Yesterday, I received the above messages on Facebook and I thought it would make for a great second lesson in the Trans 101 series of posts here.
Typically, questions/messages/comments like this tend to go a certain way. When you’re used to having your identity and humanity questioned and your answers to those questions dismissed, it’s hard to not get defensive when something looks like it’s going in that direction. So, I answered as such, with a stern lecturing tone and quite a lot of snark. My general rule is to try to be open and respectful when teaching, but I do have a point at which I throw all that out the window and respond with the same level of respect I feel I’m being dealt.
The response (which I will not share) from this person actually surprised me a lot. They apologized over and over and it felt very genuine. It turned out they really were trying to learn, but the wording was just really, really bad. In the end, I was really happy that my initial impression of the situation was wrong and this turned out to be a good learning experience for both of us. For him, to be very careful how you word questions about someone’s experience as member of an oppressed group. For me, be careful not to get defensive too quickly. Sometimes things are a lot better than they seem.
Below is my full, unedited, response.
Hmm…okay…where to start here…
So, first, that was actually incredibly offensive. Providing a disclaimer or saying that you “don’t mean to upset” doesn’t really change the nature of what you’re saying. These are still hurtful words and they are dismissive of my life and my experience, which are two things that you can’t really know or understand. Throwing a “please forgive me” at the end wreaks of an “I’m going to say whatever I want, but as long as I put a faux-apology here it’s okay” attitude. Adding this at the end, as you have, makes it clear you do not actually care if your words are upsetting or not. You are asking for forgiveness before even having any idea where you’ve done wrong.
I am an extremely open person and I constantly put out there that I’m open to sharing my experience and explaining things to those who wish to understand. However, the way you’ve written your message is not from a place of understanding, even though you claim to be “trying to make sense of it all.” This is clear from the language you use. Your message reads with a heavy matter-of-fact tone to it, as if you already know all there is to know about gender. And you even put scare quotes around the word transgender, not to mention that you reduced my everyday experience as being a “lifestyle choice.”
Just because you have not personally experienced something does not mean it doesn’t exist. I have not experienced a stroke, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real thing. Life is complex and we’ll never experience it all, but coming at others dictating your beliefs which cannot be backed up will ensure you experience as little of it as possible.
Second, your entire first paragraph is not only full of factual inaccuracies, but is also extremely invasive into my pants. Do I discuss your genitals? Do I use your penis as the measure of your classification of human? Is the situation between your legs any of my business at all? The answer to all three of these questions is a firm “no.” So, then, why is it that my genitals are a different story? Why are mine fair game to talk about? Where is my privacy?
Your assertion of what makes someone a man or a woman doesn’t even represent a middle school biology level of understanding. Not only do biology and science define gender very differently than you have, but they also firmly support that some people are, in fact, transgender and not the sexes they were assigned at birth. Additionally, the medical community agrees as well. The American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and the World Health Organization are all of the consensus that being transgender is a real thing that actually exists. The things I discuss about transness are in line with science, medicine, and these organizations.
Gender is a much more complicated thing than can be simply based on the equipment issued to you by your prenatal developmental. Gender is a deeper internal sense of self and understanding of yourself which is much more dynamic than our society currently respects. The binary of man and woman does not represent the reality that gender is more like a spectrum of different kinds of identities (or even a lack of such an identity or combination of multiple identities). Again, this is supported by science, as well as many other societies and civilizations of the past, some of which not only understand this, but embraced it as well. Because of the complexities of gender, it is impossible to simply assign an identity to someone at birth based on their genitals. It is important that, as a society, we allow people to self-identify.
Your message conflates genitals and gender as one without appreciating the difference between what we often describe as “sex” (male/female) and gender (man/woman). Sex and gender are not the same thing. The reality is actually that sex is a very problematic term to work with. What makes someone male or female? You suggest that this is purely determined by genitals (penis or vagina). How does this work for people are born intersex (with genitals which may not fit in either category or may even fit into both)? And if having a penis is what makes you a man, would you cease to be a man if you were to sustain a traumatic injury which resulted in the loss of your penis? How about a woman who happens to be born without a vagina? Would a transgender woman, such as myself, become a woman in your eyes if she were to pony up $25,000 for genital reconstruction surgery?
