A couple of years ago, a client said to me that he thought I must be spiritually more evolved because I’m gay. He’d read somewhere that queer people are more spiritually evolved (than who?) because we’re up for the challenge of being different.
Honestly, I think that theory’s crap. I’m not somehow more spiritual or evolved because of my sexuality. But it might be nice if that view extended to my trans-gendered friends who are under fire right now with this stupid bathroom issue in the United States.
I’ve been gently but firmly providing feedback to the folks on my facebook feed for over a year, trying to dispel the harmful myths about trans folks. I kind of snapped when I was listening to a friend’s podcast, where her co-host said he wanted a “hetero-only bathroom” and didn’t want to hear a transman pee. That made me very, very angry.
I guess my tolerance has limits.
Here’s the thing. Gay people have been targeted for decades. Every election year conservative politicians in the US, Canada and in other countries (too many to list, google it) gay folks are dragged into the public arena once again and held up as pedophiles, perverts and predators. So normal people, those queer folks who aren’t one of the 3 Ps (which is almost all of us, as most pedophiles and predators are actually straight men) have had to defend themselves not only from the direct attacks, but the years of violent backlash that all this fear and hatred whips up.
This is why parents sometimes cry if their kid tells them they’re gay. Parents are afraid for their kids, because they see the hatred, the violence, the unfair impact on the quality of a person’s life just because they’re gay.
I start with my own experience because I can speak from it, and also because most people now are cool with gay folks. Pop culture has turned around. There are still stereotypes about lesbians being combative, masculine and undesirable, and gay men being effeminate, comical and stylish, but for the most part gay people just aren’t hated the way they were in the 80s and 90s. Well done, North America.
The gay folks aren’t good punching bags anymore. So now the conservatives are targeting the trans folks. There are even fewer transgendered people than there are gay people, and it’s completely unfair to expect trans folks to be able defend themselves alone from this cultural assault. They’ve been taking beatings alongside and in addition to gay folks this whole time.
Let’s lay some vocabulary down so we can have a better conversation.
First, the difference between cross-dressing (aka transsexual) vs. being transgendered. Cross-dressing (transSEXUAL) is a fetish. That’s the “sexual” in transsexual. There are people, generally straight men, who enjoy wearing women’s clothing because it turns them on. It’s a fetish. And there’s nothing wrong with that, provided you don’t involve others in your fetish without their knowledge or consent. Who cares if a guy likes to wear women’s underwear? Who gives a crap if he likes to put on makeup as a part of a thing that gives him a thrill? He is not hurting anybody. Leave the cross-dressers alone.
This is Kurt, he’s cross-dressing. He’s doing it more for the political / disruptive statement, but some guys do this in their own homes, for fun. Cross-dressing for Kurt was a part of his performance. It wasn’t his gender expression. This is clearly a guy in a dress. Not a transwoman.
Cross-dressing and transgendered is easily confused because of fabulous drag shows. The gay community has a history of being accepting, so all sexual minorities tended to band together in the bad old days. That’s why there is so much open fetish display at gay pride parades. It’s about airing out everyone’s closets. For some, it’s just being gay. That was a bad thing that used to have to be hidden. Back before there was gender-reassignment surgery, trans folks were absorbed into the gay communities as a type of gay. Cross-dressing the fetish was imposed upon transgendered people because that’s the only way we had of understanding them.
This is why there’s a rich and fun history of “drag shows” in the gay community. Men dressed very convincingly as women, and women dressed very convincingly as men. Sometimes that’s fetish play, and sometimes it’s a chance for transgendered people to just be who they feel they are, inside, just for a night.
This is a pic from a Pride Parade. If you were there, you’d address these folks as women – they’re presenting as female. If they don’t live all the time as female and just enjoy doing drag shows like this one, when they’re in their street clothes, they’re probably behaving as men. But you can’t tell from this photo. One or all of them might be transgendered, and feel like women and live as women all the time. You don’t know.
That’s why this can get confusing for people who aren’t in the queer culture. You don’t have to figure this stuff out. But if you got to know some drag queens, you might find a couple who are transwomen. Not all drag queens are trans women, and not all trans women perform in drag shows!
