5 Shocking Realities of Being Transgender the Media Ignores
I bet that, for most of you, nothing would feel weirder than having your dad or brother tell you he's now a woman. And for a certain percentage of people, the reaction to that news would be violent. The reality is that the entire concept of transgender people makes folks very uncomfortable, which means we're simply not talking about it enough.
I'm Amy, a 20-something trans woman living in California. You probably think of this state as a place that prides itself on diversity, acceptance, and every other kind of happy buzzword, but even people here are filled with enough bad information on transgender issues to fill a fundamentalist hate tract. I used to believe most of this misinformation myself, but now that I've been out and open for a few years, there's some things I think everyone should know ...
We're Not Trying to Trick Anyone
Here is how trans women usually show up in pop culture: A straight male character hits on some girl at a bar, only to find, surprise, said lady is transgender. From The Hangover 2 to The Crying Game to a shitload of songs, it's played like the straight male's worst nightmare. And the man's hilarious (negative) reaction is always the point of the story -- his panic, his anger, his disgust. The trans woman is just a prop.
And is probably played by a woman with a prop.
And in every case, we're meant to identify with the guy: He was attracted to her, and since she turned out to have a penis, that attraction was an intentional dupe on the part of the transgender woman.
To you it's probably never been more than a somewhat lazy, throwaway joke, but what the fuck kind of message does it send to young transgender kids? "If you flirt, you're a liar"? By society's unspoken rule, just hanging out at a club is an act of deception for somebody like me. After all, some guy might think I'm cute and approach me. If that person flies into a rage upon hearing the truth, society will be entirely on his side -- even though that rage may involve him trying to beat the shit out of me, or worse.
"Guys, they passed. These ones can be safely objectified and demeaned."
So for a trans person, that cloud hangs over every flirty interaction. I met a guy at a social event recently and got the feeling he might have been flirting with me, but I didn't know if he knew. I was scared a little the whole time because he was much larger than me (not that I'm small). I waited a month and a half of hanging out, without so much as a touch on the arm, before telling him. It took that long for me to feel sure I'd be safe either way. If you're saying to yourself, "Well, you shouldn't have led him on!" remember that some men consider simply being in the room with them to be "leading them on." You think I'd be safer wearing a sign around my neck? Some people are enraged just by the fact that I exist.
All right, so maybe it's safer to stay at home and try to meet people over the Internet? There we can merely be verbally assaulted, nonstop, in pretty much any setting. Internet slang for a trans woman is "trap," as in, a being who exists only to "trap" males into questioning their sexuality. So now I can be reminded that the world is filled with people who fly into a violent rage at the mere suggestion of my existence, from the comfort of my own home. Thanks, Internet!
It's Treated as an Illness
According to the DSM (the official list of mental disorders doctors use), every transgender person has "gender dysphoria," which can be treated with things like "discouraging cross-dressing." And until two years ago, transgender people automatically inherited a diagnosis of "gender identity disorder." Homosexuality was finally dropped from the DSM in 1986, but transgender folks have had a longer wait, mostly due to how rare trans people are. So in my case, I had been working with a psychiatrist due to panic attacks before I came out. When I told him I was trans, suddenly he decided I might be schizophrenic and needed to be medicated for it. He had no frame of reference for how to deal with someone like me.
"So this is, like, reverse penis envy? I understand penis envy."
This is a huge problem. Getting a divorce? You'd better be on good terms with your spouse, because that "mental disorder" you have renders you unfit to raise a kid. One trans parent in Ohio lost visitation rights based on the court's assertion that "the transsexualism of the [parent] would have a sociopathic affect [sic] on the child." Yes, the Ohio court system considers trans people to be a literal factory for breeding psychopaths. Your lack of ovaries might be the straw that ... turned the camel into Jeffrey Dahmer, I guess.
Coming out trans isn't exactly great for your career prospects, either. It was only in 2009 that the FAA stopped requiring thousands of dollars in psychiatric tests before they'd clear a trans person to be a pilot. "We wouldn't want to make the plane uncomfortable, because that would be wrong. Prove you aren't insane, please." And while the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is grand, transgender folks are still technically barred from the military on grounds of mental illness. Because the first question in any soldier's mind during a firefight would be "What genitals are hiding underneath my comrade's Kevlar crotch guard?"
"Don't worry, Sarge! Backup's coming!"
"They better be pantsless!"
So there's a reason the unemployment rate for transgender people is double that of the general population. As long as admitting who we are also means a legal admission of crazy, things aren't going to get better. We thus have every reason to hide it, and that reinforces the idea that we're out to deceive you, and on and on the cycle goes.
It's Not Just About Surgery
Imagine if people you just met immediately asked you about your genitals. Now imagine if other people didn't treat those questions as inappropriate. This is one of many reasons I avoid telling people I'm trans in the first place, even when I feel safe around them. Did you see this Katie Couric interview? She had the two most famous transgender women in the entertainment industry on her show, and every line of questioning eventually circled back to "So, what's your crotch look like?"
"Seriously, innie or outie?"
Laverne Cox (of Orange Is the New Black) used the opportunity to express an honest opinion on why the question was inappropriate. Couric was so clearly shocked by the actual, unexpected journalism in this interview that it's hard to believe she's, in theory, a reporter. Who else would ever be asked to talk about their genitals on daytime television? "Your latest action thriller comes out this weekend, but can we talk about your junk now?"