The reality is that genitals are just along for the ride and determine nothing developmentally. All of the physical and emotional things which you consider to be part of gender are actually driven pretty much entirely by which hormones are present in the body, not by which genitals are there. However, if you wish to use hormones (or secondary sex characteristics), then you’d have to accept me as woman with no reservation, so I’m assuming you wouldn’t want to use those.
The fact here is that your narrow and old-fashioned views on gender are not based on reality or science and even go so far as to exclude many, many non-transgender people from their definitions. Your views essentially describe gender as an exclusive club in which only certain people are allowed to join. Will there be a genital check at the door? Should I be sure to wear a skirt for quicker classification?
Even moving beyond genitals, sex is still a problematic term to work with. Humans cannot be simply reduced to being either XX or XY chromosomes. There are a number of conditions which can lead to someone not having the chromosomes you would expect them to have. This actually begs a question that I’ll go right ahead and ask, what are your chromosomes? Have you had a karyotype done (which would be the only way in which you’d know your chromosomes)? If you are willing to discuss other people’s genitals, surely you should be willing to share your chromosomes as well.
Biology uses the size of gametes as the definition of male and female in the animal world. This works fine for animals, but, for humans, it’s a bit more muddy because we base so much on these assignments and our society practically revolves around the so-called distinctions between men and women. The thing is, not everyone actually produces gametes. I don’t. I mean, I did, but I don’t now. And cisgender (opposite of transgender) women eventually go through menopause. Do we get stripped of our genders when there are no more gametes or if there never were any? If we were to base people’s genders and, therefore, part of their identity on these definitions, we’d be leaving people out.
Basically, we’re left with no physical way in which we can determine a person’s gender based on sex, perceived sex, or really anything physical. It just doesn’t work. Unless of course, you are willing to also exclude many non-transgender people and strip them of their identities as well. If so, then please feel free to continue on.
Lastly on this topic, I thought it might be helpful to just really quick hit the religious point of view here. I actually do not know if you are or are not religious, though your “lifestyle choices,” to use your term, would indicate that, if you are rather religious, you choose to cherry-pick only the parts you like. But, since I don’t know, I’m just including this as good measure. The bible makes no mention of transgender people. Zero. If you don’t believe me, feel free to read it front-to-back a couple times. And, I can tell you that we existed long before that book was written. In fact! We’ve actually existed for as long as homo sapiens have! Whoa!
With all that out of the way, let’s move on to how your message belittles and erases my experience as a person. You reduce my transition and identity to being about how I dress. I guess this is all that you think being trans is; however, this isn’t at all about clothes. Transitioning and my gender aren’t about how I dress (I actually wear jeans and a t-shirt most days), they’re about how I interact with the world and how the world interacts with me. My internal sense of self says this is the person I am and this is the person I have always been. This has been the most steady part of my life and is a part of my absolute earliest memories. I was a girl when I was three and I am a woman now at 31. The only thing which has changed is that I now live openly as a woman instead of hiding myself behind a persona that I developed to protect myself over course of the first 29 years of my life.
I didn’t choose to be transgender or a woman or be born with a penis. This isn’t a “lifestyle choice.” I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wanted to wear dresses from now on. Hell, I’ve only even worn a dress five times since coming out as transgender. I have zero memories of my life that predate this struggle and what I feel inside. For 29 years, I fought with myself tooth-and-nail to not transition. I didn’t want this. I fought to continue pretending to be a man for long enough to die of some reason other than suicide. I thought about suicide every single day from early middle school on. The only two things that kept me from doing it were not being able to accept being remembered as a man and not being able to give up hope that maybe one day I’d get to be the real me. As a child, I prayed and wished every single night that I’d wake up as a girl and be able to stop hating myself. That never happened. What fixed it was getting my body running on the right hormones. Once I was rid of the testosterone and was running on estrogen, things felt so much better. I stopped thinking about suicide all the time. I stopped hating myself. The constant feeling of just being indescribably “off” was gone. I felt like a real person. Life before proper hormones was like trying to run a car that was built for regular unleaded on diesel, it just doesn’t work. And all of this was before I even came out, when I was just taking hormones in secret.
