Gender Identity: A Primer for People Who Just Don’t Get It

gender identity
Gender identity conversations used to leave me confused and uncomfortable. I had nevertheless tried to raise my children (both boys at that time) with a conscious rejection of traditional gender stereotypes. For example, my oldest son got dolls for Christmas when he asked for them. My youngest son didn’t get dolls because he never asked for them. Dinner conversations included frank discussions about how boys and girls are sometimes treated differently. We have always talked openly about love being what makes a family, regardless of who lives in or outside of someone’s household. And we even talked about how hard it must be for someone to feel like a boy on the inside and look like a girl on the outside, or vice versa.

And yet, despite my ability to mostly say the right words, I still struggled to understand the concepts of transgender and nonbinary. Finally, I had an epiphany that it isn’t my job to understand or validate someone else’s identity. My responsibility involves accepting people as they are and respecting each person’s unique experience. I was, at long last, on a path of being a genuine ally to the trans and nonbinary community.

My journey toward being a vocal trans ally started with a Facebook post just last year, shortly after I attended a gala for the Human Rights Campaign in Boston:

“I’ve never been around very many out transgender people. Tonight I met several of them. I want you to know…you can’t “tell” who they are. And even if you can, be respectful. These folks have faced more hardship than most of us can imagine… Please, for the love of humanity, just be a decent person…. Seriously, if a 40-year-old woman from Southern Indiana can work this out…So. Can. You.”

Since that time, I’ve worked to educate myself on the issues transgender and nonbinary individuals face. The statistics are heartbreaking.

Gender Identity Issues: By the Numbers

  • There are an estimated 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States (source: UCLA Williams Institute). While there are no official records, independent studies have estimated anywhere from 2,150 to 15,500 of transgender individuals serve in the U.S. armed forces (source: Politifact).
  • Only twenty states and the District of Columbia protect trans people from discrimination in employment (source: Human Rights Campaign (HRC)) and housing (source: HRC). This means that in 30 states, trans people have no legal remedy if they are fired or evicted because they are trans. Perhaps that explains why trans women are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty (less than $10,000 annually) than the general population (source: Movement Advancement Project).
  • Only sixteen states and D.C. recognize violence targeting trans people as a hate crime (source: HRC). Yet, 2016 saw a record number of trans people murdered, and the number is already higher in 2017 (source: HRC).
  • More than 40% of trans people will attempt suicide in their lifetime, and those rates increase when trans people also suffer disadvantages due to race, education, income, homelessness, or being victims of violence (source: UCLA). Nonbinary people have the highest rates of suicide and attempted suicide (source: Michaela Mendelsohn, TransCanWork.org).

gender expression

Gender Identity Terminology

For those unfamiliar with gender identity concepts, here’s a quick vocabulary lesson.

[If I have misstated any of the following, please correct me! I am a well-meaning, but sometimes still-clumsy ally.]

  • Assigned gender – the gender initially proclaimed at an individual’s birth (typically male, female, or intersex)
  • Gender identity – the gender with which an individual identifies (typically male, female, or nonbinary)
  • Gender expression – the way an individual presents their gender identity (typically masculine, feminine, or androgynous)
  • Cisgender – someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth
    Avoid using the terms “normal,” “real man,” or “real woman” to describe cisgender people. The term “privileged” is acceptable, however (wink!).
  • Transgender, or trans – someone whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth
    Avoid using the terms “transsexual” or “cross-dressing” to describe trans people.
  • Gender confirmation – a complicated and lengthy medical process whereby a person’s physicality is altered to match their gender identity
    Avoid using the term “sex change.”
  • Transition – the process of changing one’s gender identity and/or gender expression, regardless of whether one undertakes the gender confirmation process
    Avoid using the term “sex change.”
  • Gender fluidity – the notion that a person’s gender identity or gender expression is not fixed
  • Gender nonconforming –a catch-all term for gender-fluid and nonbinary individuals, and sometimes for individuals who choose a gender expression that violates societal norms
  • Genderqueer – a term more often used by young, gender nonconforming people, and particularly people of color; this term carries an additional connotation of political activism
    Avoid describing someone as “queer” (adjective) unless you know for sure an individual self-describes that way. Never use the word “queer” as a noun.