The reason Couric, and people in general, are so curious is because of a huge misconception and source of confusion: the idea that being trans requires some kind of surgery -- either just the genital surgery (sex reassignment surgery, which is more properly called genital reconstructive surgery), or aesthetic procedures like having a jaw shave to make it look more feminine or a tracheal shave to get a smaller Adam's apple. That's not the case at all -- a huge number of "trans" people are just gender nonconforming. They feel they're androgynous and they don't see the need to not be.
"Just because I like certain things, it doesn't mean I want the whole 'package,' so to speak."
In my case, I have natural breasts because I'm on estrogen. The only surgery I've ever had in my life was wisdom tooth removal. Female-to-male hormone replacement is basically steroids, and male-to-female is basically birth control with one extra generic prescription that blocks testosterone -- in other words, some of you are on these exact same drugs for other reasons. So my soft tissue acts as though I have normally functioning ovaries, albeit without the mixed blessing of a cycle.
When I started taking hormones, the biggest mental change was relief. I just felt so much better. Over time I've noticed that my face is softer and my hair grows lower. The stereotype that women have a better sense of smell is probably based on something too, because I do have a better sense of smell now. Yet, without surgery, my doctor had to certify that I was "feminine enough" to get the gender on my ID changed in San Francisco. It wasn't until 2011 that the State Department let you change the gender on your passport without proof of surgery.
Both unjust and unsanitary.
Even in Sweden, a country you'd expect to be pretty enlightened by reputation, dropped attempted rape charges against a man because his victim turned out to be a trans woman with a penis (their logic being that it's impossible to rape a woman if she doesn't have a vagina).
And that's the real irony of being transgender in the modern world: You might not give one orphaned fuck about which genitals you have, but good luck convincing everyone else not to care.
There's Not Just One Type of Trans
Transgender people get to experience the joy of every "queer person" stereotype. I can get the reactions normally reserved for gay men (since homophobes see me as another man who's turning his back on masculinity) and gay women (the same reason, just flip the genders around), in addition to all of the trans-specific hate mentioned earlier. It's like instantly inheriting a pile of stereotypes, some of which are wrong because they're stereotypes and some of which are wrong because they aren't even the right stereotypes.
"Lesbians can too play the fiddle! Also, I'm not lesbian."
One of the more pervasive beliefs out there is that transsexuals are just incredibly gay people -- at a certain point, gayness concentrated can make someone want to be the other gender so they might be more normal. This is very common in films and television, where there is sometimes no distinction between flamboyantly gay characters and cross-dressers, transsexuals, and so forth. Hollywood history is full of screenwriters who haven't cared enough to figure out the distinctions. Why would you, when these people exist in your story only as punchlines or monsters (see: Silence of the Lambs)?
I've met more than one trans man who has told me this same story: A mutual friend tells another friend something along the lines of "Hey, did you know Jim is transgender?" And the next time Jim runs into this person, he's immediately asked, "Why do you want to be a girl?" If you don't see what's wrong with that, well, there you go -- most people hear "transgender" and their brains go no further than "man who wants to be a lady."
And sometimes their brains create shitty music about it.
In fact, any person who doesn't conform to the broadest stereotypes of "not straight" had better have a lecture ready if they want anyone to understand what they mean by something like "gender-fluid." The relatively simple premise of "feeling different on a weekly basis" has yet to percolate into pop culture. And when you try to explain it, lots of people get really, really angry. Which brings us to the most underappreciated aspect of life as a trans person ...
It's Fucking Dangerous
Trans issues are big in the media right now, and there are so few of us that it's not hard to be the only transgender person a lot of the people in your daily life have ever met. I've got an extra layer of caution in my mind before I go out, with the mortal dread that I will be required to represent "my people." Is it right for the community for me to wear this skirt?
Hate crimes and fashion crimes so rarely intersect.
In a perfect world, the burden for disabusing people of stereotypes wouldn't fall on the target of the stereotypes. But you don't want to accidentally reinforce one of those stereotypes -- it could hurt someone else and become part of the justification for assholes to act like assholes. Am I fueling stupidity by doing something that might happen to be on their list of "stereotypical trans behaviors"? So add yet another complication to the "Do I come out to this person or not?" decision.
It also means a higher risk of being murdered. The murder rate for transgender people in this hemisphere is 50 percent higher than the murder rate for lesbian and gay people. And just as some shitheads still assume any woman who was raped must have been "asking for it," courts today are happy to give murderers the benefit of the doubt if their victim might have been a flirty transgender person. It's called the "trans panic defense," and it hinges upon the logic that a man, finding penis where he expected to find vagina, cannot be held accountable for his ensuing murderous rampage.
"Men biologically hate touching penises. That's why none of them ever masturbate."
Sounds insane, right? The good news is that the American Bar Association passed a resolution advising state and local governments to stop listening to this bullshit. The bad news is that it didn't happen until last year.
So, yeah, if you see a trans person who seems like they're not totally upfront about it, or not terribly eager to discuss it, that might be why. There's still a long, long way to go.
Amy P has a Twitter and a blog, both of which you should read. Robert Evans can be reached here if you have a story to tell or a whistle to blow. He has friends struggling to defend their farm from marauding bandits, and if you donate he'll love you forever.
Related Reading: Cracked talks to all sorts of interesting people. Like this Dominatrix and a psychiatric professional at Guantanamo Bay. We got the inside scoop on being institutionalized and even learned some tips from a dog trainer.