In face of serious misconceptions, transgender community perseveres to find a voice

In the wake of last fall’s prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) suicides, University President Lawrence Bacow sent an email to the Tufts community urging them to proudly support all of its LGBT members and to “model the behavior we would hope to see in the rest of the world, and that is of a community that is supportive and welcoming to all.”

In a world increasingly threatened by sexual intolerance, using this campus to create the kind of accepting and inclusive community described by President Bacow is now being brought to the forefront by several student organizations at Tufts.

Students Acting for Gender Equality (SAGE) is a student−run affiliate of the Tufts Women’s Center working to create a safe and supportive environment on campus for students of all genders. After Bacow sent his letter, the LGBT community was asked what could be done to encourage this kind of environment on the Tufts campus. SAGE put together a proposal for gender−neutral housing options at Tufts, which it submitted to the administration in February.

This document, titled “Recommendations for Gender Neutral Housing at Tufts,” outlined a series of suggestions for how gender−neutral housing, an “option in which two or more students may share a multiple−occupancy bedroom, in mutual agreement, regardless of the students’ sex or gender,” could be implemented on campus. It emphasized that gender−neutral options would provide housing choices for transgender students or students questioning their gender identity and cited schools best exemplifying these practices, such as Brandeis University and Connecticut College.

Although initially asked to provide suggestions for how to create a more inclusive campus for all of the LGBT community, SAGE submitted a proposal that seems to focus on an often overlooked letter in LGBT: the “T,” a community of people defined by their expression of gender rather than their sexual orientation and by their defiance of the social norms that tell them how they must express their gender.

For the transgender community, gender is a continuum, not a concrete either−or, man−woman construction. The gender of those in the community, and how they choose to express it, does not align with their biologically determined sex. This is a concept neither easily nor widely understood, according to Tom Bourdon, director of Tufts’ LGBT Center.

“In our country, there’s very little trans visibility and very little understanding of trans people and who they are and what they go through,” Bourdon said.

In fact, Bourdon said, the public has long been more amenable to outwardly gay identities than outwardly trans identities.

“I think it’s fair to say that historically speaking, it’s unfortunately been ‘us first, then you,’ because the assumption has been that the world is going to be ready to accept a gay identity before it’s ready to accept a trans identity.”

Yet while LGB and T communities have often been seen as separate, sophomore Maya Grodman, a member of Team Q, an LGBT peer−education group on campus, said that there are certain shared experiences and discriminations that seem to form an inevitable bond between the two.

“I think it’s marginalization that they all have in common. Even if they’re different groups, they’re still the ‘other,'” she said. Grodman went on to explain that this marginalization is a result of the LGBT community defying the gender and sexuality norms set forth by society.

“They are sort of united in that in a heteronormative society, you either are a man or a woman, and you’re heterosexual,” she said, implying that the LGBT community hardly fits into such neat boxes.

Besides often feeling like societal outsiders, there is a fundamental similarity bonding the two groups together, according to senior Ryan Heman, a former Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) co−coordinator and former LGBT community representative.

“The main reason ‘T’ individuals are in the same community [as LGB individuals is that] the basic concept underlying these two things is a radical deconstruction of gender,” he said. This deconstruction again refers to the LGBT community’s refusal to fill the mold that society presents them with, and that refusal to conform has shaped all of the struggles and stereotypes that the transgender community in particular faces.

The psychiatric community has long viewed transexuality as a disorder requiring treatment. Gender identity disorder (GID) is defined as “a strong and persistent cross−gender identification” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM−IV).

“I guess it’s a disorder because it creates distress,” Professor of Psychology David Harder said. Harder explained that being transgender creates both personal distress — not being at home in one’s own body — and social distress in trans people’s surrounding environments.

“If they’re expected to function as a gendered male, [but they feel] like a woman, [they] can’t function as a socially accepted gendered male,” Harder said.

The status of GID also presents a double−edged sword for trans−identifying people who wish to get a sexual reassignment operation. Accepting a diagnosis may mean accepting the stigma that goes along with it, but it may also mean the chance for surgery.

“Generally, to get any surgery you need a diagnosis,” Harder said. In that sense, the problem then becomes whether it’s more beneficial to transgender individuals to maintain the current status of gender identity disorder or to work to have it — and some of the associated stigma — removed from the DSM.

Bourdon expressed support for a re−evaluation of the DSM.

“In my opinion, it is important to get [GID] removed from the DSM, but for that to happen, a lot of other things need to fall into place so that trans people can still have access to any services and medical care they might need,” Bourdon said. Director of the Tufts Women’s Center Steph Gauchel agreed that proper medical care is an issue that the trans community must struggle against.

“Health care is definitely a barrier in terms of discrimination,” she said, explaining that, in terms of sex−change surgeries, there exists a discriminatory double standard.

“What modification[s] to the body is considered ‘normal,’ [and] which are pathologized?” Gauchel asked rhetorically. Gauchel went on to say that while breast implants are often encouraged in our society, sex−change operations are stigmatized. In addition, not only are trans people stigmatized for seeking out the surgery, but also for the result of that surgery, according to senior Tom Calahan, the discussion leader for QSA and a member of SAGE who took the lead on drafting the gender−neutral housing proposal.

