Transsexual and transgender people often get accused of threatening the very survival of the human species. Groups such as Focus on the Family single us out as the last gambit in the “Homosexual Agenda of Death”, tasked with nothing less than destroying the very foundations of the family and continued human existence. By turns we’re sinful perverts, demoniacally possessed or simply pure evil. Secular critics are a bit kinder: to them we’re just nuts.
These accusations tend to be extended to chromosomally or endocrinologically intersex people as well, despite irrefutable proof that they are simply biologically different. Even physical intersex gets dismissed as, at best a deformity, at worst the physical manifestation of original sin. (Yes, I’ve actually heard that as an argument for why people are born intersex. More than once.)
At the end of the day though, we’re all disorders and deformities. When sex evolved 350-odd million years ago, male and female were mutations, disorders that seemingly threatened the very survival of their species because these individuals needed to pair up to reproduce, unlike their ancestors who basically just cloned themselves. But because sexual reproduction allowed for greater adaptability and faster spread of advantageous traits, sex proved successful and became the dominant form of reproduction in both the plant and animal kingdoms. Sexual reproduction turned out to be a brilliant survival mechanism and it became the new norm. From the point of view of asexual creatures though, every male and female on this planet is a freak.
I’m not saying that intersex conditions fall into this category – the entire spectrum of intersex and transsexualism and transgender may be developmental dead-ends. But variation is the essence of evolution, and there is no way to predict what new variations add to our species as they develop. The fact that bisexuality and gender-variant behaviour is so widespread amongst animals, especially mammals, points to there being a definite survival value to it, otherwise these behaviours would long since have died out.
As a species, we are quick to label developmental variations as disorders or even as immoral or sinful, but I would argue that the disorder lies more in our society’s inability to adapt to and deal with these variations, than in any objective assessments of value. We fear what we don’t understand so we attack it, destroy it or hide it.
Take autism for example.
Autism is still regarded by most of the general public as a horrible mental disorder characterised by severely impaired social ability, repetitive behaviour, and mental retardation. Historically, autism and other neurological variations were regarded by turns as demonic possession or punishment from God. There are a few societies where such people were regarded as holy innocents instead, but the majority view was deeply negative, as it overwhelmingly remains today.
In reality though research is starting to show that autistic people are actually hyper-intelligent, and that it is our failure as a society to communicate with such people effectively that’s the problem.
The latest understanding of Autism Spectrum (AS) disorders is that people with AS have extreme male brains. They simply have a different way of thinking, hyper-systematizing and ordering. Under this new understanding, people with AS are actually hyper-intelligent in areas such as spacial and technical ability, and this is reflected by the fact that fathers and grandfathers of AS kids are almost twice as likely to have been engineers. Students in science tend to have more relatives with autism than the general population, while mathematicians tend to themselves be autistic more often. Asperger Syndrome, a milder form of autism, has even been called the “Geek syndrome” because sufferers tend to be extremely intelligent when it comes to science, math and other technical subjects, but lacking in social and empathic ability.
And then there are the truly amazing examples of this intelligence: Savants.
Stephen Wiltshire is an architectural artist with the ability to draw landscapes after only a single glance. He has featured on various television specials, has had collections of his work published and once drew the entirety of central London after a single helicopter trip over it. Yet he only developed the ability to speak around the age of nine, having been diagnosed with autism at the age of three.
Our society simply doesn’t know how to deal with these hyper-intelligent people, how to educate and interact with them, so we label them idiots, stick them in institutions and forget about them. Their amazing technical abilities go to waste and we are all the poorer for it.
Likewise, gender-variance is a poorly understood phenomenon, and despite mounting evidence of biological causes, still regarded almost universally negative by modern society. And yet people with intersex and gender-variant “conditions” have been around for at least as long as we’ve been writing things down, and in many cultures such people often came to be valued as mediators, medicine-people and priests. Falling “in-between” in a sense was seen to give such individuals a unique perspective on both sexes, and that perspective was valued.
Many gender-variant and intersex people see their “condition” as a burden, something to be ashamed of or angry about, and I can understand the sentiment – in our world it is a burden that isolates us and singles us out for ridicule and attack. And yet, in many other societies it was a gift, and in the same way that autism actually masks genius, who knows what gender-variance and intersex really is?
This is the last of my reprints from en.gender, so I promise there won’t be any more blasts from the past. Yay!
