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Transgender Today

For people who are confused and bewildered about this

Until recently transgender and nonbinary were just words that I encountered occasionally but I didn’t pay much attention to them because my daily life was not impacted. And then, suddenly, it seemed to change. The media was filled with stories about transgender people and I began to have personal experiences with transgender people, too. One of the ministers at my church introduced herself — or rather themself — to the congregation as “nonbinary.”

Illustration of the complexities of self-identity.
Image designed by © Antonio Rodriguez on AdobeStock

As older people became more aware of transgender and nonbinary people, I heard from them how confusing it all was and how disturbing for some of them. They wondered, “Why am I hearing all this just now? Is this something new or has it always been this way?” They had heard about gay men in ancient Greece, but few knew that transgender people have been present in many cultures over the last two thousand years. And in many places, they have been an accepted and valued group.

What is new today is that people who are transgender have the possibility of changing their bodies with hormones and modern surgeries to match their gender identity. This makes decisions about being transgender quite different from those in the past.

Widespread ignorance about transgender people has led to a high risk for them that they will become victims of violence. “Trans people both fascinate and repel others,” explains Eric Stanley, an associate professor in gender and women’s studies at UC Berkeley to the Berkeley News. “The culture war has landed on trans communities, and that violence is specifically brutal and very corporal.”

Illustration of a naked figure cradling themself while figures point & criticize.
Image designed by © Antonio Rodriguez on AdobeStock

Older people struggle to understand and accept what is happening. We who are over 70 have already lived through tremendous social changes like the legalization of interracial marriage, women’s rights, and acceptance of LGBT rights, today broadened to the LGBTQIA+ community. But it does take time and an openness to learn. Meeting transgender people myself and reading articles has deepened my knowledge and has allowed me to become more receptive to ideas that had initially confused me. I hope you find my journey toward greater understanding both interesting and helpful.

Now some definitions.

Gender identity — A person’s sense of self in terms of their being male or female whether or not it aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Sexuality — A person’s identity, and sense of self, in terms of the gender or genders of the people to whom they feel sexual attraction. It is not the same as gender identity.

As mental health clinician, therapist, and transgender activist Jacob Rostovsky puts it, “Sexual identity is who you go to bed with, gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

Nonbinary — A person who sees themself as not fitting into either the category of male or the category of female. Some people have a gender identity that blends elements of male and female and some have a gender identity that is neither male nor female. 

Pronouns — Nonbinary people sometimes choose to use the pronouns they and them rather than he/him or she/her. To use they and them yourself when asked is a way of being respectful.

Transition — The process of a person moving from their gender at birth to another gender identity. Today this can include hormone replacement therapy and surgeries.

Transgender man or trans man — A person who was female at birth who now identifies as boy/man/male whether or not they have had any treatment, hormones, or surgery.

Transgender woman or trans woman—A person who was male at birth who now identifies as girl/woman/female whether or not they have had any treatment, hormones, or surgery.

Today, some teachers, professors, and facilitators begin their courses or programs by asking everyone to introduce themself and include their preferred pronouns. The concept of choosing your pronouns is a difficult one for people over 70. I have heard people say the pronoun thing is “stupid” or “ridiculous” and they are “too old to change.” 

My view is that it is a matter of respect to honor the request of a person about what pronouns you use to refer to them. I can relate to this from my own experience. When I was in my twenties, I asked all my family and friends to stop using my girlhood nickname, Katsy, and to call me Katharine. Several people refused to do so. I recognize this is not at the same level of seriousness, but I was really hurt by their refusal and it seemed disrespectful.

Surprisingly, my journey of gaining a deeper understanding of transgender people and issues began at a presentation at my retirement community on LGBT issues some eight years ago. The panel included a transgender man and parents of gay kids and transgender kids. The stories of the parents of gay young adults were gripping, but not new for me or surprising. My granddaughter, Julie, is gay. The fact that I have had many gay friends and my psychology education made it natural for me to be supportive of her and other gay people.

Young individual leans on an older woman's shoulder for support during a group discussion.
Image designed by © on AdobeStock

In contrast, I found the story of the panel’s transgender man, Chris, eye-opening. He was a sturdy, middle-aged man with a deep voice and the dark shadow of a heavy beard. A traditionally manly man. His story of becoming a man was about suffering and joy. First, about his unhappy years as a girl and young woman knowing that he was in the wrong kind of body. And how he decided to transition from female to male. He chose to take hormones and then, after a few years, to undergo surgery. It turned out there were many complications and more surgeries but the overall transition was very positive in his telling. He reported he received tremendous support from his sisters, his parents, and his friends. But also a few serious efforts to persuade him to change his mind.

Puzzled by the very idea of changing one’s gender

At that time, you see, I was puzzled by the very idea of changing one’s gender. And unaware of much that was happening in medical and academic settings to promote understanding and treatments for transgender people. But it was easy for me to feel compassion for Chris as I sat in the same room listening to his heartfelt story. I began to get a glimmer of why one might feel the need to alter the body they were given at birth.

My next personal encounter with a trans person was several years later when I began working with a new psychotherapy client whom I’ll call Steve. A slim, 32-year-old scientist, his presenting problem was a new phobia about flying. It was serious because his boss needed him to attend international meetings. At our second session, Steve confided in me that he was trans and that he had transitioned in his late twenties from Sara to Steve.

Two young scientists working together in a research lab.
Image designed by © JackF on AdobeStock

Steve’s gender was never our focus in the two years we worked together; our sessions centered on his anxiety. It was easy for me to care about him and he was happy being a man for personal and societal reasons. He reported that as a man, his colleagues, male and female, took what he had to say much more seriously than when he had been a woman. That made me feel sad thinking how women still have trouble being heard. Steve understood his transition as the process of becoming his true self. Hearing this and caring about him helped me further modify my belief that gender was something immutable. Knowing Steve well and caring so deeply for him made it easier to broaden my outlook.

So, when I met up recently with a trans girl of ten whom I hadn’t seen for several years, it was quite natural for me to accept her as a girl and to use the pronouns she and her, even though I remembered her as a boy. 

A group of young children exploring a park together.
Image designed by © Nicholas Felix/ on AdobeStock

I believe it is important to be supportive of people who are trans or nonbinary. These are just people struggling to be their authentic selves. I have come to see that it takes courage to come out as trans or nonbinary especially when being so puts them at risk of violence.

Here are three ways to be supportive of transgender 

  1. Get to know some transgender and nonbinary people.

  2. If someone says something derogatory about transgender or non-binary persons, don’t let the moment pass. Say something. “Ouch” is always useful. Also, “Help me understand why you would say that.”

  3. Don’t make assumptions about gender based on a person’s appearance. If you are confused about their gender, it is okay to ask them, “Would you like me to refer to you as he, she, or they? And respect their wishes.

I’ll end with a piece of wisdom that Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for marginalized people and the author of the best-seller Just Mercy, heard from his grandmother.

 “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close.”
Illustration of a familiar and friendly handshake.
Image designed by © luxy on AdobeStock

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