Understanding the Multi-Faced Nature of Transitioning
The transgender community is a diverse group of people that come from all walks of life. Each person has their own set of unique circumstances and lived experiences that make them who they are.
The Williams Institute released a report combining data from the CDC’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) to determine the number of people that identify as transgender in the U.S.
According to the report, "1.6 million adults (ages 18 and older) and youth (ages 13 to 17) identify as transgender in the United States." With such a large number of people identifying as trans, it is a trend worth discussing, no matter which side of the political spectrum you subscribe.
What Does It Mean to Be A Trans Person
On an individual basis, there appears to be no cookie-cutter answer for what it means to be trans. Trans persons appear to have unique identity markers, circumstances, and lived experiences that define their trans identity.
However, there is a general understanding of the term transgender. As defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), a person who identifies as transgender is one whose behavior, gender expression, or gender identity doesn't uniformly correspond to the sex to which they were born.
To contrast with this understanding, RSnake's interview with Dr. Sheila Newsom points to how a person identifies as transgender or as Sheila mentioned what constitutes cisgender.
"Cisgender" refers to having the same gender as the sex your doctor assigned you when you were born. Like cisgender people, transgender people choose to express their gender identity in a variety of ways.
One method they use to describe their gender identity is through labels and language that is recognized as respectful by the trans community. Although the term "transgender" is generally appropriate, not everyone whose behavior or appearance is gender-nonconforming would identify as a transgender person, according to the APA.
As people become more aware of, knowledgeable about, and accepting of transgender persons and their experiences, the ways that transgender people are discussed in popular culture, academia, and science are continually evolving.
The Difference Between Gender and Sex
One common roadblock that some may encounter when learning about trans people and what it means to be a part of that community is the difference between sex and gender. This may not seem directly related however it is crucial to understanding the roots of a person's identity.
Sex is understood by biological attribution, in other words, a person’s sex is determined based on their physical sex traits, for example, reproductive or sexual anatomy or chromosomes found at birth.
Gender is currently expressed by trans activists as a social construction that defines individuals in relation to their behaviors, roles, and expressions correlated to their biological sex.
Additionally, gender impacts how individuals distinguish others and themselves, interactions and actions, resources in society and cultures, and the dispersal of power among people.
Gender and sex are distinguished as separate concepts however since gender is created in society, it is reliant on the biological properties of sex status to produce these meanings and characteristics.
Considering this difference, in understanding transgender people it is also noteworthy to understand gender as performative. This notion was first theorized by Judith Butler in the 1990s. Butler says that “…gender is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is … instituted … through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts.”
Thinking of gender as performative is useful in understanding the perception of lived experiences and gender identities of trans people since it eludes to the gendered roles that one takes on. Butler says that thinking of gender this way is how "we act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman."
Understanding the Impacts of Gender Dysphoria
Performing gender can be one way of expression for transgender people. However, many trans people struggle with gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria is the feeling of unhappiness or distress that trans and non-binary people can feel when their gender identity doesn't align with their bodies. This can mean distress linked to the mismatch in voice, genitals, or how they are seen and treated by others.
Dr. Sheila Newsom touches on gender dysphoria and her experience with it. She describes gender dysphoria as the feeling that "the inside and the outside just don't match up." Sheila described the act of crossdressing every day, for instance.
Gender dysphoria can have several negative impacts including:
● Negative self-image
● Social isolation
● Neglect of self
● Partaking in risky behavior
Navigating the Use of Pronouns
Gender dysphoria can manifest from a variety of misalignments of a person's gender identity. One significant reason can be the misuse of pronouns.
Curiously, pronouns have become a flammable topic once introduced into the mainstream media. Pronouns aren't new. They are used every day, put in front of names to identify people in languages across the world. Pronouns don't become problematic until they are used to refer to someone, that's typically when a person can feel disrespected.
"Mistaking or assuming people's pronouns without asking first, mistakes their gender and sends a harmful message. Using someone's correct gender pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their identity," according to the LGBT Resource Center.
During the interview with RSnake, Dr. Sheila Newsom explains the importance of pronouns. Sheila believes that pronouns are a way to honor what someone feels about their own journey. Additionally, Sheila alludes to the fact that using and recognizing pronouns comes down to an individual choice.
At the end of the day, there is no way to force people to recognize pronouns if they don't want to, Sheila believes it is best to externalize this. However, it is important to consider approaching situations and trans people with respect, as one would of any person of any background or circumstance.