When Taysia Elzy and Michael Hunt were murdered late in 2008, a huge amount of attention was focussed on the fact that Taysia was transgender. Reporters made sure to point out that “he” had not had “the surgery” yet, that “he was living as a woman”. Commentary by readers was similarly obsessed with Taysia’s gender, and if the fact that the two of them were murdered was mentioned at all, it was mostly as an afterthought. The Huffington Post has a good summary article detailing events around the case.
Unfortunately it’s an all too common complaint against reporters covering trans-related stories. There was a rash of murders last year of trans people in the US, especially amongst black women, and yet most of the reporting was much more concerned by their gender than by their murders. Closer to home, the Sunday Times in South Africa ran a feature called “Tranny Day” in October of 2008. And most recently, I came across this little gem:
from LA MetBlogs:
I went to the tranny session and out of all the minorities struggling to find their voice in the LGBTI movement, none is between a bigger rock and a harder place than trannies. Generally considered a liability – as in, “You Buffalo Bills and walking Thai surgery centres represent that slippery slope argument they keep talking about” – trannies are the black sheep of the LGBTI family. My group was stymied as to how to make their social and political challenges relevant to the movement without alienating the public and indirectly hurting the gay community as a whole. What I took away from this was: that’s how non-white gays and lesbians used to, and still do, feel!
Nice huh? I thought the “Silence of the Lambs” reference was particularly classy.
Journalists don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to presenting the concerns and circumstances of transgender people sensitively. Granted, there’s still alot of misunderstanding and lack of knowledge around transsexuality and transgender people, but one can only excuse so much through ignorance before the argument falls flat. There are plenty of resources out there for journalists who care to look … sadly it just seems like many of them don’t.
The Associated Press updated its style guide in 2006 to take modern terminology and common usage of language around the LGBTQI community into account. Good style guides are also available at various places online:
- GLAAD Applauds Updated Associated Press Stylebook Entries
- GLAAD Media Reference Guide: Transgender Glossary of Terms
- NLGJA Stylebook Supplement: T
Just in brief, some basic guidelines and definitions to follow might include:
- Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of him or herself as either a man or a woman. For transgender people, this gender identity is in partial or total conflict with their physical gender.
- A transsexual person is somebody who’s gender identity is in direct opposition to their birth sex. Transsexual people sometimes do not identify with the broader term “transgender”, so use the term the person you are interviewing is comfortable with.
- An androgyne person is somebody who’s gender identity is an equal mix of male and female elements, or else is in flux. Use gender neutral pronouns such as zir/zie or singular plurals, unless the person in question uses different pronouns.
- A neutrois person is somebody who has no sense of gender identity, or else regards theirs as a distinct third type. As with androgyne people, use gender neutral pronouns unless otherwise okayed.
- Transition is the process by which transgender people bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identities. This may include any or all of the following: counselling, hormone therapy, surgery, electrolysis and voice training. Transgender people do not always want to transition to the sex opposite that of their physical body. This may be especially true of androgyne or neutrois individuals. Most transsexual people do, though they may elect not to or be unable to have certain treatments due to costs or medical risks.
- Terms such as “tranny”, “she-male”, “he-she” and “it” are all deeply offensive. Avoid using them.
Beyond language usage there’s also the question of … tact. Understandably, journalists are always looking for something to make their piece stand out and draw readers, but there are certain boundaries that need to be respected:
Obviously, the first and most important rule is that you respect the person. You’re talking to an individual, a human being, not a gender. Ask the person how they want to be referred to and stick to that, and respect boundaries they set on what they are willing to share or discuss.
- Refer to a person by the pronouns and conventions of their gender-identity, not their physical sex, and use their chosen name. So if somebody identifies as male, use male pronouns and conventions, whatever their biology and/or gender presentation at the time. The same goes for a person who identifies as a woman, as androgyne or as neutrois.
- Trans people are born the gender they identify as, so don’t refer to the past in terms of “when you were a “guy/girl”. If you have to bring up the past, which is a touchy subject to most trans people to begin with, stick to “before you transitioned”, or something along similar lines. Similarly, a trans woman might have been born physically male, but that doesn’t equate to her being born a man. She was born a woman, though with a male body.
- Gender identity is not sexual orientation. Gender identity is who you are, sexual orientation is who you are attracted to. Just as there are straight, gay, bi and asexual non-transgender people, trans people also exhibit all orientations. Sexual orientation is expressed in terms of the person’s gender, not their birth sex. So, for example, a trans woman attracted to women is a lesbian, the body she was born with notwithstanding.
