An introduction to:
GENDER, TRANSGENDER AND TRANSPHOBIA
By: Sandra Laframboise RPN
Beth Long Law Student
Published by: High Risk Project Society
Michelle Let for Zenith foundation
Sandra Laframboise for HRP
Deborah Brady Transgender member
Monique King youth Transgender
High Risk Project Society
This booklet is about transgendered people and the discrimination that transgendered people face. It is primarily intended for people who have not had much exposure to the issues of transgendered people, but who wish to understand those issues and want to minimize the incidence and effects transphobia through their own awareness and behaviour.
In order to understand gender-based discrimination, or "transphobia," it is necessary to understand "transgender." And to understand transgender, we must appreciate what "gender" is, and how it works. This booklet will explore the meaning of gender and challenge the idea that gender is the same thing as sex. Gender is a social creation, not a natural function of sex.
The term "transgender" refers to individuals whose gender expression and identity do not conform to society's expectations. Transgendered people identify and present themselves in many different ways. In doing so, transgendered people push the boundaries of both sex and gender.
Transgendered people are often assumed to be members of the homosexual community. However, transgendered people may be any of the broad range of sexualities found in the non-transgendered population.
The transgendered community is very diverse, yet most transgendered people have one experience in common: that of transphobia. Transphobia is the fear, hatred, disgust and discrimination of transgendered people because of their non-conforming gender status. Transgendered people are united as a community in the struggle against transphobia, and for the right to express their gender identity and shape their bodies in whatever way makes sense to them.
This booklet will elaborate on these various themes, and will suggest ways in which transphobia can be challenged in any context, including in the workplace, in school, in health care, in social services and at home.
WHAT IS GENDER?
Depending on the context in which it is used, the idea of gender is often confused with sex and, less often, with sexual orientation. However, gender is a distinct category that describes particular human characteristics. The most important thing about gender is that its meaning is created by society: people are expected to behave and express themselves in certain ways that are consistent with the socially pre-determined gender role associated with their sex. Unfortunately, because of the intimate connection our society has made between gender and sex, the important distinction between the two categories has been blurred.
Gender must not be mistaken with sex. The category sex refers to our biological makeup, and uses certain biological markers (such as our genitals or our chromosomal makeup) to create the distinction between females and males. We are each pronounced at birth, upon the doctor's glance at our genitals, to be a girl or a boy. What is really discovered about each of us at that point is not our gender, per se, but simply our sex.
The operation of gender as a socializing force is obscured by the assumption that gender is a natural function of sex. Gender, however, comprises two "sets" of social characteristics, which combine to create the categories of "woman" (girl) and "man" (boy).
The gender category woman (that is, the so-called "feminine" gender automatically assigned to members of the female sex) carries with it certain expectations about how to act, what to do, who to love and so on: Women are generally expected in mainstream Canadian society to be more passive, submissive and dependent than men. Women are often seen to be subjective, emotional beings, are usually associated with the private sphere of life and tend to be the care-givers. Women are expected to love and marry a man and to become mothers.
Likewise, the gender category man (that is, the so-called "masculine" gender automatically assigned to members of the male sex) carries with it a very different set of expectations about how to act, what to do and who to love: Men are assumed to be more active and dominant than women, and are seen to be rational, objective individuals. Men are more often associated with the public sphere of life, and are expected to be dependable income earners. Men are expected to love and marry a woman and to become fathers.
Of course these descriptions are generalized, and there is some overlap between them. More and more women are recognized as active, participating members of the public sphere, while men are increasingly assuming care-giving roles. However, there remains a rigid division between the two categories. There are only, it is usually assumed, "women" and "men" - and these are understood to be very different from each other. The two gender categories are, in other words, also interdependent: the idea of "feminine" behaviour says as much about how men are not supposed to act as it does about how women are supposed to act.
Each of us is critically assessed with respect to our level of conformity to our genders: gender conformity is mandatory in our society and most people participate in forcing that conformity, in themselves and in others.
