Friday, 22 May 2009

Guest post: Trans 101 – or how I came to celebrate sex/gender diversity

Louise, THM reader and academic, has generously written a guest post on trans issues - enjoy!

Lately, The Handmirror and other blogs have commented on trans issues in the media, and by default, trans people. The media has increasingly become interested in the trans community; therefore a dialogue is opening around trans subjectivity. However, media attention also draws out misunderstandings, ignorance, and the issues of language and power in being aware of the trans community. I’m a trans ally and have spent considerable time working with the trans community.

Recent media reports on the case of ‘Alex’ highlighted on this blog and others show how sex, gender identity and sexuality are often confused, and mis-construed by the media and general public.

Generally the following definitions are used:

Sex: A person’s biological make-up…can cover chromosomes, genes, bodies etc. Sex is generally assigned at birth on the basis of the configuration of the genitals. Terms often associated include male, female, intersex, etc.

Gender identity: how someone identifies their sense of gendered self…may or may not align with their assigned sex at birth. For example, assigned female at birth but live as a man.

Sexuality: linked with desire and eroticism, words include homosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual, queer, pan-sexual, heterosexual, straight…

The language often associated with trans identities is influenced by medical science. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) contains a category for gender identity disorder, and there is a long history of medicalisation of sex/gender identity in medicine. There is debate around the validity of categories in the DSM. This is not to say that medicine doesn’t help some trans people…it does. The ability to medically transition (move along the continuum of one sex/gender to another) relies on developments in science and medicine. However, be aware of the power of medicine to define bodies and influence self- identification. I believe in the importance of being aware of the influence of medicalisation; remember homosexuality was once a disorder in the DSM. Some trans people re-named gender dysphoria as gender euphoria!

So we know that gender identity does not always match the assigned sex of a person. A number of terms are used to describe trans people…for the purpose of this post I use ‘trans’. Why? Trans (used instead of transgender or transsexual) reflects the diversity of the trans community and individuals’ life narratives. Often the terms ‘transsexual’ and ‘transgender’ are used interchangeably without respect for their different meanings and associations. I could give definitions here; however the most important emphasis should be on individual identity. There are a number of words that people use to self identify; these can include genderqueer, gender neutral, whakatane, gender-free, bi-gender, fa’afafine, whakawhine, transsexual, intersex, man, woman, male, female…the list goes on.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, it is up to the individual to chose and use the language that suits them best. I can only give an overview of terms you may or may not be familiar with. In order to understand and support trans people you first need to realise trans people aren’t all the same. Think of sex and/or gender as a line…male/masculine one side, female/feminine on the other…not all trans people will transition (move along the continuum from one sex/gender to another – either socially or medically) and what is considered a transition varies between individuals. Trans people may not feel the need to transition; there may be a lack of money or support; they may face violence or isolation from family and friends; or they maybe happy with their place in life.

Various debates between trans communities and feminist communities have, at times, caused damage to solidarity within and between people. Perhaps one of the most well-known, and long standing, is the Womyn Born Womyn policy of the Michigan Folk Festival. I believe it is important to look at the common ground between feminist and trans people and start a dialogue…remember, feminists can also be trans; trans can be feminists! The trans community have and are fighting for the right to marry; to not be discriminated against in the workplace; to have their identity validated by law…any of this sound familiar? Last year the New Zealand Human Rights Commission put out ‘To Be Who I Am’, a report on the discrimination and lives of trans people in Aotearoa. I believe the report is a document that all feminists in New Zealand should read and understand.

There are various dos and dont’s that circulate the web on how to discuss trans people’s lives and experiences as well as talking to trans people. To be clear, everyone is different and diversity is great! And what suits one person may not suit another – but there are some basics:

1. Respect and use the name and pronoun that an individual chooses. For example, it doesn’t matter how you may read someones gender/sex identity, if they are called Bob and he…call them Bob and he. This isn’t just a trans issue…this is for anyone.

