Michelle’s introductory guide to trans…

There’s a good chance you’re reading this post because a friend shared it on Facebook and you’re curious. You’ve seen Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation via the media and watched Laverne Cox’s character on Orange is the New Black. Maybe you agree that they’re women or maybe you don’t understand why people think “he’s” a woman. Either way you’ve come to the right place.

The best place to start is with a definition. Transgender simply means that someone isn’t the gender they were assigned at birth. Assigned at birth is a common term in the trans community because, when you get right down to it, that’s what happens. If there’s something between the legs and it’s relatively long, the baby’s a boy. If there’s something there but it’s relatively small, the baby’s a girl. If it’s in between that’s what’s referred to as intersex. There is no biology or genetics done here, just a tired doctor eyeballing a newborn’s genitals and ticking a M or F box.

Sometimes people claim to be using biology as proof that trans doesn’t exist. All that does is prove the person really doesn’t understand biology. Gender is a spectrum; there is far more than xx/xy and penis/vagina. Claiming there’s no more to gender than two sets of chromosomes and genitals is akin to claiming algebra doesn’t exist because it doesn’t mesh with what you learned in grade two math. First, as I said above, intersex exists. Second, gender exists in the brain, not between the legs.

Gender and sex development occur in the womb. At the beginning, all zygotes look the same then they begin to differentiate according to hormones and the embryo’s chromosomes. Noticeable visual differences can be seen by the time the fetus reaches 20 weeks. But gender isn’t visible to the naked eye, that develops in the brain and can be seen in brain scans. To put it simply, the fetus’ genitals release small amounts of hormones which are supposed to trigger a hormonal wash to wire the brain. However sometimes the hormones aren’t detected and either not enough or different hormones wash through instead, wiring the brain with a gender that differs from the visible sexual characteristics.

People use the quote “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” on a regular basis and this goes doubly for gender. If you don’t want to be judged by outside appearances, why judge someone else? Women and men come in all different shapes and sizes (and so does everyone in between). I’m sure everyone’s had an incident where they’ve been told they can’t possibly know something about themselves, that someone else knows better. Maybe it was over something silly like developing a taste for a food you hated as a child and having your Mom refuse to serve it to you. Maybe it was over something serious like having your beliefs or sexual orientation dismissed as merely a phase or some sort of rebellion. There’s a frustration that boils up inside when people claim they know you better than you know yourself… an anger and discomfort at being ignored and patronized… a feeling of invisibility. Now imagine how much harder it would be to have the core of your identity ignored and devalued.

Your sex was the first thing other people defined about you as soon as you were born, usually even before your birth and often before your health. Your gender was the first thing people asked about you as a baby. It permeates every aspect of your life from the clothes you buy to the recreation you enjoy. If you’ve been arguing that trans people are wrong about their gender, it’s time to ask yourself why. Why do you feel you know more about their gender than they do? They know what genitals they have and are probably far more appalled* by them than you are. Isn’t it better to trust them to know such an integral part of their life better than you?

Sometimes when people disagree with being transgender, they bring up irrelevant arguments. Quite frankly, someone thinking they’re a dog is as relevant to an argument about trans people as someone wanting to marry their toaster is to an argument about equal marriage (whether it’s same sex or interracial). Someone thinking they’re black as an argument is a little more relevant since it happened recently. Rachel Dolezal splashed into the media this spring as a white woman who claimed to be black so incessantly that she got appointed the president of NAACP. As usual, the reality was complicated. She didn’t come up with this notion out of nowhere, she has black siblings and came from an abusive family. Rachel isn’t black, she’s a woman struggling through the aftermath of abuse who identifies with the people who supported her in early childhood. Colour really is skin deep. You can’t do a brain scan and determine whether someone’s black or white. Race is based on where our ancestors lived, a melanin umbrella for sun protection. The closer the equator… the darker the skin. Gender, however, can be recognized through brain scans.

I am a cisgender (or cis) woman. To put it simply, when I was born the doctor looked at me and said, “It’s a girl!” and I am one. Meanwhile the doctor told me that Jeremy was a boy and zie’s not. Cisgender is not an insult unless it’s been shortened to something like ‘cis scum’ and, in that case… seriously? What the hell did you do?

Don’t tell me, I don’t actually want to know.

It’s not a label you can refuse either (unless you’re trans). You can’t claim to dislike this one label when you’ve accepted every single other one. Claiming it’s an “invented word” doesn’t fly either. Is the rest of our language organic and free range? Were the other words all carefully hand picked off the etymology tree? This is a label that will turn up so rarely in your life that you don’t really have to worry about it. Even if you hang out with a bunch of trans people you’re far more likely to talk about phone cases, chocolate, and that amazing new Thai restaurant that just opened up down the street. Although honestly I’m more partial to the Chinese restaurant two blocks over (their homestyle bean curd is so yummy!).