All you really need to know is a person presenting as a woman, you treat as a woman – you use the proper pronouns for a woman and you be polite. Oddly, the folks in the above picture is what people seem to fear is going to show up in the stall next to them in public washrooms. Unless you’re actually at a drag show or a pride parade, you will *never* pee next to a drag queen. So don’t worry about it.
The key thing about understanding trans gendered versus transsexual / cross-dressing / drag is to know that a transgendered person *always*feels like they’re in the wrong body. It’s not a turn-on or a performance. The whole world is relating to them in a way that feels wrong. This creates a condition called “gender dysphoria” which is a state of misery created by feeling like one gender, being in a body that does not reflect your gender, and having everyone around you treat you as the person they believe and expect you to be, which you’re not. It is misery.
Gender dysphoria does not create transgendered people, it’s a side effect of being transgendered in our current culture. We still have such rigid gender-roles that when someone in a male body feels and behaves like a female human, all hell breaks loose. Little boys acting like little girls get beaten up, and little girls acting like little boys are called “tomboy” until they hit puberty and then the physical violence gets even worse. Lots of transmen have had experiences of other men trying to “teach them to be a girl”.
Trans people are the subject of violence, not the cause of it. Trans people are the prey, not the predators.
Growing up, I didn’t know of any transgendered kids. I only knew two other gay people, who were so gay they couldn’t hide (called passing for straight.) Those gay kids were regularly beaten up. I didn’t even recognize myself to be gay. Gay kids ended up in the hospital, why would I look at that part of myself??? That’s how toxic the culture was, and that was only twenty years ago. Transgendered kids existed in my time, in my high school, in my friend group even – but they were hiding, desperately trying to conform, miserable and afraid. And that is so unfair.
Two of the trans folks I know right now are kids. Little kids. Not quite teens. Kids who are clearly presenting as girls even though their birth certificates say male. Their parents, bless their hearts, accept their kids for who they are, and a transgendered kid is not seen as having a perversion or an illness, they’re seen as having a medical condition that requires hormone therapy to ensure their ability to develop and thrive. These kids will hopefully not suffer as terribly from “gender dysphoria”, because they will always be surrounded by family and community who accepts and understands them.
More parents, thank God, are accepting their transgendered kids:
These kids are being sucked into the trans bathroom bill bs on facebook. Their parents have had to restrict their use of facebook for their own well-being and safety.
Now, a bit more vocabulary: What do you call a woman who “used to be” a man? A male-to-female transgendered woman, or, MtF. The way a person presents is the gender you call them. Presenting as a woman? You use all the female pronouns. Doesn’t matter if the pronouns match what’s in her underwear – what’s in her pants is not any of your business. If you’re on a date, the subject will come up well in advance, I assure you.
All you need to know is a person in front of you presenting as “she” gets called “She”. Not “he-she” or “she-he” or “tranny” – those are bad words. Mean words. Don’t use them.
Ditto with a transgendered man. Trans men used to be called “butch” lesbians, back in the bad old days. They’re the stereotypes every lesbian finds herself facing in pop culture. Deep voice, cut-off jean jacket, flat chest, hairy armpits. That’s the stereotype, but the reality is a whole scale that ranges from very masculine to androgynous. If you see a masculine-presenting person you say “he”. It doesn’t matter if the pronoun matches the birth certificate classification, what matters the most is that the pronoun you use matches the gender presentation of the person in front of you.
How do you know which to use? Well if you’re being introduced, the name will often tip you off. Marilyn, Jennifer, Tamara – if the name is female, use female pronouns.
If you ever end up meeting an androgynous (looks gender-neutral) person, use your common sense. Some people *are* gender neutral. They don’t identify as male OR female. They may pick an ambiguous name, too. In this rare circumstance, you can either listen and hear what pronouns his/her friends are using, or you can just ask. “So, your friend Jesse – what pronouns should I use? I’m not sure.”
There are actually gender-neutral pronouns that are being put into use, but they’re not widespread yet. That’s varsity-level gender politics, and if you get to the point where you can use them freely, I applaud you. Remember you can always use the plural “they / their” if you’re not sure or can’t find a good time to ask. Never say “it” or “that”. A transperson is not an object, or an animal.
So just as a male born trans-woman is called “she”, probably uses a female name and is referred to correctly as a “MtF transwoman” a female born transman is called “he”, probably uses a male name and is referred to correctly as “FtM transman”.
