This past weekend I attended my first educational presentation on Trans issues at the First Annual Ivy Q Conference. Before this workshop, my knowledge and understanding of what it means to be trans was practically non-existent. In order to speak about trans issues “we need to start with the similarities”, Allyson Robinson, our speaker and HRC Associate Director of Diversity said. In cold and humbling honesty, before the workshop “I could not understand transgender individuals”; I was respectful of the transgender community, but mostly thought of how I could not wrap my mind around why someone would be transgender. I recognize my ignorance, which is precisely why I am so thankful for this past weekend’s workshop. (If you're interested in seeing it, I can find you the link to the video).
“Would you take this million dollar check... under the sole condition that you undergo a sex reassignment surgery?” No. I wouldn’t. But why? Because I don’t feel myself to be a man, I do not consider myself to be a man, and most likely because all my life I have been socialized to be a woman, were my answers. “As a kid were you ever reprimanded for doing something that only girls/boys were supposed to do?” The audience shared a number of stories of boys playing with Barbies and being called out for it, and of girls not being allowed to be “boyish” after a certain age around adolescence. At birth we are assigned a sex, Allyson said, “it is the only time when it’s acceptable to call a person it.” Sex is more than genitals, it is hormonal, and genetic as well, but let’s be honest, I paraphrase, no one runs DNA tests on a baby, they check to see what? If has a penis! And at birth, right then and there, we impose a sex on a person, a sex that carries a gender and has a whole set of social norms attached to it.
The “Trans 101” that Allyson assumed most of us had had was essentially a portrait of political correctness, of separation, and of otherness. And while I had not had a similar workshop, her explanation still very much portrayed my previous conceptions. In your Trans 101, she said, they defined for you a series of terms: trans man, trans woman, transgender…., then they showed you a series of terms that they recommend you don’t use, then they told you that transgender issues were something separate and completely removed from you…The problem with this approach is that it presents transgender individuals as fundamentally different and separate from you; it makes them the other; and it generates a position of power and of oppression. It is because of those frameworks, she said, that someone on the street can call me it.
There is a spectrum of gender, and there is even a spectrum of sex, although we tend to think of them in terms of a male-female binary. Most of us fall somewhere within it, although some may not feel represented by it. With regards to gender, Allyson argued that there are three components to it: gender identity, how you identify; gender expression, how you express gender; and gender attribution, how others perceive you and whether they consider you male or female. For some people these three components are aligned; for others, such as the boys playing with Barbies, there is a bit of a disconnect between the three; and for others, such as transgender individuals, the gap between the three is much wider. So, the difference is not a fundamental one that separates us, since we all experience these three components of gender; rather, the difference is in the gaps.
The message was a powerful one, a thought-provoking one, and certainly an eye-opening one as well: “Let’s start with the similarities,” so that we don’t alienate each other, and so that we never have a justification to call our brothers and sisters “it”.