Don’t panic gender is a social construct

This culture is wedded to binaries: good/evil, left/right, with us/against us, make your choice. And this society wants things to stay in whatever either/or box they get put into, we don’t like mixes or gray areas. Gender and sex is one place where ambiguity is particularly not tolerated; parents, doctors, and the State all want to know your sex and gender, preferably at birth. Further, having ambiguous gender or transitioning from one perceived gender to another can cause some people to react violently. In most places, transgender people are not protected from discrimination.

In this society, this is the usual scenario: a baby is born and one of the very first things done is sexing the child. Everyone wants to know—boy or girl?

Some folks don’t like this binary from the start; their genitals don’t seem to match either male or female completely. These folks are called intersexed. Unfortunately, because of the anxiety of doctors, parents, or society around sex/gender, panic ensues and intersexed individuals are more often than not subjected to surgeries they do not need and may not want, and which can be damaging to a pleasurable adult sexuality. 

More often, we are born with genitals that do look like either male or female and so we are assigned a gender at birth to match either “boy” or “girl.” For some, the sex they are assigned at birth does not match the gender they feel inside. They are girls in male bodies and boys in female bodies or somewhere in between, because not all trans folks see themselves as being one or the other, but rather on a continuum of gender.

The main thing to remember about trans folk is that they are people just like everyone else. Having respect for what pronouns trans folk want to use is a good start. For instance, FTMs (Female-to-Male) usually want to be called he or him. MTFs (Male-to-Female) prefer to be referred to as she or her. And some trans folks use they/them, ze or hir, or make up pronouns to fit them. These can be hard to get used to, particularly when someone is transitioning, but trying to use their preferred pronoun is only respectful. It is true that some trans folk don’t “pass,” but gender is not about what you see from the outside, but what the person feels inside. Transwomen and transmen struggle enough with their own body dysphoria and internalized transphobia that getting called out on their looks can be devastating. So if you see someone who might be trans, don’t ask them in front of a bunch of people; in fact, don’t ask at all. If they want you to know, if it is relevant to your relationship, they will let you know. This can also be an issue of safety for a trans person. Violence against trans folk is frequent and often deadly, so outing a trans person is never a good idea.

Another huge issue is bathrooms, and for trans folk using the “wrong” bathroom can get them beat up or worse. Until gender neutral bathrooms are the norm, chances are that you will see an ambiguously gendered person use a bathroom now and again. DON’T PANIC! Adults usually know what bathrooms to use, and being trans does not alter this ability. Not panicking just might keep someone from getting beaten, and since a lot of violence against trans folk is perpetuated by police and other authority figures, alertingthem is not wise either. (Not that anyone would ever call cops anyway, right?)

Increasingly, trans identity is being seen as an individual matter: who we are is our business and not the prerogative of doctors or the larger society. No matter how comfortable we are in our bodies, trans or not, we are all affected by binary gender roles, though this is most blatant and violent with transgenders. Gay men, no matter how butch; femmy men, no matter how straight; butch women, straight and lesbians; nerdy guys, the list goes on of people oppressed or confined by binary gender norms. Trans folk cross these gendered lines and forge a way beyond just this or that, man or woman, male or female. By listening to and celebrating trans folk, we too can free ourselves from the yoke of conforming to roles we may not want.

Some books on transgender issues:

-Beyond the Gender Binary—Alok V Menon

-Trans Liberation: Beyond pink or Blue—Leslie Feinberg

-Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us—Kate Bornstein

-Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism—Patrick Califia

-The Testosterone Files—Max Wolf Valerio

-Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender Conformity—Mattilda ed.