“Basically the body is the ultimate site of discrimination,” he said. “Trans people might be discriminated against because their bodies are kind of novel.”

Physical discrimination, however, is only one small aspect of the wide range of stereotypes the transgender community is confronted with.

“There are a lot of stereotypes associated with gender nonconforming because it is a category defined by how diverse they are,” a transgender graduate student who requested anonymity out of privacy concerns, said. For example, many assume that the concept of transgender still works within a concrete gender binary, he said.

“People assume if you are physically transitioning that you’re going to adhere to very strict gender stereotypes,” he said, referencing the general belief that transgender people will still follow an exclusively male or female gender expression. Another stereotype trans people face is the assumption that transitioning — when a transgender person begins to live as their new gender — is an experiment in sexuality.

“A more pervasive misconception … [is that] people assume that transitioning is due to your sex life. I think that’s a misunderstanding of why we transition,” the transgender student said. People also make assumptions about trans people’s gender expression before they transition.

“Trans men are almost always assumed to have always been very butch women,” the transgender student said. The media also plays a role in how trans people are perceived, according to Calahan.

“[There’s a stereotype that] people who are not cisgendered, [people whose gender matches their biological sex] are not people we should take seriously … [that they’re] not heroes, not breadwinners,” he said. “I mean, do trans people get taken seriously in any movie you’ve ever seen?” Calahan added that people often make erroneous assumptions about why trans people express their gender the way that they do.

“[People think] that they’re doing it for attention or that it’s for fashion,” he said. Grodman agreed that in this sense, the media plays a large part in how trans people are perceived.

“I think the first thought is that they’re a cross−dresser,” she said. “In the media, that identity gets the spotlight the most.” Grodman added that because of this, their sexual orientation is also often stereotyped.

“People will just assume that [trans people] will have a sexual identity that’s not straight,” she said. “They can be a straight trans man.” Gauchel agreed that sexual orientation and gender identity are often confused.

“We often read people as gay or lesbian because of their gender expression … gender expression doesn’t say anything about sexuality, but people are always looking to make that a fact,” she said. Gauchel added that both media and society play a crucial role in how trans people are perceived by the public at large by providing a comparison for what’s considered “normal.”

“To give something social relevancy or currency, you have to have ‘normal’ to have ‘abnormal,’ but it is not about ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal.’ … ‘Transgender’ is just one identity among endless possibilities within the spectrums of gender identity and expression,” she said.

In the face of all this discrimination and stereotyping, equal rights legislation is a vital part of improving the trans experience. For example, the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) gives the Department of Justice jurisdiction over, and thus the power to investigate and prosecute, prejudice−motivated violent crimes, such as those perpetuated against members of the transgender community. In addition, the Employment Non−Discrimination Act (ENDA) is a bill currently being considered in Congress that, if passed, would provide protection against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Despite those protections, however, recognition is still the major issue facing the transgender community.

“Trans people just face an incredible, incredible struggle for their legitimacy to be recognized,” Calahan said.

This struggle to have their lifestyle validated by society parallels the struggle that trans people face to recognize themselves.

“My transitioning came from a place of understanding how I wanted to look and feel and see myself … when I look in the mirror. The main reason is recognizing myself,” the transgender student said. However, this personal recognition doesn’t always translate into others recognizing the same thing.

“Gender−wise, I’m always a guy now,” he said, explaining how people see him, but then adding that’s not always the case.

“Little kids often get it right, but parents correct [them],” he said, explaining that children often come up to him on the playground and call him “mister,” but then parents come over to “correct” their kids and apologize to the transgender student.

“Stuff like that happens all the time,” he said.

“Passing,” in which one’s trans identity isn’t physically evident to those around them, can often be the goal of a trans person: to not be called out on their gender identity, just to be recognized externally for how they feel internally. In this way, while the LGB community strives to “come out,” many trans people are happy to “come in.”

“People have to decide how out they are and there’s never going to be one level of out−ness for all trans people,” the transgender student said, explaining that while some want everyone around them to know, others see it as a personal invasion.

“The trans person can take responsibility in any given moment and say, ‘I don’t want to be outed,'” he said. Bourdon agreed that everyone has a personal comfort level, which needs to be respected.

“Some people have gotten to a point where they are living the life they want to live in a body and identity they’re comfortable with, and they might choose to go stealth … they might just want to live their lives without necessarily being identified as a ‘trans’ person,” he said. This may be part of why there are so many misconceptions surrounding the trans community, according to Gauchel.

“The only way we can understand how people identify and name themselves is to ask … [but] it’s not something that’s considered polite or appropriate in our culture, so we work off of assumptions,” she said.

Yet a lack of general knowledge, which could be remedied by a more open community, shouldn’t be addressed by forcing the trans community to step outside their comfort zone, according to Bourdon.

“We need to not put pressure on people to use certain labels or to be ‘out’ simply because we want them to be out,” he said.

SAGE’s gender−neutral housing initiative, in emphasizing the impact on trans students, may be considered a response to a silenced community at Tufts.

“To me, it’s not important that we have a large trans community which is out and visible,” Bourdon said. “More importantly, we need to have an environment where all people are treated equally and can be comfortable and respected, whether cisgender or transgender.”

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