The past 20 years we have seen a large surge in scientific research and understanding around sex and gender. This has been prompted no doubt by the voluntary outing of more and more trans and gender non-conforming folk. And as has been the case every time a minority group finds their voice, bigots and commentators on the “other side” find reason to increase their attacks. The realities and lies around transgender issues grows with time. Because of this, there is quite a lot of conflicting and confusing information out there about what it means to be transgender and what transitioning entails.
Why the confusion?
This is *mostly* not the fault of the scientific and medical community. Who’s main institutions agree almost unanimously that gender and sex are much more diverse and complex than our binary system teaches. Which isn’t to say that every doctor and nurse is on board. One survey showed that 28% of transgender people were verbally harassed in a medical setting. And that’s just the trans/NB people who have the courage to go to a doctor or hospital at all.
However, over the last decade the majority of medical institutions, research facilities, and even many insurance agencies have made huge strides to become informed and educated on transgender issues. So, in order to counter the attack of science and reason; every conservative blogger, preacher, and self-appointed authority has publicized their own – often uneducated – thoughts on gender and sex. All one has to do is google the word transgender. And there’s bound to be an article criticizing gender non-conforming people within the first search page. Add in the hype and flat out lies surrounding trans kids and any person would be terrified by what they heard or read.
I’m not going to address every lie out there as that would take a book and not a blog post. However, on our 76th episode of the Your Queer Story podcast, we spoke on some of the big misconceptions about sex and gender. As well as some general information about the trans community and how non-binary people fit under the umbrella. So let’s start off with the basics.
What Is a Transgender Person – A transgender person is someone who’s gender identity or gender expression is not in agreement with their biological sex or their sex assigned at birth. This term is an umbrella term for anyone who falls in this category. And therefore covers the following:
Transsexuals: people who seek medical treatment to change their bodies – Transsexual is an older term and specifically and only refers to those who seek medical intervention. Even so, most younger trans individuals prefer the umbrella term of transgender to the older term of transsexual.
Cross Dressers: This term is used in a legal sense to cover anyone dressing outside their perceived gender. But in the queer world it applies specifically to men who cross dress. Meaning they prefer to occasionally wear the clothes and makeup culturally associated with women and temporarily act in feminine fashion. Cross dressing men still identify as male and most are heterosexual. The old and outdated term for cross dressers is transvestite. But that term along with the word “tranny” are offensive and should not be used. *Side note* Drag is NOT considered cross-dressing in this sense. Drag is an art form while cross-dressing is a lifestyle.
Non-Binary/Gender Queer – There are a few terms which people who don’t fit into the gender binary use. We will not get into the various definitions on this post. Though I will point out that those who don’t identify as male or female are still considered transgender. This is because they have all been assigned a gender at birth and their expression or identity does not fully match that gender or perhaps does not match any gender at all.
Gender and Sex are the Same Thing: The more research is done on sex, gender, and sexuality, the more concepts on binary genders and orientations are broken down. But a big misconception is that sex and gender are the same. In reality we have three categories; Sex, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression.
Sex- It is the biological makeup of an individual combined with their assignment at birth. If we base sex upon gonadic criterion (meaning based upon genitals), then we have 3 sexes; male, female and intersex. But there are other ways we measure sex such as genetic (Chromosomes), hormonal (the predominant hormone either testosterone or estrogen) and anatomical (how the genitals look). In the 1990’s Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling found 5 sexes in her gonadic research alone. When we factor in the following 20 plus years of genetic research, the number of sexes becomes almost infinite. Regardless of what an individual wants to use to define sex, what we know for certain is that there are more than 2 sexes.
Gender Identity – This is the internal sense of one’s gender. Here is where a lot of the confusion comes in. Most transgender people will not debate on whether sex is limited to a few (current) definitions. However, gender identity is socially constructed and therefore is the neurological aspect of sex and gender. Studies have shown that many trans people have the brain scans of the gender they identify with rather than the gender they were assigned at birth. Though I must point out that these studies have not yet proven conclusive, there is more research to be done. Yet when people say socially constructed they mean is that gender identity is created by the surrounding society.
