International Day of Transgender Visibility – What Is Transgendered?
This blog post is part of an ongoing series on transgender issues authored by EQ AZ Board Member Juli Myers.
Today marks the observance of the International Day of Transgender Visibility, a holiday dedicated to the celebration of transgender people and bringing attention to the discrimination against which we fight daily.
Well, the first thing you should know (and I want to get this out of the way before we go any further) is that you should never use the term “transgendered” – ever – unless, of course you are using it to say something like, “Dude…don’t ever say ‘transgendered.’” There are different schools of thought about this, but most transgrammarians believe that it’s inappropriate nomenclature because we are transgender, that transgender is not something that has been done to us. One may be burned, jaded, fazed, or humbled, but one may not be “transgendered”. (Unless, of course, we happen to you… then, it will be you who is transgendered, not us.)
DISCLAIMER: I am not, nor have I ever purported to be, an expert in gender theory, transgender, psychology, or anything else except the experience that is a combination of “being me” and “transgender”. With the exception of reciting statistics, what I talk about is how I experience being trans through the filter of my life. There are as many ways to see and interpret transgender as there are transgender people. Memorize that last sentence, by the way, because it is the most important aspect of understanding any group of human beings.
It has been my experience that the average person has little comprehension of what it is like to live a life where self-perception is completely detached from physical reality. I believe that the development of an area of the brain that controls one’s gender identity must have occurred very early in nascent humans – and for a good reason. To use a computer analogy: your PC would not likely function properly if it were loaded with Mac controls. So, humans developed a design that auto-programs them to want to maximize their particular physical features. However, just as with anything else in the evolution of the species, occasional deviations occur. Much as there are babies born with ambiguous or dual genitalia, there are also babies born with a brain programmed to operate “boy” but bodies that say “girl”.
The problems with dysphoria are many, but the most common one is that most people will only believe what they can see. If you can show them ambiguous genitalia, they won’t argue about whether or not a problem exists; they will accept what is visible. However, if you have a five-year-old boy saying, “But I’m really a girl!”, it’s too easy for most people to attribute that to an overactive imagination and refuse to see his statement as a cry for trust and affirmation. All too often, this will have potentially dangerous consequences in that young child’s psyche, the most damning one (in my opinion) being that it teaches the child that nothing in their perception can be trusted. If what you see in the mirror is not real – if your reflection is not the you that you are experiencing – but everyone is telling you that you are wrong – there isn’t much that can mess with your head quite like that.
So, now that you have had a quick grounding in transgender as I experience it, I want to address a few frequently asked questions (frequently asked of me) and the methodology I use for answering them. It’s important to note that not all transgender people are open to questions – of any kind – and it’s best to assume that, unless they tell you otherwise, they just want to be your friend or acquaintance, not your educator. The absolute worst thing you can do is go up to a transgender person in the wild and start peppering them with inquires about “the surgery” or their family life or where they stick it so they can wear those pants, cuz Girlfriend, I can’t tell you still have one.
1. The Surgery.
What I’m referring to here is gender affirmation surgery, the reconstruction of one’s genitalia to match one’s adopted gender expression. For trans women, it’s called a vaginoplasty; for trans men, it’s called a phalloplasty. For non-trans people, it’s generally called none of your business. While I tend to attribute questions about what is, undoubtedly, the most complicated and fascinating aspect of transitioning as just genuine curiosity, many trans people are self-conscious and private about that experience. First of all, it really is none of your business what we’ve got or don’t got in our pantaloons. Second of all, genital status is a very powerful trigger for many trans people. It may have been the basis for particularly ugly transphobia; it may be the centerpiece of their dysphoria; it may be the vehicle through which they have been sexually abused. For many, many reasons, for many, many people, our privates are, well…private. Respect that and you will do well.
As for me, though: ask away. I am not self-conscious about the state of my genitalia unless I’m wearing yoga pants. On the whole, I am comfortable talking about what is a very large part (pun intended) of my dysphoria, about the anguish of an incorrect body and the fear and excitement and anticipation that goes along with contemplating vaginoplasty. Generally, I don’t believe most people’s questions about that to be of a prurient nature; I assume they are asking because they are curious about what such a disconnect feels like and what is involved with such a major undertaking, so I am happy to oblige. However, even I have my limits. Don’t come up and begin a conversation by referring to my junk, because that’s just not cool.
