I was very honored that the members of the AURA club at Fairleigh Dickinson University invited me to give a Transgender 101 talk last Wednesday for their Pride Week. Looking over my Skeptical Trans 101 page and imagining how someone in college today would read it, I realized that I’ve learned a lot since I originally wrote it almost four years ago, so I updated it. Here’s the new version:
Why it’s okay to be skeptical about transgender politics, while still being respectful:
- As Jamison Green said, “There is NOT one way to be trans.” A story about a single person won’t tell you about everyone.
- 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.
- We don’t hold elections. Any person talking to you about their transgender beliefs, feelings or actions is not authorized to speak on behalf of anyone else.
- 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.
- People are not reliable – about transgender issues or anything else.
- 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.
- Your beliefs – about gender and everything else – are your own. Don’t let anyone tell you what to believe.
How we use gender:
- 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.
- 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.
- Classifying people is a means to an end. Classifying people by gender is a way to figure out whether a person will be safe, a good mate, a good worker, or even someone vulnerable. There will always be many exceptions.
- 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.
- 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.
- Many people fight over gender categories, particularly over who gets any benefits associated with belonging to one category or another, and who gets to speak for one gender or another.
How we react to gender:
- Everyone has feelings about their gender. Many people have gender dysphoria: discomfort with the gender they were assigned.
- Many people have transgender desire: a desire to be a gender different from the one assigned to them.
- Some people experience gender fog: an intense excitement associated with a significant gender event.
- Everyone has beliefs about their own gender. Some people have transgender beliefs that conflict with other people’s expectations.
- Some people take transgender actions: they are assigned to one gender but take on expressions, spaces and roles that conflict with other people’s expectations. These gender expressions may include modifying their bodies in various ways.
- These transgender actions are not new. We find them described for every society, in every time period.
Some bad news about gender:
- Some people attack other people for taking transgender actions.
- Some people reject their own children for transgender actions.
- Some people discriminate against people for taking transgender actions.
- Some people commit suicide over the intensity of their transgender feelings, or actions.
- Some people take transgender actions and then regret them.
If you have transgender feelings or beliefs:
- There is NOT one way to be trans. Base your decisions for your actions on how you want to live your life, not on a category.
- Gender fog can impair a person’s ability to make decisions. Avoid making long-term decisions while in a gender fog.
- You don’t need to change your gender classification to come out as transgender.
- It’s good to experiment with gender, but some experiments can change you permanently, and others can give you unreliable information.
- If you’ve decided not to change your gender classification, be aware that taking certain actions might undermine that decision.
How to respect gender:
- You will meet people who have strong feelings about their gender. Be sympathetic.
- You will meet people whose beliefs about their gender differ from yours. Respect their beliefs, and expect that they will respect yours.
- You will meet people who express gender differently from the way you expect. Respect them. Live and let live.
- You will meet people who want you to address and refer to them as a different gender than you might otherwise. Honor their desire.
- 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.
- You will meet people whose sexualities interact with gender in unfamiliar ways. Respect them.
- You may be tempted to say something negative or mocking of transgender feelings or actions. Think about how that might be heard. Think about your fellow human beings.
How to help:
- 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.
- There is NOT one way to be trans. Don’t assume everyone with transgender feelings will take the same actions.
- Dealing with transgender feelings is hard. Offer support (but not advice unless asked).
- We hear lots of nasty things about people who violate gender norms. Say a few nice things.
- Some people attack people who violate gender norms. Protect people from these attacks, and speak out against attacks.
- Some people discriminate against people who violate gender norms. Help balance that out.
- It’s hard for people to find love. Consider loving someone who does gender differently.