Monday, April 30, 2012

Gender and Transgender

Before I begin this post, I should say that this post took an incredibly long time to write.  I have been trying to write this post for about 5 months now, seemingly reaching dead ends several times and shelving it for long periods.  Because this is an issue I still have trouble understanding, it has been very difficult to get my thoughts in order and to make sure it doesn’t say things I did not intend.  That said, I think I am happy with the way it finally came out and it was worth not giving up on the idea.

In the area of gay rights, generally grouped as LGBT, or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered, acceptance of transgendered individuals is often considered the final frontier of widespread discrimination.  For example, there was recently a Canadian contestant in the Miss Universe pageant who was disqualified because she was not a “natural born female”, whatever that means.  I guess that is probably because being trans is not as common as being gay, so there are fewer of them.  Even in the gay community they often are marginalized.  I have to admit that, until recently, it is something that seemed so weird and abnormal to me that I didn’t really consider it as equivalent to homosexuality, in the sense of it being a fundamental part of one’s identity.  Part of the problem is that I thought of this as just feeling uncomfortable with who you are or not liking yourself.  Thus I considered this an issue that could be treated psychologically, or by not being so strictly bound to traditional gender roles.  After all, not liking sports and liking to play with dolls does not make a boy a girl and the solution to misogyny is not to become a man.  So through either therapy and/or social change, I was of the opinion that this would take care of the issue of people being “transgendered”.  Now I believe I have a better understanding of the issues involved and I will get to that shortly.

First though, I think my biggest barrier to understanding the nature of the issue is  the same barrier that much of society has to acceptance of gays and other sexual minorities.  If it is not a situation that applies to me, these differences can be very hard to understand.  I do not have the slightest concept of what it would mean to be transgendered; I have never thought of myself as anything other than male nor have I ever wanted to be any other gender, even for a moment.  I know being male  is the way I am supposed to be and I am quite happy with that.  The concept of feeling otherwise is quite alien to me and I have difficulty understanding how someone could feel they are the “wrong” gender.  Likewise, someone who is straight would have a very hard time understanding how a man could be sexually attracted to another man.  To that challenge, we answer: it is who we are and how we are made. 

But is that the same for the transgendered?  It now seems quite clear that is the case.  What really helped me to understand was several recent stories about children and gender.  Over the past few months, there have been many stories in the media regarding the experiences of children growing up in a home where gender roles are reexamined, and several in which children are convinced they are the wrong gender.  There are so many different stories out there.  One was a story in the Toronto Star last year (see what I mean about how long this took to write?) about two parents who were determined to raise their latest child gender-free.  They would not tell even their immediate extended family the sex of the new baby and were determined to provide equal access to the toys or activities typically associated with either gender.  I’m not sure I entirely agreed with their approach, but I do understand their goal, as learned behaviour and acculturation is a big part of how a child learns to be a male or a female.  For instance, their older son identifies as, and is acknowledged as, a male, has certain preferences and characteristics than many people would associate with girls, like preferring long hair and other “girly” characteristics.  While he certainly identifies as a boy, some people might look at him and think he is a girl, based on what he looks like and the activities he prefers.  Since this child had many problems resolving gender identity issues, my theory is this family wanted to avoid this with their next child and make the attempt to entirely sever the connection between sex and gender.  This way, whatever preferences the child may have, the gender expectations placed on children will not be an additional pressure on the child to ignore his/her nature and conform to whatever society considers acceptable.  I disagree somewhat with this approach.  While the goal is commendable, I believe it loses sight of reality.  The reality is that nobody lives in a bubble.  Kids will go to school, and even before that, they will be in day care and play groups where kids will learn that there are boys and girls and boys do “boy things” while girls do “girl things”.  While that is not necessarily the way things should be looked at, that is the reality that all kids are faced with.  Although I must say that part of my opposition to this approach was related to reporting that was not fully accurate.  In later interviews, the parents confirmed they were not in fact ignoring the fact the new baby is one particular sex and that the full immediate family was aware, but that they simply did not want any outside influences directing how the new child will see their gender identity.  I personally believe this is something of a Quixotic quest, tilting at windmills that cannot be taken down.  Societal conventions are all pervasive and I believe it is naive to think they can be changed by simply rejecting them.

Still, there are some children who know their biological sex does not match their internal gender and the recent media stories have shown me that for many children this is a long standing problem that has existed from a very early age, far before puberty.  One criticism of transgender identity has been that some people who claim to be transgendered are really gay and they believe they are the wrong gender because they are attracted to people of the same sex and they may think  they have more in common with the opposite gender.  Until recently, my opinion was that if these people simply were not as intransigent in their assumptions of how men and women are supposed to behave, gender dysphoria would either no longer exist, or at least become far more unusual.  But now I am hearing about stories of boys convinced they should be girls and vice versa since the age of 4 or 5.  And it is clearly not role playing or being unsure about what defines a boy or girl as these attitudes most often do not go away over time, but rather get more intense.  There was even one story about identical twin boys, one of whom identified as a girl starting at a very early age.  Now in their early teens, the transgendered twin is almost ready to start taking female hormones so she can grow up as a woman and not a man.  Interestingly, her brother (the other twin) is her strongest defender and seemed to understand the issue better than even the parents.  Even he knew his twin wasn’t really his brother but rather his sister.  And it was not any kind of judgement or loaded statement - simply a matter of fact.  He understood that in every way (except for the parts, I guess) his twin sibling is a girl and always knew that she was. 

So maybe gender identity is more than whether you like playing with guns or with dolls or if you’re attracted to boys or to girls.  Then what is it?  Damned if I know.  As I said earlier, I have a hard time understanding this since such a feeling is so foreign to my own experience.  If these dysphoria issues are appearing almost as soon as a child can communicate full thoughts, it is probably something inborn.  So is this genetics?  Well, the case I just mentioned involves two identical twins; by definition they have identical genetic structures so any differences must be the result of other factors (or perhaps other factors interacting with certain genetic predispositions).  By the way, the same is most likely true of sexual orientation, as there are known instances of identical twins where one is gay and the other is straight.  But again, it must be clarified that, just because something is not genetic in origin does not mean that it is something changeable.  We don’t really know how our mental characteristics come to be - and it seems not all is the result of conscious or even unconscious learning.

So I guess this post doesn’t really have an ending.  But since I think I was trying to answer a question or maybe solve a problem, there can’t be a real ending because I don’t really have any answers.  All I have is a bit more understanding and respect.

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