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
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:
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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”
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”
.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
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
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.
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
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
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
trans — very often due to rejection by their own families. Another
(.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
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.