you listed in your employment application can provoke your employer to fire you.
That's sad, because transgender people can be very capable employees. There are many success stories (Chapter 14). Fortunately, acceptance in corporate America (Chapter 13) is growing rapidly. The Corporate Equality Index of the Human Rights Campaign has registered stunning increases in the number of major U.S. businesses banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression. If there is such a groundswell of support, why then did lawmakers exclude gender identity and expression from the 2007 House bill (called ENDA) to outlaw employment discrimination?
The answer is that conservative religious activists have been busy learning everything about transgenderism and gender non-conformity so they can twist the facts and scare the lawmakers. Legislators need to know that trans issues are not a new ploy in the "homosexual agenda." Quite the contrary: Transgender people were visible in everyday life in the Bible (Chapter 17), along with evidence that Jesus wanted us included too.
Chapter TwoSub-Groups Under the Transgender Umbrella
Back in the 1980s, Billy Crystal's Fernando character on Saturday Night Live claimed, "It's not how you feel, it's how you look!" He was on the right track, except that how one feels can be equally important, as you will see.
What image comes to mind when someone says transgender? RuPaul, the model and singer-songwriter? Eddie Izzard, the Emmy winning British stand-up comedian and actor? Bree, Felicity Huffman's character in the movie Transamerica? Leslie Feinberg or Kate Bornstein?
These are all examples of people whose gender expression (how one looks) and gender identity (how one feels) can be problematic in a pink or blue society. Actually, problematic is an understatement. Every month, more than one person is murdered just for being gender-nonconforming-and those are only the cases we know about. This grim figure represents a strikingly large percentage of a relatively small and little-understood population.
In the late 1980s, the word transgender was coined as an umbrella term to refer to all gender non-conforming people. That's one expansive umbrella! It covers drag queens and drag kings, cross-dressers, transsexuals, and genderqueer people. Men and women with nontraditional gender expressions are usually protected by trans-inclusive nondiscrimination and employment laws even if they do not use the transgender label.
Recognizing the common struggle for civil rights-and the common opponents-the gay and lesbian movement started adding the T to make it LGBT in the mid 1990s. But my experience has been that even the average gay man or lesbian today knows very little about the transgender community and truly wants to know more, just like most others.
So please allow me shed a little light on trans terminology.
RuPaul is probably the best known example of a drag queen. Drag kings-women who perform in a male persona-are growing in popularity too; Heywood Wakefield is one example. (Drag originally meant "DRessed As a Girl," but for those dressing as a boy, drab didn't exactly draw an audience!) People who "do drag" do it for fun, entertainment, and sometimes to earn a livelihood. Drag queens and kings are generally gay or bisexual, and few ever feel the need to medically transition genders as actress Alexis Arquette did. So, for the drag community, the issue is their right to their gender expression.
Wikipedia says Izzard "regularly cross-dresses both on and off stage and makes it clear that cross-dressing is neither a part of his performance nor a sexual thing-he simply enjoys wearing make-up and clothing that is traditionally perceived in the West as female-only." Women started wearing men's clothes awhile ago as a fashion statement, and today that is commonplace. But when a guy puts on a dress, it's still a huge deal! So men who have a yet-to-be-explained need to cross-dress often have to limit their dressing to the privacy of their homes or to one of the various transgender conferences held around the country each year. Cross-dressers are usually straight in the gender they were assigned at birth, and few feel the need to medically transition. Regardless of the reasons why they cross-dress, the issue is their right to their gender expression.
Bree (Felicity Huffman's character) is an example of a "transsexual," as am I. We represent the small part of the transgender population who feels so strongly about being the gender opposite of our original sex organs that-if we can afford it-we take medical steps (hormone therapy and/ or surgery) to bring our physical bodies (how we look) into alignment with our gender identity (how we feel).
Many others who have a strong contra-gender identity also "transition" to live in their preferred gender, using clothing, makeup, and mannerisms but without transitioning medically. Many are unable to afford hormones or surgery because transgender health care is still not covered by most insurance plans. Still others fear medical procedures or shun them on principle. Increasingly, non-medical transitioners are also referred to as transsexual.
Transsexual people can be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight; I identify as lesbian. Our issue is our right to both our gender expression and gender identity.
Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein are real-life examples of the rest of the transgender population. For them, the gender binary (male/female) does not work for their daily lives, either in part or in the whole. It happens that both are writers, and Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues and Bornstein's Gender Outlaw are often included in college gender studies curricula these days because they encourage the reader to reconsider the entrenched gender binary.
