For me, articles like this usually come out of a combination of events. The most recent one was an unfortunate altercation on Facebook about transgender rights. I should probably know better, but the argument was actually the culmination of a thought process that started almost a year ago, so maybe it was just time for it to boil over.
The other event was a conference I once attended with a group of people that included a transgender woman. Although she is accepted by the group, I was told she is often depressed because she is not fully accepted by most people in her life. A person concerned for her told me she has asked for help with makeup and fashion, but then she doesn’t follow the advice. And the biggest barrier, according to the concerned person, was really one of basic hygiene. I agreed it probably was. Then the person said, “I think anybody transitioning to a woman should spend a year living as a woman first.”
I do want to make it clear that the statement was made in love. It was an attempt to help. However, it took me a night to digest the implications of it.
What does it actually mean to live as a woman? And does that mean any woman contemplating transition to a man should live as a man for year? What does that look like? And what, dear Lord, does that mean for non-binary people?
The woman in question had gone through surgery and hormone treatment but still didn’t look like or project herself as a woman to most people. The concerned person believed she should try harder to dress like a woman, apply makeup and…I don’t know…smell like a woman?
I know plenty of women who wear no makeup, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress and don’t always smell sweet (I spend a lot of time in a gym), yet nobody questions that they are women—including themselves. My own transgender child, who identifies as non-binary, has had no surgery or hormone therapy, was born male, has a respectable scruff by dinnertime, doesn’t wear any makeup or paint his nails or wear jewelry—but has long hair—is actually perceived as a woman quite often. I see a big smile every time it happens.
On the other hand, I have a good friend who was born male, identifies as a man (known as cisgender), and loves being a man. But he likes women’s things. He gets his nails done, wears jewelry, carries a purse and has a high-heel collection to die for. Nobody would ever perceive him as a woman, even if he were dressed to the nines in a ballgown—like Billy Porter at the Oscars this year (Syme, 2019).
Do clothes make the person? Does makeup? Or jewelry? Or a cigar or a pickup truck or even a beard? Of course not. And if you think so, I invite you to delve deep to see what’s at the bottom of that thought.
There has been much research into sex differences in the brain (McCarthy, 2015) and what constitutes gender identification (Williams, 2018). There have been mixed results in this early research, of course, and for now we don’t have any definitive answers about the roles biology, societal norms, and nurturing play in the connection (or disconnection) of our secondary sex characteristics with our brains.
I am a cisgender woman, and I don’t really understand what makes me a woman besides those organs. Until recently, I don’t think I ever thought about it. I simply know that I am one. And that’s how most people feel—we match on the inside what we are on the outside. But nothing is ever 100% in nature. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to not “match” from the inside to the outside. At what point can you even express that difference to yourself? And how hard must you work to convince yourself you can change your own perception with some medication or therapy or something? And if you finally do come to terms with it yourself, how intimidating must it be to express it to somebody else you know won’t be able to comprehend it—who may respond with anything from curiosity to outright disgust? That sounds exhausting.
Feminist studies have shown us the differences between the anatomy/biology (sex) of a person and the womanhood or manhood (gender) of a person. If you think of the biology of a person (from hormones to sexual organs) as making them male or female, and the societal norms that accompany those sexes (from societal positions to behaviors) as making them men or women, you’ll have the basics of it. So, we may be born female or male, but we have to learn to become women or men. Or an identity that is somewhere between the two, or neither. There is a range of identities.
In an attempt to stress the equality which with all people should be treated, some have asked that we set aside any differentiation of “woman” or “man” and all be considered simply “people.” Womanhood or manhood should not be taken into account when we determine the rights or virtues or privileges of people, and some argue that this can’t happen if we don’t completely set aside the labels of woman and man. I find it interesting that this movement seems to be happening at the same time other people are fighting for a definitive gender identity when it is different from their femaleness or maleness.
On its face, these seem like opposite viewpoints. I would argue that they are not. Society runs on norms. A female who identifies as a woman does not want fewer societal rights, and a male who identifies as a woman would not want those rights stripped away if they publicly transitioned to a woman. Unless we live as hermits in the woods, there will always be societal norms that must be followed if we are to be fully accepted by society. There will always be differences that make one group of people less accepted than others. I agree that this should not be as it is, but that’s not going to happen in my lifetime. There is always a balance to be maintained that allows us to live in our own skins and have an acceptable level of consent for that way of living from those around us. Inability to find this balance leads to extreme mental distress.
Part of the Facebook argument that precipitated this article was about whether transgender people had a choice in their expressions of gender different from their sex. Much the same as the argument about whether people can choose to be homosexual or heterosexual. Certainly, the outward expression of our gender as a woman or man (or non-binary) is a choice. It is part of finding that internal balance, no different than deciding whether or not to follow certain societal norms as a cisgender person. However, the disconnect of some people’s brains from their sexual biology is not a choice. Even though neuroscience hasn’t figured out what is causing the disconnect, there is no doubt it exists, and there has been some evidence of neurological similarities between cisgender people and transgender people that are different from people of the opposite sex. The brain is not nearly as well understood as other parts of our bodies, and that research needs to be continued before we understand it better.
Unfortunately an “acceptable level of consent” is something that also varies from person to person, and young people going through this identity battle need a lot more consent from those around them than those of us who have learned not to care as much what other people think of us. This is borne out in a study of suicide behaviors in transgender adolescents by the American Academy of Pediatrics. While attempted suicide rates of non-transgender adolescents fall within a range of 9.8–17.6%, transgender adolescent rates of suicide attempts are between 27.9–50.8% (Toomey et al., 2018). Adolescents who are both transgender and homosexual have even higher rates of suicide attempts than these.
I have personal experience with what the pressures of these differences of personhood can do. My child became friends a few years ago with a transgender homosexual boy whose parents refused to accept them. At the time they and my son met, both were 16, and the boy had attempted suicide ten times. He attempted an 11th time last year, and my child intervened to get help to them. It ended their friendship. I worry about them every day.
What these children (and adults) are going through is heartbreaking, and our society is failing them. What should be treated with care is treated with hatred and abuse. We attempt to change them when we should be attempting to understand—and to change our own mind sets. It doesn’t make a boy a “sissy” to identify as a woman. It doesn’t make a girl “butch” to identify as a man. Somebody’s different gender expression, even if that somebody is famous, doesn’t provide a shameful example that others will emulate in droves and lead to the downfall of society as we know it. It does make you a bully to pile derision on another person’s attempts to try to live in our world. And I hope the bravery of people different than the majority does lead to a major change in society and our full acceptance and celebration of differences in its people.
But I still don’t understand what makes me a woman, really.
McCarthy, Margaret M. Sex Differences in the Brain. The Scientist. October 1, 2015. https://www.the-scientist.com/features/sex-differences-in-the-brain-34758
Syme, Rachel. Billy Porter Won the Oscars Red Carpet Before it Even Began. The New Yorker. February 24, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/on-and-off-the-avenue/billy-porter-won-the-oscars-red-carpet-before-it-even-began
Toomey, Russell B., Amy K. Syvertsen and Maura Shramko. Transgender Adolescent Suicide Behavior. Pediatrics October 2018, 142(4). DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-4218
Williams, Shawna. Are the Brains of Transgender People Different from Those of Cisgender People? The Scientist. March 1, 2018. https://www.the-scientist.com/features/are-the-brains-of-transgender-people-different-from-those-of-cisgender-people-30027