My friends agree that dysphoria is the hardest part of being trans but there’s another difficult part… a whole bunch of misguided comments and cringe worthy questions. I’ve asked a few friends what comments or questions they get, but first I’m going to share a video made by trans activists:

As you can tell by the video, our society has a weird obsession with trans people’s genitals. My biggest tip is just don’t. When was the last time you asked someone if they were circumcised or if they shaved “down there” or you pondered the size of their labia? I’m really hoping the answer to all of the above is never. Give trans people the same respect. Plus let’s stop with the “chopped off his penis” comments. A trans woman’s penis is not cut off (presuming she chose to have surgery in the first place). The penis is very neatly divided and looped around to form a vagina, labia, and a (usually) functioning clitoris. This is done by a well trained surgeon and team, not the trans woman and a pair of scissors.

Alongside rampant discussions and questions about genitals comes a whole other debate. Bathrooms.

Cue the sound of trans people hitting their heads on the keyboard.

For most people, public washrooms are an irritation. Will there be toilet paper? Will the paper sit neat and clean in the dispenser instead of strewn across a waterlogged floor? Will it smell like a circus outhouse on a hot day or an artificial version of roses. Trans people get all that plus the added concern of being yelled at or beaten up and, in some cases, having security or the police called. Simply because they wanted to pee.

There’s a concern that some cis people have that men are going to sneak into the ladies room in drag, pretending to be trans, and rape someone. Won’t someone think of the children?!? This ignores the fact that a) that same man is going to have to walk through the store in drag, which is hardly inconspicuous (I’ve seen people literally turn in place to continue staring at Jeremy when we’re out) and b) there are trans children who need just as much protection as their cis friends and siblings. These fears also conveniently ignore a huge swatch of trans people, namely trans men. If people were forced to go into the washroom of their assigned gender, that means trans men would have to go into the women’s room…

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Yep, he wouldn’t be conspicuous at all

When people argue against trans people using their correct washroom, they forget about men like Michael Hughes. How exactly are you supposed to tell if he’s trans when he’s in the washroom? If a woman is scared of having a man in the washroom with her, I’d think she’d be more upset about a muscular bearded man than a woman who’s in there to pee and (possibly) check her lipstick. For that matter, how are people supposed to tell in general? Are we all to drop our drawers before we enter? Are they going by gender stereotypes? There’s already at least one cis woman suing in the States for being harassed and escorted out of the ladies room for not looking feminine enough.

Plus these arguments ignore one crucial fact. There has not been one single case of a trans person attacking or harassing a cis person in the washroom. Not one. The closest I could find was a case where a couple of young teens claimed to be exposed to a trans woman’s penis while changing for a team event. Not attacked, simply exposed. Plus it turned out that the two girls snuck into a member’s only section of the gym, an area they were clearly told was out of bounds, and then proceeded to open up a closed and private sauna room door where the trans woman and her friend happened to be sitting. Conversely, I wouldn’t have the space or time to write down all the times trans people have been harassed in the washroom from this year alone. It’s not unknown for trans people to suffer with bladder problems stemming from holding their urine for hours instead of using a public toilet. They’d rather suffer from bladder problems instead of being attacked (again). But they’d really rather be safe.

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So not a risk to anyone in the women’s room. Very much at risk in the men’s room.

There’s another act of violence against trans people, misgendering. This occurs when people refuse to use a trans person’s pronouns, instead using the pronouns the person was assigned at birth. Jeremy is continuously misgendered. Akin to misgendering is the act of using someone’s birth name, also known as their dead name in the trans community. Both can cause a great deal of emotional distress to a trans person, as well as disrespecting the right to their own identity. At least 22 people have been killed this year because they were transgender women. I say at least because some end up being dead named and identified as male. Their names were read at our Transgender Day of Remembrance service this year and an appalling number were identified by the phrase “unknown woman”. Outing someone is an act of violence. Telling people your female friend “used to be male” puts her at risk of being beaten up or murdered. Telling people your male friend “used to be female” puts him at risk of being beaten up or raped. If you have a trans friend that’s great. Don’t betray their trust by outing them so you can appear cool or trendy. Don’t betray their trust because you’re struggling with accepting your new information about their gender. Introduce them with their pronouns and chosen name then move on.

We are all human. We all have hopes, dreams, hobbies, and a burning need to know why Facebook keeps switching to “top profile” (the last one might be just me). Don’t let a label get between you and another person.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them below and I’ll do my best to answer them honestly (and possibly by frantically messaging my friends). This blog is unapologetically a safe place. Any transphobic or homophobic comments are deleted and the person is blocked from commenting. I’ll make allowances for honest ignorance.

