Tag Archives: transgender

Gendered Perspectives on USA Culture

The train doors slid open, and I moved through them with everyone else towards the elevators up to the surface streets. We strangers waited in silence for the elevator to arrive. When it got there, those with bicycles entered first and the rest of us filled in around them, although there was still ample space. Someone leaned heavily against me despite the empty part of the elevator. I fidgeted to clarify with motion that I was not an elevator rail. The leaner’s back remained pressed into me.

“Excuse me? Hi, yes, I am a person, not a wall.”

The leaner looked around at me, then shuffled off a few feet away into the big open space in the middle of the elevator. My eyes met those of another person standing on the other side of the bicycles. This was a person who looked like a woman in this culture just like I did, with eyes which held empathy for me. Silently, we admonished the patriarchy in that moment, both of us acknowledging and lamenting that this was the latest one in a series of events just like it.

That is what it is like to be treated the way USA culture treats a woman. To be unseen by men to the point of being treated like furniture in a very literal sense, and to have a sense of community with women which is quite unlike any other community that has welcomed me. American women’s culture has a lot more shared context than American culture in general, and that affects communication. A silent moment of eye contact and a pair of nodding heads with a particular facial expression was all it took for us to both know we were thinking about sexism, the atrocities of how women are treated, the obliviousness of men, and the fact that talking about it out loud in a closed space with this person still there was too dangerous to risk even with the other strangers present. After all, sometimes the people who do these things are also rapists and murderers. We’ve all heard the stories. The shared fear is part of the shared context.

Some years later, after I began my testosterone treatments but long before my facial hair grew in, I injured my foot. I was in a lot of pain, but I had an errand that could not wait. I dragged myself to the bus. As I entered, I saw someone rise from the handicap section and turn to talk to someone. I slid around behind the riser to take the only empty seat on the full bus, relieved by the instant reduction in foot pain.

“Hey! I was going to sit there!” said someone who looked like a woman. The person who had stood looked like a man, and had risen to give my admonisher the seat I occupied. Normally, I would have stood at that point.

“I have a foot injury,” I said. “I need to sit.”

“Yeah well I have had brain surgery!” the admonisher responded emphatically.

“Maybe if you ask someone else to stand up for you, they will,” I said.

The admonisher gasped and hemmed and hawed and made comments about how rude I was being, but did not ask anyone else to give up a seat. I looked down, unsure how to respond. After all, I had already mentioned my foot injury.

The admonisher fell silent and avoided looking at me until two stops later.

“Have a good day, Sir,” the admonisher said cheerily and exited. I was surprised by the complete 180 in how this person was treating me.

“I’m not a Sir!” I called out but it was too late; the person was gone.

It was not until that final exchange that I understood the conversation we had been having, because up until that point, I had thought that I was being perceived to be a woman. Women are so accustomed to being taken advantage of by men behaving in excruciatingly selfish ways that my admonisher probably did not believe that my foot was injured instead of taking my words at face value the way people had before I started testosterone. My lowered gaze was probably seen as an averted gaze, and that combined with my silence was probably interpreted as being yet again ignored by a man when trying to speak up about something important, rather than as the pensive confusion it was. If I had been seen as a woman, the other person might have recognized the confusion and checked in with me about a possible misunderstanding instead of continuing down a defensive path. The sudden cheery departure was probably a response to the common fear of being followed by a mean man from a bus.

I spent the rest of the bus ride disturbed by what had happened, and wondering how I was supposed to know how to interact with people if I can’t tell what gender they think I am. Even now after years of additional testosterone treatments, I still get both “Ma’am” and “Sir” every time I go to the grocery store.

The experience of being treated like a woman involves being ignored by more people than just men. Before I transitioned, I could say the same thing five times, in five different ways, trying desperately to get someone to listen to me, only to be either dismissed or totally ignored. I regularly spoke directly to groups or individuals of various genders and got silence in return, complete with a total lack of body language acknowledgement. I made regular asides to myself under my breath thinking no one could hear them.

Then I began my testosterone treatments. People started answering my muttered comments. I was astonished – and quite a bit embarrassed. Now, if I begin to speak, people of various genders will stop what they are doing to listen to me, even if I am not speaking to them directly. It’s as if I have stepped into a spotlight that follows me wherever I go. I intentionally relearned how and when to speak in order to handle that kind of power responsibly.

