Article Place & Self

The gender line wobbles

Do you have a friend who just told you they identify as a trans man? Did your cousin change their Facebook profile to genderqueer? Allison Declercq explains what that means and how you can show support.

I’m in a relationship with a woman. I’m a woman myself. But biologically we are different. I have boobs and my partner doesn’t; I have a vagina, she has a penis.

Anatomically I’m a female and she’s a male - according to the books.

Still, I’m mesmerized when she clumsily, hesitantly twirls in a skirt from her limited collection. Or how she attempts to tuck her mass of curly, brown hair out of her face and it immediately springs loose again. I adore the way the jewellery we share glitters across her body and gawk at her marvellous makeup. I gobble down with gusto the exquisite meals she cooks.

Above all, I love that smile - the smile that emerges when she feels absolutely, totally safe.

Today, though, the smile wasn’t there. She told me she was angry. And she was scared. A transwoman known in her social sphere on Tumblr had died.

“She was driven to suicide,” my partner whispered as she clutched my hand in the streets. I squeezed back and dug through my mind for a reassuring reply. There was nothing. What could I say? I don’t know much about the trans community. Do many of us?

She was driven to suicide.

A vast hidden population

The flood of articles following 17-year-old Alcorn’s death in Ohio on 28 December told me that 41% of American people who identify as transgender or genderqueer have attempted suicide sometime in their lives and 48% of British trans people under 26 said they attempted suicide. Those facts are scary. I wanted to learn how to dodge the possibility.

I asked my local British library for books on transgender legislation and history. It spat out books on gay and lesbian activists.

A hopeful flip to the transgender section of a 2010 book called Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) Psychology revealed the disheartening words “received little attention within LGBTQ psychology”.

“Estimating numbers of trans people is difficult,” wrote University of Michigan Professor Lynn Conway and University of Hong Kong Professor. Sam Winter in a 2011 report attempting to estimate the global population of trans people.

“For one thing, many trans people try to keep their trans status private; and may not be easily counted. For another, trans people represents a broad spectrum of identity and expression,” added the American transgender activist and professor specialising in sexuality and gender diversity, respectively.

It’s understandable that some trans people want to remain within the confines of society’s adamant binary gender system. In many places it’s a lot safer and they won’t be judged through the lens of their previous lives or transition, as many high-profile trans people find.

Conway experienced the stigmatisation and persecution of transitioning in 1968 when she was fired from IBM for being transsexual. On a website she created to “normalise the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition”, Conway wrote that after her transition she restarted her life in what she called “stealth mode” and rose in the company again - this time as a woman.

Many trans people try to keep their trans status private; and may not be easily counted. For another, trans people represents a broad spectrum of identity and expression.

There are also people who don’t transition physically from one binary gender camp to the other. No hormones and no operations. Like my partner, they may not mind their sex, but are more attuned to the opposite gender.

Breaking down the terms

Now, before I lose you in all this trans and genderqueer lingo I’d like to introduce you to a few key words and identities.

When discussing trans and genderqueer identities, know that you are talking about gender identities not sexual orientation. Both are very powerful aspects of identity so sometimes they get mixed up, but you may one day talk to a trans woman, for example, and she could be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual or asexual.

But let’s get back to gender identities. Ready?

First off, if you were labelled a female and identify as a woman - or born a male and identify as a man - you may be called cisgender or cis. The word is not demeaning; it merely derives from the Latin word cis meaning “on this side” and means you identify with the gender label you received at birth. If you are used to identifying your friend as trans, be ready to be called cis. It’s only fair.

Those who don’t identify with their originally assigned gender may identify as transgender. Pay extra attention when this word is mentioned because in some circles the terms transgender and transsexual are the same thing. In others, transsexual refers to a person who lives fulltime as the opposite gender - often with reassignment surgery to correct their sex - while transgender encompasses anyone who dabbles in the opposing gender role.

