Before we settle down with families to eat this Thanksgiving Day, let’s take the time on November 20th to remember those who’ve been killed as a result of what we’ve come to call transphobia -- the fear and resulting violence about gender nonconformity that is directed at transgender and gender non-conforming people.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance was founded in 1998 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender woman, graphic designer, columnist, and activist, to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts because Rita didn’t conform to culturally-conditioned gender expectations. Now we remember all those human beings harassed, abused and killed because of gender nonconformity. This year’s reported murders have hit an all time high: 24 deaths in the U.S. alone as of October 15.
Something is very wrong above and beyond the tragic suffering that people who identify as transgender or otherwise gender non-conforming experience. And, as in most such fear and hate based violence, what’s wrong isn’t the victims of the violence - transgender people - but something systemic about our society that we don’t want to face, much less change.
In transgender people, right-wing religious pushers have found another group to condemn. Right-wing politicians have found another fear to exploit for political support. And because transgender people are becoming more visible, they’re lightning rods for cultural fears, confusion, and dysfunction.
It’s important that we keep pushing for the rights of transgender people to express their gender identity without retaliation anywhere. But it’s also important for us to challenge the systemic factors that keep gender issues stuck; and those represent issues for us all.
They begin, as so much does, from the moment children are born. From then on, all of the institutions that make up our system enforce three crucial misunderstandings: (1) there are two and only two genders; (2) gender is inherent, not culturally conditioned; (3) males are the best gender.
Haven’t things changed regarding this? Yes and no: we’re now giving it an attention we never did before and even claiming things are different, but the sum of all our institutions and their inter-workings (“the system”) still teach these three ideas.
The system also continues to enforce them, doing so by seeing that anyone who challenges them is marginalized and punished. It’s okay to think about them in private, but don’t flaunt your rejection of them publicly. And that’s what the out and open lives of transgender people are seen to be doing.
It’s the unusual child in our culture who hasn’t absorbed these three misunderstandings early in life. Conditioning begins with the first question adults ask when a child is born.
We all know what that question is: “What is it?” And we don’t want the answer to be that the baby is a fully human human being with all the possibilities all humans have.
We adults are the ones asking if the newborn is a boy or a girl; not the baby. The baby isn’t insisting that it will only be happy with certain colors of blankets and clothing.
So, let’s admit it: we’ve been conditioned to feel that we need to know which of two genders the child is in order to relate best to the child. Can we ever be comfortable if we don’t know?
We know from all the studies of parenting that from that point on the adults around the child treat babies differently depending upon what they perceive the gender to be. So do all the institutions with which that child has to do.
The young baby doesn’t understand this gender binary and all of the limitations and conditions it comes with, but if the young child’s genitals are unambiguous (or if they’ve been surgically adjusted to be so by attending physicians in the cases where they weren’t) the pressure to conform to the culturally conditioned gender roles is enforced by adults out of their own fears around the alternatives.
Systemically each of the two acceptable genders finds certain behaviors, feelings, and expectations enforced on them and others denied to them. And the adults around them, even those who have some understanding, continue to embrace assumptions about gender.
Listen to fairly enlightened discussions: “I’m trying to get in touch with my feminine/masculine side.” This assumes the gender binary and its limitation of certain qualities to one side of it rather than seeing them as human qualities our culture has merely said each gender can’t have.
“I thought my son was gay because when he was little he was so gentle, kind, and sensitive.” Since in our culture lesbians and gay men aren’t supposed to fit the appropriate gender role, this also accepts the idea that heterosexual people can’t deviate from the appropriate gender roles in the binary; heterosexual boys and men can’t be gentle, kind and nurturing.
“Did you see the athlete who came out and doesn’t fit the stereotype?” The “stereotype” is a question of gender performance – does the athlete look or act effeminate or masculine. We might hear the language of gay or straight, but what we’re really talking about is binary gender conformity.
“Did you hear about the student who was harassed for being gay?” Actually what the bullying is based on is the boy or girl’s deviation from the conditioned gender role. The boy acts too feminine, the girl too masculine. It’s seldom about sexual and emotional attraction.
The three assumptions around gender mean that everyone, not just transgender people, is supposed to conform to boxes they didn’t build and are expected to enforce. It limits those who identify as female from expressing their power, leadership capacities, career orientation or anything that only males are supposed to exhibit. It keeps males from expressing the nurturing, sensitive, creative, caring, and relationship qualities that all human beings possess.
And these assumptions and the transphobia they spawn promote homophobia as well: that fear of getting close to one’s own gender that limits all relationships from friendships to intimate ones by keeping us wondering that if we don’t feel like conforming to gendered relationship expectations, does it mean we’re, oh no, really LGB or T.