Last fall, a young man I’ve known for several years took me aside at a social dance and asked, “Do you know what ‘gender dysphoria’ is?” I knew it was a clinical term for “transgender” but until that moment, I’d had no inkling that this was her journey.
As it turns out, for as long as she could remember, she knew she was a girl, in spite of everyone’s natural assumption that if you have male anatomy, your gender identity is male. For her first 3 decades, she suppressed her true identity due to social pressures, family expectations, and simply not knowing that her thoughts and feelings were valid. To her, living as a male was like wearing a scratchy, ill-fitting suit. She often felt uncomfortable, depressed, and anxious. Finally, she got to the point where she realized that if she wasn’t going to express and live as her authentic self, her only other option was to commit suicide. Come out, or die.
So she gathered her courage and her integrity and starting coming out to friends and relatives, often one-on-one. To our dance community, her family, and her other social circles, “Kyle” started truly living as herself and began using her middle name, “Leslie”.
Leslie’s timing has been blessed by synchronicity, as discussions on transgender issues have risen to prominence in this country. Our community's understanding and acceptance has been bolstered by improved awareness and sensitivity across society. Transgender characters are now portrayed as fully formed (not punch lines) in a number of popular television shows, including Glee, Orange is the New Black, and Transparent. And the medical community is re-examining how they treat trans people. The American Psychiatric Association repealed the traditional “mental illness” label and stigma, changing “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” in the 2013 edition of the diagnostic manual, DSM-V. The new standard of care is to 1) acknowledge the distress of being assigned the wrong gender and 2) treat with compassion and individually-tailored solutions, which may or may not include hormone treatments or surgeries.
Note to Selves: These medical decisions are as personal as it gets. Curious though we may be about any trans person we meet, it is no more appropriate for us to inquire about their genitals than it is for them to inquire about ours.
Most recently, the transgender movement gained traction with a spotlight on Caitlin Jenner, the famous 1976 Olympic Gold Medal winner of the Men’s Decathlon who has come forward as a transgender woman, having always felt she's possessed a female brain, heart, and soul. She has been willing to go public with her journey to authenticity, first interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC’s 20/20, then featured in an article and on the cover of Vanity Fair. Last week, she accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. In her speech, she said,
“I know I’m clear with my responsibility going forward. To tell my story the right way, for me. To keep learning. To do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how trans issues are viewed, how trans people are treated. And then more broadly, to promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are.”
Note that she did not say, “Accepting people for the choices they make.” She did not say, “Accepting the masculine and feminine sides of all of us.” She did not say, “Accepting people for changing their gender.”
She did not talk about choices because being transgender is not a choice. Transgender people don’t choose to cross over and live as the other gender. They aren’t exploring different sides. They aren’t changing their minds or trying to "pass". They are, and always have been, the other gender. They have never felt aligned with the gender assigned at birth according to anatomy or genes.
The only real choice is whether to live as their true selves or live a lie. For many, this decision is a matter of life and death.
In fact, for gender-nonconforming adults, 41% report attempting suicide, and the risk is highest for those who’ve experienced rejection, harassment, discrimination, or violence. For those who are 16 to 25 years old, the rate is 45%. For the homeless, the rate is 69%. For those who’d sought help from a doctor and been turned away, 60%. And these numbers don’t even include those who contemplate suicide or succeed.
This point, that being trans is not a choice, is perhaps the most crucial point for everyone to understand, but also the most difficult nuance for many folks. If you clearly identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, you may find it hard to imagine identifying otherwise. Or perhaps the thought of being the other gender resonates for you and you could go either way, but you essentially feel comfortable enough as your assigned gender and in fact do choose to remain as such. Or maybe due to prohibitions, punishments, and shame, you’ve suppressed your own notions of not identifying as your assigned gender, and you desperately shun “going there” to avoid triggering a profound emotional crisis—and perhaps react strongly with shock, horror, or anger to other trans people. If so, my heart goes out to you.
While it may be funny and astonishing to see how people grapple with this issue, always keep in mind that we are all learning, and some of us have major roadblocks to overcome, including religious beliefs, cultural taboos, inexperience with diversity, or unidentified gender dysphoria.
To move along your own understanding of gender identity, it may help to consider the issue of sexual orientation and how research, awareness, education, and social progress have grown by leaps and bounds, especially during the past 20 years. Society at large now understands that sexual orientation is not a choice-- it’s a way of being. Medical research points to a number of intertwining factors, including genetics, prenatal development, hormones, and brain biology. Culture, society, family, and personality determine how freely one expresses sexual orientation, whatever it might be.
And just because gay and lesbian folks are in the minority, this doesn’t mean their sexual orientation is wrong, peculiar, or immoral. It simply is-- as nature (or God) intended. It’s like your skin color, your circadian rhythm, your passions—or your own sexual orientation. Some parts of your being are just how you are.
And so it is with gender identity. Inhabiting a male or female identity is not a choice. It’s a way of being. It’s just how you are. Indeed, living as the other requires you to put on an act, wear a mask, and kill off a part of your soul.
Think about it: Would you want to be forced to look, dress, and behave like the gender you fundamentally are not? Try it for a day and see how far you get. You might not even be able to get out of bed, or your pajamas.
For folks like Leslie and Caitlin, claiming their authentic gender identity grants a new lease on life. It’s what helps them get out of bed and out of pajamas every day.
As we gain understanding that transgender people do not choose their gender identity any more than anyone else does, it’s important to remember that the rest of us do have a choice. We can choose to open our minds and get educated on transgender issues. We can choose to question our religious, moral, and social assumptions about gender—and right and wrong. We can choose to have sensitivity and empathy, to wonder what it would be like to be misunderstood, discriminated against, and bullied for something unchangeable and fundamental to our being.
You can decide not to be one of those people who clings to ignorance, fear, self-righteousness, and outdated information. Choose not to perpetuate the prejudice, oppression, and high suicide rates.
Back to my own social circle, within a couple months of Leslie talking to people individually, our community of dancers embraced her journey and the “coming out” of a remarkable young woman. Before, she was a talented swing dancer who’d recently racked up wins at national events—as a male lead. Thankfully, she still enjoys leading (as do other women) and she and I continue to dance often. But she has also learned to follow, and the men in our scene haven’t shied away from holding her close as the beautiful person she is.
Watch a 16-minute documentary video-portrait of a family's journey to embracing and supporting their 9-year-old's "truegender", and read its accompanying feature article, which appeared in the Denver Post this past weekend. (Full disclosure: I served as a consultant for this film.)
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