If someone you meet identifies as a trans man, that individual transitioned/is transitioning from “female” to male. Someone transitioning from “male” to female may introduce herself as a trans woman.

Those who don’t identify with their originally assigned gender, and choose not to identify with the opposite gender, identify themselves as non-binary or genderqueer. They may describe themselves as both a woman and man blended together, or may reject both.

Some people like to adopt indigenous gender identities when they don’t find the aforementioned western labels suitable. Be careful with the north American indigenous term “two-spirit” and other non-western gender identities. These identities are often closely tied to the tribe’s unique culture and every individual, tribe and culture understands the labels differently - as Jorge Rivas, a reporter for Fusion, found when he asked Native Americans about gender identity at a two-spirit powwow.

Some people in the trans and genderqueer community like labels, which ease communication in the community, while others don’t like being shoved into categories. Don’t label others. Ask and then adapt.

The small things are big

Trans and genderqueer people will be faced with a lot of big problems: discrimination in the workplace and healthcare system; higher rates of violence; harassment online; having to prove they are transgender to get their name changed and receive hormones or corrective surgery. You can help them out politically and socially by standing by them, but your daily actions are just as profound.

The first thing you’ll have to adjust when you find out your partner, friend or family member identifies as trans or genderqueer is your perception - then your pronouns.

Changing from she to he or to they can be difficult, especially at the beginning when the person’s adjustments are only beginning. But try hard. Try very, very hard and catch yourself if you make a mistake. For trans and genderqueer people this willingness to adopt their identity is a show of love and respect.

When Leelah Alcorn described the factors that drove her to depression in the suicide letter she posted to Tumblr, she highlighted her parent’s refusal to accept her identity as a trans woman.

Alcorn wrote about how when she first learned what transgender meant at 14 she tried to share this revelation with her Christian mother, but “she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong.”

What followed was isolation from social media and friends, and conversion therapy where Christian therapists repeatedly told her she was selfish and wrong.

Even after Alcorn’s death, her parents refused to accept her identity, burying her as their son Josh. Some of the media also chose to incorrectly identify Alcorn as a boy.

Language is powerful. It reveals your intent and mindset.

Language is powerful. It reveals your intent and mindset. As a result, working with the pronouns can help you adapt your perception. When I first learned my partner wanted to identify as genderqueer, we settled down for a long conversation on what titles and pronouns she prefers.

“Loverman” wouldn’t work anymore. Should we use he/she, her/him, his/hers or they, them, theirs or xe, hx, xs?

We eventually settled on she, her and hers and I started to slowly adapt my other language. She is beautiful, not handsome.

The pronoun introduction

If you decide to attend LGBTQI+ meetings with your loved one you will probably be expected to share your name and preferred pronouns. Usually when it came to my turn I’d start with she, but add that the other pronouns are fine too - probably out of nervousness of being the odd one out of the group.

Don’t do this - unless you really mean it, of course.

I organised a meeting with several trans people in Cambridge to discuss what cis people can do to support trans and genderqueer people. The pronoun introduction popped up in our conversation and grievances bubbled to the surface. They told me that when a cis person does not settle on one pronoun, he or she expresses a disregard for the power of language over identity.

I like to think that for most cis people in this situation the response is an honest, naïve mistake. After all, in this situation we are the privileged ones. A cis person doesn’t know what it’s like to fight for the right to be defined correctly.

Correct it before it happens, though, and you’ll make many people a lot more comfortable.

Validating toilet visits

Another thing you can do to help is travel to the toilets with your trans or genderqueer friend, family or partner. Gender-divided toilets are a massive hurdle for many people.

My partner explained the situation for trans women to me once: “If you go to the men’s bathroom you risk harassment, if you got to the women’s you risk freaking out the other women.”

When you enter the toilets as a group you help legitimise a trans or genderqueer person’s right to be there. You normalise the experience for others and the trans person with you.