Gender is very much about how people perceive us, and our behaviour (personality, identity and self-expression) determines how we will be "perceived." How we behave, though, depends greatly on how we are influenced as we grow up, as well as on our experiences as adults.
We are taught to be "good girls" and "good boys" meaning that we are, over time, taught how we are meant to act as girls and as boys. In this way, gender is intimately connected to social expectations, rather than to sex: we allow the knowledge of the sex of a child to inform us which set of gender characteristics we are supposed to encourage in that child.
We tend to treat gender characteristics as natural - for example, the idea that "boys will be boys" suggests that the particular behaviour referred to is to be expected from male children. What it really means, however, is that that behaviour will be tolerated in a boy, where it would likely not be tolerated in girls. The process of gender socialization is in this way disguised as "natural."
But the essential fact is that our gender roles are taught to each of us, and are rigidly enforced, through families and friends, educational institutions, the workplace, media, advertising and the entertainment industry.
Because it is generally accepted that there are only two sexes, society has created a two-gender model: which role we are taught to assume is arbitrarily tied to that first pronouncement made by a doctor regarding our sex upon our birth. Thereafter, gross deviations from our respective gender roles are not welcome.
Few people actually do conform exactly to their predetermined gender role: A certain lack of conformity is not only expected, it is increasingly seen as welcome. However, there is a certain line which we are not permitted to cross, keeping the two roles distinct.
Deviations which stray too far from the norm are met with discomfort. Some such deviations result in the labels "tomboy" (as distinct from girl), "mama's boy" (as distinct from boy), and "butch woman" and "effeminate man." These grey-area categories themselves demonstrate the rigidity of gender norms: true "women" are not supposed to be "butch," true "men" are not supposed to be "effeminate."
Transgendered people who fail to behave within the acceptable range of behaviours expected of their gender roles are simply not tolerated in our society.
WHAT DOES TRANSGENDER MEAN?
Transgendered people seek the freedom to express themselves and to present themselves in a manner that is consistent with their own identity, rather than with the gender identity imposed on them from birth.
Transgender is a term used by the community of people whose gender expression is considered inappropriate for their sex. It is also increasingly used as an umbrella term to include everyone who challenges the boundaries of sex and of gender. Anyone who crosses the line of what is socially acceptable appearance and self-expression may be included in the definition of transgender.
The following sub-groups are presented roughly according to the line that is crossed, though they are not meant to understood as rigid or mutually exclusive categories:
biological: transsexuals, intersexuals, androgens
social: transgenderists, transvestites, drag kings and queens, cross-dressers, gender-benders, women who pass as men, and men who pass as women
morphological (appearance): "masculine" looking women, "feminine" looking men, bearded women, women bodybuilders (that is, women who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body)
Most transgendered people, however, cross more than one line. As well, there is a significant psychological component to every transgendered person's experience as a transgendered person. In other words, being transgender is as much about a person's experience internally as it is about social perceptions, and for that reason transgendered people are those who identify as such.
DEFINITIONS OF COMMON SUB-GROUPS IN TRANSGENDERED COMMUNITIES
Transsexuals: Transsexual people internally experience a contradiction between their
identity and their anatomic sex, and usually shape themselves physically to create a more
healthy and harmonious balance between their bodies and their internal world.
Transsexuals may take hormones and may have surgery to change their physical
appearance. Hormones change the physical structure of the body, including secondary sex
characteristics like facial hair, skin tone and voice pitch. Surgery for a female to male
transsexual may include a mastectomy (removal of breasts), a hysterectomy (removal of
uterus), and ovariectomy (removal of ovaries). Female to male transsexuals may also
have a penis created through phalloplasty. Male to female transsexuals may have a
vagina created through vaginoplasty.
