9 Things That Bruce Jenner and Other Transgender People Would Like You to Know
Before Bruce Jenner’s groundbreaking interview on ABC-TV with Diane Sawyer, during which he announced he is “for all intents and purposes a woman,” a mere 7 percent of Americans said they knew a transgender person. Afterward, the 17 million Americans who tuned in to the show knew a whole lot more about what it is like to be transgender.
That, in and of itself was a triumph. Knowing someone's story makes it a lot harder to hate them. In the weeks since, there have been other victories, including a major series in the New York Times, for a group many say is at the forefront of the next big civil rights movement, now that gay marriage is all but the law of the land.
But change is slow. Even some well-meaning Americans remain confused about how to talk about and understand what it means to be a transgender person, and lack even the vocabulary to discuss it. So here is a sort of primer on what it is to be trans, how to talk about it and understand it, and how to be an ally to a group of people who have long faced cruelty and violence just for being who they are.
1. What exactly does transgender mean?
Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, according to the advocacy group GLAAD.
“Transgender is an adjective and should never be used as a noun. Rather than saying "Max is a transgender," say "Max is a transgender person." Transgender never needs an "ed" at the end,” according to GLAAD.
The opposite of transgender is cisgender, which is sometimes shortened to “cis” as transgender is shortened to “trans.” Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity and biology are aligned.
Transsexual is a dated term for transgender that is no longer correct to use. Transvestite, the old term for someone who enjoys dressing as the opposite sex, is now referred to as cross-dressing. Drag queens are people who dress as the opposite gender for a show or performance, which has nothing to do with being transgender.
2. How many transgender people are there?
The most commonly cited number, 700,000 Americans, is somewhat out of date and probably on the low side. It comes from a 2011 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA. Most experts on the transgender community believe the number is far higher, since many transgender people have not felt safe to come out and be counted.
“If you're in a high school of 2,000 kids, you're probably going to have somewhere between two and four trans kids in that school at any one time,” Norman Spack, the co-director of the gender management clinic at Boston Children's Hospital, told ABC-NEWS.
3. Is being a transgender person considered a disorder?
Not anymore. In 2013, the term “gender identity disorder” was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible of the psychiatric profession. The term has been replaced with the less stigmatizing “gender dysphoria.”
According to ABC, the criteria for diagnosing gender dysphoria has also changed.
"Gender dysphoria" is the term medical experts use to describe the distress a person may feel when their gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. There are various treatment options available to manage this discontent including mental health services, hormonal treatments, and— in some cases— surgery. There is a debate in the medical and transgender communities about whether or not gender dysphoria should remain in the DSM. Some believe removing it could limit patients’ access to insurance coverage.”
But while being transgender is slowly escaping the stigma of being considered a disorder or disease, many who study it are convinced it is biological. As Vox reports:
Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine conducted a review of the current scientific research, and concluded that the available data suggests there's a biological link to a person's gender identity, indicating that trans people are essentially assigned genders at birth that don't match their inherent, biologically set identity.
4. What does being transgender have to do with sexuality?
This is a huge area of confusion, but the short answer is, nothing. Being transgender has to do with sexual identity, not which gender a person is attracted to. Transgender people can be gay, straight, bi, pan- or a-sexual just like everyone else.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and a trans woman, acknowledges this can be confusing. "If somebody was living as a man dating women, and now they're living as a woman dating women, what does that mean They were straight; now they're gay," she told Vox. "But did their sexual orientation change, or were they always attracted to women?"
Most people who transition to the other gender remain attracted to the gender they were always attracted to.
5. Can children be transgender?
Yes. Many if not most transgender people report feeling they were in a mismatched body at a very young age. But although children can be transgender, not all children “who experiment with gender play or exhibit gender nonconforming behavior will be transgender adults,” according to ABC. “Experts say only a small fraction of young children who exhibit gender non-comforming behavior will go on to be transgender later in life. In other words, most of these children will go on to report that their sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity.”
