Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Trans 101 - Presentation

Today I write this blog post as a preparation for speaking at an upcoming meeting of the local college's LGBT meeting. They asked me to speak on the topic of trans issues, and I of course accepted. So the following is, basically, my presentation for this meeting. Bear in mind - this is aimed at the lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the club, and so much of the writing will be formatted with that in mind.

"Transgender people need your help. We're a minority, even within LGBT, and we suffer a great deal of injustice in society today. We're denied medical care, ruthlessly discriminated against in housing, employment, and virtually any other way you can imagine. Even within the larger LGBT community, we're the first to have our protections removed from prospective bills and legislation, in the name of passing the protections for everyone else. The public doesn't understand us, and consequently, we're even further behind when it comes to basic rights, and simply being treated as human beings. The attempted suicide rate of transgender identifying people is 41%. That amount is positively staggering. Just shy of half of all transgender people have attempted suicide.

But there is good news, and that is that you can help. It's very simple - all you need to do is be educated on trans issues, and stand up for trans people when you see them being put down. Aka, be a trans ally.

It's easy to just say that, but what's it mean to be a trans ally? The first step is to understand some basic terms, and what they mean. This can help to clear up misconceptions when people have them, and will hopefully get you thinking a bit more on the topic.

Bear in mind, I am but a single transsexual woman, and while these are my opinions and observations, I cannot speak for all trans people all the time. Individuals are individuals, and they will likely not agree with me on every point.

To begin, lets start with one some of you probably haven't heard of - cisgender. The latin prefix cis means 'the same side', whereas trans means 'the other side'. cisgender is the antonym of transgender. This term is very important for the same reason that 'straight' is important - it's an equalizer. Prior to the term straight, straight was just "normal". Making gay what, abnormal? It's the same principle here. Many people are cisgender. Some people are transgender. But we're all people. This term, more so than any other, is one you need to learn to be a trans ally. It helps to get people thinking of trans people not as some foreign "other" but as just another sort of person.

Here's one I know most of you have never heard before - Trans misogyny. Trans misogyny is when you hold a transgender or transsexual person up to standards you wouldn't hold a cisgender person up to. For instance - I don't wear makeup much, if at all. I love video games with a passion. If a person were to say "You're not a -real- girl, you don't wear makeup and you love video games!" That is trans misogyny - I personally know cis girls who don't wear much makeup, and cis girls who regularly play and enjoy video games. They don't have their womanhood questioned over it, and neither should I.

Now onto some of the terms that get muddied together. Often I hear confusion on what these mean, and I'm going to try to clear this up for you.

Gender Dypshoria - the official diagnosis for someone who is transsexual - in a nutshell, it means you suffer depression, anxiety, and are generally unhappy as the gender commonly associated with your birth sex.

Transvestite - Trans means other side, vestite is a root for vestments, aka clothing. A transvestite is a term for a cisgender individual who crossdresses. Some people consider it offensive, and prefer just to be called a crossdresser.

Transsexual - An individual who suffers from / has suffered through gender dypshoria, Often, they seek medical or surgical intervention, therapy, and so on.

Transgender - An umbrella term encompassing most everything I've just mentioned. It's worth mentioning that many people misuse this term in some ways - to cover that briefly, transgender is an adjective. I am a transgender woman. I am a transgender person. I am not "a transgender". I am also not "transgendered" - that would imply it's something that happened to me.

Passing - For a transsexual person to pass, means they are not identified as trans - that is to say, for instance, a transsexual woman who passes, is read as a woman.

This would be a good time to make a note about passing. Passing doesn't mean "this person cannot be read as trans, at all, ever" it means "they don't get read as trans by the general, ignorant public who doesn't think about trans issues often enough to consider it". Likewise, it means even talking about these issues in public can be dangerous; it gets the people nearby thinking about it, which makes them more likely to scrutinize your friend, figuring out that they're trans. Our ability to pass is very fragile, so please bear that in mind when you're out and about with us.

While we're on the topic of terms, lets discuss some terms which are slurs. Knowing these - and more importantly, why they're so offensive - is a stepping stone to halting their use everywhere.

Tranny - This term is just not okay. It's derogatory in the same way many racial slurs are, shortening a single aspect of ourselves and using it label us. Furthermore, it's a term that is most commonly used by two groups - people shouting it as a slur, intending to demean and hurt us; and news outlets who haven't got the message that this term is not alright.

Trap - A term which gained popularity on the internet, referring to cisgender male crossdressers, and transgender women. This term is not alright because the implications are horrifically bad.

To unpack this term, at face value, the term assumes the  trans woman is "really a man" who is intending to deceive a man into gay sex. First - a trans woman is a woman, not a man. Second - the myth of deception - is a devastatingly untrue idea. There is nothing deceptive about a transsexual woman presenting as a woman. Second, if a straight male were to date a transsexual woman, he would still be straight. It's not some sort of mythical grey area - trans women are women. Third, this myth subjects us to all sorts of potential violence, because it perpetuates the idea that trans women are deceptive. Fourth - it looks at the motives of the trans woman as if she were a man. What this means is, it assumes the trans woman transitioned to 'trap' guys into sex. Because a trans woman is "really a guy" and guys only think about sex. Ergo, by this marvelously flawed logic, a trans woman is doing it for sex.

