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August 25, 2013 4:30 PM Transgender 101

By Kathleen Geier

Last week’s statement by Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning announcing that she is female and requesting that she be referred to using “the feminine pronoun” created a media firestorm. Sadly, many conservatives were vicious and ignorant. But plenty of mainstream media outlets did not exactly cover themselves in glory, either. For example, news outlets like Reuters, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal continued to refer to Manning with a male pronoun, directly contradicting not only her wishes but specific media guidelines set forth by groups representing the LGBT community such as GLAAD and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

The very worst mainstream media outlet, though, was the Daily Beast, which published this hateful, transphobic, rape-victim-blaming piece of garbage. Since when did the Daily Beast see fit to start publishing articles so sleazy that even the Daily Caller would be ashamed to be associated with them?

In addition to these prime examples of media fail, I’m also seeing another type of response to Chelsea Manning’s announcement — confusion. Some well-meaning folks of my acquaintance seem puzzled, don’t quite get the pronoun thing, why people might start publicly referring to themselves as a different gender even if they haven’t had surgery, etc. At first I was confused by their confusion — but then I realized that I’ve spent so much of my life in feminist and queer spaces that much of this discourse is familiar to me. So I thought that a post explaining ideas about transgender identity for the uninitiated was in order. I apologize if it’s too basic, but if it is, then perhaps you’re not the intended audience for this particular post.

The attitude of most non-activist acquaintances of mine about transgender issues seems to be confusion more than anything else. But even in recent years I’ve met some people who, unfortunately, are openly bigoted. Take, for instance, a college-age young man I happened to meet not very long ago. He seemed like a perfectly nice, intelligent, reasonably open-minded dude. He wasn’t any kind of kind of religious fanatic and in fact did not appear to have any particularly strong ideological beliefs about anything at all. Then the issue of transgender folk came up. Suddenly, this kid did have opinions — strong ones. He reacted to the idea of “transgender” with visible disgust. “It’s not natural!” he exclaimed. “Those people are sick. They must hate themselves! Why would anyone do that to their own body?”

I argued with him to no avail. But later I thought, hmmm … his arguments: “those people” are “unnatural.” And also mentally ill (“sick”). Where have I heard them before? Oh yes, those were exactly the kind of things people said all the time about gays and lesbians when I was growing up. The only missing parallel in this kid’s rant was the idea that transgender people are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord — though if he had been the Bible-toting type, I’m sure he would have gotten there, too.

My point is, that the visceral discomfort many people seem to have with the subject of transgender identity, and their objections to it — its alleged “unnaturalness” and “sickness” and (for some) its supposed “sinfulness” — are very much the same kinds of arguments many people did, and some people still do, use to argue against the rights of gays and lesbians. The parallel is not exact, but it is very close. Transgender identities make a lot of people uncomfortable because they destabilize the male/female binary opposition, and in many ways that is the deepest, most primal binary human beings know. But arguments against transgender rights, like the ones we used to hear against gay and lesbian rights, are irrational and based on fear and unfamiliarity. Let me explain.

Everyone has both a birth-assigned gender and a gender identity. A birth-assigned gender is what other people say you are when you are born — female, male, or, sometimes, intersex (the preferred term for what used to be called “hermaphrodite”). Your gender identity is what gender you believe yourself to be inside — male, female, or perhaps, neither. For the great majority of people, their birth-assigned gender and their gender identity are the same. But for some people, their birth-assigned gender differs from their gender identity. These people have what is know as a transgender identity. Gender identity should not be confused with sexual orientation, and transgender people, like everyone else, can be straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Usually, though not always, people with a transgender identity had powerful feelings from an early age that their internal gender identity differed from their assigned gender identity. No one knows why transgender identities occur, but some studies suggest a genetic basis. No one knows how many transgender people there are, either, though according to one survey they are approximately 0.3 percent of American adults.

If you find the notion of a transgender identity to be a baffling concept to wrap your brain around, try this thought experiment. First, imagine that you woke up tomorrow morning inside a body that is the opposite gender of the gender identity you’ve had all your life. Then, imagine how you would try to deal with it.

