For purposes of research, legislation, etc. we must understand what it means to be transgender. Transgender people have a gender identity that is different from the sex assigned to them at birth. Transgender is also an umbrella term, meaning that it includes people other than those who feel the opposite of their birth-assigned gender. It also includes people who are not wholly masculine or feminine which can be labeled as genderqueer, non-binary, or pansexual. Being transgender is completely separate from one’s sexual orientation. A transgender person, like any other human, can identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or can refuse to have a label on their sexual orientation. So many transgender people must deal with discrimination in their jobs, in trying to access public accommodations such as bathrooms, very unfortunately in healthcare, and often they are not shielded from discrimination legally. In trying to find a way to stop discrimination we have to do our best to educate ourselves on this specific issue and look at what we are doing wrong. This starts with basic understanding of things like terminology that can have a massive impact on the way we gather information.
In chapter 9 of “The Sex/Gender Distinction: Beyond F and M” Diana Schellenberg of the Department of Educational Psychology (Technische Universitat Berlin), and Anelis Kaiser of the Gender Studies in STEM, Department of Computer Science (University of Freiburg), take an in-depth look at the traditional categories of male and female that no longer satisfy the truth of the human experience. There are several terms that are used constantly throughout research and studies that are accompanied with the assumption that they need no definition or explanation. Those terms are sex/gender and male and female. This makes a point that there is a universal agreement on what these terms actually mean, and that sex/gender is a finite, singular category that includes only two finite expressions being male and female. (Schellenberg 168). However, in recent years (not necessarily widespread in research) we are moving towards the idea of gender identity as a spectrum and being separate from sex.
We can no longer have sex/gender as a singular term. As provided by the American Psychological Association sex denotes ones’ biological status and is labeled as either male or female (rarely labeled as intersex meaning one is born with features that make it impossible to differentiate male from female). We are able to indicate biological sex by looking at several factors like sex chromosomes, external genitalia, gonads, and internal reproductive organs. However, gender is connected to things such as the behaviors, attitudes, and feelings that a particular culture connects with one’s biological sex (Schellenberg 168). In looking at these definitions, one can see that it is practically impossible to have only two limited categories (male and female) when both sex and gender have so many subconstructs and conditions. Logically
looking at this information it is very questionable how several interrelated criteria with a variety of conceivable expressions allow for only two categories (Schellenberg 168). That being said, we as a society, have to be conscious of how we treat our children. This is where it all stems from, a healthy childhood in which people do not feel ashamed for being themselves and having the ability to grow into the person they deserve to be: authentically themselves.
Diane Ehrensaft, from the University of California San Francisco, makes an effort to promote the Gender Affirmative Model (GAM), in which there is a great emphasis on gender diversity. In the book, “Perspectives on Sexual Orientation and Diversity” she references a metaphor that she uses often to describe a child’s evolution of their authentic gender, “Each child spins their own unique gender web based on three major categories of threads: nature, nurture, and culture. Some children will spin a cisgender web with gender expressions conforming to gender identity and sex assigned to them at birth (e.g., a cisgender girly girl), some a transgender web, also with gender expressions conforming to gender identity but not congruent with the sex assigned to them at birth (e.g., a transgender girly girl), and so forth” (Ehrensaft 37). This more complicated model challenges the traditional, black-and-white, binary evolution of a child’s gender to their authentic self.
There is a question that comes up very often when discussing transgender children “Can a young child really know their gender?” What is most interesting about that it’s not typically asked in reference to children that confidently align their gender to the sex assigned to them at birth. It is asked in reference to a child that at an early age says they feel their gender does not match the sex assigned to them at birth. Also noteworthy is the tone that usually accompanies this question, unconvinced and disapproving (Ehrensaft 40).
In a macrostudy done in which 3,474 transgender adults were the subject, we got an answer to the question of whether young children really know their gender. Done in the form of an online survey, an overwhelming 82.6% of the participants stated that they know before age twelve that they felt different. Following the survey, interviews were conducted with 419 people of the sample. Of those 419, 62% of the transgender women and 67% of the transgender men reported feeling different than their gender matching the sex assigned to them at birth at a remarkably young age. This information was validated by a newer study carried out by the World Health Organization in which 250 transgender adults stated their “awareness of their transgender identity by a mean age of 5.6 years old” (Ehrensaft 40). Looking back at the initial study, the participants voiced that they felt the need to hide this from their family and friends for quite some time, resulting in psychological agony and sorrow.
