Today, March 31, is the annual International Transgender Day of Visibility. While I am an ardent supporter of transgender rights, today is quite obviously not about me. If you are new to the subject and would like a primer on it, please read on. If you only have limited time or are already very familiar with the topic, please feel free to skip straight to the bottom of this article and read through the selection of excellent (linked) articles by transgender authors. Their voices and perspectives are top priority. Today is about them. Because the Bangor Daily News website has a wide diversity of readers, I’ll assume that it is quite likely that some of you may not have had much exposure to this topic. For that reason, I’d like to quickly define a few terms that may be unfamiliar to some of you.
- transgender: An adjective that describes a person whose gender does not match the one that they were assigned at birth. While some transgender people were born with physical characteristics that typically correspond with their assigned gender, others may be what is called “intersex” – a person who is born with some combination of physical characteristics that correspond with typically male AND typically female biology. When this happens, doctors will generally choose “male” or “female” for the infant in question and they will be socialized as a boy or girl. If that individual later realizes that the “wrong” choice was made, they are also considered transgender. Being classified as a transgender person is not dependent on receiving or planning to receive any kind of medical intervention (i.e. surgery, hormone therapy). The only criteria is that the gender others attributed to you while you were growing up does not match your self-concept of your gender. It is never acceptable to say that transgender people “are actually” their assigned gender, “are biologically” their assigned gender, or “used to be” their assigned gender. It is also never okay to give unsolicited advice or feedback to transgender friends on how well they are “passing” as their gender. Some transgender people have no interest in passing as cisgender or in conforming to gender norms.
- cisgender: A descriptive term that simply refers to a person whose assigned gender is also their correct gender. Put simply: if your doctor proclaimed “It’s a girl!” when you were born, your parents told you that you were a girl as you were growing up, and today you identify as a woman, you are a cisgender person.
- non-binary or genderqueer: A descriptor for a person whose self-concept of gender is neither strictly male nor strictly female. They may see themselves as existing somewhere in between male and female, or they may see themselves as existing somewhere completely outside that framework. There are lots of terms to describe the different identities that can be applied to non-binary people, including some with deep spiritual and cultural significance (such as two-spirit people in indigenous North American tribes) and some with strong ties to the gay community (such as people who identify with words like butch or femme as part of their gender identity). Terms with a strong cultural background should be used cautiously, as people in the communities from which these terms originate often feel uncomfortable when a term like “two-spirit” is applied to a person without connections to that culture. Finally, some non-binary people identify as transgender while others do not.
Transgender issues are of particular relevance in the feminist community because many of the unique challenges we respectively face are powered by the same destructive genesis: a patriarchal society that (often violently) enforces prescribed gender roles and limitations. Unfortunately, not everyone within the feminist community is able to recognize the clear correlation between the oppression of cisgender women and the simultaneous oppression of transgender people. Tragically, many feminists not only overlook important opportunities to act in solidarity with transgender people, they also directly and intentionally contribute to their marginalization. The most notorious and poisonous branch of this festers among some groups of radical feminists (dubbed “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or “TERFs” for short). Their explicit rejection and antagonization of transgender people is built on a variation of the same biologically essentialist attitudes that also reinforce harmful attitudes about cisgender women. It is an indefensible position, one which reasonable feminists should make every effort to distance themselves from.
Back to the topic of visibility, the choice to be visible can be a difficult decision, one that requires each transgender individual to weigh competing interests in the context of their own lives. Transgender people are frequently and disproportionately the victims of harassment, violence, sexual assault, and discrimination in all areas of life (employment, education, housing, you name it). Anti-transgender discrimination, while technically illegal in Maine, is frequently underestimated in the scope of its devastation – particularly its contribution to the disproportionately high rates of poverty and homelessness in the transgender community. For all of these reasons, some transgender people choose to live in what is sometimes called “stealth mode” by guarding their transgender identities with varying degrees of privacy. While this choice has been inaccurately and cruelly portrayed in pop culture as “deceptive”, it is more accurately a critical strategy for self-preservation. Because so many transgender people must remain invisible for totally legitimate reasons, I have long been an outspoken proponent for cisgender people to get involved with activism surrounding transgender issues. Quite frankly, as a cisgender woman, when I write a blog post like this one, neither my safety nor my livelihood are at stake. With that privilege, I see the responsibility to do what I can to advance this conversation in the public sphere.
With all of that said, the unquestionably best source of information about transgender people, their struggles, and their triumphs is directly from transgender people themselves. This past year, several bold and fearless transgender women have captured national attention for their advocacy on behalf of transgender people. Noted activist and author Janet Mock, actress Laverne Cox, model Carmen Carrera, and wrongfully incarcerated activist CeCe McDonald have all been trailblazers on high visibility talk shows and news programs in recent months. Twitter hashtags such as #GirlsLikeUs, #QueeringGender, and #FuckCisNorms have increased awareness in online activist communities. An unprecedented wave of raised consciousness has begun to surge as transgender people raise their voices and make their demands: stop asking them about their genitals, stop hypersexualizing their bodies, stop misgendering them, and start paying attention to them as a marginalized group with complex issues, not as punchlines or fodder for voyeuristic, Jerry Springer-esque “before and after” segments. They are kicking ass, taking names, and claiming their place in social discourse. Please take some time today to hear some of the transgender activists who want to be heard.
In Their Own Words: a (Woefully Small) Selection of Articles by Transgender Authors
Note: if you choose to comment on any of these articles, please make sure that you are using the correct pronouns when addressing or discussing the author. Some transgender people still prefer neutral pronouns such as “they/them/their” or “zie/hir” even if they identify as a man or woman. If you’re unsure because the author does not state their pronouns explicitly, default to a neutral pronoun!
“My Trans Story Is Not Your Growth Experience” by Quinn Rosen, via The Toast “Because of You: My Open Letter to CeCe McDonald on Her Release” by Janet Mock, via JanetMock.com (warning: if you’re anything like me, you might want to grab some tissues for this one)
“Almost a Transgender Role Model” by Nick Krieger, via blog.NickKrieger.com (also, this interview with Nick Krieger via myhusbandbetty.com contains some awesome and illuminating perspectives)
“It’s Trans Day of Visibility! Here’s 15 Ways to Let Trans People Know You See Them and Care” by mey, via Autostraddle
“Model T: On Transmasculinity, Patriarchy, and Access” by Janani, via Black Girl Dangerous
“Why Are Narratives Around Transgender People Always So Negative?” by Lucian Clark, via Advocate
“Transgender Pathologization” by Kat Haché, via The Transadvocate
Have you recently read a piece authored by a transgender writer that you want to share? Send me a link and I’ll add it to the list!