Part 1: Why Are We Harassing Trans People?
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The backlash against trans people has been disturbing to witness. Maybe especially so because I’m seeing the backlash not just from the political right (which I sadly expect), but also from people who seem to hold progressive views on everything but trans rights. In just one week, South Carolina passed an anti-trans sports bill, Arizona outlawed gender-affirming health care for trans youth and passed an anti-trans sports bill, Alabama made progress pushing a bathroom bill, and those are just the headlines I saw today.
I’m not trans and can’t speak to the trans-lived-experience, and I won’t try to. But I can point out some of the very bizarre and very embedded and very harmful takes on gender in our culture, which will hopefully open some minds and hearts. Consider this newsletter directed to anyone who finds themselves resistant to letting trans men and trans women go about their lives with full human rights and dignity.
I’m going to try three approaches. First up, the mental exercise of defining what a woman is and what a man is. At the moment, we’re seeing lots of memes about this, and it’s considered a joke because the answer seems so obvious. (Of course we know what a man is and what a woman is! Duh. The idea that anyone would need a definition is laughable!) But forget the joke for a minute because it’s actually a really helpful tool to clarify how artificial our notions about gender are.
Let’s try it. We might say: A man is someone who loves sports and has strong muscles. But then we’ll immediately think of men we know who don’t love sports, and who don’t have strong muscles. So we can try again: Men are people who protect others and are good leaders and like drinking beer. But again, we’ll immediately think of men who are crummy leaders, and men who don’t protect others, and men who don’t like beer at all. So then maybe we can try to define men physically — it’s not about what men like or what men do, it’s about their physical characteristics. We might say: Men have facial hair and an Adam’s apple. Well, not all men. How about something more basic: Men have penises. Okay. But some men don’t have a penis— perhaps because of an injury, or perhaps because human genitalia and chromosomes form in all sorts of ways beyond penis/vagina and XX/XY, and far more often than we tend to think. We can also think of men who don’t seem masculine in their likes, their actions, or even in their physical characteristics — and we’ve never seen their genitalia and don’t know if they have a penis or not — but we still recognize them as men.
The same exercise can be done while trying to define what a woman is. It’s impossible. There’s no such definition. When attempting a definition, it’s easy to see that how we talk about gender and think about gender is made up. We make huge generalities that easily fall apart. We say women like feminine things — makeup and lace and pink and flowers. But we know lots of women in our lives who don’t like any of those things. We know women who aren’t drawn to anything traditionally feminine. Maybe they are “butch” or a “tom boy” and drawn to masculine things instead. Or maybe they’re not drawn to either masculine or feminine things at all. Maybe they like to cook and be outdoors and play boardgames and spend time with friends — none of which is considered typically masculine or feminine. Yet we still call them women, and they still refer to themselves as women, even though there may be nothing about them and how they live their lives that would be considered girly or womanly or ladylike. And if our ideas of gender magically disappeared, or were no longer important, their lives wouldn’t change a bit. Their gender was never a key identity for them.
If we insist on a definition of men, we know that using what they like or what they do won’t ever work. And for a physical definition, the best we could say is most men have a penis. Or a lot of men have a penis. That’s it. And that’s an assumption of course. Happily, I have not seen the penis of most men that I know in real life, and can only assume that they have one. Maybe they don’t! It doesn’t really matter. It wouldn’t change how I interact with them. Because a physical definition doesn’t help us in this discussion anyway — we don’t walk around looking at each others genitalia when we greet one another. Instead, we look at clothing, and accessories, and hair style. We listen to voices. We consider things we might know about the person we’re greeting — like jobs and hobbies. We look at how they present themselves to the world and we make an assumption about their gender and interact with them accordingly.
Which brings me to my second approach. Let’s talk about Pat. Pat was a character on SNL in the 1990s. The whole joke was: you can’t tell if Pat is a man or a woman. So people around Pat, typically coworkers, would ask questions, trying to determine Pat’s gender identity, without tipping Pat off that that’s what was happening. Pat sat right at the intersection of lightly feminine and lightly masculine and was apparently clueless that the people around them wanted to identify their gender identity and weren’t able to do so. Importantly, Pat had no ill will, and was not trying to bother anyone — they were just living their life. Just existing.