Here’s an example of a transwoman.
She wouldn’t be safe using a male public washroom. Don’t make it illegal for her to use the ladies’ room. She’s a MtF transwoman.
Here’s an example of a transman. I actually met this guy at a Toronto Pride briefly, he’s very famous for being a transman and talking about declining genital surgery:
He’s also famous for being in porn. A lot of transfolks turn to or embrace some sort of sex work because hormone therapy and the various surgeries are very expensive. Isn’t it amazing how much of our bodies are just hormones??? This is incredible to me. Anyway, if I saw this guy in the ladies’ room, I’d be shocked. I might even feel so uncomfortable as to leave the washroom. Don’t make Buck use the ladies’ room. It’s just ridiculous. Buck is a FtM transman.
Do you see how that works? If someone started as female and he is now presenting as male, Female to Male, = FtM transman. MAN. Use male pronouns. Just respect how people present themselves, be open to feedback, and you’ll be fine.
So, now you all know what I’m talking about when I say “transman” and “transwoman” right? Get comfortable with that.
Remember, there’s a cross-dressing fetish that’s out there, but it’s DIFFERENT from being transgendered.
In the world before hormone therapy, transgendered people fell into different categories depending on the culture. Some cultures recognize five different genders. Some cultures explain gender and sexual differences with spiritual beliefs about male and female aspects mixing at different ratios.
Some cultures, unfortunately, recognize only two genders, and have such strict gender-roles with severe consequences to deviation from the accepted norm.
This is where the hate crimes and violence comes in for me and my community.
This bathroom debate in the US is ramping up the mis-information and the fear about trans folks. When ignorant people are afraid, they hate. The post terrible memes on facebook, disguised as jokes, which circulate and creates more hate. That hate inevitably turns into real violence. Real sexual violence. And real murders.
This violence and these murders don’t make the regular papers. You’ll only hear about them if you subscribe to some form of gay news website. They’re frighteningly common, like subway suicides. A regular event. Unworthy of news coverage, because if you report one, you’d have to report them all.
If you’re lucky enough to know a trans person, you’ll have the chance to see and hear about how the world treats them, and how they cope with constant oppression. Trans folks are at a much greater risk of suicide, especially in their teens, and just like gay kids, trans kids are extremely likely to end up homeless before they’re 16. A transgendered adult is already a survivor. Respect that.
If a person is transgendered AND a member of a racial minority, their burden is almost unfathomable. Even within the relative safety of the gay community, they’ll still encounter all the racism of the larger world. There is no safe place. Here are some articles about the shocking violence against transwomen of colour:
Hate crimes against trans women is on the rise, because of this stupid bathroom issue. Straight people spouting off about things that will *never* affect them personally, and it’s blowing back on the people who are already being forced to carry a too-great-risk of physical harm.
Seeing friends getting beaten up, attending fundraisers for transpeople who are recovering from sexual violence, holding space and candlelight vigils for ANOTHER bashed-to-death sister. These are things I experienced in my 20s when I was living in Toronto, and a part of me will always be there.
Thanks to marriage equality in Canada, my partner and I can blend into our tiny community in Ucluelet. We forget we’re supposed to be different. That’s the way it should be. But for trans folks, you aren’t allowed to forget you’re on the front lines in the gender wars, and the bodies are your friends, people you admire, women who are stronger than you.
So, my friends, when you see a facebook meme about “next time I see a woman in a dress try to use the ladies room I’m going to beat his ass!” please PLEASE help me explain to these people all of the problems in that sentence.
A man in a dress is not a transgendered person. A cross-dressing fetish is not going to end up in the ladies room. Transpeople are more afraid of you than you are of them. Trans women and trans men deserve a stall in whatever washroom they feel comfortable in.
Sure, gender-neutral individual washrooms are great too, but there should not be legislation forcing people to use one. And there’s no reason to segregate washrooms any more than there was reason to have racially-segregated drinking fountains. They’re not available everywhere, and again, believe me, the trans folks have been dealing with this bathroom issue for longer than most of us have been thinking about it.