Perhaps as a result of being exposed to these writings in college, there is an increase in younger people coming out as "genderqueer," which they pretty much define however they want. It can mean identifying as some of one gender and part of another or even identifying as none of the above. Their issue is their right to both their gender expression and gender identity.
So what about you? You likely don't consider yourself transgender. But is how you feel and how you look important to you? A woman does not think of herself as a man (identity) when she wears a tie (expression), nor does a feminine man think of himself as a woman because of his actions.
Unlike what Billy Crystal's character purported, how one feels and how one acts and looks are critical to one's self-definition. And regardless of whether you consider yourself transgender, we likely have common concerns that give us a good reason to work for transgender acceptance.
The woman giving the presentation at the front of the room is as curvy as can be. So imagine my surprise when she reveals that she has XY chromosomes and has not had surgery to create those curves! Yet she did have surgery at birth to remove her undescended testes long before she was capable of authorizing the surgery. What in the world is going on here?
Welcome to the world of intersex people. The Intersex Society of North America describes an intersex condition as being "born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard male or female." Many intersex people have "normalizing" surgeries imposed on them when they are too young to grant permission and then spend the rest of their lives struggling to heal from those surgeries.
In that struggle, they often encounter issues based upon their gender identity and gender expression, and those struggles sometimes result in intersex people being included under the transgender umbrella. Whether or not that is appropriate, their situation is certainly worth a few words. (And if you ever see "LGBTI," this is the I.)
There are many different types of intersex conditions. These conditions can result in women without ovaries, clitorises, and/or inner labia, and men without testes. They include people whose genitals are ambiguous, and people with chromosomes that are neither XX nor XY. They also include any baby with testicles whose penis is too short, and any baby without testicles whose clitoris is too large.
Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has estimated that one or two of every thousand births have surgery to "normalize" genital appearance long before the children understand what is going on. Parents authorize the surgeries, desperate to avoid the "shame" of a child who does not conform to the gender binary, and the medical profession is only too happy to comply. Doctors then instruct parents to socialize the child as the gender that the child was made into, which, as you might guess, is disproportionately female. Parents are told to never tell the child about the surgery. Call it "Spin Control, Home Edition."
This flawed treatment protocol is based largely on work done at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s and 1960s, which purported to show nurture was more important than nature in raising a child. We have since learned that people have a very strong perception of the gender they are-their gender identity-regardless of their upbringing. And a high-profile case that initially served as support for the Hopkins work-of a boy raised as a girl after a botched circumcision-later took a dramatic turn to make it convincing evidence to the contrary.
The story of David Reimer is documented in John Colapinto's 2000 biography As Nature Made Him. All the while that David was being referred to as a success story by Johns Hopkins psychologist John Money, David was clearly uncomfortable living as a girl and was refusing the recommended subsequent surgery to create a vagina. When David learned the truth about his botched circumcision at age 14, he quickly transitioned to live as a boy.
A 2004 study, conducted by another scientist at Johns Hopkins and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, offered more proof challenging the supposed success of nurturing intersex children into a specific gender identity. The study followed sixteen cases of children who were genetically and hormonally male but were born with a very small or absent penis. Of the sixteen, fourteen were given female hormones and raised as girls. Years later, researchers found all sixteen to be behaving as boys no matter how they were raised, with eight of them now declaring themselves male.
What causes intersexuality? It's often just the normal course of nature-there's much more gender and sex diversity in the human species than we were taught in school. But there is also evidence showing that exposure to certain chemicals while in utero can alter physical and genetic sex. Deborah Rudacille explores this possibility at length in her excellent book The Riddle of Gender (one of the Ten Books I Recommend in Chapter 28). She cites, for example, the surprising tendency of the sons of moms who took the synthetic estrogen supplement DES during pregnancy to have intersex conditions.
Intersex people who ultimately learn (and most do) that they underwent "normalizing" surgeries are left to feel as if they are anything but normal as a result. They feel rejected as the people they were at birth. They are also hindered in developing intimate relationships because the surgeries usually damage sexual sensation. And should the gender imposed on them in their early years turn out to be the wrong one, they often feel no choice but to undergo a gender transition to undo a choice that their parents and the medical community made for them.
Intersex people provide us with a compelling example of how a strict, unwavering adherence to the gender binary can cause far more damage than good.
Excerpted from Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not by Joanne Herman Copyright © 2009 by Joanne Herman. Excerpted by permission.
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