2. If you find out that someone was assigned a birth sex different from how they present and live, respect that identity. Don’t ‘out’ someone as trans, that is an individual’s choice…not yours.

3. You can’t ‘spot’ a trans person. Trans people are from all walks of life…and you may not know if the person on the bus next to you has a trans background. If you meet anyone whose sex/gender seems ambiguous and you feel uncomfortable about not being able to immediately find a pronoun or name…just sit with the feeling. Take cues off the person. Work on not jumping to assumptions about people due to your own expectations of sex/gender.

4. Respect that there is diversity in the way people see sex and gender. Some people will talk about their sex being wrong, their ‘brain sex’ being right, so they are changing their bodily sex to match their brain. Other people will talk about a ‘knowing’; and some people don’t fit into a binary system of sex/gender and prefer other identity terms, such as genderqueer, to describe their identity.

5. Don’t assume that all trans people are white and heterosexual. As obvious as this may sound, part of understanding trans people is to understand diversity in general, similar to ‘women’ not being a static category.

6. Don’t ask about surgery, hormones, legal sex of trans person…unless you are given really big indications that conversation is ok. I don’t tend to ask someone whether they have an appendix scar first time I met them. Also don’t ask why someone changed their name, or what their previous name was.

Question the legitimacy of prioritising birth as what makes someone a man, woman, genderqueer or any other preferred identity. Question the default assumption that biology is destiny. Question what it means to be part of the debate around trans identities. Also question your own assumptions about sex, gender and how you experience these categories. Overall, be open, be aware of your own assumptions and be willing to learn… and celebrate and affirm sex/gender diversity.

Although the Documentary film festival has been this is a wonderful film that is a must see and is a wonderful New Zealand based trans film.

Swan R., Assume Nothing, Boy Tiger Press, 2004.

Stryker, S., and Whittle, S., (eds) The Transgender Studies Reader Routledge, 2006.

For support:


Anna said...

Could someone fold this for me? Once again, I've failed dismally.

The ex-expat said...

Done and done.

Btw thanks lou for the post, interesting reading!

Deborah said...

Fantastic post, Lou. I know it's trans-101, and that's what makes it such a fabulous post to have here - we (i.e. me!) need to learn some of the basics.

Julie said...

Thanks thanks thanks for this Lou! I need to have a think before commenting further. I really really appreciate your effort with this, it's great.

Louise said...

Thank you for hosting the post!

Anna said...

Hey Louise

Just some random thoughts that you may or may not want to respond to...

I'm kind of surprised at the hostility sometimes evinced towards people who want to change their gender identity - it's as if someone's gender is somehow a matter of public interest, and a person who wants to change is in some way being deceptive. (You get the same thing with people's sexuality from time to time as well - like Ian Wishart suggesting Helen Clark mislead the public by pretending to be heterosexual, as if the public had a right to know her sexual orientation).

The same thing used to apply to marital status. When the term Ms began to be used, some people were very hostile to it because women 'disguised' whether or not they were single.

Any thoughts on why these ideas of honesty, deception, and the 'right' of the public to know someone's 'true' gender have come from?

Louise said...

I have been musing on your question, and to be honest, it is quite difficult to answer. I think you may have knocked the nail on the head with the term ‘true’ sex/gender. Some people seemed very fixed on the idea there is only two sexes/two genders, even though science, medicine and cross-culture research has shown the diversity of sex/gender.

I think the language of disguise and deception is used far wider than sexuality and sex/gender identity. As you noted, similar issues arose with the use of Ms. I suspect we could theorise about many ideas…and in order not to write a whole essay, some of these could include the influence of science, religion, technology, social attitudes, political climate, and the media. Add into the mix, hetereosexism and sexism, and the idea that ones sex and gender ‘must always match’ as well as a wee pinch of power and politics and the recipe becomes quite complex.

I am frequently surprised at the vitriolic language used about trans people and tend to start wanting to bang my head against a wall. In short...a complex question Anna!