There’s no way to know for sure if someone is going to be transgender until at least puberty. Bruce Jenner told Diane Sawyer that his feelings of gender dypshoria started in childhood and “never, never ever went away.” Writer, trans activist and professor Jenny Boylan, wrote for the New York Times series on “The Quest for Transgender Equality” that “the feeling that I was somehow wired for the wrong body was never far from my conscious mind,” from the age of two or three. “I especially remember adolescence, when it was as if all the girls I knew had boarded a ship and sailed out to sea, and I was left on a dock alone, knowing that I had somehow been left behind."
5. What about the pronoun thing?
The basic rule is use the gender pronoun that people prefer. People usually prefer the pronoun of the gender they consider themselves to be, regardless of their anatomy or where they might be in their transition. The AP Stylebook has laid out the rules for reporters and the rest of us:
Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
There is no need for the awkward he/she or s/he. Those can pretty much be abolished. Note that there are people who consider themselves gender fluid. They may be referred to by whatever pronoun they request on any given day. Some suggest using ”they” as a non-gender binary, third-person single pronoun.
Bruce Jenner made the somewhat unusual request to be referred to as “he,” for now, even while announcing being a woman. There’s only one response to that: Okay. Word is that Jenner will soon announce a new first name and a change in personal choice of pronouns.
6. Do all transgender people have surgery?
No. Every transition is different, and surgery is not the preferred route for everyone. Nor is it possible or affordable for all. Some transgender people are fine with the genitals they have. Others are not. For those who do have surgery, there is a recommended protocol involved, which involves living in the gender role the person wishes to transition to for at least 12 continuous months.
Obviously, sexual reassignment surgery is not a small thing, and the fact that trans people undergo it is a good indication that they are hardly doing this is an attention-getting grab, as some critics have claimed.
While it may be somewhat understandable to take a prurient interest in the genital aspect of the trans experience, it is, as Laverne Cox once schooled Katie Couric, rude to focus on it in an interview. That said, these procedures have come a remarkably long way. For instance, one transgender woman told me her new vagina would be, "sensate, mucosal and orgasmic."
7. How many transgender people are lost to suicide and murder?
Things may be getting better, but there are still some horrific statistics associated with being trans. The rate of attempted suicides is a staggering 46 percent among trans men, and 42 percent among trans women, as compared to 4.6 percent in the general population.
Since Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teenager whose parents refused to accept her, killed herself in late December, eight more transgender youth have died by suicide. This sad statistic is attributed to society’s failure to accept transgender people, rather than the fact of being transgender. A whopping 57 percent of transgender people report family rejection.
Transgender people also face high rates of assault and murder. Last year, more than 200 trans people worldwide were murdered, according to statistics compiled by Transgender Europe, a number which is likely low. Transgender women of color face the highest rates of transphobic violence. Of the seven trans women murdered so far this year in the U.S., six were women of color. And that is just the murders.
8. Are transgender people protected by laws?
Not yet, and that is probably why transgender equality is being called the next civil rights frontier. Currently, 32 states have no law against firing people for being transgender. From ABCNews:
Only 18 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) and D.C. currently prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. And according to the Human Rights Campaign, while “nearly 91% of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their workplace policies” only “61 percent include gender identity.”
This year President Obama became the first U.S. president ever to use the word “transgender” in a speech, and he has signed an order prohibiting discrimination against the community for federal employees. There is more he could do, like direct the Pentagon to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military.
9. Can a transgender person be a Republican?
People have been asking this question since the Bruce Jenner interview, when he mentioned his conservative political persuasion on national TV. It’s a legitimate question, since the Republican Party is so deeply enmeshed with the religious right, which adamantly opposes equal rights for gay people and seems not likely to be more enlightened about trans people.
(Interesting aside: A recent ViceTV piece revealed that in Iran, it is more acceptable to be transgender than to be gay, since the late Ayatollah Khomeini ruled that the Koran is silent on the topic of being trans. This has lead to some horrors, like gay people being forced to undergo sexual reassignment to avoid being sentenced to death, but it does raise the question of whether the Bible is similarly silent on the subject.)
The reality is that transgender people, like all people, are all over the political spectrum. As Jenny Boylan, who was interviewed in the wake of the Jenner interview on NPR said, “Would I have preferred that President Obama and Ted Cruz had come out on the same day as transgender? Yes.” That would have settled the matter of politics once and for all.