Lots Of Work To Do: Thoughts On Gender Identity and Prejudice
Being back in school is challenging. Academics are HARD, yo…at least for me! There’s a whole-lot of learnin’ to do and keeping on top of everything isn’t easy. Luckily the part where I love what I’m doing makes the study load feel a little lighter. It’s tough, but kind of in a good way because I feel I’m being pushed in the right direction.
I’m also being stretched emotionally, which is something I didn’t necessarily expect. Our professors don’t just give us factual information, they make us get all introspective and work on ourselves. Seriously! The faculty have this bizzarro philosophy that self-awareness will help us become better, more compassionate professionals. Whazzup with that?
Here’s an example. Sexuality educator and counsellor, Reece Malone (from Winnipeg! Canada represent!) led a seminar on gender variance and diversity. Before is workshop, I’d assumed that I was a super-cool, mega-enlightened kind of gal who didn’t have any trouble embracing the reality that not everyone’s gender is defined their genitals. But then Reece came along with his brilliant teaching that forced me to go beyond the rational, think-y part of my brain. He made me examine my emotions and gut reactions. And it became pretty obvious, pretty fast that as much as I want to be that person who’s totally fine if her little boy decides he wants to be girl, I’m not quite there.
Below is an assignment our class was given. In bold are the prompts from Reece, followed by my answers. Doing this exercise forced me to face the not-so-awesome reality, that I definitely have some prejudices around gender identity.
(Warning: This gets kind of long. Bear with me, okay?)
When I meet a person on the street whose gender is unclear to me, I…immediately feel flustered. Despite my intellectual beliefs, I often find myself scrutinizing their face and body, looking for clues about their gender. I have to consciously remind myself that a stranger’s gender is none of my business, has no effect on my life and to stop staring.
If someone I’ve known for a long time told me that they used to be another gender, I…react differently depending on what they look like. If their body or presentation has characteristics of another gender, I might be less startled. I’ve had this experience with a few long-time acquaintances and my first thought was something like “Ohhhh…it all makes sense now.” But someone whose look is completely in line with my concept of what a person of that gender looks like, might surprise me with their confession.
What I do when I am talking to a student/client/person whose gender is unclear to me, is…if I don’t need to know, I generally don’t ask and I try to avoid making any gender-specific references in our conversation. If I think gender will be relevant or it becomes relevant in the conversation, I usually share my preferred pronouns in the hopes that it will encourage them to do the same.
When someone says they are neither male nor female, I…become self-conscious about the language I use around gender. I begin to think very hard about certain phrases I tend to use like “opposite sex” or “boys and girls”. I try not express to that person how awkward I feel, because I feel that’s my issue, not theirs (but I worry that they pick on my awkwardness anyway). I also feel guilt. I wish I was as accepting emotionally as I am in my head.
What I think about the statement “people are neither men nor women” is…that isn’t true. I think ignores the identities of people both trans and cisgender who feel very strongly that they are men or they are women. I believe men and women are the genders that are validated and acknowledged in our society and I believe we need to create space for all the other gender identities that exist, but there are people who are men and women.
If a friend wanted to have genital surgery to present more as a woman I…would ask them how I could support them. I love my friends and I want them to be happy. I honestly don’t feel that surgery would bother me. I think I’d be most concerned that they felt loved and accepted and I’d want to make sure they knew that I cared for them.
My reaction to a trans person who does not “pass” as the gender they are presenting is…that it’s fine. I don’t have to prove that I’m a woman. They shouldn’t have to prove their gender either. It is likely I will slip and use the wrong pronouns, so I’ll be apologizing a lot!
If my parent told me they were going to start to present as the opposite gender than I had known, I…would be really surprised. I think my first impulse would be to tell them that I loved them. Knowing my parents, they’d be deeply hurt if they thought I no longer cared for them. I’d be afraid that they would experience rejection from other people in their life, so I certainly wouldn’t want them to feel any from me. That having been said, it’s hard to imagine my mom as a dad or my dad as a mom. I’m fairly certain I’d also be sad. I’ve known them both my whole life, so to watch such a significant part of who they’ve been for me change or disappear would be really tough.
My current thinking about the reasons some people are trans and some are not is…I’ve never thought about it. Being cisgender, I’m rarely challenged to think about why my gender is what it is. Now that I am thinking about it…I still don’t know. I’m not sure that I personally feel a great need to seek out a “reason”. I just feel it’s important that I learn to really accept people for who truly are.