Sometimes the Pat character comes to mind when I see people working against trans rights. And one of the questions that helps me see things more clearly is: WHY did Pat’s coworkers need to know Pat’s gender identity? Why was it so important? Why is having someone know our correct gender important to any of us? No one likes to be mis-gendered. But why?
I think a big reason is that we (ALL of us) react differently to women than we do to men. This may be conscious or unconscious, but it’s reality and it’s something that every person is taught from birth. Depending on whether we are talking to a man or a woman we might change the tone of our voice. We might evaluate the person we’re talking to as a potential sexual partner. Depending on whether we are talking to a man or a woman, we assume a certain power-dynamic is at play. Depending on how they are dressed, we might assume what their job is, or education-level is, or socio-economic status is — and the jobs we are assuming will be different for men than they are for women.
If we can’t recognize someone’s gender identity, we don’t know how to respond “properly”. We feel awkward. We don’t want to embarrass the person we’re talking to by getting it wrong. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves either. It may not seem like it online, but in real life, manners still count for a lot, and we don’t want to be rude. So when we can’t immediately determine gender identity, we feel uncomfortable and we automatically start looking for clues. Are they wearing earrings? So maybe a woman? Except, we know men who have earrings too... Maybe they’re wearing other accessories that look either masculine or feminine? Have they said something that will help give us clues? Maybe about errands they need to run? Our brains are scanning and scanning looking for a clue that will tell us definitively that we are talking to either a man or to a woman, so that we know how to interact “appropriately”.
In theory, there was a time in America when identifying gender used to be easier. When women were required to wear dresses to work, and men were required to have short hair, while women never did. A time when men didn’t have pierced ears. Was this ever actually universal? Certainly not. But if you grew up when it always seemed easy to recognize gender identity —so easy that you never had to think about the topic of gender identity at all — maybe it feels like a burden to watch those seemingly surefire signs disappear. Maybe some of the anti-trans reactions we’re seeing are based on a fear of being rude, of saying the wrong thing, of feeling dumb because you misidentified someone, and made them feel dumb too.
But of course, the problem isn’t that gender identity signals have shifted and changed. The problem is that WE TREAT DIFFERENT GENDERS DIFFERENTLY. Instead of reacting to and responding to the person in front of us as simply a person, we react to them as a woman, as a man, or as Pat.
It’s really hard to imagine a world where we don’t react to different genders in different ways. But for the third approach, let’s try. Let’s use opening the door for someone else as a case study. In our culture, men who have been taught good manners make a habit of opening doors for women. Great. Super. A nice little thing. Men have opened the door for me many, many times.
But let’s consider for a moment: Do women actually need men to open the door? No, not really. I’m a woman and I’m very capable of opening the door myself. People who make buildings are aware that all sorts of people, of different sizes and abilities, will need to come in and out of the building they are creating. So they tend to choose doors that are easy for the most amount of people to open. And it works out quite nicely most of the time. Men might not be aware of this, but even when men aren’t around, women continue to go in and out of buildings all on their own.
Although, sometimes women really DO need help with the door. Maybe the woman is carrying heavy bags, or has a toddler on her hip, or is rolling a wheelbarrow. And sometimes, men really DO need help with the door as well. Maybe the man is carrying heavy bags, or has a toddler on his hip, or is rolling a wheelbarrow. In such cases, if there’s someone at the door — of any gender! — who is willing to open it for the person who needs help, that’s such a bonus. Needing help with doors is common enough, that if it’s a modern building, the door may even have a push button to open it automatically — great for wheelchair users, and for anyone else who may need door assistance.
So, what if instead of teaching men that it’s good manners to open doors for women, what if we taught everybody that it’s good manners to open the door for anyone who needs help, or really for anyone who is near enough to you that it would be more awkward to close the door than to hold it open. That would be an example of not reacting differently to someone because of their gender, and instead reacting to the actual person in front of you and what is happening a the present moment.