I do not believe that white cisgender men, having never experienced that contrast, understand the disproportionate power of their voices. And I don’t think most people recognize that they contribute to that power difference by listening to men and ignoring everyone else. Yes, non-men and feminists of all genders and political leanings do this too. After all, it is difficult to overcome cultural indoctrination. I am working to overcome this in myself by questioning whether I am truly listening with respect in my heart every time a woman speaks.

I refer to white cisgender men in particular above because cisgender men of other races are systematically silenced in a variety of contexts in ways that are often similar to what white women experience here in the USA. I recommend reading about that sometime.

My understanding of men’s culture is still in its infancy. The few all-men spaces I have been asked to join are uncomfortable for me. The values are so different from the values of women’s culture that I have trouble navigating these spaces due to the unfamiliarity. The things men do that I consider rude and hostile happen with far greater frequency in these spaces, and I wonder whether they see these things as rude and hostile. With the isolation caused by this pandemic, I have been unable to continue exploring these spaces. This is unfortunate, because that perspective would help round out this article.

Men, women, and nonbinary people each have a very different set of shared experiential context to the degree that it has created separate co-cultures. This affects how people speak to each other within these groups and also between them. Men and women who can also be either cisgender or transgender, which creates an additional overlay of shared experiences, and this also impacts communication. Thus I have found that while I prefer to just let people make assumptions and not bother with filling them in about my gender, this creates communication issues because it means that strangers and I are not on the same page about which communication culture I am coming from. This, to me, has highlighted the very different co-cultures associated with genders here in the USA in a way that contradicts everything I was taught in school about how wonderful it is that we have gender equality here.

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Why I am Closeted as “Transgender”

Growing up I was always perplexed by the world, but that was okay. I was a child, I wasn’t supposed to know everything. I’m still perplexed by much of the world, and that’s okay too. The world is a big place, and there is a lot to learn. But I digress.

I enjoyed learning more than anything. I was always on time to school. One of the things that confused me was other children not wanting to be in class.

I loved numbers and words, colors, sounds, science, and history. I didn’t care whether it was learning about shapes or art or science or ancient civilizations, I drank it all up. Figuring out things I didn’t know was something I thrived on. The scientific method itself fascinated me. I won first place in the school and county science fairs every year. I was the annoying kid who could find all the problems with your project and, in pointing them all out to you, truly believe that I was helping. I was baffled when the other kids expressed annoyance.

I also found other social norms puzzling. Why did my cousin say that it wasn’t okay for me to go shirtless on a sweltering East coast summer day when I was barely more than a toddler? Why did my mother agree with him? Why did I have to put on a shirt when he didn’t? Why did “being a girl” matter? Why did my mother – who taught my brother and I that gender didn’t matter – agree with him?

I truly did not think about my gender very often as a young child. It only came up when other people made a big deal out of it. And then, it felt gross in ways I never had words to describe.

Why did my friend in 7th grade turn his face into a wrinkled scowl and say, “why would a girl want to be tall?” when I was happy to be one of the tallest kids in my year? What did “being a girl” have to do with one’s preferences for one’s own height? It was the first time in a long time that I had even thought about my gender. And then he threw what he thought it was into my face to stop me from enjoying a simple fact of the nature of my existence.

It struck me for most of my years as a minor that gender was fake. Everyone seemed fundamentally the same to me, but everyone was also picking sides in some weird battle between boys and girls, as if the difference was existentially significant. It seemed to me that this just didn’t have to happen, that they were making it all up and making their own lives and each other’s harder. But, it was happening nonetheless. I was certain, if nothing else, that I was apart from all of it. As an adult, the bafflement has melted into empathetic grief. I have watched the battle of the sexes of childhood harden into systemic oppression. My sadness for the depths and reaches of the harms of sexism is something I don’t have words to express. And yet, it’s still something I am generally apart from except when other people make absurd assumptions about my gender and act according to their sexist social scripts.

When the great digital cultural migration of our lifetime happened and MySpace was abandoned for Facebook, I did not select a gender. It was not required, and for reasons I did not understand at that time I had a strong aversion to the question, so I left it blank. Later on Facebook participated in the tidal wave of binary gender washing over digital platforms. Facebook’s language changed from prompting users to speak about ourselves in third person in every post to a looser format, and they also began using pronouns to refer to users. Around that time, those of us who had not entered a gender got a pop up notice upon logging in to select male or female. No other options, no way to opt out. I refused to select one. Instead, I spent a few years going up to the address bar to retype the home page web address every time I logged on. This bypassed the screen, which no longer pops up for users like me. To this day certain plugins break because I have never entered a gender into Facebook.

