This culture is wedded to binaries: good/evil, left/right, with us/against us, pick your favorite. And this society wants things to stay in whatever either/or box they get put into, we don’t like the gray areas. Gender and sex is one place where ambiguity is particularly not tolerated; parents, doctors, the State 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 and because gender is such a charged topic, transgendered people often don’t receive the respect they deserve. This is a short, incomplete introduction to transgender topics.
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 fit 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 that can be damaging to a pleasurable adult sexuality. Adults seem to have a hard time imagining infants ever being adults and having sex or getting pleasure from their genitals; so, it seems genitals are for identifying infant sex only, not for the pleasure of the person who has them. How sad.
More often, we are born with genitals that look like either male or female and so we are assigned a gender at birth to match, either boy or girl. This (seems) to work for most. Males are happy being men in male bodies, females are happy being women in female bodies (excepting the malaise of late capitalism, of course).
But what if this is not the case? For some, the sex they are assigned at birth does not match the gender they feel inside. They are girls in male bodies or boys in female bodies or somewhere in between, because not all trans folks see themselves as one or the other, but rather on a continuum of gender.
Though not all trans folk dismiss the binary sex/gender divide, they just see themselves on the wrong side of it. For the most part, transsexual is a term used by folks who have completed sex reassignment (or who want to). For FTM (female to male) transsexuals this means taking testosterone and having top surgery (double mastectomy) and bottom surgery (hysterectomy, vaginectomy and either metiodioplasty or phalloplasty). For MTF (male to female) transsexuals there are hormones and vaginoplasty and labiaplasty. Not all transgendered folks are transsexuals, and not all want all the surgery, for various reasons. Sometimes they just don’t want surgery, or don’t have health care, or enough income to pay for hormones and/or surgery, because trans folk can suffer from discrimination in employment just for being trans. Some trans guys, for example, just take T (testosterone), or just take T and have top surgery. Also, not all trans folks see themselves as either male or female, but as some combination of both. These folks sometimes use the term genderqueer, which reflects issues with or a rejection of the usual societal gender binary.
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 used is a good start. For instance, FTMs usually want to be called he or him. MTFs would really like it if you said she or her. And some trans folks use ze or hir, or make up pronouns to fit them. These can be hard to get used to, particularly when someone is first transitioning, but trying to use the 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 about 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 may 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 folks using the “wrong” bathroom can get them beat up or worse. Until gender neutral bathrooms are the norm chances are you will see an ambiguously gendered person use a bathroom now and again. DON’T PANIC! Adults usually know what bathroom to use, being trans does not alter this ability. Not panicking just might keep someone from getting beaten, and since a lot of violence against transfolk is perpetuated by police and other authority figures, alerting them is not wise either. (Not that we anarchists would ever call cops anyway, right?)
Increasingly, trans identity is being seen as an individual matter, who we are is our business 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 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 unhinge ourselves from the yoke of conforming to roles we may not want.
Intersex Awareness Day October 26th
Transgender Day of Remembrance Day November 20th