Transsexuals who have not had genital surgery are often referred to as pre-operative, while those who have had genital surgery are often referred to as post-operative. In recent years, transsexuals have challenged this division on the basis of surgery - the term "transgender" is used, then, to unite people irrespective of their genital status. There are also those who identify as transsexual, but who have no interest in genital surgery. These people refer to themselves as non-operative transsexuals.
Intersexuals: Intersexual people have historically been referred to as hermaphrodites. These are people whose biological make-up at birth is not exclusively male or female. Because our society maintains that there are only two sexes, intersexed infants are usually, if not always, subject to extreme medical - surgical and hormonal - intervention. This involves the medical "assignment" of the infant as either male or female, on the premise that in doing so they are reconstructing the child to conform to its "real" sex. The trauma, shame, secrecy and isolation which accompanies this event effects intersexual people throughout their lives.
Intersexuals exist on the biological continuum between the poles of male and female. Between those poles there are many gradations, and intersexuals combine different biological characteristics in different ways. Intersexuals struggle against our rigid two-sex system, for the right to physical ambiguity and the acknowledgement that there are more than two sexes. Intersexed babies have a right to grow up and make their own decisions about the body they will live in for the rest of their lives.
Cross-dressers: People who wear the clothing and attire associated with the "opposite" sex may do so full or part time. Cross-dressers choose when and where they will present themselves in their chosen gender. Men who cross-dress as women sometimes refer to themselves as transvestites, however many do not like the medical connotations of that term, since the medical community has historically regarded transvestism as an illness. Drag kings and queens are also cross-dressers, but these terms are usually reserved for people who perform shows at lesbian and gay bars, and who themselves often identify as lesbians or gay men.
Transgenderists: Transgenderists are individuals who do not identify with the gender identity assigned to them at birth. Transgenderists may take hormones to bring their appearance closer to their chosen gender expression, but often they make no attempt to change their physical appearance. Transgenderists generally perceive their experience of conflict between their sex and their gender to be the result, not of "being in the wrong body," (as may be the case for transsexuals) but rather of society's expectation that they assume a gender identity that is, for them, inappropriate.
GENDER AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION
Transgender must not be confused with sexual orientation. Transgendered people may be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Sexual orientation refers to our desire: it is a term which describes our emotional, psychological and sexual relationships with others. Sexuality refers to how we experience our bodies sexually, and the different ways we organize our lives based on our desires.
Gender refers to the complex characteristics which define us socially. The issues of transgendered people are primarily those of gender, not of desire. While transgendered people are not the same as lesbians and gay men, there is, of course, a range of sexualities within transgender communities. Some female to male transsexuals, for example, are attracted to women, but do not identify as heterosexual. Others are attracted to men and identify as gay men. Some male to female transsexuals are sexually attracted to other women, and identify themselves as lesbians. Other transsexuals do identify as heterosexual, while still others use no label to describe their sexual orientation. The relationship between gender and sexual orientation gets even more complex in relation to the numerous transgendered people who are not transsexual. Because of the obvious limitations of our language and terminology around sexual orientation, especially when combined with gender, many people are increasingly embracing the term "queer" to embody the broad range of people who are not 100% heterosexual. However, it is significant that many transsexual people, whether straight or queer, face discrimination within lesbian and gay communities.
In the collective opinion of mainstream society, transgendered people cross too many gender boundaries and as a result experience gender-based discrimination, or transphobia.
Because of the unyielding dominance of our society's rigidly constructed two-gender model, members of the transgendered community have many negative experiences in common: Transgendered people often live in fear for their safety, may or may not experience personal torment resulting from having internalized phobic messages, and are isolated from much of society because of feelings of "lack of place."
Transphobia is at its most basic the fear of a transgendered person and the hatred, discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice that this fear brings. Transphobia is manifested as harassment, threatened safety, disgust, ridicule, restrictions on freedom of movement, restrictions on access to resources (housing, employment, services etc), and violence to name a few.