On the podcast we have spoken at length about the various gender identities in other cultures in times past and today. One of our most in depth episodes spoke about the Two-Spirit individuals of the North American tribes. Almost every Indigenous society in America, pre-Columbus, recognized 3-5 genders. And this was not central to North America by any means. In 2015 PBS produced a map which shows multiple gender identities all around the world.
Gender Expression – This is the outward expressions of gender through name, pronouns, clothing, etc. The final ladder on the rung of gender is by far the most culturally obvious and most dangerous. Most people in Western Society today won’t argue that an individual can dress and express themselves how they please (I emphasis MOST PEOPLE). Provided of course that the individual chooses a “gender” and sticks with it, except when entertaining – such as in Drag. And this is where our non-binary friends truly struggle. Because while a binary trans person “sticks to their role” so to speak, a gender queer or non-binary individual does not fit any role.
There is certainly a large amount of hate spewed at trans people daily simply because they ask to be acknowledged for who they are. But Ironically, it is often the binary trans community which gives their non-binary trans friends the most trouble. For instance, a transgender man wanting to put on a dress draws much harsher criticism than a cisgender man doing the same thing. No doubt this is a result of fear of further backlash from the bigots. Yet this reaction ignores the lines between identity and expression. Every individual – trans or cisgender – has the right to identify and express themselves how they please. And if the expression doesn’t seem to match the identity, then it is our perception of expression that is skewed and not the expressive individuals error.
It’s Easy to Transition – That’s such a loaded and false statement. The reality is there are many layers to transition and most transgender people never feel that they are quite done transitioning. The three main stages of transition are Social, Legal, and Medical. Not every trans person will undergo all of these stages. This does not make them more or less trans. Transition is a personal journey that varies from individual to individual. Each stage comes with its own risks and rewards. There are as follows:
Social – Coming out as transgender, possibly changing names or pronouns, possibly changing clothing and grooming habits.
*POSSIBLE REWARDS – Living openly. Expressing how one pleases. Being true to one’s self.
*POSSIBLE RISKS – Loss or ostracization of friends and family. Loss of job or housing. Social ostracization. Physical harassment and violence.
Legal – Changing one’s legal name and gender identity on government and public documents.
*POSSIBLE REWARDS – less risk of being outed by documents. Having the correct information on one’s I.D.’s
*POSSIBLE RISKS – Often lengthy and expensive process. Chances of denial by schools or government branches. Having to come out every time you go to have a new form/I.D. corrected
Medical – The first step for most trans people who want to medically transition is hormones. Testosterone for trans men and Estrogen for Trans women. Many transgender women will also take testosterone blockers in order to aid the Estrogen as testosterone is the more aggressive hormone. Surgery is a different topic all together and there is no such thing as “the surgery”. Meaning, there is not one single surgery which makes a person a man or a woman. Our identities make us who we are, not our genitals. However, the most common surgeries are as such:
For Transgender Men – Top surgery (male chest reconstruction), Hysterectomy (removal of ovaries and uterus), and sometimes Phalloplasty (construction of a penis) or Metiodioplasty (which causes the clitoris to somewhat grow and work like a penis).
For Transgender Women – Breast Augmentation (implants), Orchiectomy (removal of testes), laser hair removal on face and sometimes body, tracheal shave (reducing Adam’s apple), facial feminization (smaller and more feminine face), and Vaginoplasty (inversion of penis to create vagina).
*POSSIBLE REWARDS – Finally feeling affirmed in one’s body. More chance of “passing” so as not to be harassed. Able to change legal documents (many states require sex affirming surgeries before legal documents can be changed).
*POSSIBLE RISKS – Financial instability especially if rejected by insurance. Slow healing time. Botched surgeries. Loss of job while recuperating.
The most important thing to note about medical transition is that it is a very long, very painful, and very expensive process. Surgeries are almost never covered out of pocket and must be paid for up front as they are considered elective surgeries. In addition, few places of work will allow for the months of time off required to heal from these surgeries and even fewer jobs will give paid time off. Because of these many obstacles, the majority of transgender people undergo few if any of the above surgeries. And as stated, not every transgender person feels it is necessary to have surgery to feel comfortable in their own skin. But others will struggle with the knowledge that they need a surgery which they will never be able to afford.
