Image via WikiMedia Commons.
Your best friend is in the hospital because they just became a parent. You get off work and drive to the hospital to meet the shiny new human, but first, you stop to grab a gift to signify the momentousness of its birth, and to congratulate the child for having squeezed itself through that improbably teensy hole and out into the world. You’ve already asked whether it’s a boy or a girl, so that you can determine the imagery that should adorn the cellophane orb you bestow on its parent. It’s simple: the balloon will either have a picture of a blonde princess in a fluffy pink dress, or something useful—utilitarian—like a train, plane or automobile.
The child will either be a girl, or a boy. Two choices.
This, fellow beings, is cissexism. From the time we are born, we are expected to fit into either the box marked M, or F. The gender binary is so entrenched that it is, admittedly, a difficult concept to unlearn. But that is no excuse to avoid trying, because when you avoid trying, you very well may wind up behaving like a bigoted asshole, and implicitly denying the existence of the many other places on the gender spectrum that are open for proud occupation.
Case in point: even self-identified radical feminists don’t get it. A piece in The New Yorker this week, “What is a woman?” describes the stance some so-called radfems are taking against trans women—horrendously enough, they still think it’s OK to exclude them from women’s spaces—including public events and washrooms. Essentially, they see trans women as having been born men, and say that because of that, there is no way they can shed their male privilege.
Suffering through strikingly high (and widely permissible) levels of trans hate and violence, and such widespread discrimination that a full 41 per cent of trans and gender non-conforming folk attempt suicide doesn't sound like privilege to me.
This week, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente illustrated just how ignorant we can be when it comes to trans rights and failing to treat trans people with basic human dignity.
I can’t bring myself to quote ad nauseam from the column, whose main thesis was that people are too quick to label children whose gender identities might be a tad ambiguous as trans. She says it’s not right to foist a trans identity on children who are too young to know who they are. But she confuses gender non-conforming children (read: the “tomboys” of days gone by) with trans identity.
"But transgenderism,” she writes, “is also a fad that has been spread by social media and embraced by individuals (and families) as the explanation for their confusion, loneliness and dysfunction.”
“The mainstreaming of transgenderism is in some ways a logical extension of the civil-rights and diversity movements that have transformed society for the better. But it is also the story of advocacy run amok, in which a small but militant group of activists has managed to strong-arm well-meaning people into believing that gender is not innate but ‘assigned,’ that those who are ‘trapped in the wrong body’ would be happier with radical hormone treatments and mutilating surgery, and that children as young as one or two should be pushed along a path whose implications they are far too young to understand.”
Promoting love and acceptance of all people is now “advocacy run amok?” I know Wente is clickbait, and yes, proper treatment, both medical and otherwise, for trans children can be complicated to sort out. But this is a step too far. And Wente is not the only one. National Post columnist Barbara Kay came out with a column full of the same drivel Wednesday, not to mention a series of similar attacks in the U.S.
I, not being trans myself, decided to do the journalistic thing and actually reach out to a trans person to fill me in on some of the day-to-day discrimination they face, which should, in turn, highlight the importance of the fight for trans* rights.
I met Kira Andry after this year’s Slutwalk thorough downtown Toronto. Kira identifies as non-binary, which refers to the spectrum of genders beyond male and female. This includes those who are genderqueer, agender, gender fluid, etc. Kira is an activist and organizer who runs HAVEN Toronto, and we caught up on the phone the other day. They (Kira goes by gender-neutral pronouns: they/them/their), rattled off a list of everyday situations that are often made a living hell for trans people. (Please know that by no means am I providing an exhaustive list of transphobic behaviours, and by no means is my source trying to speak for all trans people).
If you’re cis (which means your gender identity aligns with the sex you were assigned at birth), here are some things to be mindful of when interacting with trans people:
Be sensitive about bathroom etiquette
Imagine running through the mall because you drank a pop the size of your head and that massive burrito you ate is threatening to cause some serious trouble. You get to the washroom and, oh, shit! There isn’t one. The little man with stick legs fails to represent you, and so does the fierce lady in the triangle skirt. There’s fucking nothing for you, because people are busy trying to deny that your gender even exists. It’s a serious cramper of steeze, and if you have even the slightest of imaginations, you can likely see how you, too, would feel utterly dehumanized by this situation.
