13-19th November is Transgender Awareness Week – an opportunity to raise the profile of trans people and better understand the issues surrounding being trans at this moment in time.
It will not come as a surprise to many that being trans is, now apparently more than ever, a battleground. The UK and US appear to be in the grips of a full-blown moral panic about trans people, and this relatively small and remarkably vulnerable group is experiencing reactionary violations of their rights because they have been painted as a threat to some groups in society and to society at large.
What does it mean to be trans?
There are many ways to be trans. The most straightforward way to explain being transgender is that a person’s personal experience of gender does not match the gender they were assumed to be based on their externally visible sex characteristics when they were born. I say externally visible because although not all intersex people would claim a trans identity, some intersex people also experience being assigned a gender at birth based on externally observed sex characteristics that appear to belong to the binary male/female classification that, on later medical examination, turn out not to be the whole picture.
Being trans can mean identifying with being a man when you were assumed to be a woman or vice versa, feeling as though your experience of gender isn’t adequately described by either of the genders that are described by social norms, or even that you don’t identify with the concept of having a gender at all. There is a more common belief that people can be binary trans people (trans women or trans men). The concept of being non-binary, identifying with more than one or none of the above, is more recent in mainstream discourse even though it’s been around for centuries in cultures worldwide. In some ways, the existence of people who feel their gender doesn’t match the one they’ve been told can challenge the whole notion of there being two genders. Add to that the range of socially acceptable ways to express being a man or a woman, and it begins to look like very little about gender is binary.
One of the common myths about being trans, which is often perpetuated by media portrayals of trans people and ways process through which people are ‘diagnosed’ as trans, is that gender identity is an innate property that is stable from birth. It’s thought that to be trans, you must have felt you were the opposite gender to the one you were assigned from early childhood. That is not true for everyone. While it describes some trans peoples’ experiences, it overlooks the fact that many people’s experience of their gender evolves throughout their lives.
This can be true of cisgender* people too. Men can find their understanding of masculinity changes as a result of life events such as bereavement, becoming a parent or learning more about themselves and society. Women’s work, caring responsibilities, the experience of menopause and a range of other factors can change how they relate to and present their gender. Some cis women do not feel feminine enough and have surgeries such as breast augmentation or liposuction. Men may feel uncomfortable with how their bodies represent their sense of their own gender and may use exercise and diet to change their body shape. These changes are created where the individual’s experiences meet social expectations of what it means to be a particular gender.
The trouble with trans
Trans people are facing a lot of adversity. Social stigma and structural inequality can result in trans people struggling more with work and housing. Although in the UK the Equalities Act 2010 protects people from discriminatory treatment, reasons for discrimination can be plausibly deniable and seeking remedy for discrimination is incumbent on the person who experienced it. In addition, the current government is consulting on removing gender as a protected characteristic in favour of sex, essentially removing protection against discrimination from trans people.
In the UK, access to trans healthcare is practically impossible to get. For every ~330 people referred to the London Gender Identity Clinic, 50 people are offered first appointments. The process of changing your legal gender requires access to healthcare, as a gender recognition certificate is dependent on showing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria on your medical records (amongst other things) before your documents match your expressed gender. It is also only possible to have your gender recognised as man or woman. All of these things open trans people up to discrimination and, potentially, violence when their documents disclose their trans status.
In the US, draconian state laws are being introduced around the country to restrict access to trans healthcare for trans children and adults, and some of the historic anti cross-dressing laws that were overturned in the wake of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 are being re-enacted in such a way that criminalises individuals and venues for allowing ‘male or female impersonators’ to appear anywhere that children could be present.
All around the world, trans people experience stranger and intimate partner violence at significantly higher rates. Their employment opportunities are fewer, they have greater insecurity in housing and accessing public services can be incredibly difficult.
In her 2021 book, Sion Faye suggests that the current approach to challenging things that trouble trans people such as unequal marriage rights, bathroom bills or employment equality “emphasise[s] the personal freedoms of the individual over the economic liberation of the entire minority group.” Supporting single issues continues to be an important part of working to make a world that is better for trans people, but moving towards a more equal society with less economic and social disparity would benefit people from all minority social groups.
The bottom line
Being trans can be a gift and a curse. It brings with it great hardships and intense joy. Understanding that gender isn’t a set of socially determined boxes you have to fit yourself into offers the chance to write your own story of your experience of yourself in the world beyond the confines of socially constructed norms, whether you are trans or not.
Most importantly, trans people are human beings worthy of love, care, respect, dignity and protection. You don’t have to agree with or even understand a person’s experiences to offer them respect and dignity. We all need to stand side-by-side in the fight for trans rights and safety. But if someone doesn’t have the energy to enter the fight for trans rights, they can at least not make life harder for trans people than it already is. That really is the least we can do.
*Cisgender is the opposite of transgender. It simply means that the person identifies with the gender they were assumed to be at birth.