Transgender Kids Get Surgery – One of the biggest lies around the trans community is spun by alt right pundits who write articles with titles like “Trans Child Experimental Guinea Pig” or “Transing Kids is Child Abuse” or “Why Are We Encouraging Girls To Mutilate Their Bodies?”. These are all real headlines that spread the myth that young children are undergoing surgeries and life altering transitions during their childhoods. It’s an absolute, flat out lie.
Children under the age of 15 do not undergo trans related surgery anywhere in the world. And the few surgeries that teens can go through at age 15 are reversible, require multiple doctor referrals, parental consent, therapist approval that the teen is cognitively aware of the consequences, and generally more than a year of social transition with the teenager living in their correct gender. More advanced surgeries such as genital deconstruction or reconstruction are only available to teens 17 and older and hold the same requirements (minus parental consent).
Social Transition is not Medical Transition
A lot of people assume that a child coming out as transgender means it’s all over for the kid. This is again due to the misconceptions about identity, sex, and expression. Doctors have found that a child expressing themselves through clothing and actions is incredibly healthy and helpful for their development. Transgender kids especially have an outlet for their frustrations over being in the wrong body. But social transition has nothing to do with medical transition. A child wearing a dress does not produce estrogen. Neither will a short haircut create testosterone.
Medical Transition is SLOW
The earliest a child can start any form of medical transition is at age 12 when they can receive puberty blockers. Puberty blockers are approved by the FDA and have been used for decades to stem hormones in children who hit puberty at an extremely early age. They are completely safe and completely reversible. From ages 12-14 a young teen can use blockers to prevent their body from changes and thus prevent the start of the wrong puberty. Again, this is after doctor and therapist have agreed the child is suffering from Dysphoria and after the parents have consented.
In the Netherlands a large study of transgender youth found that only 1.9 percent of participants chose to stop transition after starting puberty blockers. At age 16, in most Western countries at least, a child can begin the proper hormones for their correct gender. Again, these hormones are reversible, though some of the effects may not go away entirely if they are used for a prolonged period of time. For instance, several years of testosterone may cause an individual to always have facial hair. But this is only after a lot of exposure to the hormone and varies from person to person.
Trans People are Unstable and Unable to Fully Adapt to Society – This is perhaps the most foolish and harmful notion out there about transgender individuals. If you’ve followed our podcast over the last year then you know this is not true. On the podcast we covered trans heroes who made advances in the medical industry such as Alan Hart. Business entrepreneurs such as Lucy Hicks Anderson and Reed Erickson. We’ve covered activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Author and local character Joseph Lobdell. Even veterans such as Albert Cashier and Kristen Beck. Wherever you look in history there the trans community exists. Yes, often in the shadows or hidden in the back of history books; usually overlooked and many times maligned. But still trans people have been contributing to society the same way as every other human.
So What’s the Difference?
The biggest difference is we’re still being murdered for who we are. Since accurate record keeping began in 2008, well over 3,300 transgender people around the world have been murdered just for their identity. The slaughter of trans and gender non-conforming people is an epidemic. One that is fueled by misinformation and hate. If you would like a full list of those murdered check out tdor.info.com.
And I strongly encourage folks to be careful about who they’re listening to when researching trans issues. If the individual has a history of attacking the queer community, is this really where one wants to get their information? Wouldn’t it be better to go directly to the source and just ask trans educators? Misinformation is more deadly than no information so make sure to help spread awareness. And for those still seeking info then check out the Your Queer Story podcast. Its available on most platforms such as Spotify, Pandora, Stitcher,and more! And of course you can always just tab over to the link right here on our website.
For More Transgender Resources:
- Trans Equality – https://transequality.org/additional-help
- Point of Pride – https://pointofpride.org/
- Trans lifeline – https://www.translifeline.org/
- TWOCC – https://www.twocc.us/
- QTPOC Conference – https://queer.ucsc.edu/resources/qpoc.html