Why did my friends sit me down in college to have an intervention and tell me that I needed to be more girly in order to attract a man? Why couldn’t I wear my keys on my belt loop with my big baggy hoodie and no makeup? Why didn’t they understand that gender was more complicated than just men and women? Why did they balk so very strongly when I tried to talk to them about that? I was right on the cusp of finally letting myself understand that I am not a binary person, but that conversation went so badly that it shoved me far deeper into the self-closet. (Yes, being closeted to yourself is a thing, and it’s often messy.)

I did finally emerge, after some years of additional college education, into a place in my own mind where I was capable of thinking critically about my gender. I stepped out of my internal closet directly into a giant question mark: Was I really “not a woman,” or did I just hate the way the world treats women? I would ask myself this for years, punctuated by long periods of stepping right back into that self-closet. Or maybe I just ignored it because to me gender was that irrelevant. Or maybe it just took so long because “both” didn’t occur to me as a possibility for an embarrassingly long time. I don’t really know, and frankly it was likely a combination of these and other factors as well.

Why did the management team at one of my first jobs, where I was a peon in a huge corporation, refuse to call me by my name? Why did they call me into a meeting with HR to insist both that I must use my legal name and that the company was not transphobic? How could they not see the ridiculousness in that? And why, when the name change became legal, did they keep using my false old name on official documentation no matter how many times I filed a request for my name to be changed to reflect my legal name?

I bought a chest binder, but I wasn’t trans, I told myself. I proudly told people about how I had circumnavigated Facebook’s gender inquiries, but I wasn’t trans. I bought myself my first packer (link is NSFW), but I wasn’t trans. I wasn’t. I wasn’t trans. I also wasn’t cis. I was and am something different, something apart from the system as it had always been described to me. Cis/trans is just another false binary, another social construct used for the ease of communication. There is nothing wrong with being either one of those things. It’s just not a model that is useful for describing me. I knew this on a fundamental level but I did not have the words to say it for years.

Eventually I moved to a new place filled with the kinds of laboratories and research facilities where I’m interested in working. This place is also filled with trans people and other people who are neither cis nor trans, just like me. They all told each other my pronouns were they/them behind my back. The lie spread like wildfire. I spent my first year there regularly correcting people in my trans, agender, and nonbinary circles: I do not use pronouns. That includes “they/them.” Why did some of them call me a TERF for speaking my truth about myself?

Why did one of the few cisgender people I dated in the new place after I moved insist that I could not be neither cis nor trans? Why did he insist I must be one or the other? Why did he insist I must be something I am not? Why was he more attached to his preconceived notions of a language he himself admits is flawed than he was to listening to what I, his partner, was saying about the truth of myself?

Why was I treated like a “TERF-y faker troll” by some of the local queer communities when I was honest about my gender and pronouns? Why were they so hung up on yet another false binary that they were more likely to consider me a TERF than honest, even though I was speaking purely about my own existence, something they themselves say should be honored and respected?

Why are false binaries so voraciously present here?

Why would I ever call myself something other than “trans” when honesty caused me so much frustration and pain? Heck, I can’t even bring myself to describe my true gender here in this post. I’m too afraid. So just call me “trans,” or “transgender” if formality is a must for you.

Transphobia and Racism

Anthropologists are aware that there are a plethora of genders around the world. Whether we are talking about gender identity or cultural gender, which are two distinctly different concepts, this remains true. Refusal to accept the reality of the existence of more than 2 genders is refusal to acknowledge the validity of many of the world’s cultures. This is therefore a form of racism or cultural supremacy rising up under the mask of transphobia and/or binarism.

Modern Western imperialism has its roots in the 15th century when various European nations began colonizing other people’s countries, glorifying it as “discovery” and justifying it by insisting that the people who already lived there were animals, not people. This likely played in to their immediate dismissal of cultural differences as “wrong” or “inferior.” Several cultures around the globe enjoyed the freedom of multiple recognized genders before their lands, societies, and resources were taken over by European colonizers, missionaries, and so on. These freedoms often also extended to general acceptance of various relationships that we might call LGBQ through our modern, Western lens. These were among the other freedoms European colonizers squashed during their whitewashing of the cultures of other nations.

