A Skeptic’s Transgender 101

How we use gender:

  1. Every society we know of assigns people to genders.  Usually this is “man” or “woman,” depending on the way their genitals look at birth.  Some societies have a third gender that involves a combination of the roles of the male and female genders.
  2. Most people have the habit of classifying everyone they meet into one gender or another. Often this is reflected in aspects of language such as pronouns.  Some languages, like French, even assign gender to inanimate objects.
  3. Every society we know of reserves certain roles, spaces and relationships for the exclusive use of one gender or the other, such as jobs, bathrooms and marriages.  In these situations, gender is always a shortcut for some harder-to measure criterion, like strength or the ability to bear children.
  4. Every society we know of has gender expression: ways that people identify themselves as one gender or another.  Some of these are behavioral, involving habits of speaking or moving.  Others involve clothing, accessories and grooming.

How we react to gender:

  1. Everyone has feelings about their gender.  Many people have transgender feelings: a desire to be a gender different from the one assigned to them.  Many people have gender dysphoria: discomfort with the gender they were assigned.
  2. Everyone has beliefs about their own gender.  Some people have transgender beliefs that conflict with the gender they were assigned.
  3. Some people take transgender actions: they are assigned to one gender but take on expressions, spaces and roles that their culture reserves for another gender.  These gender expressions may include modifying their bodies in various ways.

How to respect gender:

  1. You will meet people who have strong feelings about their gender.  Be sympathetic.
  2. You will meet people whose beliefs about their gender differ from yours.  Respect their beliefs, and expect that they will respect yours.
  3. You will meet people who express gender differently from the way you expect. Respect them.
  4. You will meet people who want you to address and refer to them as a different gender than you might otherwise.  Honor their desire. It’s just words.
  5. You will meet people who you would normally assign to one gender, but who want to take on roles and spaces that your society reserves for a different gender.  Respect their wishes and accommodate them as much as possible.

How to help:

  1. We hear lots of nasty things about people who violate gender norms. Say a few nice things.
  2. Some people attack people who violate gender norms. Protect people from these attacks.
  3. Some people discriminate against people who violate gender norms. Help balance that out.
  4. Some people spin myths about transgender feelings, thoughts and actions. Some of the most destructive myths are spun by people who are trying to help. Be skeptical, while still being respectful.

How to be skeptical while still being respectful:

  1. Your beliefs – about gender and everything else – are your own. Don’t let anyone tell you what to believe.
  2. There’s a big diversity of gender feelings, beliefs and actions out there. A story about a single person won’t tell you about everyone.
  3. We don’t hold elections. Anyone who claims to speak on behalf of “the trans community” is lying.
  4. Lots of people hide their trans beliefs, feelings and actions. We don’t know about them. Anything about transgender issues that contains “most,” “all” or any percentage is probably wrong.
  5. Brain science is not at a point where it can tell us anything reliable. Anything about transgender issues that talks about specific parts of the brain is probably wrong.
  6. Most people desperately want to be normal, and are willing to lie to themselves and everyone else to feel normal. Anything that makes anyone look normal is probably wrong.

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