Why I’m Pro-Trans

Copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry

Published 2017.07.29, Updated 2017.07.31


Screenshot of news story here.
Rights for LGBTQ+ people have come along in fits and starts, even in “enlightened” Western nations. But often left out of the conversation was the particular plight of transgender persons. While same-sex couples finally won rights to be married, adopt children, and so on, these fights typically applied only to cisgender people — people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.

Transgender people have a different set of battles to fight. For one, they are fewer in number: about 0.6% of the U.S. population. For another, they are often excluded from groups that should be allies, including subsets of gay/lesbian groups, and some feminists (see: TERF). Non-discrimination bills have a harder time passing if trans people are included. There are associated medical costs with being trans that aren’t associated with being gay or lesbian. And so on.

In the past, I held incorrect views on this topic — views mostly informed by ignorance. As they did on other topics, my views changed as I learned more.

The Information That Changed My Mind

I once mistakenly assumed “gender” and “sex” were synonyms, so I used the incorrect argument that “your genes determine your gender”. I was wrong.

I further believed there to be only two sexes/genders, and that anyone who thought himself or herself to belong to the “incorrect” sex/gender must be mentally ill. I was not alone in these views; many Americans today state exactly these views, regularly. To my credit, I rarely spouted these views to others, because I didn’t see how the topic affected me in any way.

In reality, (1) sex and gender are two different things, (2) there are more than two biological sexes, (3) there are more than two genders, (4) being transgender is not a mental illness, and (5) there is no legitimate reason to oppose any of this.

1. Sex And Gender Are Not Synonyms

Genes determine biological sex in sexually reproducing organisms. In humans and other mammals, the X and Y chromosomes make this determination. Sex typically decides your reproductive system and abilities; females are able to get pregnant, for example, while males can’t.

Gender, on the other hand, is “the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity” (source), or “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” (source). In other words, while sex describes your biology, gender describes expected associated traits — which differ from one culture to another, from one time period to another, and even between one person and another.

Succinctly: gender is a social construct. Sex is genetic and/or biological.

Many of the traits we associate with biological/genetic sex have turned out to be expressions of gender instead. One way to tell the difference (whether a trait is from gender or sex), is to check whether the trait is common to the vast majority of a particular sex throughout time and across cultures. For example: “pink is for girls; blue is for boys” turns out to not be related to biological sex, and this can easily be shown, just as both boys and girls wore gender-neutral clothing during childhood, until very recently. The same turns out to be true for many other cultural or behavioral traits once associated with sex — cooking, housekeeping, teaching, sports, dancing, monster trucks, and so on. It turns out these have nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with pressure and indoctrination from culture/society.

2. There Are More Than Two Sexes

The biological determination is not simply binary; there are more than two possibilities. Not only are there XX males and XY females, but there are other (though rare) genetic combinations, including X, XXY, XYY, XXYY, XXX, XXXX, and XXXXX. Some humans are intersex (once called “hermaphrodite”) — born with either ambiguous genitalia or genitalia which “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies”.

In humans, babies are typically assigned a sex at birth, based purely on observation of outward physical characteristics — not based on genetic tests, for example.

3. There Are More Than Two Genders

One we’ve separated gender from sex in our minds, then it is obvious that there aren’t simply “two genders”. Since gender comes down to a list of behavioral traits, and all of us clearly don’t fall into two neat categories when matching up with these traits, then clearly gender is a spectrum; there are not hard lines of division as we were once taught.

I noticed this with my own children — especially my daughter — when they were very young. She would see a single trait about another person and determine their gender immediately — often incorrectly. For example, long hair. Very early — as soon as she could speak — she already had a built-in assumption that women have long hair and men have short hair. She saw an old photo of me with long hair and said: “Daddy used to be a girl?” Then, when my wife’s hair got cut very short: “Mommy is now a man!” For a couple of years, hair-length was really the only gender identifier she would recognize. Eventually, she added “boobies” to her list. So when she saw a man with a somewhat noticeable chest, she asked me: “Is he a woman because he has boobies?”

The rest of us use a variety of gendered identifiers, including clothing, hair length, hair styles, hat choice, makeup, body styles (including hips, breasts, shoulders, arms, leg shape, etc.), mannerisms and gestures, voice pitch, and more. So we’re thrown off balance when a suit-wearing, short-haired, makeup-less, deep-voiced woman walks into the room. A man wearing a dress and makeup is assumed to be either dressed up for Halloween or off his meds, despite a dress being a perfectly reasonable clothing choice for certain occasions.

Having given it some thought, I now recognize how many times I made judgments when only one identifying characteristic was off. Just one. A woman with short hair. A man wearing eyeliner. A woman who didn’t shave her legs. A man with a purse. A woman who obviously lifts weights. A man with a “woman’s name”. With most of us, our brains are so wired to expect two exact categories, with everyone matching one or the other perfectly, that it can be startling when even one checkmark is in the “wrong” column.

I should have realized this earlier, of course. My voice is not deep. For years, I wanted long hair, and then I finally grew long hair and kept it for years. Heck, I even carry a purse! (But let’s call it a “man bag” for now, while I still live in Texas.)

4. Transgender Is Not A Mental Illness

While “gender dysphoria” is currently classified as a mental illness, this is different than being transgender. Transgender simply means your gender identity does not match the sex you were assigned at birth — and this mismatch is not considered a mental illness by mental health professionals (source). “It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder”, notes the American Psychiatric Association. “The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition” (source, .pdf, 231 kb).