Examples for further reading of case studies include:

Decolonization began in some continents in 1945, five centuries after colonization began, and never happened in North America. While many countries regained their independence, it wasn’t until after devastating impacts on their cultures were enacted by the withdrawing conquerors and entrenched over periods of time that were sometimes hundreds of years and multiple generations long. For example, 34 countries in Africa now outlaw homosexuality as of this writing. This isn’t surprising, when we consider that the colonizers came from Europe and 17 European countries still require sterilization of transgender people to this day. Sexual orientation and gender aren’t the same thing, but European rigid requirements around gender include rigid requirements around sexual orientation because their concept of sexual orientation is based upon gender. Thus, many of the world’s nations that are currently very hostile to LGBT people weren’t always that way, and only became that way because of the influence of missionaries and conquering nations from European (and later, American) origin. Nations beginning to relax their death grip on LGBT existence and behavior as transgender and queer rights are slowly won back is thus an aspect of modern decolonization.

North America was never decolonized. Canada and the United States continue to engage in genocide towards indigenous peoples. The fact that most of the states in the United States only recognize two genders legally despite the existence of several indigenous genders is part of this. Our societal and legal refusal to recognize that genitals do not necessarily define gender, and that there are more than two genders, is an extension of the same racism and cultural supremacy that fuels ongoing genocide of various indigenous peoples, that brought anti-gay laws to multiple continents that did not previously have them, and which we must actively combat both within our own minds and at all levels of government if we wish to undo the ongoing evils of those who came before us, and which are still enacted by many of the people around us.

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Beyond the Signage

In the great cultural debate across the USA and beyond over who should pee where, one common fact we can agree on is that everyone must do so. Everyone needs toilet access. This seems obvious enough that I won’t justify it here. But why are some people so focused on “gender-neutral” or “all gender” signage? Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it? The answer is both simple and complicated.

According to a 2016 Reuters article, in a 2015 survey of 27,715 transgender Americans, “Thirty-two percent of transgender people said they limited the amount they ate or drank at least once in the previous year so they did not need to use a public restroom. Eight percent reported having a kidney or urinary tract infection, or another kidney-related medical issue, because they avoided restrooms.” This avoidance of public restrooms shows that they do not meet the needs of transgender people as the facilities currently exist.

Why go to such extremes to avoid public restrooms? Contrary to certain public narratives, it is transgender people in restrooms, not the other people present, who are in danger of violence. Verbal harassment, physical attack, being falsely reported for public indecency or lewd behavior (which is saying something, considering how rarely such accusations are false), and so-called corrective rape are things transgender people risk if they enter a restroom where other people think they do not belong. These risks are increased (both in and out of restrooms) in places where people are required to use restrooms that match their sex at birth.

Let’s start with the part of the transgender community that more people are familiar with: Binary transgender people. These are trans women and trans men. They identify with a binary gender (man or woman) that is not the binary sex (male or female) that they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people transition medically with hormones and/or surgery and/or other interventions. Some do not. Those who do use medical intervention may or may not reach a stage where they appear to strangers to be the sex that matches their gender identity in their lifetimes. We already know that appearing to be a sex other than what strangers expect in a given restroom leads to violence against transgender people. It is then no mystery why so many transgender people avoid public binary restrooms, even when they themselves are binary in identity.

“But wait,” you may be wondering, “why not just use the restroom that matches the sex a person appears to be, if that’s all it takes to avoid threats, harassment, and violence?”

This may avoid the more immediate violence, but it also reinforces the wrong ideas others have about a person’s gender. Transgender people spend a lot of time and energy trying to be seen for who they really are despite the false ideas of those around them. To use the wrong restroom is to give that up, to give people a reason to justify misgendering them, to undo huge amounts of work and effort with one single action. It leads to the verbal and psychological violence of being treated as the wrong gender, something that contributes to the elevated nature of transgender suicide rates.

People who are one of the many nonbinary genders, agender, or otherwise aren’t men or women experience the same long-term risks of misgendering described above no matter which restroom they enter. Some choose medical transition intervention and others do not, but they all face the same risks of violence that binary transgender people do if they enter a restroom which people perceive as being linked to a different sex than the one they think the person happens to be. My personal experience suggests that most cisgender people are extremely bad at guessing correctly about what is in a transgender or nonbinary person’s pants. It doesn’t matter which binary restroom I use; at least one person will do a wide-eyed double take and look ready to flight/fight.

This brings us back to the topic of signage. By using gender-neutral or all-gender signage, we change the expectations in the minds of the people who enter it. The expectations become “anyone can be in this room,” and that means the underlying reason for restroom violence against transgender and nonbinary people is removed. If there is no longer a reason to control who may be present, then there is no longer a reason to abuse transgender and nonbinary people for being present. It also changes the concept in peoples mind of what it means when they witness someone entering a specific restroom, thereby nixing the secondary misgendering problem. And let’s face it, changing some restroom signs is a lot faster and easier than changing our culture to end transphobia, binarism, and cissexism.