Many businesses, events and government buildings are improving their gender-neutral washroom scene, and that is some beautiful and necessary progress. But Andry points out that just because there are more gender neutral washrooms, doesn’t mean trans folk should have to choose those washrooms, and not, say the women’s or men’s.
“Ultimately, people will know their own gender better than anyone else,” Andry says. Andry also tears down one of the major fear factors when it comes to bathroom freedoms: increased incidences of sexual assault. Andry says this is ridiculous:
“I’m going to pee, and not to assault someone. Having the binary bathrooms hasn’t prevented anyone from being sexually assaulted.”
Long story short: if you see someone who appears to be another gender in “your” assigned washroom, then don’t be a dick. Don’t stare, and don’t say anything. Just grant the same privacy you would anyone else, and mind your business.
Understand the nightmare that is government documentation
For non-binary trans people, banking and official government documentation can be even more of a pain in the ass than it is for the rest of us.
“It’s always the box: male or female,” Andry says. “Sometimes, they force you to choose one. Sometimes they force me into that female category, which is forcefully oppressive and humiliating.”
A similar thing happened when Andry was going through court after reporting a sexual assault. In the police report, female pronouns were used, despite Kira’s clarity on the point of gender-neutral pronouns. And in the courthouse, they were called ma’am, despite a rainbow sticker on the door, and despite the fact that Andry was wearing a button with the trans flag and their desired pronoun written right on it.
“That was the beginning of the humiliation that was that day,” they say. “It’s hard to be a survivor in a system that forces you to be a victim, that doesn’t allow you to survive.”
“Like, maybe I’ll identify as an orange. Make it really hard for people. We don’t exist to make people’s lives difficult.”
Though Facebook is still problematic in some ways (you must sign up as “male” or “female” to get an account), Andry points to its custom gender option as a possible inspiration for government to better recognize us all as our true selves.
Know about the medical community’s interference/lack of support
Though being trans is no longer listed as a mental disorder, in order to have one’s gender respected on official documentation, Andry says, one must first expect to head to CAMH in order to be mentally assessed. Then, they’ll be put on a waiting list, which could last years.
“Even if I go for the assessment and find out, ‘Yeah, Kira! You’re sane! High five, good for you!’ I’ll change my papers to what? U? or I? I’m not intersex. There is not another option.”
The medical community is also far behind when it comes to providing hormone therapy for those who wish to transition in that way. It’s next to impossible, actually. If you don’t believe me, read this story of a trans woman seeking hormone therapy—no fewer than six doctors told her they weren’t giving her hormone therapy unless she had “female parts.”
Avoid routinely stabbing people with uninformed language
Be cognizant of your pronouns, and don’t assume gender based on presentation. Just because someone appears to be a man or a woman to you, doesn’t mean that’s how the person identifies.
“Drag queens, for example, are not the same as trans women,” Andry says. “They may present as very beautiful ladies, but they’re not trans. Once we wrap our head around that, we can take the steps to become more trans inclusive.”
If you’re not sure about someone’s desired pronoun and want to get it right, it’s generally okay to ask. Just be sure it’s not the first thing you say to someone. Andry says it’s best to do this once there’s a bit of a rapport between you and the other person so it doesn’t come off as rude or intrusive. And once that person does clarify their desired pronouns, it’s important to use them, and not go back to using “they.”
On a similar vein, be careful when discussing someone else’s history. Don’t say a trans woman “used to be a boy.” If you know her and she tells you she sees her life that way, that’s one thing. But baseless assumptions are harmful and alienating. Laverne Cox clarifies this when Gayle King introduces her as having previously been a boy:
“I was assigned male at birth, but I always felt like I was a girl.”
Though navigating a non-binary vocabulary does take work, understanding the trials Andry describes is not difficult. It just takes a little reading, some empathy, and getting to know people for who they are. Many people have made efforts to correct those who refuse to get it: Here is Laverne Cox schooling us, and here is an adorable mother expressing her love and support for her trans daughter. As Laverne says: “When we get to know people as people, our misconceptions about people who are different from us can melt away.”
And as for Wente? Andry has some choice words for her:
“Wente is a cis woman writing an article from a very uneducated cis perspective.
I actually pity her; she is so undereducated and uninformed about transness. [The article is] poor journalism, and it perpetuates falsehoods.” @sarratch