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Unlearning the binary categories of gender


After transgender issues have been presented in the media recently, Emily Henderson takes a deeper look into gender identity and considers what can be done to support transgender people.

Transgender issues have certainly come to the forefront of international news and media in recent months. Barack Obama became the first President in the history of the United States to address trans people in his State of the Union speech this year, and TV programmes including Transparent and Orange is the New Black display a growing recognition of trans people.

However not all current news is good news. And the majority of news stories are, regrettably, tragic. The world was saddened by the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who wished that her death would help “fix society”. Reported internationally, many were horrified by her story and what her suffering had pushed her to do. However, despite this sadness, the media are having no qualms about harassing Bruce Jenner, father/step father of the Kardashian Klan, whose mother has confirmed is currently transitioning into a woman.

All this news and media speculation has provoked a lot of thought concerning transgenderism and the idea of ‘gender identity’ for many, including myself. I am cisgender (which means I am comfortable with the gender I have been assigned to) and so perhaps in many transgender people’s eyes should not be discussing transgenderism, as it is something I have clearly not experienced. However, in order to encourage the acceptance and equality of trans people in society, I believe one of the first steps in achieving this is talking about transgenderism and the issues that arise from it. As by exploring a subject considered by many as taboo or controversial, we will become less ignorant and more accepting towards the gender identities of others. Indeed, it is true that as humans we are known to reject and fear the things that seem the most alien and incomprehensible to us. This article therefore aims to make these issues more familiar and real. My understanding of transgenderism was greatly enhanced by a talk on gender identities that took place recently, here at Exeter. A member of the LGBT society, Quen Took, tackled the established ideas of gender as someone identifying as gender queer – that is, not solely male or female in gender.

Gender, according to Quen Took, “does not exist as two points on one line”, with simply male and female. If it were this simple, “many people would not exist”, as thousands of people identify themselves as somewhere in the middle of this spectrum or as gender neutral. Many people also consider themselves “gender fluid” and continually moving between genders at different points. Gender identity, Quen urges, is a personal and unique thing that cannot be defined so simply. Equally, it is not only complex for transgender people, but “straight, cisgender people too”. Gender is complex.

Our sex is dictated from when we are biologically born male or female, but gender is another thing often separate from this. In many ways, it is socially constructed, as society influences what we feel our gender should reflect. We constantly battle these gender stereotypes every day, trying to locate ourselves somewhere in the midst of these myths and ideals. Yet, as many people do not feel “male” although they were biologically born male, gender also becomes something prevalently personal and diverse – it is indeed a ‘gender identity’.  Gender’s use, it seems, is therefore its existence as a comforting label, an identity that we all lean on throughout our lives, reflecting itself in our actions and words. Quen asserts how “gender irrelevance is not the goal” and admits that we all need something to identify as and a way to express ourselves. Yet Quen’s speech stressed how gender is given an excessive amount of societal importance – from day one we are wrapped up in blue or pink baby blankets and welcomed into the world of boys and girls. Confronting the ideas of transgenderism, we therefore have to unlearn a lifetime of binary thoughts about gender.

Without fully realising it, we live in an extremely gender binary world. Quen’s eloquent descriptions of what you “don’t have to worry about” if you are cisgender proved to be rather long list. If you are cisgender, you “don’t have to worry about using the public toilets and being harassed and assaulted. Getting rejected by potential lovers for your biological origins. Being called by your previous name, your ‘real name’ instead of your chosen name. Receiving medical care such as gynaecology when you need it. Being portrayed as a sex worker just for the way you are and the way that you look. Being discriminated and excluded from work places based on your gender identity.” Transgender people face such discrimination and rejection every day – it is sadly not too surprising then that many choose to take their own lives; 41 per cent of trans people interviewed by Injustice at every turn said they had attempted suicide, with many of these attempts shown to be in relation to the sexual violence they had encountered.

In order to get a better understanding of this, I contacted a friend from school who has since revealed themselves as transgender. Dani, once Daniel, defines themselves as non-binary but “more female than male”. It is for this reason that Dani prefers me to use the pronouns “they” and “them” when I describe them, as do many other Trans people, as they are gender neutral pronouns (however grammatically incorrect it may sound). Dani told me how their revelation of being transgender came at a high price, as most of their family and friends have consequently rejected them. Growing up in a strict, conservative Christian household, they had “drilled” into them what Dani was. Dani repressed any “gender feelings” when dressing certain ways or feeling sexual feelings towards others. The feelings were “always there though”, they tell me, but their meaning was unknown until recently. When asked about Leelah’s suicide and if Dani could relate to her situation, Dani could. Leelah also faced neglect and abuse from her family and friends, her parents forcing her to have conversion therapy and refusing to accept that their son wanted to be a girl. For this reason, she “must have felt that suicide was the only choice for her” as “unless you are privileged, most trans people are on their own apart from a few close friends”. Dani added how “the future rarely looks appealing when you’re told everyday by people who ‘love you’ that you’re disgusting”.

I asked what Dani thinks should be done to support transgender people and the response seems pessimistic, as they believe that it “takes a lot of time for a society to ‘unlearn’ gender” and it’s something that’s going to need “serious educational and ideological reform”. Quen also emphasised the importance of education in creating a more tolerant society. “Start with the children” Quen said. “Start with the next generation”.

There is also harm in assuming a child’s identity as only an individual will know their gender. This brings to mind Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter, who was recently pictured wearing a suit and dressing ‘like a boy’. The pictures sparked a media frenzy about whether children should be given the liberty that Jolie has given her daughter. Quen agrees that they should. Quen’s simple, underlying belief is “let us be who we are”.

The health system concerning trans people also holds major flaws. For those wanting to transition into their preferred gender, you have to “jump through a lot of hoops” and the process can be “painful”. To qualify for gender altering surgery you must have many psychiatric tests and live for two years as the gender you want to be. Equally, you have to pay, and so for many, changing to the gender they feel they should have been born as remains tortuously unachievable.

After researching these issues, I feel much less ignorant about the issues concerning trans people and am more aware of the extent of the suffering and social exclusion experienced every day. However, when talking to people about my article, I could not help noticing that it made some feel “uncomfortable”. When I asked why this was, one person replied that “I guess I don’t understand it so I don’t know how to talk to trans people without feeling that I might offend them without meaning to. Like all the pronouns that exist, it is so confusing. I can’t even address them without being worried they’re going to get offended.” Due to this, often unintentionally, many continue to exclude trans people.

Nevertheless, Quen and Dani have effectively shown how the world privileges people who fall into gender categories easily, and discriminates those who do not. Perhaps it will take years for us to ‘unlearn’ those categories. However, the idea I feel we should all take away from this is the extremely personal and unique nature of our gender identities. There is no black and white. It is not as binary as we all like to believe. But see it like this – I’m female, cis-gender, and cannot imagine identifying as boy. I cannot imagine being male. You cannot change your gender identity. Therefore, if you meet a transgender person and you can’t relate to it, that’s ok. Perhaps we need to understand that we may not be able to relate to it, but should just accept it and try to be more aware of these issues. “Let us be who we are”, after all.

Emily Henderson

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