In response to the psychological suffering that accompanies hiding a struggle with one’s gender identity from friends, family, and loved ones we see the mental health of these individuals suffer as well. Karisa Barrow, from a private practice located in San Francisco, brings to light the mental and psychological issues that transgender children deal with in the book, “Perspectives on Sexual Orientation and Diversity”. It is extremely common for transgender children to be battling a wide variety of mental health issues that include but are not limited to: behavioral problems, eating disorders, enuresis, ADHD, anxiety and social anxiety, and depression. It is also highly likely that they develop some symptoms of psychological stress from tense and even possibly abusive relationships in their home or at school (Barrow 71). One of the biggest misunderstandings had by mental health professionals when dealing with transgender children (who have not received proper training in working with them), is that the
child’s expression of gender stems from a traumatic experience, even to the point of blaming parents for causing their child to be this way. Parents with concerns should take comfort in the fact that there is nothing they can do in terms of their child’s identity. There is no evidence that the desire to be transgender is a result of an experience of any kind. However, transgender children are at a higher risk of trauma because of their circumstance and the reactions it brings from society (Barrow 72). The reactions from society have gone one of two ways: unconditional support for the rights of transgender people, or complete opposition to the point of denying basic human rights often on the grounds that it goes against the teachings of Christianity.
In a 2017 New Yorker article, Jeannie Suk Gersen discusses the wave of chaos transgender people are currently facing. The main point of the article is the law that was passed in North Carolina that made it mandatory for a person to use a restroom based on the sex on his or her birth certificate. Prior, the Obama Administration had issued a guidance stating that a person could use the restroom based on the gender they chose to identify as. As a result, the Justice Department ended up suing the state of North Carolina for violating federal civil rights. However, Obama’s guidance was overturned by Trump’s Administration and the law suit on North Carolina was not carried out. This was a giant set back for the rights of transgender people, in many ways putting them back at square one. Increasingly more Americans are not supporting the exclusion of transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. North Carolina faced economic decline as a result of their law by way of huge corporations no longer expanding in the area and pulling their support. Gersen leaves her readers with a lot to consider, “Questions about what constitutes sex discrimination against transgender people will be alive long after we have answers on bathroom access. They have many dimensions, including sex-segregated sports and living quarters. And they implicate the deeper issues of what sex and gender are, and what is achieved by organizing aspects of our society according to those categories. In the coming years, perhaps the current upheaval in schools and other social institutions will calm down somewhat, as more cases make their way through the courts and we can discern a pattern of decisions, whether based on Title IX, equal protection, or other legal grounds. At the very least, the developing social consensus will be clearer—and then it will be time for the Supreme Court to tell us the contemporary legal meanings of sex and gender” (Gersen).
The final piece of work that I drew from was another New Yorker article written by Masha Gessen. Written very recently (in October of 2018), Gessen responds to reports that the Trump Administration is planning to change federal civil rights law to contain a definition of “sex” which will state that sex is based on indisputable biological traits that are identified by or before birth. This would mean that the government no longer would recognize those who fall outside of male or female. This effectively will undo all of the work done for transgender and intersex people and their rights up to this point. I cannot imagine how scary this is for them. With everything the have fought through it was for a purpose, and they got to a point where their work had paid off and it was okay that they had exposed themselves. Now where do they go? They have fought hard for their rights, been temporarily accepted, then finally told that they do not qualify as people and will not have basic rights. I cannot imagine how exposed they feel now.
Gessen drives home his point with what seems to me like an emotional appeal, “The Administration’s proposed definition of sex, which runs counter to the development of both the scientific and social understandings of human variety, views anyone who is not clearly and immovably gendered as an anomaly. Trump’s is the politics of simplistic categories designed to exclude ever greater numbers of people. This process is most obvious in the politics of immigration, where more and more people are being defined out of citizenship, out of legal residence, out of deserving asylum—out of full personhood. That is precisely what the proposed legal changes will do to people whose gender expression or identity falls outside the newly redefined boxes for “M” and “F”” (Gessen).