Until a few years ago, I knew nothing about transgender people.
Then one night in my law school class a student told a story about going to the veteran’s hall to meet some of his buddies he had served in the military with. They were sitting around talking and giving each other shit when a tall woman walked in and sat down.
At first, he wondered what she was doing there? Then she explained that she had served with them but had since transitioned to become a woman. My student was more than a little upset. He didn’t understand. There were men and there were women; they weren’t allowed to switch.
But after listening to her story and what she had been through to get there, it dawned on him that all she wanted was to be herself.
We all just want to be ourselves.
That story has stayed with me as I continue to learn and work in the areas of inclusion, diversity and equity. I saw it as a story of changing our mind to accept what was unimaginable. I have so much respect for my student.
About the same time, I had another student who was transitioning from being a woman to a man. He was so excited as the hormones kicked in and chin hairs started to sprout. I laughed since I spend way too much time pulling mine out.
In the past few years, I learned that other friends are exploring the fact that they have always felt like they were in a body that didn’t match who they are.
Talking with them, I’ve had to let go of a lot of beliefs I had about gender. Things I just thought I knew, but had never really examined. So while I still have a lot to learn, here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about and beginning to understand differently.
People come in lots of genders.
Initially, I thought of transgender people on a spectrum between female and male. Then I had a conversation with a friend who said he thought it was much more like a sphere. You can plot someone’s gender on the sphere, but it will have many different attributes of our traditional notions of male and female genders. But we all have lots of attributes that don’t fall into either category and could be either or both. We all know boyish women (I’m one) and girlish men. In our culture, it’s fine to be the first, but not the second. That’s not true everywhere.
Most of us have traits, interests, and attributes that could be associated with a gender stereotype. But the truth is, most of what we think about gender is based on culture, myth, and unfounded assumptions. Labels like male and female are just that. Gender labels are shorthand for an infinite combination of human attributes that are much more interesting when you look at people through the lens of being a person instead of having a gender.
What’s in their pants is none of your damn business.
Some trans people change gender physically through hormones and/or surgery. Others never change their bodies, just their presentation in the world. Some you would never know they used to present as a different gender. Some you would never know because they still present as the gender they started with.
There are humans with penises and breasts, humans with vaginas and beards, and just about every combination you could imagine. How someone decides to handle their gender presentation is a very intimate and personal decision.
And it’s none of your damn business, no matter how genuinely caring and curious you are.
Transgender is not about sexuality.
Trans people have all the sexual preferences other people have. And the truth is, that if the idea of gender is much more fluid than our cultural insistence that you can be one of two, then the whole notion of being homosexual or heterosexual is probably worth reexamining too.
Transgender is not a mistake.
About 1.4 million people in the US identify as trans. That’s the population of Hawaii and more than twice the population of Vermont. And those are the ones willing to reveal themselves. In a 2011 Transgender Discrimination Survey, 71% said they hid their gender to avoid being discriminated against. Or killed.
Transgender just is. It’s part of the sphere of gender and there are many variations even among trans people.
There weren’t supposed to be such things as black swans. But there are. And they’re beautiful.