We could teach people that as you enter a building, you should make a quick glance behind, like checking a blind spot. Is there someone close behind you? Great, hold the door for a second so you can both walk through. is there someone who is going to need help? Great, hold the door for them so they can concentrate on whatever it is that’s making the door feel burdensome.
This would mean that sometimes women hold doors for men, and for other women. And that men would hold doors for women, and for other men. Wonderful. Easy. Not stressful. You wouldn’t need to know what someone’s gender identity is in order to behave appropriately and with good manners. Doesn’t that sound lovely?
Does it mean that people who love traditionally feminine things can no longer wear flowery dresses and high heels and a good lipstick? Nope, everyone can still present themselves as feminine or as masculine or as unisex as they prefer. No matter how they are dressed, no matter what feminine or masculine clothing or accessories they might be wearing, no matter what their haircut is, it would not change the door-opening guidelines. You would always know exactly what to do. Comforting and reassuring, right?
What if we could expand that example? What if we didn’t treat women and men differently at work? What if we were having a meeting and instead of reacting to people’s gender identities — which often includes men interrupting women, and women deferring to men — we reacted to what the people in front of us were saying. What if Pat was your coworker and you never had to think about Pat’s gender, because regardless of gender, you already knew the appropriate way to react to Pat? Wouldn’t that be easier? Wouldn’t that feel better?
But what about dating? What about finding a romantic partner or spouse? How will we know who to seek out if we can’t rely on simple gender signals like hair length or lipstick? Well, in this sweet little imaginary world of no-stress-around-gender, we can assume there would be new signals that we create. We already do this right now. If we are attracted to a woman, and we want to ask her out, but then we see a very specific signal — a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand — we know that she’s not available to date. We have no trouble identifying that signal. And even if we see what a cultural outsider would assume is a very similar signal, say a ring on the fourth finger of the right hand, we would know that it’s not the same at all; a right hand ring carries no particular meaning around being available or not.
So in this gender-stress-less world, we could have one signal that says: I am interested in dating people with a penis. And another signal that says: I am interested in dating people with a vagina. And yet another signal that says: I am open to dating everyone. And we could have more specialized signals too if/when we need them. If I was single, I would show the I-want-to-date-penis-people signal. And so would gay men. And maybe the signals are all just rings on particular fingers. Who knows. I’m just trying to make it clear that if the ring finger signal works quite well in our current world, that we could figure out other signals too.
We don’t live in that imaginary world. We live in a world where a huge emphasis and importance is put on gender. We need to know people's gender so that we know what bathrooms they can use, what after-school groups they can join, what schools they can attend, what careers they can go after, what clothes they can wear. We impose endless limits and rules based on gender. My argument is that this emphasis on gender is much more harmful than helpful, and I would love to see the world develop with less focus on gender.
But here we are. Everybody gets assigned a gender at birth. And every day we choose whether or not we accept that assigned gender, and how we want to present ourselves to the world. If we are assigned as a woman, and we agree with that assignment, and we have a big work presentation that day, we might choose to wear a masculine-looking blazer because we want to portray ourselves as being powerful, and in our culture men have more power. And the same day we might be going to a fancy event and wear something very feminine that we hope will show off our body and attract a mate. We might affirm our gender by getting breast implants or butt implants or lip fillers to emphasize feminine characteristics. Or our gender may be relatively meaningless to us, and we can imagine living the same day-to-day life we already live, even if we had been assigned as a man instead of a woman.
So what we’re being asked to do, and it’s very reasonable and not difficult at all, is to allow trans women and trans men to live their lives, accept or reject their assigned gender, and choose how they want to present themselves to the world. Like everybody else, they want to choose their clothing and accessories and hairstyles and makeup to emphasize or de-emphasize feminine or masculine characteristics. Like everybody else, they want to be allowed to affirm their gender with surgery or other medical assistance.
And if that is bothersome to us, if we feel that trans people presenting themselves however they please somehow harms us, we need to look really hard at the why. Why do we care what their gender is? Why is that important to us? If they reject the gender that was assigned to them at birth, how does that affect us negatively? How does it affect us at all?
Answer: It doesn’t.
P.S. — I know some of you want to argue with this. You want to tell me that it affects us because of sports and bathrooms. So let’s talk about that in Part II.