The following is a guest post from Stephanie Guttormson, the Operations Director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation and a transgender woman.
I was happy to work with JT on this project. Danielle’s coming out has given us in the atheist community a rare and wonderful opportunity to learn about trans issues and the transition process. I selected what I felt were the best questions from the comments section of JT’s post. Questions are in italics and have only been altered for spelling.
“What is the best way to let someone know their gender doesn’t affect how you see them without trivializing what they are going through?”
I find this to be an easy thing to do. It comes down to love and respect. Love that person just as much as you would and let them know. Respect them by using proper pronouns and the new name they wish to be called by. You might also want to reassure them that you see them as they want to be seen, as they truly are. References to appearance that are unsolicited, even if you mean well, can be hurtful. If you do those things, you are on your way to being a great ally to trans people.
Do transgender people look at the two sets of gender stereotypes and choose the one they think suits them best? I’m having trouble squaring the disregard of gender stereotypes with wanting to take on one (just not the one people assume based on sex). Is expressing that one is transgender a sort of pragmatic stop gap for a society/language which expects individuals to take on some set of traditional gender traits, or is there a logical intersection which I’m missing? Or are these non-intersecting populations?
This is a great, if complicated question. I will be breaking it down one at a time.
1) When it comes to gender stereotypes, there is a lot people of all kinds can find detestable and ridiculous. However, for trans people gender stereotypes presents a double-edged sword. Speaking as a trans woman, in order to assimilate into society and not draw undue attention to myself I try to take on and express some female stereotypes. On the other hand, as a feminist, I don’t like the stereotypes that label women as weak or stupid. I have been enjoying having men open doors for me, for example, but a part of me feels uncomfortable with that. I wouldn’t say that trans people “choose the one [stereotype] that suits them”. It would be more correct to say that they conform to the gender norms of the gender with which they identify.
2) Expressing that one is trans gender isn’t any kind of stop gap. It is a way of identifying as someone that doesn’t feel that the sex born with matches who they are. This is in contrast to cis gendered (pronounced ‘sis’) people who identify with sex they were born with.
What happens if a transgender individual refuses to get sex reassignment surgery? Can they expect the society to accept them and refer to them by their preferred gender if they don’t physically look like that particular gender?
Sex reassignment surgery (SRS) refers to a specific type of surgery some trans people do not elect to get. For trans woman, SRS involves turning the penis into a functional vagina. For trans men, SRS means constructing a functional penis. While some states require this for gender change on identification documents, it isn’t de-facto required for trans people to be viewed as their true gender since it is a very specific, and rather intimate, aspect of the transition that doesn’t affect outward appearance. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) tends to have the most dramatic effect on outward appearance and is a very gradual process that can take years to complete. Trans women take testosterone blockers and estrogen and trans men take testosterone.Was it always an issue of gender identity or were there times that you knew you were different but didn’t necessarily feel it was because you have a body that is physically a different gender than your identity?
Speaking for myself, it was age and education dependent. It’s hard to describe certain concepts if you don’t have the right words for them. At an early age, I knew I was different and felt that I was really a girl on the inside but couldn’t easily describe it. These feelings manifested themselves as crossdressing wearing my mother’s and sister’s clothes. I crossdressed for years into high school before I knew what being transgendered was. Once I knew there was a word for it I began to identify as that to myself and close friends.
I was surprised by the photo showing that Danielle was bearded. Presumably that photo was taken before she came out as transgender, but it made me wonder: Are there openly transgendered people who do not make any attempt to appear like the sex with which they identify?
This question brings up the matter of what we call “presenting” or “gender expression”. Presenting as the gender which with one identifies can take time. Trans people refer to living as their true gender as living “full-time”. Trans people usually go through a middle period wherein they only present to friends or at a certain time of the day or night. In Danielle’s case, she just came out as identifying as transgender. I and other friends of her’s are helping her with the process of eventually living full-time.
Is there anything a parent can do to make sure their child is able to express their gender identify freely?
Parents should make their child feel comfortable being who they are, encourage them to express themselves, help them get into a childhood transition program and, most importantly, to make sure the child know that they are loved and accepted.
It is my hope that this Q&A was helpful and shed some light on transgender issues and the process of going through transition. If you liked this post let JT and I know in the comments and I may do a second Q&A like this in the future.
Stephanie Guttormson is the Operations Director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. She gives talks educating people about transgendered people, the challenges they face and how cis people can be better allies. She also has a YouTube Channel, ‘Think Stephtically’, that promotes skepticism and attempts to debunk all manner of woo. She can be followed on Twitter @thematheist , ‘Like’ her Facebook page facebook.com/ThinkStephtically and she can be emailed at stephanie [at] richarddawkins [dot] net.