Transgender individuals do in fact deal with their identity in a variety of ways. A few keep their assigned identity, but this tends to cause great psychic distress. Some transition to another gender but do not receive medical treatments. Some choose to receive hormone treatments, but not surgery. Some receive hormone treatments and breast implants/breast removal, but not genital surgery. Others get the genital surgery as well, and/or additional surgical treatments. Many more male-to-female (MTF) than female-to-male (FTM) transgender people get the genital surgery, because it’s easier to surgically create a vagina than a penis. (You do realize that if you met a transgender person, it would be extremely rude to ask questions about what medical treatments they’ve had, right?)

The transgender community and its allies believe that it’s important that health care cover sex reassignment therapy for individuals who seek it. Conservatives and budget hawk types love to roll their eyes at such allegedly “frivolous” treatments, but there is a clear consensus in the scientific literature that sex reassignment improves quality of life. People who are denied necessary care can suffer severe distress, including anxiety, depression, and dramatically increased risk for suicide. Within the health care system, sex reassignment therapy should be treated like any other medically necessary procedure.

Transgender people suffer highly disproportionately from virtually every form of social, political and economic mistreatment. Studies show that transgender folk experience high levels of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, employment discrimination, discrimination in public accommodations and in the health care system, and harassment on the job, in schools, and by police. A shocking 41 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide, and transgender people, especially transgender women of color, are disproportionately targeted for hate crimes. Clearly, our society has a long way to go before it starts treating transgender people with the decency and dignity they, like all other human beings, deserve.

What I would say to people who might still be uncomfortable with the idea of transgender rights is this: consider how deeply stigmatized transgender identities are. Even so, people have shown time and again that they are willing to risk virtually everything to transition to another gender: careers, families, friendships, social status, economic stability. Common sense tells you that if individuals are willing to lose so much, the drive to have one’s inner gender identity match one’s assigned gender identity must be powerful indeed. And it’s not like we’re talking about just a few lone individuals here, either. In the U.S., there is a transgender community of some 700,000 people, many of whom report strikingly similar feelings and experiences.

I don’t think it’s necessary to understand transgender identity, exactly — I certainly don’t claim to understand it. But I do think it’s important to have the humility to understand that it is a real thing in the world, that it is profound, and that it deserves respect. The more I read writings by transgender people, and the more I listened to transgender people, the more persuaded of this I became. So if you’re still confused, what I suggest above all is that you listen to transgender people talk about their experiences. And read their books — this is one that I found especially powerful.

Once upon a time, heterosexuals never used to question that they even had an sexual orientation. Then gay and lesbian activists came along, started talking about “sexual orientation,” and disrupted that smug assumption. I think the same thing will start happening as trans folk start popularizing the notion of gender identity. In time, everyone will realize that they have one of those, too. They will be exposed to more transgender people. The discomfort and the transphobia will fade — just as, when people got to know more gays and lesbians, homophobia began to fade. Tolerance will grow, and Americans will come understand that transgender identity is just another benign variation of the human condition.

Two dudes marrying each other used to be, so far as the conservative imagination is concerned, the worst thing ever. That may soon be supplanted by the idea of getting the state to pay for sex reassignment therapy. Even before Chelsea Manning, this summer the right has been having a transgender freakout — see this and this from earlier this week, for example. My theory is that, with this summer’s gay marriage victories, conservatives realize they can’t hate on gays and lesbians with impunity anymore. They need a new hate object, and so — voilĂ  — the transgender community.

I have a message for those conservatives who throw a tantrum about using correct names and pronouns when referring to Chelsea Manning and other transgender folk. Conservatives, are you truly interested in living your traditional values, instead of just preaching them? Then how about practicing some good, old-fashioned, Miss Manners-style etiquette, and showing people the basic respect of calling them what they’d like to be called — including referring to transgender people by the names and pronouns they prefer. It’s called being polite — otherwise known as the decent thing to do. Does conservative ideology have any objection to it?

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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