Transgender 101 for Politicians and Media (especially #gapol)

Transgender people and concerns have been all over the news lately, but far too few people fully understand the concepts surrounding gender and gender identity. In our work, we travel across the South educating folks about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) issues, including vocabulary, terminology and concepts, risk factors and sucide prevention, and inclusion. 

As folks who deal in educating people on LGBTQ issues daily, here are some basic concepts, terms, and things to know. As the political fight over who’s allowed to use what bathroom and religious exemptions laws continues to ramp up, we hope this will help us all keep in mind what’s really at stake here - and ensure that the issues being discussed are done so with respect and accuracy.

Let’s start with definitions:

Transgender: Someone whose gender differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. 

(Note: “transgender” is an adjective, not a verb. It is not “transgendered.” No one was “transgendered” by the gender machine. And, it should be used as a descriptor, not a noun. They are not “transgenders,” they are “transgender people” or “transgender persons.” And, bathrooms are not “transgender bathrooms.” You are discussing “access to bathrooms for transgender people.”)

Cisgender: Someone whose gender is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. (Or, not transgender.)

Intersex: An umbrella term for someone whose reproductive organs and/or chromosomes don’t align with typical assumptions of male and female. This could be discordant internal and external genitalia, or any of the wide variety of chromosomal combinations that are possible, such as XXY, XYYY, or other variations. This is the accepted medical term for “hermaphrodite,” which has become a perjorative term for many in recent years.

Lots of people like to push the distinction between sex and gender. Many others (including us) find this to be problematic. As the Department of Justice points out in their lawsuit against North Carolina: “An individual’s ‘sex’ consists of multiple factors…Among those factors are hormones, external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosomes, and gender identity, which is an individual’s internal sense of being male or female.” All of those things together are what define our sex. Gender identity is part of that - it’s not a separate concept, and that goes for all of us, both cis and trans. 

Sex Assigned at Birth: The phrase you’re looking for when you want to say “biological sex” or “was born a man/woman.” See above for more information on this. 

A transgender man is someone who was assigned female at birth but is actually a man. A transgender woman is someone who was assigned male at birth but is actually a woman.

Please stop using the phrase "biological male" or "biological female." It is inaccurate and offensive.

(And, no one is “trapped” in a body that’s not theirs. That’s old, offensive, and outdated thinking.)

Genderqueer/gender fluid: Many people do not identify with the definitions of male or female as defined by society, or they may like elements of both. 

On Schools, Bathrooms, and Safety:

Many folks, Georgia’s own school superintendent included, have said they “don’t believe a student of another gender should use a restroom alongside students of the opposite sex.” No one is pushing to allow boys in girls’ restrooms or vice versa. Transgender boys are boys, and transgender girls are girls, full stop. They are not “biological boys who think they’re girls;” they are girls. Their brains are those of girls, their bodies are those of girls, even if they don’t look like your assumption of what a girl is supposed to look like at first glance.

The main argument against treating transgender kids fairly and with dignity is based on what’s commonly known as the “Bathroom Predator Myth.” The thought is that either a) transgender people are actually sexual predators (false) or b) non transgender people will pretend to be trans to gain access into restrooms of a different gender for nefarious purposes (also false).

Let’s put this to bed once and for all. This myth has been debunked by:

  • 16 states + DC
  • 23 school districts across the country with trans-inclusive policies
  • advocates for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence

There is no truth to the claims that allowing transgender folks to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity puts anyone in danger. Read all of those reports here. 

And, anti-discrimination laws do not protect anyone who’s in a bathroom doing something they shouldn’t be doing. No anti-discrimination law will stop someone from being convicted of sexual assault or harrassment. Anti-discrimination laws do not override those laws. 

There’s really no better way to put it: Transgender people are not a threat to you. 