* Most, but not all trans people, deal with some degree of gender dysphoria. Some, like my teen Jeremy, are perfectly happy with their body including their genitals. One of my friends refers to her genitals as “that thing” or “the abomination”. Another friend of mine had to hide sharp objects for fear her daughter might try to cut off her own penis as a preschooler. Many of my friends have posted pictures which show a man and woman on opposite sides of a mirror, while saying that’s exactly how they feel. They feel themselves completely as one gender and it’s continually jarring to have everyone else see and refer to them as a different gender entirely.

Is there a diagnosis for weird?

The part I remember the most was that I actually had a friend over. She’d come over as my friend, wanting to hang out and do stuff with me. For the first time ever I could have someone in my room to share my toys and activities. I sat on the floor beside my closet and happily showed off my favourite books and toys. Then I asked her a question and got silence for an answer. I looked up and she was gone.

My heart pounded. I was positive she’d just been there a second ago. Where could she have gone? My room was silent… the hallway empty. I raced downstairs and ran into the kitchen.

“Mom! Mom! My friend just disappeared!”

My Mom gave me this sad smile. “Michelle, she’s right here,” she said as she pointed over to the table. There was my friend sitting calmly eating a snack. “She’s been downstairs for at least ten minutes.”

I don’t remember anything about that friend. I have no idea what her name was, her hair colour, or how we’d even met. What I do remember was the soul crushing shame as I realized I’d sat alone for at least ten minutes talking to myself. The realization that the things I was interested in really were boring and pointless.

I was the kid who collected worms off the side of the road so they wouldn’t drown. Who skipped instead of walked. Who sang in school. Who daydreamed through math class and read through everything else. Who took forever to get dressed because clothes were too finicky and the seams too uncomfortable. Who couldn’t wear jeans. Who couldn’t bounce on a pogo stick even once but could climb to the top of the tallest tree. Who struggled to ride a bike and tie my shoes but could run super-fast. Who hated water on my face but loved swimming underwater. Who mistook a classmate for my own sister because their faces were similar. Who forgets what their own sister looks like? Who can’t tell faces apart that badly? It was even more embarrassing than my Mom drilling me on my classmates faces after picture day and realizing I couldn’t name a single one.

One thing my Mom remembers about my childhood is how well I could hear. As a toddler I recognized my Dad’s step because his knee clicked slightly and, when I was a bit older, I recognized his car by the pitch of the engine. Right now I can hear the hum of my netbook’s fan and the clicking of the CPU. I can hear the cars on the road a block away and my cats breathing. Jeremy chatting in zir room. The faint hum of my ceiling lamp (thankfully not the whine of some fluorescent bulbs). People walking upstairs and moving a chair. I’m reasonably sure most people would say it’s quiet. Sometimes I plug my ears when I’m out. The sounds can get painful.

The school worried about me when I was little and so did my parents. I was sent to Sick Kids for testing in the mid 1970’s and the doctor gave my parents the very scientific results; I’m a square peg in a round hole. He went on to ask them not to let the school board chip my corners off. I wonder how that would fit in an IEP.

I tried to fit in for years, mimicking people’s behaviours and conversational techniques. The end result was an ever present label of “weird”. I talked funny. I sounded like a college professor. I finally gave up on trying to fit in because there doesn’t seem to be much point when the end result is the same. Most jokes confuse me, the raunchy ones especially. I love elephant jokes. They don’t hurt anyone and they make sense. My best social interactions happen online.

The first time the word “autism” intersected with my life was when Jeremy was a toddler and zir occupational therapist brought it up casually. The images my mind dredged up were vague impressions of head banging, rocking, and screaming. My happy, social child didn’t fit any of that. Then the school brought it up and finally Amy. Three separate times was enough to make me do some more investigating and, by the time zie turned seven, I was determined to get zir into testing. Jeremy was diagnosed through the school less than a year later.

Then people started using the word against me, this time as an insult. Amy, who insisted that I should get Jeremy diagnosed because she worked with autistic youths and knew the symptoms, was the first.

You’re so fucking autistic, Michelle. You have no idea how to relate to people.

I looked at Jeremy, who was friendly, helpful, and honest. Amy threw autism like it was an insult but there was nothing wrong with my child. However, she was right in one way; being a square peg in a round hole isn’t a diagnosis… neither is being weird. I joined a group for autistic women on Facebook, explaining honestly that I don’t have an official diagnosis. One immediately posted an online test. This was my result.

ASD online test

Apparently I’m an over achiever.

Jeremy and I are on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist who does talk therapy. I’m hoping he’ll be able to help Jeremy with zir anxiety and I’m hoping he’ll be able to help me with my depression and an actual diagnosis.

For now I need to remind myself that the things I like aren’t weird, boring, or pointless… they’re just uncommon. Because I need to be kind to myself too.