I have always bought my own airline tickets home for Thanksgiving, always easily selected “female” rather than “male” for my gender on the drop-down menu. Not until recently did these narrow choices strike me as limiting.
Last week was Transgender Awareness Week. According to a 2011 survey, more than 700,000 people in the United States identify as transgender and don’t feel that the gender they identify with is distinct from the sex they were assigned at birth. For those of us who like percentages better, that’s 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent of the entire population. These are people like anyone else, living as everyone else but marginalized by the cisgender bias in airline drop-down menus, in everyday language, in our collective memory.
I’ll be the first to say I’m still pitifully short-sighted when it comes to transgenderism. Although my generation had grown up with a ton of awareness regarding LGB rights, I didn’t grow up railing against the gender binary. I remember our precociously liberal high school talking immaturely and heatedly about being pro-choice and pro-gay rights, but we didn’t talk much about the “T” part of LGBT.
I’ve been trying to combat my ignorance. Accepting the fluidity of gender was fairly easy for me — if sexuality could be fluid, why couldn’t gender? It follows that either can cross or even transcend the binaries that we are usually accustomed to, that either are independent of each other as well as one’s assigned sex at birth. But when I see someone with a female body, that person is still immediately a “she” to me — I rarely think to ask for preferred gender pronouns, a question that is taken as a matter of course in the couple of trans* awareness meetings I went to last week. I’m still fairly ingrained to make assumptions about people in regards to their sex assigned at birth. But people’s chromosomes or reproductive organs aren’t the only parts of them that contribute to gender identity; For those of us hung up on concrete scientific correlations, there are genetics, hormones and fledgling studies on brain processes and functioning that contribute to gender identity too.
I have a friend I’ve known for a few months now, but it was only recently that I learned that they identified as genderqueer. I had been butchering their preferred pronouns for the last forever. Imagine being called the wrong gender pronoun every hour of each day and having people perpetually making assumptions about you based on this erroneous perceived gender identity. No matter what you did, you were filtered through a false feminine/masculine lens.
I can be more conscious of gender pronouns, no doubt. I can use “they” until I know better — though the grammatical issues with doing so tend to aggravate some of my editors. (Have I said I’m sorry?)
More discomfiting for me to realize, however, was that I still harbored some entrenched bias or misunderstanding regarding trans* folk who either desire or undergo transition (mind, not all trans* folk want to or can afford to change their bodies via hormones or sex reassignment surgery). Upon sitting myself down and digging into what might be behind this transphobia, I found this opinion to be the root of my nonacceptance: “If gender is a social construct, why does it matter — to borrow the media’s sensationalized phrase — if one is ‘stuck in the wrong body?’ ”
Oh, but what a little fool that part of me was. I was still conflating sexuality and gender — I was thinking about the gay/lesbian/bi people I know and their gender expression. By trying to understand gender variance through the lens of sexuality variance — as somewhat enabled by the coined term “LGBT” — I was failing to see their differences as communities. At the core of it, cisgender queer folk relate to their sex as assigned at birth, no matter if their gender expression is stereotypically feminine/masculine/whatever. Trans* folk do not feel attached to their assigned sex (and conversely are not necessarily associated with any “queer” sexuality) and so are troubled with societal expectations of them that do not match their true identity.
Social constructs are powerful, no matter their subjectivity. Due to a lack of social acceptance and/or resources for nonconforming gender identities, trans* folk have far more violence directed at them, both externally and internally. About 238 trans* people have been murdered this year so far worldwide — and this figure excludes unreported homicides and those not designated as hate crimes. And about 41 percent of all trans* folk have contemplated suicide as compared to the national average of about 1.6 percent.
Is transgenderism a newfangled thing, crafted by satanic liberals? No. Historically, many non-Western societies have had special places for gender-nonconforming folk. Our gender binary isn’t necessarily a newfangled thing, either, but it is a construct that we’ve created with its own set of limitations. I’m still fighting to learn these limitations both within and outside of myself.
But first, perhaps an email to Southwest Airlines is in order.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the about 700,000 people in the United States who identify as transgender equates to 2 to 3 percent of the country’s population. In fact, it is around 0.2 percent.