Fixing the Broken Gender Binary Means Accepting Nuance
Transgender people are confronted with societies dysphoria as they transgress ideas about the way things should be.
A child playing dress up plays with many ideas—what it is to be an adult, a mommy, a daddy, a boy or a girl. Dress-up play, even cross dressing, is not at all unusual. It allows for experimentation and role play. When I was a little girl, I wanted to play with “boy Lego” because mine was pastel colored and did not come with any of the flat pieces that make a great foundation for a mile-high Lego house. I wanted to play with remote control cars. I was also girly and dressed up pretending to be princesses and queens (or sailor scouts). I never thought very much about my body; it was a vehicle to move me from place to place until about ten years-old, once the beginnings of puberty began to happen. For Bella, a Toronto-based transwoman, being trans meant realising her body wasn't demonstrative of who she knew she was. When she played dress up in particular, it was less about pretending to be someone else and more about discovering who she really was. She says, “as I got older it [dress up] was done in secret and was about getting to spend some time as myself and just feel like a normal girl”. She shares more about her story on her blog. Often, being transgender doesn't have an ‘ah ha’ moment where a person realises that they should have been born a boy or a girl; it is instead an ongoing awareness that your sex does not match your gender expression.
The feelings around one’s body as a transgender person varies. Not everyone experiences dysmorphia and not everyone desires to ‘pass’ as a cisgendered person. Nadia, another transwoman I spoke with, describes the emergence of her trans identity as experiencing body dysmorphia:
“My early conscious ideas about gender transition were essentially attempts at genital self-mutilation. Later, I was exposed to transsexual pornography, whose focus on the uncorrected anatomy deceived me about what transsexuals were. Given what my impulses were in relation to what the pornography focused on, there is an obvious reason why I didn’t latch onto the idea of transsexuality as it was presented to me in pornography. After I was institutionalized following the self-mutilation and suicide attempts, it’s unclear to me what the psychiatrists thought of me, but within the institutions in which I spent most of my adolescence, it was not interpreted as transsexuality. In the summer between leaving my parents’ care and entering college, I actually met two transwomen who informed me of what SRS [sex-reassignment surgery] was, though not about the entirety of transition. The idea of converting the male anatomy to a functioning, non-protruding organ instead of a scarred stump with urinary incontinence appealed to me so greatly I was determined to get SRS afterward.”
Again and again in researching stories about transgender you come across those where the person always felt that their body wasn’t indicative of their gender. In the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin shares the story of Brandon—an eight-year old who has insisted on performing gender as a female. In her piece, Rosin highlights the debate within the medical field on gender especially the conversation around treating transgender children with puberty blockers that would allow for a new generation on trans children to live inconspicuously.
The hormones prevent boys from growing facial and body hair and an Adam’s apple, or developing a deep voice or any of the other physical characteristics that a male-to-female transsexual would later spend tens of thousands of dollars to reverse. They allow girls to grow taller, and prevent them from getting breasts or a period.
In thinking about the human body, certain technologies are essential for the medical procedures known as a “sex change”. Without knowledge of endocrinology and plastic surgery there would be no hormone treatments or genital surgery. A transgender person is, according to the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy someone whose gender identity or expression differs from the socially constructed expectations of maleness and femaleness. These medical advances both assist and exacerbate the context of the artificial division of the world into things that are masculine or feminine, otherwise known as the gender binary.
Feeling one particular gender over another is puzzling to cisgender or “cis” people (the gender identity where a person’s self-perception of gender identity matches the sex they were born). In an article at Time Magazine, the author cites a survey of Americans by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 3 in 10 Americans still can’t define transgender and often conflate it with sexual orientation. Says Jeannette a Aberystwyth based transwoman, “whenever I get asked about my trans status, it’s always followed up by “does that mean you like guys/girls?” A large part of the confusion may be due to the stringent gender roles in society. Since before we are able to speak, gender roles are vigorously enforced less the androgyny of childhood cause you to be misgendered. From the start, boys and girls are treated differently by people in their own environment (parents, siblings and caregivers), and thus very early do we learn the difference between boys and girls, women and men. For example, a meta-analysis of research regarding gender roles found that physical punishment is more commonly applied to boys. The same study found that though there are differences in socialization in regards to play and housework it is difficult to ascertain whether parents are creating preferences or reinforcing them (a point in the study I found dubious in regards to housework which anecdotally I would say it seems to not be enjoyed by either boys or girls).
There are issues that come up when a trangender person desires to transition.
Being a cisgender woman means you do not have to wear heels or makeup and your gender or, dedication to your gender, is never questioned. You may be insulted for appearing manly, but you will not be denied the right to exist as you are. From an academic or medical perspective, there are almost immediate assumptions about transsexualism including the desire to undergo gender confirmation surgery which not all trans people desire, especially as sterilization is a consequence.
Medicalizing transsexualism confines a person to the composition of their genitals. Indeed, medical journals detailing transsexualism display photographs and anatomical drawings of the sex organs and rarely the person as a whole giving the impression of a somewhat fetishized field of inquiry. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) no longer uses “gender identity disorder” to describe trans people. The shift is not unlike the removal of homosexuality as a disorder. In a piece by Kelly Craig about the changes to the DSM Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and member of the APA subcommittee said. “All psychiatric diagnoses occur within a cultural context. We know there is a whole community of people out there who are not seeking medical attention and live between the two binary categories. We wanted to send the message that the therapist’s job isn’t to pathologize”.
This is the peculiar place that those who are non-gender conforming find themselves in.
There is progress in accepting that gender is more fluid than sex, and yet there remains adamant opposition to rights and protections being properly afforded to transgender people. Gender differences are not decided by biology or sociology alone. It is a complex alchemy that is yet to be fully understood in a society that tries to view things as black-and-white. The drive to have people express the gender identity expected since birth has caused discrimination and violence to be heaped upon the trans community. Though both academia and popular culture have evolved in the way transgender people are discussed, there remains a lack of humanization in the critiques and medical conversations. It’s important to remember you aren't dealing with an abstract concept, but a human being. As children play dress up and costume themselves as a part of the process of discovering who they are, boys or girls express gender identity in different ways. Society needs to remember to live with nuance. We stand to gain more in our own humanity by acknowledging it in others.