Gender-neutral washrooms are a part of the solution, but legislating their use is creating more violence. The real solution is acceptance and common sense. If a transperson is using a washroom, it’s because they have to pee. They will probably look for a gender-neutral washroom, often because they feel safer. We need gender-neutral washrooms anyway, for parents with little kids, for disabled people who are more awkward about their bathroom process and need extra privacy. Yes please, we need more gender-neutral washrooms – not legislation. Bathroom laws will make the burden on trans folks even heavier, and it’ll create yet another daily obstacle.
Please join the conversation, because it’s exhausting and we need the help.
(The top photo is of Nina Arsenault, a transwoman from my Toronto community, born and raised in Northern Ontario, like me. She’s a survivor, a teacher, was a sex worker, and has lived through more than I can convey.)
Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll get into sexuality, surgery, and trans people. Please feel free to post your honest questions in the comments!
8 thoughts on “Next time you see a facebook meme about trans folks, here’s what you need to know!”
Very informative. One of your best.
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Wow, amazing article, Kate. Very well explained. I love how these educating conversations are becoming more prevalent, because it’s so important. Especially when there’s still so much misunderstanding and hatred out there.
It hurts my heart when we don’t accept each other as we are. I’m lucky in that within my Facebook feed, I only see accepting and caring messages and am relieved that I have many empathetic and compassionate friends and acquaintances. I hope that our Liberal party’s new bill is passed — perhaps it can serve as an example of non-discrimination.
We humans are still stuck in that “us vs. them” categorization mentality, which is a result of so many misconceptions and prejudices in this world. I hope that we can keep open and curious about others’ experiences without judging. So much pain comes from judgment and separation.
On another note, I love Janet Mock, whom you pictured above, and also Jenny Boylan, two transwomen who are extremely knowledgable and educated about the complex issues of intersectional oppression. Anyone interested in learning more might want to look to their writing and speaking.
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Janet Mock! Thank you. I picked the photo from a magazine feature.
Most of the trans grow ups I know personally are insanely well-educated, and have become activists, educators and speakers because they kind of have to.
Nina has two degrees and I’m pretty sure Buck has a phD by now. I’m sure Janet is another great example.
Me, I’m a novice, or I thought I was until I started trying to explain this stuff.
One fb friend recently shared an offensive meme because she was so shocked it was out there, but there was no context for it and people were liking it. So I commented. She was really quick to clarify her intentions and deleted the post, which was a relief!
Kate! As the mom of a highly educated,compassionate and spiritual young man who serves his community as an outreach counselor and just went thru EMT training, I thank you for this article! Oh yeah. Skye lived as Shelly until his college years when he transitioned his body to match his gender identity. He is on the front lines of this societal ignorance. I love him and miss him but he is living in a more diverse and accepting area now.
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I am so glad he found a safer community – counts for SOOOO MUCH! I would appreciate it if Skye could have a look at this article and give me feedback on cross dressing = transsexual and not transgendered.
I’ve received feedback that transgendered = transsexual and cross dressing = transvestite.
If you get a chance, could you please ask him? As I said, the only trans folk in my life right now are kids.
The feedback I received is from another queer lady, but I just want to confirm with an actual member of the trans community before I post an update
Kate, about your question re trangendered/transexual/transvestite…
It’s my understanding (although I could be wrong, and I am not a member of the trans community), that transexual means that the person has undergone gender reassignment in some form (e.g. full or partial reassignment surgery – it might also include just hormone therapy, I’m not sure); transgender means that the person identifies as a gender other than the gender assigned by one’s chromosomes; and transvestite or cross-dresser (I think they’re synonyms) means a person who enjoys dressing as the opposite gender but doesn’t necessarily identify as that gender (e.g. a drag queen or king). One doesn’t really hear of women dressing as men as being transvestites but more cross-dressers. Men dressing as women mostly get the transvestite label (which has historically received the derogatory “tranny” label unfortunately).
The sexual bit is a whole other ball of wax, as gender and sexuality are different concepts. Sexual fetishism for cross-dressing is completely separate from gender identification. Fetishism could be limited to specific items of clothing, for example, such as high heels or lingerie, but not necessarily the whole kit and caboodle of the other gender’s presentation.
Hope that makes sense!
See, learning! Okay so pending the ruling of someone who actually is trans, we’ll go with transsexual = undergoing transition process through hormones, surgery, combination.
Transgendered is about self-identification. Transsexual is undergoing medical therapies.
We’re all on the same page with the rest of it.