In short - 'trap' is a very, very bad term. Please don't use it.

Shemale - A term mostly used by the porn industry to refer to a male to female transsexual actress. Oftentimes used in ignorance by cisgender people who watch said porn. The reason why this is offensive should be fairly obvious - not all transsexual women do porn (Though many are forced into sex work because of rampant discrimination). Further, the name is derogatory - it pigeonholes trans women into an "other" category somewhere between the genders, which is not the case at all.

Now that we've covered most of the basic terms, we can cover etiquette - that is, how you should address or treat trans people. Let me preface this by saying - when in doubt, ask. Though most of these will apply fairly broadly, everyone is different, and some people buck trends. When in doubt, ask.

First and foremost, never, ever, ever out a person as trans. It does not matter how well you know the person you're telling, no matter how sure you are they'd be 'cool with it', it doesn't matter. Coming out as trans is an EXTREMELY PERSONAL decision that should be left up to the trans person to decide. People have all sorts of preconceived notions of what a trans person is supposed to be like, and having those stereotypes forced on us is bad. Doubly bad, is that even within accepting circles, there's an air that transsexuals aren't "really" their presented gender - even if they pass flawlessly. Giving up the information that someone is trans leads to them being treated differently. It's just not a good scenario.

More than just being treated differently, it can have other, very real consequences. If a person overhears that your friend is, lets say, a trans woman, and she has to use the restroom, she could be assaulted for simply trying to go to the restroom. Though she passes, giving up that vital information to the wrong party can result in her being barred from the restrooms, or worse, expected to to use the male toilets (which can be even more dangerous). In a worst case scenario, she may even face violence simply by virtue of being trans. Trans rights are far behind LGBT as a whole, and it makes it that much more dangerous for us to be identified as trans.

Pronouns use is one of the biggest ways you can show your support for a trans person. If a person is male to female, refer to them with feminine pronouns. It bears mentioning that this behavior should be universal - supporting them doesn't mean 'supporting them when they're within earshot". The same rules apply to their new name. Do consider, however, if they're not out, they may ask you to refrain from using them in certain scenarios (around family, etc). This is so they are not outed as trans.

Now, lets look at some questions which shouldn't be asked, or phrases which shouldn't be said. These are things commonly said or asked by cisgender people, which are really just not cool.

"What's your real name? / Whats your old name?" In the case of the former, it implies that their new name isn't real, which is very hurtful. In both cases, the answer is "none of your business". Our pasts are not something that you're entitled to information about, and many of us have bad memories of our old name, and our lives before transition. And on top of that, it's not something you should ever need to know! We've told you our names already, presumably.

"Well, you're not a REAL girl/boy, so... / "Well, you're not a GENETIC girl/boy, so...." In both of these cases, the premise is that "because you're trans, you're less of a boy/girl, or not a legitimate one at least". We're real, obviously, or we wouldn't be speaking to you. And as far as the genetics comment, it's kind of a pointless statement. Some male born people have XX chromosomes, some female born people have XY chromosomes. And odds are, you don't even know your own. Furthermore, some research has suggested that genetics may play a part in some instances of transsexuality. In either case, the only valid clam that can be made is "Well, you're not a cisgender girl/boy" which is true - but be careful how you use it. If you're using it to invalidate the opinions or experiences of the trans person, it's a mistake, and you should stop.

"So, have you had the surgery yet?" - Pretty straightforward, I don't ask you about the state of your genitals, I don't expect you should be entitled to information about mine. You don't go up to a cisgender person and ask them about their genitals, do you?

"Oh, wow, you don't LOOK trans. No, you look great, not like some people I've seen"  - The inherent implication here is that the person looks cisgender, and that therefore that makes them acceptable. It's basically admitting you're 'cool' with us because we look cisgender, I.E. if we didn't look cisgender, we wouldn't be cool with you. It's doubly insulting because trans people are somewhat rare, and in a given area, it's likely we know the person you're comparing us to, and putting down. It's an uncomfortable thing to say, so don't say it.

On the topic of acceptance coming on a string, don't ever, ever utilize a person's trans status in an argument, to insult them. Invalidating their gender in a heated argument shows more about you, and what you really think of us, than it shows about us. Also, what's it say about you, that as soon as you're mad at your trans friend, you stop respecting their gender? It says "I get to define who you are. It's by my good graces that I humor your trans status. Don't piss me off or I revoke that acceptance" Which isn't very promising. It's a disgustingly privileged way to act, and shows your true colors to every other trans person you know who you aren't mad at.

I would also like to address a few of the common arguments used to invalidate us, and why they are wrong.