For the record: I have not had the surgery yet, as it’s ridiculously expensive and, for the most part, not covered by employer- or state-sponsored health plans, despite being deemed medically necessary by the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association for many trans people as the best option for treating their dysphoria. Not all of us choose to have the surgery; for some, it’s enough to live and be regarded as the person we know ourselves to be, but for others, changing their bodies to match their gender identity as completely as possible is vital to their emotional well-being. As well, it can be a matter of safety (many of us experience incredibly violent or emotionally abusive reactions when the state of our genitalia is discovered, and this is true anywhere from the social setting to the medical setting) or legality (many states require gender affirmation surgery to alter personal identification documentation).
As for my level of dysphoria, it’s “meh”. I have been waiting to have the surgery since I first heard of it at the age of ten, but I do not harbor a high level of hatred for my male bits – just a strong resentment. What has been given to me, I will use, but only in the same way that someone who has been given a ’73 Pinto will be satisfied with it until the Maserati arrives.
2. Bathroom Use.
I have to believe that many people are obsessed by this, as that is the basis of nearly 4000% of fear-mongering done around trans rights issues, so clearing up any misconceptions about bathroom use is an important part of education about trans life. Here’s what you need to know about trans people in the bathroom: Nothing. We might be in there to take a leak or because we had onions the night before, so, Jesus take the wheel, get out of my way! But we are not there to defile the womenfolk (since, if we’re in the women’s room, we are of them) or stalk women and girls or anything else nefarious that you can think of. We just want to eliminate our waste, wash our hands, and leave.
3. Are We Just Really Confused Gay People?
Well, that’s possible, sure, but any confusion we have would be incidental and not in any way a cause of our gender dysphoria. Gender identity and sexual identity are two completely different aspects of one’s makeup. Gender identity says, “This is who I am,” while sexual identity says, “This is with whom I wish to rut.” For example, my gender identity is female, and, just like any female, I could have any one of a number of sexual identities. Mine happens to be pansexual. This is a recently coined term to denote that I can find myself attracted to any human regardless of their sex or gender identity. Basically, if you look at me and bat your eyes, there’s a decent chance we could be on. Transgender people can have the same variety of sexual identities as non-trans people, as sexual identity is not dependent on gender identity.
4. Are We Really Just Mentally Ill?
Again, it’s possible, but possible only in the same what that it’s possible we could be short or ginger. However, we are not gender dysphoric because we are mentally ill; we are gender dysphoric because we are gender dysphoric. What I can say is that we suffer a high rate of depression due to the stressors of gender dysphoria and the accompanying social rejection, and we have an alarmingly high rate of suicidal ideation and attempts because of that.
5. Is Transitioning Worth The Hassle?
Yes! A thousand times, yes! I was a miserable, selfish, introverted prick for most of my life, and now, I’m a mostly happy, selfish, extroverted bitch living the life I was meant to. Had I not transitioned when I did (and I waited for a terribly long time before having the courage to go through with it), I know that I would have taken my life. Living a lie extracts a dangerously heavy toll, and for all the problems that are new to my life because of transitioning, none of them are nearly as burdensome as having to hide my true self and live a life where I was perceived as, and expected to be, someone I am not.
The problems that come with transitioning vary from person to person, and we all handle them differently. For me, I traded the private anguish of having to be somebody I wasn’t for the public judgment of the world for choosing to live as the person I am. Before I transitioned, I could at least hide a nature that many people, sadly, regard as freakish. Now, I can’t hide. There are enough physical traits I possess that will never change (general build, hands, facial features, voice) and will most likely always invite an extra stare from people trying to figure out just what I am. I’ve had small children ask me, “Are you a boy or a girl?”, and I have also had small children meet me who did not know. Likewise, I have had to explain to adults that I am a trans woman, and I come into contact with people every day who know instinctively that I was born in a male body. Unfortunately, not everyone is kind in their inquiries, and I have had to develop a rather thick skin to deal with it.
While I cannot accurately describe the level of nervousness that goes along with walking into a store or down the street and seeing “the look” from people, the one that isn’t just a pleasant nod, “Hello,” but is a stare that lasts microseconds longer than usual and telegraphs every question they have, what I can tell you is that the anxiety I feel at that vulnerability doesn’t even come close to the all-consuming self-hatred I had over having to live as a male.
Is it worth the hassle? You bet your ass it’s worth the hassle.
Well, there you have it. I could write a book about this, but I just wanted to give you an idea of the types of questions people have about the trans experience. If any of them were your questions, you’re welcome. If, however, I haven’t answered a question you have, it’s one of my greatest pleasures to talk to people about this – so ask away!