On Risk Factors, Surgery, Suicide, and Other Things to Keep in Mind:

41% of all transgender people attempt suicide because of a lack of societal acceptance. Let's be clear: this is a statistic that can be reversed based on societal acceptance. If you accept transgender people for who they are, that number will go down, plain and simple. It is NOT becuase transgender people are in herently mentally ill (debunked) or they are unhappy after having “the surgery.” 

It’s believed that 70% of transgender people have no surgery whatsoever. And, there are many, many, many different kids of sugery to be had. There is no one “The Surgery” and it is not appropriate for you to ask someone if they’ve had it. You wouldn’t ask the average person on the street about their genitals, don’t ask transgender people about theirs. Unless you’re in a romantic relationship with them or you’re their doctor, it’s none of your concern. There is no truth to the idea that having surgery increases a trans person’s risk of suicide. That’s another myth. 

(Many trans folks don’t have any kind of surgery at all for a variety of reasons, including that it is often prohibitively expensive. Many trans folks also do not believe there is nothing wrong with their bodies and have no desire to change them in surgically. Still, there is no one answer or method for transgender people to follow and everyone makes the decision that’s best for them.)

There is no doctor in the US that would allow any kind of surgery to be performed on children or teens who are minors. Children who transition (the process of changing their outward appearance to match their gender) typically only change their appearance via clothing, hair styles, and other external methods. A child typically figures out their “true gender” between 3-5 years old.  As puberty approaches, they may choose to start taking certain hormones like puberty blockers. These hormones simply delay the start of puberty. The decision to start other hormones (such as estrogen or testosterone) are always made in consultation with doctors (typically an endocrinologist and primary care physician) and the parents/guardians. Puberty blockers are not permanent and cause no damage to the child.

Many trans folks have the goal of “passing.” (Not being able to tell they are transgender.) Many do not. Transgender people may or may not fit the standards you set of what someone in a certain gender should follow, nor do many of them want to. 

Many right-wing arguments have trotted out an organization called the “American College of Pediatricians.” This so-called medical organization was formed specifically to protest the growing body of scientific research that shows that LGBTQ people are not mentally ill. They are not a legitmate medical organization and they go against the professional standards set by leading medical groups and professional organizations. 

Gender Dysphoria is a medical term used to diagnose transgender people and is, at the moment, necessary in the US to obtain proper medical care. The term “Gender Identity Disorder” is not accepted as a legitimate diagnosis by the major mental health organizations. Learn more here. 

 

For Journalists and Others:

GLAAD has put together a pretty decent media guide, including many more definitions and best practices for writing about transgender people and issues. 

 

Above all else, the most important piece to remember when discussing these issues are the impact of our words and our intentions. Transgender people are real. They live, work, and play in every city of every state of every country in the world. They are not a threat to you, but too many people are a threat to them. Laws that strip them of their dignity cause real damage. You have already been in a bathroom with a transgender person and nothing bad has happened. We guarantee it. 

When people argue about “privacy” in a bathroom it makes us wonder what it is they’re doing in the bathroom. If you’re doing it right, no one should ever see your genitals nor shoud you see anyone else’s. There’s a reason there are stalls in bathrooms. Transgender kids don’t want to be the center of attention anymore than you want to be. They want to get in and out as fast as they can, just like you. (And, yes, even if there are urinals, you still have the option of using a stall if you want even more privacy.)

Numerous school districs have adopted fantastic policies for transgender inclusion in bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t violate anyone’s privacy. The NCAA allows transgender students to compete on college teams that match their gender identity as do many other athletic organizations (many base their decisions on surgery/transition, which is another conversation).

The science is out there. The best practices are out there. This should all be a no-brainer. Treating transgender kids fairly, with dignity and respect, literally saves their lives. How could anyone think that turning them into a political football or ridiculing them in the Capitol could ever be the right thing to do?

 

Have additional comments or suggestions for politicians and the media? Add them in the comments, and don't forget to include links, too!

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Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at robbie@sojourngsd.org.