Gifts are gendered

This might seem silly, but take a second look at your gift list. Does the gift you were considering for your friend, partner or family still match their gender?

On the evening of Christmas Day my partner and I left her parents’ home to walk off the Christmas dinner. As we strolled she told me how jealous she was of the feminine gifts I’d received (earrings, a necklace, scarf, a purse) while hers leaned toward masculine (a wallet, spices, a book on history).

Your loved one may not change their preference for some objects, but he/she/they may go through a second puberty - and a shopping spree for a more appropriate wardrobe. They’ll love your help!

The same problem arises for holidays like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. Every situation is different - some trans women or men may still accept their original parental title or they may want to correct it, but at the very least you can help the child make a nice neutral card if you want to help but are unsure.

Tell me more

When you’re new to the trans and genderqueer community it can be intimidating. As with wading into any new culture, there are unspoken rules, etiquette and actions you will not know at the start.

Those who identify as LGBTQ+ can find local groups to meet others and learn more, but as a cis person you may find this approach awkward. After all, trans and genderqueer people enter these groups to share their experiences and you probably won’t be able to relate to much of what they talk about.

This is where organisations like Mermaids come in. In its endeavour to support teens and children with gender identity issues this group organises retreats for families with transgender youth. There are also helplines through various forms of communication.

And remember how it’s hypothesised that most trans and genderqueer people don’t reveal themselves? This is why many people are quietly turning to the internet and media for information.

While the media has been playing a role in raising awareness on trans and genderqueer issues, it’s also infamous for its misrepresentative and sensationalist portrayal of trans and genderqueer people.

Hopefully this will change in the UK. A group called All About Trans is aiming to correct the problem by teaching sensitivity via discussions with reporters and a trans-initiated dialogue with the wider population.

One such dialogue that’s already begun is the trans-focused documentary series My Genderation by two trans filmmakers, Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancox.

My Genderation shows people that trans people are just like anybody else. - trans filmmaker, Lewis Hancox

Fisher and Hancox met three years ago through their participation in the Channel 4 trans-focused series My Transsexual Summer. After the show they decided they wanted to approach the topic again, but with a different focus.

“They [My Transsexual Summer] had promised to tell our stories, but they didn’t really uphold that - they focused on different aspects. My story was my art and they dropped it for more interesting stories.” said Fisher.

“After, I really felt compelled to cut out the middle-man and start telling my story myself - and also other people’s stories.”

The two formed Lucky Tooth Productions in 2013 and began travelling throughout the country collecting stories for their Patchwork series. Now their films are shown to support groups, schools and businesses throughout the country and a few are about to be featured on Channel 4.

“We try to explore not just the trans stuff, but all of the interesting hobbies and everything. It [the series] shows people that trans people are just like anybody else,” said Hancox.

“We’ve gotten messages saying the films have helped families understand [trans people].”

Their videos, and a collection of trans vloggers (video bloggers), are featured on YouTube on the My Genderation page. Other vloggers - like Alex Bertie and Jake Edwards - are an amazing source of inside information on the trans community too. They reveal everyday problems, aspirations, inspirations and contemplations.

You’ll find that they are thinking about what everyone else is thinking about: body image, products, jobs, college and love.

Just remember

In the end, all that matters is that you love the person. Someone close identifying as a trans or genderqueer doesn’t mean you’ll lose that person - unless you react hastily and negatively.

Know too that if you act rashly you may take a person away from a circle of people who love him/her/them unconditionally.

Last night I fell asleep with my arms circled tight around my partner. Her warmth radiated against my fluttering heart as I tried to dispel thoughts of all the danger she may face in this world.

Borrowing from Leelah Alcorn’s last words: I want my partner to be treated like a human, with valid feelings and human rights. I don’t want her to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want people to look at the numbers and say, “that’s fucked up” and fix it.

Let’s fix society. Together. Step by step.

Please. I love my partner too much to lose her to this nonsense.

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