Sunday, 8 May 2016

Mythbusting trans & gender diverse people: by the students and staff of "Trans on Campus".

Today, trans and gender diverse people are very much in the public eye, but we have always been here! Its only now, with high profile celebrities coming out, that we have become newsworthy. Even here in New Zealand, almost every month there is an article about trans or gender diverse people published in the NZ Herald, or in online media such as

While the publicity of trans issues might make it appear that were being accepted in society and increasingly, we are there is still an extraordinary amount of harassment and violence directed towards T&GD persons. Transphobia (less commonly known as transprejudice) is very real, and examples of it are everywhere.

Given this, we want to break down a few myths about sex, gender and about T&GD persons. Many assume that gender is determined solely by our biology, or is entirely socially constructed. The truth of our current scientific understanding is that it is determined by both and that sex and gender are not necessarily linked. Anyway lets get on with the mythbusting!

1.     There are only two sexes, male and female.
At birth, your legal sex is determined by a doctor looking at your body and categorising your reproductive ability as male, female or intersex. Yes, thats right: somewhere between 0.1% and 1.7% of births dont fit into those nice normal boxes of male and female. And while some intersex variations are obvious from birth, others may not be apparent until later in life. This natural variation in sexual development is an active area of research, and were really only beginning to understand how our bodies develop. Research published in Nature last year (Ainsworth C., 2015, Nature, Vol. 518, pp. 288291; Fausto-Sterling A., 2015, Nature, Vol. 519, p. 291) shows that gender expression can even vary within one body. So, while the rates of intersex persons has been traditionally thought to be low, the true rate could be closer to 1%. (Fausto-Sterling A., 2000, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality).

2.     But gender and sex are the same thing!
Gender is the construct by which we categorise people as a man or a woman and in many cultures around the world possibly as other genders. For most people, their sex and gender align, referred to as being cisgender, but for between 1.2% to 3.7% of people they dont and they identify as transgender or gender diverse. These numbers come from the Youth12 survey, 1.2% of interviewees said they were transgender, while another 2.5% said they were questioning their gender. (Clark et al., 2014, Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 55, p. 93). In short, sex is about your body; gender is about how you present and how you wish to be seen.

3.     If gender is a social construct, then being trans is a choice.
While most people seem happy with their birth-assigned gender that is linked to their sex (including many intersex people), some people have a strong desire that their gender and sex are not the same. For these people, it is well-known that being able to live in their chosen gender role and to access appropriate medical treatments as desired, leads to vastly improved health outcomes and quality of life. Therefore even if our gender identities are socially constructed, it seems unreasonable to force those who struggle with their assigned gender on a daily basis to just accept it. There is also growing evidence that neuroanatomy can play a considerable part in determining gender identity, which is determined by our DNA as well as hormone levels in the womb affecting how certain parts of our brain develop. As such, its clear that gender is a case of both nature and nurture working together. (Fausto-Sterling A., 2012, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, The Routledge Series Integrating Science and Culture).
4.     Non-binary genders are a new thing. 

Actually, it is our modern Western binary gender view of male and female that is new! There are multiple other cultures (for example: Maori, Samoa, Tongan, North American, Mexican, Indian and older European cultures) where a third gender (or more) are recognised and celebrated; the idea of gender being more than just male or female has been around for millenia. The fact that so many cultures have developed the idea of a third gender indicates that T&GD persons have been around for a very long time, even though we have at times been ignored or marginalised by the dominant culture.

5.     There arent that many T&GD people, so why should we worry?
We have 40,000 students at UoA. Assuming the rate of 1.23.7% cited above, this means that somewhere between 480 and 1500 current students at UoA are either trans or gender diverse. Get all of them in a lecture theatre and tell them they are unimportant! Another to visualise it is about 12% of people worldwide have naturally red hair, but we dont claim that red hair doesnt exist, or forces people with red hair to dye their hair a different colour to fit in

6.     But I dont know any T&GD people!
Do you know more than 50 to 100 people? Given the statistics, theres a good chance you do! The might also not be out and may be too scared to tell you or anyone else. Or maybe, you know someone that has already have transitioned, and is living as their true gender, so they have had no need to disclose their personal medical history.

7.     Why do some people change gender with time, or decide to come out later in life?
As we grow up and go through life, though, our bodies change, our friends change, our interests change, our priorities change and our confidence and understand change. It is therefore not at all surprising that our gender can also change over time. It can also be that it takes time before someone is able to due to circumstances and ability to take steps to transition or experiment with their gender expression.

8.     So you just need to have surgery and then be happy?
For some T&GD people, surgery to align their sex with their gender is indeed very important. A more common step is for trans people to take hormones, which are one of the primary factors in various sex characteristics developing in our bodies. But just as you would not ask any other person for intimate details of their medical history, please dont ask T&GD people about theirs! As with any other person, we will talk about our personal health and the specifics of our bodies if we feel comfortable doing so; if youre interested there are plenty of resources which are freely available to learn more.

9.     Which toilets do you use?
For those of us who feel comfortable, whichever option is closest to the gender were presenting as. This often makes a lot of us feel unsafe, though, so some of us might use unisex/genderless toilets. An increase in unisex/genderless toilets would actually be a good thing for everyone, making it easier for parents out alone with their young children to help out without the barriers of gender segregation, and for personal support workers and disabled people out in public. Not all disabled people want or can consistently have a personal support worker of the same sex, but many of the accessible stalls on-campus are within gender-segregated washrooms. Really though, should what toilet we use really matter?

10.     But this all means you cant have a normal life with families, right?
Why not? Remember, not all cisgender heterosexual couples are able to have children, yet no-one is suggesting that they cant have otherwise normal lives. We can get married, we can adopt, we can have surrogate children, and who knows what will be possible in the future with medical technology? Womb transplants have already been performed, even leading to later successful pregnancies (Brännström et al., 2014, The Lancet, Vol. 385, pp. 607616), and scientists have managed to create fertile sperm and eggs from stem cells in animal studies (Hayashi et al., 2012, Science, Vol. 338, pp. 971975).

11.     Youre all so brave!
If we are brave, it is only because we have to be. Really, we just want to be ourselves. T&GD persons are 4 to 5 times more likely to commit or attempt suicide due to the harassment, bullying and transphobia we confront everyday, even from those who are closest to. Many are estranged from our families, or have lost their jobs, friends, or partners because of their transition; you can imagine that life is even harder when complete strangers are nasty to us too.

12.     This all sounds so complex! What do you want me to do?
Um, not much really; just be nice! Were really just normal people at the end of the day, so try and treat us as such; dont harass or bully us, even if were different. Please use the name and pronouns we ask you to, even if you dont think theyre right. Using a different pronoun doesnt hurt you, but it can make a huge difference to us. Dont ask us inappropriate questions you wouldnt ask anyone else the same! And finally, please, do let us use the bathroom in peace. I mean really, we all just need to pee!

Further reading:
In addition to the references included above, we recommend the following readings:
4.     “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community” edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth, Oxford University Press.

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