Why Do Many People Think They've Never Met a Transgender Person?

The following is an excerpt from the new book "You're in the Wrong Bathroom!": And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions About Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People by Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, and Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW-R (on sale May 30, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press:

There are approximately one million transgender people in the United States, and chances are you’ve met one (or more) of them. So why do so many people assume they haven’t?

To answer this question, we have to go back to the 1960s, when researchers first made estimates of the prevalence of transgender populations. Transgender people (known as “transsexual” at the time) were just beginning to be recognized and to see themselves in the news media. In 1952, Christine Jorgensen, a World War II veteran, had returned home from a gender-affirming surgery in Denmark to the New York Daily News front-page coverage of her story: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” Jorgensen was better known, but others had undergone similar surgeries, including Lili Elbe, whose story was the subject of the 2015 movie The Danish Girl, in 1930.

In the wake of these early surgeries and the public interest they garnered, medical professionals attempted to estimate the prevalence of transgender people, but had little information to work with. The only reliable statistics were based on the number of people who had undergone gender-affirming surgeries. However, most transgender people were not having surgery, and many were living marginalized lives, obtaining hormones via black-market sources, or, for the most part, were simply people assigned male at birth but living full time as female with no access to formal treatments, including surgeries. There were an infinite number of reasons for this, including cost, subpar results, and the profound bravery it took to come out as transgender. Still, physicians reported their results at conferences around the world, and numbers started to circulate. They were in the range of one in thirty thousand to one in one hundred thousand people.

Statistics from the early 1970s seemed to show that it was more common to be a transgender woman (someone who is assigned male at birth and identifies as a woman) than a transgender man (someone who is assigned female at birth and identifies as a man). Researchers came up with numerous theories to explain this discrepancy, including biological reasons and social explanations. For example, some argued that people assigned female at birth were given more leeway in their clothing and social roles (women could wear pants, but men couldn’t wear dresses) and so felt less of a need to transition. What the researchers didn’t consider, but which probably contributed significantly to the differences in rates, was that surgeries for transgender women were more advanced than those for transgender men, so more trans women than men were presenting for surgery.

Transgender men were not the only people missing from the statistics. Because surgery was expensive, people from lower socioeconomic classes were less likely to end up in clinics. White transgender people were also overrepresented due to racial discrimination. In a time before the rapid communication of cell phones and computers, when transgender support groups were unheard of, it was extremely difficult to gather better statistics than these. The problem is that as transgender communities grew, and these numbers were obviously inaccurate, there was little impetus to correct or update them. As a result, these early numbers continued to be quoted in major US newspapers and magazines into the 2000s.

A well-known and respected report published in 2011 by the Williams Institute estimates that transgender people comprise about 0.3 percent of the US population, or approximately 1 in every 333 people. These more accurate numbers come both from up-to-date estimates of the number of people who undergo some kind of medical transition and from population-based studies in which people, regardless of whether they have physically transitioned, are given a chance to define themselves.

Over time, as more current statistics circulate, it has become apparent that transgender people are not as rare as was once thought. However, there are reasons other than inaccurate statistics driving our collective sense that we don’t know anyone transgender.

Would you recognize someone as transgender if that person didn’t tell you? Most people think they would. But they would be wrong. Many transgender people live “stealth,” at least to the general public, telling only those they are close to about their identities. For centuries, long before hormone therapies or gender-reassignment surgeries, there were people whose cross-gendered lives were not known until their deaths. For instance, more than two hundred people assigned female at birth are thought to have fought as men in the Civil War. Some were women, but some were transgender men. Billy Tipton, a jazz musician popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and the inspiration for the 1998 novel Trumpet, lived his life as a man despite being assigned female at birth and kept his birth-assigned gender secret, even to his own son. Today, thousands of transgender Americans go about their lives with few people knowing that they are transgender.

There are physical attributes that make it easier and harder to “pass” as cisgender, another word for nontransgender people. In many instances, transgender men have an advantage because testosterone leads to changes like increased musculature, growth of body and facial hair, and a deepening voice, all of which signal masculinity. For this reason, it is often more difficult for transgender women to avoid being “read” as transgender once they have gone through a male-typical puberty. Trans women are often, though not always, taller than the average woman, with sharper jaw lines, deeper voices, Adam’s apples, and facial hair. These features can be difficult to change. In some instances, transgender people do not want to change them and may feel comfortable in their bodies the way they are. Others want very much to physically transition but cannot afford surgical interventions. “Passing” is a controversial topic within transgender communities. Outsiders often judge transgender people by their ability to “pass” as cisgender, but so do some transgender people. This leads to hierarchies and discrimination within transgender communities.

The belief that transgender people are recognizably distinct from nontransgender people assumes that there is something we can pick out about a transgender person’s clothing, body shape, or speech that “gives them away.” It assumes that trans people never escape their “essential” gender assigned at birth—that they are never “really” a part of the gender with which they identify.

Why do we have this belief? What purpose does it serve? For one thing, it helps us to feel secure that we will not be “tricked” about someone’s gender. But why is it so important to us that we are not “tricked?” Some might argue that it is about genitals—that we want to know the genital status of the people we are going on a date with or going to the bathroom with. But why would—or should—we care about the genital status of people in the checkout line with us at the grocery store or in the seat across from us on the train?

Clearly the concern is not just about genitals; it’s also about gender. We have a lot of expectations about people based on their gender. We regulate the way boys and girls, men and women work, play, dress, and love each other. And if someone doesn’t fi t into one of our gender categories, we’re not sure what to expect of them and may sometimes find ourselves upset. Transgender people are harassed, discriminated against, and all-too-often assaulted or murdered. Stepping outside of gender boundaries can provoke significant hostility. It’s crucial to ask ourselves why it bothers us so much to see these lines blurred.

Another reason many of us may assume we’ve never met a transgender person is that we imagine trans people are unlikely to be involved in the same activities or groups that we are. But there are trans people of every ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and profession. They include filmmaker Lana Wachowski, actress Laverne Cox, US Olympian Chris Mosier, Pennsylvania physician general Rachel Levine, Orthodox Jewish professor Joy Ladin, writer Kate Bornstein, comedian Ian Harvie, activist Jamison Green, and billionaire Jennifer Pritzker, among numerous others.

Trans people have written in just about every genre there is, and many have published personal stories. There are first-hand accounts by trans men (Nina Here Nor There, Nick Krieger), trans women (Redefining Realness, Janet Mock), and trans teens (Some Assembly Required, Arin Andrews). There are anthologies that tell multiple stories (Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman). There are also a whole host of TV shows (Transparent), feature films (Gun Hill Road), and documentaries (Southern Comfort) depicting the lives of trans people. Nonprofit organizations (the Sylvia Rivera Law Project) do advocacy work related to transgender communities, and conferences (Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference) provide spaces for trans and nontrans people to meet. Any of these can be first steps to learning more about transgender people.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!” And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions and Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People by Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, and Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW-R (on sale May 30, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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