Allow people to self-describe

Questions to Avoid

  • If you’re not male or female, then what are you? Just as some people are more feminine or more masculine or neither or both, and just as some people are taller or shorter or somewhere in between, many people experience their gender along a continuum.
    Try instead,What are your preferred pronouns?
  • How do you know? / Are you sure? / What if you’re wrong? Any time a person is facing a tremendous amount of resistance to be themselves, assume that they know what they’re talking about. They’ve done more research, had more conversations, and spent more sleepless nights trying to work this out than you can imagine.
    Try instead, “How can I support you?
  • What’s your real name? / What did you look like before? / Any questions about biology, physiology, or emotional trauma.
    Try instead“It’s a pleasure meeting you.”
  • Have you had the surgery? There’s not just one surgery, and surgical procedures are only a fraction of what’s involved in a medical transition. Most important, though, is that what’s going on under another person’s undergarments is almost never any of your business.
    Try insteadliterally anything else.

Ways to Show Respect to Individuals

  • Use each individual’s preferred name, and ensure you are pronouncing it correctly. Ask as many times as you need to get it right.
  • Use each individual’s preferred pronouns. This can be tricky, especially if the pronouns are new to you. If you mess up, apologize and try again. When in doubt, ask. You are also usually safe using they / them / their.
  • Keep in mind that some people may present themselves differently depending on the context. For example, one nonbinary individual I know (pronouns: ve, vim, vir) presents as female and uses vir legal name and the pronouns she/her/hers at work, because ve fears the repercussions of being out professionally. The same individual presents as nonbinary and uses a masculine name in vir personal life. Take your cues from the individual, and ask if you’re unsure.
  • Never, ever, ever use “it” to refer to a person, and never, ever, ever make someone’s identity the subject of ridicule, whether they can hear you or not. Dehumanizing people is never respectful, never appropriate, and never inclusive. You will only live to regret having been an ignorant, disrespectful jerk. I know, because I used to be an ignorant, disrespectful jerk. I’ve since evolved into a slightly less ignorant, regretful jerk, but it’s a start.
  • Do not “out” anyone as trans or nonbinary. Use each person’s preferred name and pronouns, and leave it at that. Remember, for many trans and nonbinary individuals, being outed can threaten their safety, their income, their housing situation, and their health.

Respect everyone and be an ally

Disrupt the Gender Binary

  • Introduce your pronouns when you introduce yourself. For example, when I meet someone new, I could say, “Hi, I’m Amy C. Waninger. My pronouns are she, her, and hers.” Specifying your pronouns helps normalize differences and helps to challenge assumptions that people may have.
  • At networking events, put your pronouns on your name tag. “My Name Is” stickers are boring anyway, and now you have a built-in conversation starter.
  • Update your social network profiles (such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) and your email signature to include your pronouns.
  • Ask people for their pronouns, particularly if you have already shared your own. Don’t assume, based on someone’s appearance, that you know what pronouns they prefer.
  • Avoid stereotyping behaviors, inanimate objects, or emotions as “girly,” “manly,” “feminine,” or “masculine.” Avoid chastising children for showing an interest in something traditionally associated with a different gender. Don’t use “like a girl” as a criticism or “for a girl” as a compliment.

Become an Active Ally

  • If you are in charge of computer systems, paper forms, or other registration / identification processes, allow individuals to self-identify beyond the traditional labels of “male” and “female.” Include options such as nonbinary, transgender, or simply “other” so that everyone feels they can answer the question honestly. Bonus points if you can provide space for the individual to list their pronouns!
  • Educate yourself by reading memoirs by or biographies and articles about trans people. Some accessible trans authors and icons I’ve learned about include: Jennifer Finney Boylan (author and professor), Laverne Cox (actor, producer, and activist), Martine Rothblatt (lawyer, author, entrepreneur), and Vivienne Ming (scientist & entrepreneur).  Yes, these are all trans women. Check out this more exhaustive list of trans role models to find trans men and nonbinary individuals.
  • Speak up if you witness someone being disrespectful. Your example and presence can go a long way toward helping someone feel safe and toward helping someone else question their own prejudices.

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