Our society is not kind to those who are visibly transgendered. Many are rejected by their own families and friends. Most face social isolation, and are discriminated against in employment, health care, social services and housing. Many transgendered persons live high-risk lifestyles, much of it due to the negative social pressure they have experienced throughout their lives. Statistics gathered thus far by the High Risk Project Society suggest that as many as 20% of the (known) transgendered community are involved in high-risk activity in Vancouver, such as the sex trade and substance abuse.
These experiences are visited upon transgendered people because transgendered people threaten the social construction of gender. Society marginalizes transgendered people, whether they push the mainstream boundaries of sex, of social behaviour or of appearance. Negative social, political and economic sanctions readily reinforce the boundaries of gender that mainstream society considers acceptable.
Transphobia takes countless forms. Transphobia may be expressed consciously or sub-consciously. Some examples include:
-the belief that a person is not a "real woman" or a "real man" if s/he is transgendered;
-the assumption that transgendered people are "sick" or incompetent or that they are psychologically unstable;
-the unwillingness to trust a transgendered person, because of that person's transgendered status;
-feelings of discomfort or disgust which prevent someone from dealing with a transgendered person as they would any other person - for example, a medical professional who is unwilling to locate resources relevant to their transgendered clients, and who, for lack of knowledge, are therefore unable to refer transgendered people to those much needed resources;
-when someone is unaware that s/he is dealing with a transgendered person, or doesn't bother to enquire when s/he suspects that the person with whom s/he is dealing is transgendered;
-when someone is aware of the transgendered status of the person with whom s/he is dealing, but continues to refer to the person in a way that is inconsistent with that person's presentation;
-when someone fails to rent an apartment, or to give a job or a promotion, or to provide a service to a transgendered person because of that person's transgendered status;
-when a transgendered person is excluded from activities, discussions or decisions because it is felt that that person doesn't "fit in."
Actions against transphobia include:
-increasing awareness of the issues of transgendered people while taking steps to affirm the identity of transgendered people;
-being willing and available to provide support, care and counsel as appropriate;
-being comfortable and inclusive around transgendered people;
-exploring the connections between transphobia, racism, homophobia and sexism.
-in education, health and employment:
-making resources available to transgendered people and others on issues related to transgenderism;
-adopting a zero tolerance policy regarding transphobia that treats transphobia as seriously as racism or sexism
-inviting a transgender community organization to work against transphobia with staff and others, and speaking with transgendered persons about gender identity and sexual orientation;
-consciously addressing the myths and stereotypes about the transgender community, and not ignoring inappropriate jokes
Gender is a complex social phenomenon. Although this booklet has maintained that gender is a social creation taught to us from birth on the basis of our sex, gender is also about self-expression. Gender, in other words, is also the personal creation of each and every one of us. Most people choose their means of gender expression from a predetermined set provided by society. Transgendered people identify in ways that do not correspond to some or all of that bundle of acceptable behaviours encouraged in them since birth. In this way, gender can be seen to be the product of the complex interaction between the individual and society.
Hopefully we will learn to celebrate the diversity of gender and the issues of transgendered people will become less acute. Meanwhile, this pamphlet is intended to address the very real and painful fact of transphobia in our society. It is clear that there is much to be done in order to remove the barriers that transgendered people face everyday, in order that they might express themselves, live and flourish in the absence of fear and gender-based discrimination.
High Risk Project Society is dedicated to improving the quality of life of transgendered street engaged people, with a special focus on HIV/AIDS issues. High Risk Project seeks to empower individuals through peer support and the provision of services to meet primary needs. We will advocate on behalf of the community to affect public and private policy, ensuring adequate access to health care, speaking on behalf of the most disadvantaged, promoting pub,ic awareness by education, sensitivity training and publishing, that the transgendered both individually and collectively may assume their rightful place as respected members of society.
HIGH RISK PROJECT SOCIETY 449EAST HASTINGS STREET, VANCOUVER B.C., V6A 1P5 Tel;(604)255-6143 - fax;(604)255-0147 - email; firstname.lastname@example.org
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