I think the relationship between being trans and mental health is…profound. I can only imagine the emotional pain of living with an identity that many people don’t understand, acknowledge or accept. I also guess that the continual threat of rejection, or worse, violence could cause severe stress. Because many in our society refuse to embrace gender diverse people, I can understand why they are at greater risk for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and have a much higher rate of suicide. That is part of the reason I feel so strongly that I need to keep working on my own prejudices and to take part in whatever work needs to be done to create a trans-inclusive society. Everyone has a right to be who they truly are and to thrive with that identity.
The first time I met a trans individual I felt…ashamed. During the first few encounters, I thought they were a man who was coming on to me. I didn’t like the attention and kept my attitude cool and distant. Eventually she confessed that she was biologically male and transitioning to female. She had identified with me as another woman and was trying to reach out. The shame came from knowing that I had pulled away from someone who simply wanted friendship. Once I realize what was happening, I also felt a bit of pride that she wanted me as a friend. Despite my early behaviour we did eventually become pals.
When someone tells me they may be trans, I question…I don’t know that I question, but I’m curious as to what they are feeling. I sometimes ask, “How are you feeling?”
If my child tells me that his/her best friend may be trans, I think…That I need to speak with my son, find out what his understanding of trans is and help explain anything he’s confused or concerned about (assuming I have the answers). I would also tell my son that he should ask his friend what name/pronoun they like, to use that name and model the behaviour by doing the same thing myself.
I think people who…react violently towards transpeople, refuse to use a person’s preferred name/pronoun, who ask questions about a person’s genitals or how they have sex, who claim that gender identity is inappropriate to discuss with children, who ask “are you a girl or a boy?”, who make disparaging comments about trans identities, who refuse to work with or hire trans people, who insist that trans people conceal their true identities…are transphobic
When I was younger I thought trans people were…women who were born men and had penises. The first depiction of a trans person I ever saw was in The Crying Game and for a long time, that was my only point of reference. I assumed there were also men who were born women and had vulvas, though I had never heard of or seen any. I don’t think I knew surgery was an option, beyond maybe breast implants for women.
If my child came out to me as a trans woman/man, I would initially feel…excited. I love my son and I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but before he was born I always dreamed of having a daughter. So I think my very first thought would be, “Yay! I have a little girl!” But I would very quickly start to worry. I would worry about how best to supporting her and helping her navigate her new identity. I’d be terrified about the bigotry she could face and how it would affect her self-worth. And when she was older, I would worry about her facing violence when she was out in the world.
If my partner came out to me as a trans woman/man I would initially feel…concerned. My partner is the most important person in my life. I know how much he loves me and I know how frightening it would be for him to reveal something he thought might end our relationship or worse, drive me away. I know he’d need support. I think my first impulse would be to reach out as his best friend. But with time I would probably be angry. I might feel like I had been cheated out of a husband. And I think I would be profoundly sad. I love my partner the way he is now. If he came out as trans, I’d feel like I’d lost him even though internally she was the same person. Finally, I think I’d feel guilty. Because with any other person in my life, sooner or later I’d be able to accept the change and love them all the same…but I’m not sure that I could do that for my partner.
If my brother/sister came out to me as a trans woman/man, I would initially feel…I don’t have siblings, so I honestly don’t know. I’m thinking about how I would feel if it were my best friend, who’s been in my life for thirty years. I think I’d be surprised but of all the people that are close to me, I suspect that would be the easiest coming out for me to accept. But with time I would…probably feel a lot of responsibility towards them. I might become a little overzealous in my attempts to be supportive. I could totally see us having a conversation where I’d start asking about their transition, their feelings about their transition, what I could do to help their transition and they’d turn to me and say, “Shut up! What Not To Wear is on!”
Yeaaaaah. I doubt I’ll be winning the Nobel Prize for gender acceptance any time soon. But at least now I know where some of my prejudices are and I can think more clearly about how they might affect other people and how I can work to change my attitude. Hopefully that will make me a better educator and maybe a nicer person.
I invite you to consider some of the Reece’s prompts – they’re great food for thought. And if any of you are so inclined, go ahead and share your thoughts in the comments.