Ask yourself, “what makes me a man?” and answer it without any sort of reference to anything physical, only what’s inside, what you feel. That’s how I feel about being a woman.
And now, ask yourself why it matters how other people identify. Ask how it actually affects you or your life. Literally, the only affect my transition has on you is that you now have to call me Amelia/she/her. That’s it. If you don’t “agree” with my life or how I live it, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect you.
Third, your actual question. Whether we’re talking about prisons, bathrooms, sports teams, or anything else that is gender-segregated, people should be free to take part as their true gender and not forced to do so as the sex they were assigned at birth. You present it as a safety thing and that’s a large part of it, you just have it backwards. Trans people are the ones who are in danger when not allowed to use the correct facilities. Imagine someone who looks like I do walking into a men’s room? Likely, I’d get the shit kicked out of me. And that’s if I was lucky enough to not be raped or murdered. The opposite simply does not happen. There are no recorded cases of a trans person assaulting a cis person in a sex-segregated facility, though there are plenty of faked stories about this. However, the opposite happens all too often.
Not a day goes by that I walk into a public women’s room without fear for my physical safety. All I want to do is pee, wash my hands, and get the hell out of there. I have no idea if there will be someone in there who won’t hesitate to physically demonstrate their bigotry. Or even someone with a friend/boyfriend/husband/brother/whatever waiting outside whom they texted to alert them of me so they can beat the shit out of me.
Now, for prisons, nothing is different. Trans women are women and belong with women. Trans men are men and belong with men. It’s very simple.
I don’t know exactly what you mean by “innocent women will be hurt,” but I can tell you it’s not going to be at the hands of a transgender woman. Not only does our lack of testosterone make us no physically stronger than cisgender women, but it also kills our sex drives to just about zero and makes even getting erections (for those of us who still have our penises) a struggle.
Fourth, there is no slippery slope here. Allowing people to self-identify and use the proper facilities for their gender does not make assault, sexual or not, legal. That’s still a crime. And it doesn’t enable it either. Nothing stops a shitty person from doing something shitty now.
For prisons, no law protecting any of what I’m saying here is ever written in such a way that allows someone to simply say “hey, I’m a woman! Put me in a women’s prison!” That’s not how it works. This is something that typically needs the involvement of medical/psychological professionals. No law would allow for you, for example, to commit a crime and end up in a women’s prison.
So to finally start wrapping up here, your message to me was extremely ill-informed, dismissive, and hurtful. You reduced me to simply being clothes and stripped my right to self-identify and be true to who I am. The implication here was that you’d think trans people would be more honest, trustworthy, and better members of society if they continued to lie about themselves instead of coming out and living authentic lives. And you even went so far as to connect being trans to being some sort of violent and perverted deviant who is unworthy of using the correct facilities for their gender. You turned baseless fears into arguments for things that don’t actually happen while ignoring the fact that the reality of the world we live in is the polar opposite of your claim. Trans people are the ones being beaten, raped, and murdered because of our exclusion. The beliefs you so boldly trotted out to me are covered in the blood of my community. These ideas and the legislation, actions, and justifications that come along with them have a body count.
I do wish to educate and further trans equality, but you cannot educate someone whose ears are shut and mouth is open. However, if you’d like to learn more, I have * lot* of amazing links available on my blog which I think would be a great start. /trans/trans-resources-and-reading-material/. And you could also take some time to read though my own writings under the “trans” category on my blog at /category/trans/.