It is also worth noting that “transgender” is sometimes used as an umbrella term. Not only does it refer to people whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex, but it can often refer to other people as well, including genderqueer, bigender, pangender, genderfluid, or agender.

5. There Is No Legitimate Reason To Oppose Trans Rights

When I was growing up and forming opinions, I was aware of no movement for trans rights, and in fact didn’t hear that phrase until well into my 30s. No one around me, and none of the news sources I followed spoke about it. For the first decade or two that I was aware of the “gay rights” movement, I still didn’t hear about transgender issues. So I didn’t spend any effort thinking about it. But when the topic did (rarely) come up, I was ill-informed and therefore incorrect.

This was a simple case of me needing to learn more. Once I understood the facts as described above, transgenderism no longer seemed “absurd” or “wrong” — it is simply a case of people identifying as genders that don’t match their biological sex.

Further, I realized that even if I still believed that it IS absurd or somehow didn’t fit my own moral code, neither would be reason enough to discriminate against trans persons, whether in housing, employment, public accommodations, healthcare — as is currently the experience of many trans people — especially in states like Texas, which is (as I write this) attempting to openly legislate further discrimination against them.

I cannot identify a single argument against trans rights that makes any sense. Thus, I fully support trans rights, and oppose any attempt to legislate further discrimination against them.

Anecdotal Experiences

Like many Americans, I probably met trans people without realizing it. The topic didn’t come up during my childhood, and rarely during my early adulthood. But eventually, people came into my life that helped give me concrete, tangible examples to consider.

In 1996 (I was 23, and just a year beyond Bible college), I met a man that I thought was a woman and had a woman’s name. He had been assigned “female” at birth and raised as a daughter by his parents, but never felt like a girl, never thought of himself as a girl. Throughout adolescence and early adulthood, he chose “butch” haircuts and loose-fitting clothing to appear less feminine. Due to living in an enclave of Christian conservatives in rural Arkansas, he was often treated as an outcast, the “shame” of his parents — otherwise known locally as a successful business family. I was employed by this family, which is how I met him. Within a year, his parents had agreed to pay for his sex reassignment surgery, which surprised me; they were more accepting than I had given them credit for.

A year later, I met a person who identified as “intersex”, because both male and female genitals were present. “She” still used and accepted the female pronoun because she’d been assigned female at birth and given a girl’s name, but her body and identity had nearly equal elements of both common genders. She used the word “hermaphrodite” because “intersex” wasn’t in common usage at the time. (Today, hermaphrodite is considered by many to be a slur.) She worked the overnight shift at a convenience store because there weren’t too many other jobs where she felt comfortable or where people would treat her with dignity. She told me she liked working overnight because the kinds of people out at three in the morning are more accepting of others than the kinds of people she met during the day. Her parents had completely rejected her since puberty; she had been on her own since age 12. This was also in Arkansas.

Two years after that, I met a trans woman in Little Rock. She was wading through a sea of insults and trying to ignore the hushed whispers all around. It struck me that someone would have to be incredibly convinced of their transgender identity, as well as massively courageous, to live publicly as she did. This was not a life someone would choose; it had to be a case where she felt like she didn’t have a choice.

Final Notes

Given my own lack of knowledge just a few years ago, it is not surprising how ignorant some people are on this subject. What is astounding to me is how vicious many people are willing to be toward a marginalized, victimized population.

Sometimes, transphobia is expressed as part of homophobia — because people often conflate transgender with homosexual. Other times, people appear to have no issues with same-sex relations in general, but draw the line at transgender people — usually for reasons not well articulated. A trans woman of color can often be subjected to multiple forms of discrimination simultaneously: transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and racism.

Transphobia is not only expressed as bullying, name-calling, and exclusion, but also in very tangible, harmful ways. A major study (.pdf, 24.8 MB) of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people found that “a staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide” — compared with just 1.6% of the general population. Thirty-five percent reported they had been physically assaulted. Harassment was so severe for those who expressed during secondary education that 15% left school due to it. Unemployment rates for trans people are double the rate of the general population. Ninety percent reported mistreatment at work; 47% were fired, not hired, or denied promotions due to being transgender; and 16% said they were “compelled to work in the underground economy” (such as selling illegal drugs or doing sex work) for income. Due to these and other factors, trans people are four times more likely than the general population to live in “extreme poverty” (household income of less than $10,000 per year). Just last year, a U.S. district judge ruled that doctors have the right to refuse treatment to trans people, if the doctor claims the refusal is due to a religious belief. (Which religion claims that refusing care is the right thing to do? Most of them, it seems.) A disproportionate number of homeless teens are trans — very often due to rejection by their own families. Another study (.pdf, 642 kb) shows that thousands of transgender people have been denied the right to vote based on their gender presentation not matching government-issued documents.

Only 18 U.S. states have legislated any protections for transgender people (source — ACLU). There are no federal laws that prohibit discrimination against trans people. Child-custody courts have often denied custody based solely on being trans. And so on.

As I will advocate for any oppressed or marginalized group, I will advocate for trans rights, not only through public statements, but through monetary donations to legal advocacy groups including the ACLU.


2017.07.31: Corrected several spelling errors.

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