The LGBT Resource Center suggests that asking for pronouns is one way of being sensitive and respectful, this also avoids misgendering which activists believe can be very hurtful to trans people. This is, of course, if indeed, one believed that such respect was warranted and that the hurt was worth avoiding – a debatable point amongst many on the right-wing of the political aisle.
What Is Dead Naming and How It Is Harmful
Something else that can be harmful to transgender people is dead naming. Many may have not encountered this term, and this is because people who have transitioned are more likely to experience this.
Deadnaming happens when a transgender person is addressed by the name they used before transitioning, whether on purpose or accidentally.
Dr. Sheila Newsom talked about the experience of being dead named and how it can be perceived to impact a trans person’s experience in the world. Being deadnamed can cause transgender people to feel invalidated, as though their transition isn't impactful or real.
On the flip side, if someone were to use a trans person’s chosen name in front of others who may not know they have transitioned this can be perceived as equally harmful. This would be considered a form of 'outing' a transgender person. This would be a case where deadnaming selectively is a useful thing.
Deadnaming can also occur on government IDs since it can take a long time and be an arduous/expensive process to change the 'given name' to 'chosen name' on official documentation. To avoid deadnaming, trans activists would feel that it is best to ask the person what they prefer to be called so that they may feel validated and have a sense of belonging.
Though there are counter issues when referring to awards, for example, in the case of Bruce Jenner who transitioned to Kaitlin Jenner. The awards were engraved, books written, and TV shows recorded with “Bruce” and it is impossible to re-write all aspects of history. This ends up being a complicated issue, especially for celebrities and politicians with storied careers.
Belonging and attaining full usage of rights can come with many trials and tribulations for trans people. In recent years, the plight of trans persons has taken center stage due to trans activism, with several controversies coming to the forefront, especially on social media.
Controversy of Trans Bathrooms
Trans bathrooms are perhaps, as Dr. Sheila Newsom says, one of the most polarizing topics surrounding transgender people today. Sheila says although transitioning is treated as a political football, instead, it is more a matter of institutional structuring.
It is simply the way our society has labelled and constructed the division of gender through biological sex. For transgender people, using the washroom can be a traumatizing experience given the fact that most places have designated male and female washrooms. This is especially the case for those who may not perform their gender identity to align with one binary gender.
Newsom says a solution to this ongoing issue would be making washrooms usable by all genders. There wouldn't be a male or female bathroom, instead stalls and a communal sink. This would provide transgender people with an environment free of anxiety and discrimination.
The business cost of retrofitting every bathroom on earth may be a financial nonstarter for many small businesses, but in new bathroom design, it would represent a much more European style of bathrooms where each bathroom was individually oriented vs gender-group oriented.
Controversy of Hormone Replacement in Children
One of the largest controversies in the trans community surrounds hormone replacement therapy in children.
Activists feel this is gender-affirming and can reduce the effects of the existing hormones which can cause the person to grow into a body which is more difficult to turn into the desired gender while opposing activists feel that it is simply a normal phase of development and the risks far outweigh the benefits given the rates of reversal, suicide and how depression doesn’t appear to correlate with gender reassignment surgery.
One thing that is rarely discussed is that while today's methods may be crude, they are certainly far more advanced than methods used in the past.
To believe that we have exhausted the potential of gender reassignment technology is incredibly naive. The future may entail a situation where chromosomes can be fully re-written and artificial or even real sex organs can be replaced.
At the point that a person has another gender’s sex organs, and chromosomes and in every way looks and acts like the other gender, are they not the other gender? If they can reproduce as the desired sex utilizing the desired sex organs, are they not on equal footing with the gender who was born with these same-sex organs?
Or, in an even further future, what if switching between sexes is simply a matter of spending a few hours, in a specialized process, where someone could switch between genders over a weekend and back again? What would the world be like if you could be a man for the Bachelor party, then a biologically provable woman as a bridesmaid, and go back to being a man at work on Monday?
If this concept is even slightly possible, many of the paradigms we currently use for men and women will be hopelessly out of date. So, while these controversies burn, there is still a great deal of potential future technology that seems to be left out of the conversation.
The Takeaway: Transgender Community
Through a look at what it means to be trans, the different aspects of living a transitioned life and the controversy surrounding, respect and sensitivity are important to those people who have transitioned.
The trans activist might say that the best way that our society can continue to support inclusivity for transgender people is by listening to their lived experiences and learning from them.
Either way, it is important to understand the brave new world we’re heading toward because there appear to be no signs that it will slow down.