For most people the concept of gender is a very simple thing. When you are born a midwife, doula, doctor or nurse looks at a babies genitals and decides whether the baby is female or male. That magic letter “F” or “M” is put on the babies birth certificate and the gender of the baby is settled. Or is it?
Until very recently the “T” (for Transgender) has been the stepchild of the LGBT movement. It’s only in recent years that Gender Studies has become the hot new major in many colleges, and transgender issues are now making the cover of TIME Magazine and The New York TImes Magazine section. And why is this now news?
Men and women have been changing their appearances for a very long time. The list is rather endless from the color of their hair, plastic surgery that can alter almost every part of their bodies from the size of their breasts to the curve of their nose. All you have to do is turn on the television to see entire documentaries based on people trying to turn themselves into living dolls, to know the lengths people are willing to go through to change their appearance.
People wanting to change themselves does not stop with appearance. We all know people who have changed their names, their professions, religions and even what part of the world they live in. People can switch their nationality without a question.
So when did gender become the one thing that we're not suppose to change?
I recently sat down with Mac S. McGregor, a Gender Activist in Seattle to talk about demystifying gender. Seattle’s Mayor appointed Mac as a Seattle City Commissioner in 2011. This position has enabled him to be a voice and an activist for civil rights; including but not limited to the transgendered and gender non-conforming community. Mac is also the transgender and gender non-conforming outreach director for Social Outreach Seattle and a board member for Seattle Counseling Center. Mac also serves on the Seattle Police Department LGBT advisory board.
The issue of gender is now being taken very seriously by state governments and even in businesses where Human Resource Departments are bringing in “Gender Educators” to develop policy and support industry in working fairly and legally with people of various gender identifies.
Of course the first question I asked Mac was “What Does the word Transgender literally mean?”
Mac: “The word Transgender literally means; denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender. Transgender is an umbrella term that like sexuality has a large spectrum to it.
On one end there is the fetish of a male born person who has a fetish for women's clothing to the other end which is a person who does not feel like they were born with a body that matches who they are on the inside and goes through medical procedures to make the body and mind more congruent.
Even drag queens and kings fall under a part of the transgender umbrella because what they do with part of their lives is not a part of the conventional gender norms. Maybe we call them "trans light". In the middle now we have gender queens and gender fluid people who don't want to be stuck to one side or the other of this spectrum They want the freedom to move about according to how they may feel at the time. Or they refuse to buy into any form of the binary gender system.”
Pamela: “Binary gender system? What’s that?”
Mac: When we talk about the Binary Gender System, we are talking about traditional way of identifying gender. In the Binary Gender System you are identified by your gentials matching your gender.”
Pamela: “Do you think that our society is really ready to embrace “Transgender or gender nonconforming people? Accepting people who are Gay has been huge and we have just turned the tide there.”
Mac: “Most people think breaking the gender constructs or molds in our society shakes the very foundations of all that they know and understand to be solid. Although quantum physics teaches us that nothing is really solid, we still like to think it is. It makes people think they have a better understanding which make them feel safer. Gender is supposed to be black or white, pick a side, ya know women are from Venus men are from Mars. This makes life more understandable and then I can put each person in a category that helps me know how to react to them and what to expect from them or not, right? Gender is like the rest of the world, it’s really not that simple.”
Pamela: “I have been hearing a great deal about ‘Gender Expression’ what does that term mean?
Mac: “Gender Expression means a person may want to dress a certain way or wear their hair style that may not conform with their perceived gender. Gender Expression can be anywhere on a spectrum from extreme masculine to very feminine. There is also androgenic in the middle. How people present and walk in the world is a part of their Gender Expression. Many people are playing with how they present their gender today. We all know that every man is not the most masculine man and every woman who is happy being a women is not the most feminine woman so there is much depth to this scale or spectrum. How we dress ourselves is a way of expressing who we are sexually.
Pamela: “So what about sexuality? Is a person’s gender, gender expression or gender identity define who they are sexually? Does how they dress tell us who they are attracted to erotically?”
Mac: “No, it’s all about how they feel inside.”
Pamela: “Gender is a lot more complicated than I thought. Why don’t I know more Transgender people? Is this rare? I know lots of people that identify as gay or bi-sexual.”
Mac: “According to recent polls only eight percent of American's say they know someone who is transgender, while 90 percent claim to know someone who is gay, lesbian or bisexual. This helps to explain why there is still so much education to do around the topic of gender in our world. I do believe that more people may know someone who is transgender but don't know they know them. Many transgender people live a stealth life for reasons of safety, careers, family relationships and because being transgender is still looked at as freakish. Many transgender people still have to deal with fear doing simple things like going to a public restroom, which in some places can literally be life threatening. The suicide rate among transgender people is the highest of any group, the poverty rate is also the highest.”
Pamela “Can I get intimate? What about genitals? Isn’t it hard to not have your genitials match your gender?”
Mac: “The Transgender community is the only group of people that are constantly asked about their genitalia. The fascination and focus on genitalia is a bit mind boggling. Many trans people get angry at this and I understand that, but look at how shallow most of our society is and how little freedom there is in the western culture to talk about genitalia or sexuality. This is why, even though I am sometimes shocked at the how, when or where I am asked about my genitals, I have learned to have a sense of humor about it and to understand that most people are awkward to talk about anything to do with sex. This extreme fascination at times makes us feel like the side show at an old fair, step this way and come see the man born with a vagina, maybe I should buy a big top. Please understand that we in the transgender community want you to know there is much more to us then our genitalia, and being transgender has more to do with our minds and spirits then our crotch. Speaking of mind boggling isn't our largest sex organ our brain?
Could you imagine if we judged everyone by their genitalia? This thought makes me belly laugh. What would constitute a real penis? Does it have to be a certain size? Work a certain amount of the time to be counted? Is a woman not a woman if she cannot have children? I could go on and on here. So everyone stand up drop trousers and lets see how you land on the real man, real woman scale.
This may be shocking to you but not all transgender people want to have their bodies altered, some just want the freedom to express the way they want to on the spectrum. The ones who do want to have procedures to alter the body to match more of how they feel have to have the access to do it. It is very expensive and many forms of insurance do not cover these procedures. Although we have come along way. There are companies now that include transgender care in their coverage and the medical profession is beginning to understand this is not a choice like being gay is not a choice, and how this affects the overall health and well-being of the person.”
Pamela: “Last question Mac! So what about language? Is there lanugage I should know when I am speaking about gender issues? I don’t want to offend anybody.”
Mac: “Many people are easily offended by the slightest misuse of a word in the LGBTQI community, and yet language is fluid and constantly changing. Who can keep up? I am a professional educator in gender and sexuality and I have to constantly check in about the new ways of saying things. I believe the important thing for all of us to think about and evaluate is a person's intent. We all attach different meanings to words. Those meanings we attach are influenced by our families, our religions, our schools, our communities, what we read and are exposed to. Therefore a word I might find offensive being from the south you may not find offensive at all if you are from California. When we carry big chips on our shoulders and attack one another over the use of a word when the intent is not bad many times we are alienating ourselves and any understanding for our community. I truly believe that most people are not trying to offend anyone, but many are uneducated or the meaning they attach is the same as the meaning some of us attach. So check that chip on your shoulder at the door and in a warm, kind way educate.”
What became clear to me during my discussion with Mac about gender, is that it can cost a lot to be authentic.