Transsexuality is not "someone who's just really gay". Transsexuality is not "a drag king/queen taking it too far". Transsexuality is not "just a grown-up who takes dress-up way too seriously"

Transsexuality IS currently understood to be a neurological issue, with two possible causes (science hasn't been able to pin down which, because it is very difficult to get funding for trans research) Possible cause one: The mother, while the baby is developing in her womb, has some sort of hormonal imbalance, causing the wrong set of hormones to wash over the developing baby's brain at a crucial moment. Possible cause two: The baby is born with a genetic defect which results in faulty androgen receptors, causing improper response to the hormones they are subjected to.

Transsexuality IS beyond the person's control. A transsexual person's transition is about as much of a choice as a cancer patient taking their medicine. Transition is the cure for gender dysphoria.

And to wrap this up, a little language etiquette. Transsexual women are women. Transsexual men are men. If a transsexual woman is in a straight relationship, she's with a man. If she's with a woman, it's a lesbian relationship. If a transsexual man is in a straight relationship, he's dating a woman, etc.

To claim otherwise is to, basically, claim that the transsexual person is "really" a man or "really" a woman, which is VERY offensive, and frankly, untrue.

I hope you all enjoyed my presentation on Trans 101 - if you have any questions, please go crazy, I'll answer as many as I can."

This is the presentation I am intending on giving at the college. If anyone has anything they feel I missed, let me know in the comments section. The presentation is not until October 2nd, so there's time to revise it should pressing information be brought to my attention.

(The comments section is open to anonymous posting! This blog thrives on reader questions and prompts, so if you have an issue you'd like me to write on, please leave it in the comments!)


  1. I would suggest changing the earlier tone from "you've probably never heard this before" to "you probably already know much of this, but haven't given it enough thought". It makes it seem less preachy or antagonistic by complimenting the audience's experience and inviting them to evaluate it.

    For instance, I think everyone who uses the terms "shemale" or "tranny" know, on some level, that a trans person wouldn't appreciate it. They may lack other words by which to refer to trans people, but I think the inappropriateness is well-implied by the words. So people already know that, you just need to invite them to evaluate why they know it, and show them how inappropriate it can be.

    The same goes with the questions about surgery, "real" gender, and so on. People already know that, they just haven't given it thought (because they are privileged in that fashion).

    I also think you should emphasize the "ask" portion at the beginning more. "When in doubt, ask," because it's about their identity and preference, not their presentation, and preference and presentation are not always close enough to infer one from the other.

  2. You could change the passing description to: "Passing - For a transsexual person to pass, means they are identified as cis - that is to say, for instance, a transsexual woman who passes, is read as a cis woman". Since trans women are subject to so much misogyny, it's safe to assume they're read as women. They're just not read as cis women.

    You could also mention that just like in most queer subculture, there are some trans people who view passing as desirable and good, and some trans people who view passing as selling out and assimilating into dominant cissexual culture.

    1. I view trying to pass as desperately selling out queer culture in an attempt to fit into a level on the hierarchy just above the bottom, instead of spending time smashing the hierarchy.

  3. how is passing in anyway selling out?

    1. There's this notion that transsexuals are treated so poorly that we should all be standing up to show that transsexuals don't all look like "men in dresses", that we need to prove stereotypes wrong and all transsexuals should be activists towards this cause. Since those who don't pass are subject to more abuse than those who do, they see those who pass yet live in stealth as traitors, leaving them to fight the harsh battles of cissexism on their own.

      But it's not fair to expect every transsexual to be an activist. Some people just want to be happy and live a 'normal' life, and if they're able to, it's nobody's place to say they can't, or they ought to do something else.

  4. You argued in an earlier post that transgender people are normal but your definition of transexuality by calling it a neurological issue makes them abnormal.

    you can act like a girl, talk, dress and be treated like a girl but at the end of the day you have a penis between your legs and in that aspect you are not a normal girl

  5. Difference isn't a bad thing, and I never once denied that there exists a difference between a cisgender girl and a transgender girl (the obvious difference being one was born with a male body, the other with a female body).

    The problem with your statement is you attempt to invalidate transsexual girls by claiming us abnormal - no, in fact, we're perfectly normal, for a trans girl. Having male organs is a perfectly expected outcome for a trans girl.

    What you mean when you say the last statement is, if I can quote you said and edit it to mean what you really meant... "you can act like a girl, talk, dress, and be treated like a girl but at the end of the day you have a penis between your legs and in that aspect your are not a cisgender girl"

    To which I say.... uh, no shit, whats your point?

  6. The point does not lie in that you are not a regular girl. The point lies in the fact that you say it is normal to be trans, for a trans person. That does not change the fact that it is an abnormality based on biology and society. I assume you will say "Society can't tell me what I am or am not! Screw the patriarchy!" But society and it's boundaries have a very specific purpose. Biologically it is definitely abnormal. Your brain does not function as it should in a man's body, which is where you get your trans from and that's fine.

  7. If you spin it that way, we're not average, sure. But again, I fail to see what your point is.

  8. are you a feminist in any way?