- Privacy. Besides the obvious that there are certain things people will not be comfortable discussing, not respecting a trans person’s privacy can have devastating repercussions. Most transgender people blend completely into society in the gender they identify as, with nobody the wiser. Publishing sensitive information can not only compromise this, but place a transgender individual at serious risk of losing a job or a home or of being targeted with violence.
- Do not discuss genitals. Ever. How would you like a perfect stranger asking you about yours? Whether the person has had surgery or not is similarly none of your business. The only people who have a right to know these things are medical professionals and intimate partners.
- Most importantly, don’t treat them differently. A woman with a trans history is simply a woman with a medical history. The fact that she had to have a birth condition medically rectified has no bearing on who she is. Treat her as you would anybody else.
“Families and people who encourage young people to take hormones are, in my opinion, hurting that child, and not helping them see the reality of this world,” says Paul McHugh, a physician at Johns Hopkins and an outspoken critic of sexual reassignment surgery. “Your sex is in your cells—every cell in your body has either two X chromosomes or an X and Y chromosome.”
And allowing a child to live as the other gender?
“Well, that’s terrible,” he says. “That’s a form of child abuse.”
I was livid. Dr. McHugh tramples all over the biology of transsexualism, not to mention disregarding the entire spectrum of intersex people with his statements. He enforces the idea that humankind is purely binary and that “hermaphrodism” as intersex used to be called, is a rare and tragic medical anomaly, where people are even aware that it exists.
The reality is that intersex conditions are very common, and incidences are on the rise. Accoding to the Intersex Society of North America, up to as many as one in every 100 births exhibit some sort of intersex condition, and as they points out:
How small does a penis have to be before it counts as intersex? Do you count “sex chromosome” anomalies as intersex if there’s no apparent external sexual ambiguity?
The question becomes even more of a topic for controversy when you add transsexualism, which is a demonstrably neural intersex condition, and the question of whether gender-variant conditions such as being transgender, androgyne or neutrois are biological in origin is still up in the air, simply because there’s been so little research focussing on these individuals.
The only reason that intersex has largely fallen out of public knowledge is because of surgical intervention. This has been accepted practice since the 60’s when Dr. John Money seemingly “proved” the theory that gender is a purely social construct with his work on the case of David Reimer. In brief, he convinced David’s parents to raise him as a girl after young David’s penis was destroyed during a botched circumcision, the belief being that David would develop as a girl through social conditioning. On the basis of that work, thousands of intersex children have since been arbitrarily assigned either male or female with surgery and hormone replacement therapy, a practice that continues to this day.
But Money was wrong. He used David’s case to push his own ideological beliefs, and even after it became clear that he was wrong when David’s male gender identity eventually asserted itself, he misreported his findings or simply didn’t report them at all. He went on to fame and fortune, and for thirty years intersex people were abused. David finally came forward with his story in the late 1990’s, but Money still has his ardent followers and defenders, most of them in positions of power and influence in the medical establishment.
There is a veritable laundry-list of prominent mental-health and medical professionals that cherry-pick from biology and psychology to construct theories consistent with their own beliefs. Individuals like J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth Zucker, organisations such as NARTH and the Clarke Institute all push their ideologies as science, and because they seemingly have the credentials, people listen to them. Most recently, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH appeared on Dr. Phil, billed as an “expert”. Dr. Phil is watched regularly by over 4.5 million people in the United States alone, and gets broadcast on over 20 major networks world-wide. Meanwhile, Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who routinely forces gender-variant children into reparative therapy in order to “cure” them has been placed at the head of the committee tasked with authoring the DSM review on Sexuality and Gender.
Of course, one might argue that these people have a right to say and believe what they want to. This is in fact a favourite argument from groups such as these, and I would agree – rights to freedom of speech and of belief are vital, and I would defend theirs as strongly as I’d defend my own. But they cross a line into malpractice and misinformation when they pass those beliefs off as science. Where their theories and statements do not reflect scientific understanding, they have a responsibility to say so.
Medical professionals and academics have positions of perceived knowledge and authority, and all too often they abuse it to push ideology. Because of that perceived “scholarly authority”, they have an enormous impact on how intersex and gender-variant people are perceived by the media, and subsequently the public. We need to start holding them to account for their statements.