That was the complicated answer to “Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it?” The short answer is: There is no good option when both options available can and do lead to harassment and violence.

It is worth noting here that there is fervent debate within the transgender community about restroom signage. Some advocate for the phrase “all gender,” as they enjoy the emphasis and inclusivity of “all.” Others advocate for “gender neutral,” as a nod to the people who do not have gender and are thus not included in “all gender.” And that’s just the words. The debates about the symbols can be thousands of comments long with piles of hurt feelings on multiple sides.

So please, dear reader, advocate for gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms at your place of work and at your child’s school even if you and your child do not need them personally. Our voices often go unheard, and are often silenced by our own fear of the repercussions for speaking up in the first place. If there are single occupancy restrooms available, they are the easiest of all restrooms to update because they merely require sign changes. Please seek them out, and ask for the signs to be changed. While you’re at it, please ask for waste bins to be added to men’s room stalls for menstrual products. Nobody likes carrying a dirty pad or tampon in their pocket in search of a trash can.

Nine Influential Women and Transgender Scientists to Know

Image of Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958) was a white English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, photographed DNA before the men who are credited with its discovery figured out other things about it. Her work was essential to figuring out other structures as well, including graphite and viruses.

Image of Dr. Maathai
Wangari Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) is the Kenyan researcher who initiated and lead Africa’s Green Belt Movement, a project which spread across the continent. Due to Dr. Maathai’s efforts and encouragement, over 30 million trees have been planted. She was Africa’s first woman to win the Novel Prize.

Image of Stephanie Wkolek
Stephanie Wkolek

Kevlar was invented in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek (1923 – 2014), a white American chemist. She was one of the very few women working as a chemist for Dupont (a very large chemical research company). Her coworkers laughed at her and the fibers that formed in one of her experiments. Bet they aren’t laughing now.

Image of Dorothy Vaughan
Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008) was a lead human computer for NASA when the organization began to transition from human computers to the early room-sized computers. She taught herself computer programming and became NASA’s first black woman team leader amid an environment swirling with both racism and sexism.

Image of Marie Curie
Marie Curie, sometimes also referred to as Madame Curie

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist. Even now, she is the only person to ever receive the Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and the first woman to be awarded one at all. She was friends with Albert Einstein, who wrote her a very touching letter of support when the man-dominated field turned ugly and vile towards her for being so good at what she did while also being a woman. You can read it here. Fair warning: it made me cry! She died young due to heavy exposure to the radiation she discovered. As she was the first person to work with it, no one knew yet that it was dangerous.

Image of Chien-Shiung Wu
Chien-Shiung Wu

Chien-Shiung Wu, 吳健雄, (1912-1997) was a Chinese-American experimental physicist famous for the Wu experiment, which proved that parity is not conserved. Her discovery earned her the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978 and contributed to her colleagues winning the Novel Prize in Physics. Her various significant contributions to nuclear physics earned her nicknames such as “First Lady of Physics” and “The Chinese Madame Curie.”

Image of Laurence Michael Dillon, depicting him both before and after utilizing testosterone treatments.
Laurence Michael Dillon

Laurence Michael Dillon (1915-1962), a white Brit, was the author of “Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics,” which may be the first book about transgender identity and gender transitioning. He described transgender identification as innate and unaffected by psychotherapy, and advocated hormones and surgery as an alternative. He is the first person known to have undergone phalloplasty (surgery to create a phallus), and personally aided in the surgery of Roberta Cowell, Brittain’s first patient to undergo bottom surgery.

Image of Ben Barres
Ben Barres

Ben Barres (1954 – 2017) was an American neurologist who worked at Harvard and revolutionized our understanding of the brain (primarily by showing that the importance of the glia). He was well known for being a good mentor and for bringing people of other minorities up with him. He was also the first openly transgender person in the National Academy of Sciences.

Image of Lynn Conway
Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway (born Jan 2, 1938), is a white American computer scientist who is credited with work used in most modern computer processors today. Her journey involves being fired for revealing that she was a woman who intended to transition to female both medically and in terms of gender role. Transitioning caused her to lose access to her children because of the law at the time. She started a new life in “stealth mode” where she got a new programming job without telling anyone she was transgender, and eventually came out again after it was safer for her to do so.