By Anjana Radhakrishnan for Cake:
Our society doesn’t raise us to engage in dialogues about gender and sexuality. We’re taught from a young age to be ashamed of our sexuality and to consider ‘deviant’ anything outside the traditional narrative of ‘boy who was born anatomically a boy meets girl who was born anatomically a girl; then boy marries girl and they have normal heterosexual sex and have lots of babies’. We’re often afraid to ask questions, to explore, to understand people who don’t conform to these heteronormative, cisgender (someone with a gender identity that aligns with what they were assigned at birth) norms – we’ve been conditioned to be that way.
Some quick definitions before we debunk these myths, just so we’re all on the same page:
Transgender is an umbrella term that includes all people whose gender identity, gender expression or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they are assigned at birth. This means that for transgenders the intersection of sex and gender is complicated. And this complication gets expressed in many different ways.
Most commonly associated with the transgender population are transsexuals, who are individuals who feel their sex doesn’t match their gender identity so they may take steps to align these two. Each transsexual person has their own unique approach to gender transitioning with some choosing hormone therapy, others choosing gender reassignment surgery, or some combination of the two. Some however, do not choose to get a surgery at all.
But there are lots of other types of transgender people who fall under that umbrella. Genderqueer individuals don’t identify as either male or female and rather consider themselves as falling somewhere on the gender continuum. Cross-dressers are generally comfortable with their birth sex but choose to express their gender by wearing clothes traditionally worn by people of a different gender.
And that’s just the beginning of it! If you’re looking for more clarification on terms related to transgender issues, check out this guide published by GLAAD.
So now that we’ve cleared up all that confusion, let’s delve into some common misconceptions about transgender people!
Perhaps one of the most frustrating myths, this myth may also be one of the most damaging because in essence it denies individuals their lived experiences and invalidates their realities. Just because someone doesn’t fit into society’s construct of ‘normal’ doesn’t make them ‘confused’.
And in case a sense of humanity and compassion doesn’t do it for you, the science backs transgender people up on this. Some (but not all!) trans people are diagnosed with gender dysphoria – a state of emotional distress caused by how the gender someone was designated at birth conflicts with their gender identity – and it’s a recognised medical condition for which treatment is sometimes appropriate. Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine also recently found that the available data suggests there is a biological link to a person’s gender identity, indicating that trans people are essentially assigned genders at birth that don’t match their inherent, biologically set identity.
This myth is intertwined with the myth we debunked above. Here again, this misconception works to discount the realities trans people experience. Major medical organisations like the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have clearly stated that being transgender is not a mental disorder.
While many transgender people do suffer from mental illness, it’s often less about their gender identity and more about the fact that people discriminate and harass them to the extent that 41 percent of trans people will attempt suicide at least once during their lifetimes. Compare that to the 4.6 percent of the general public who attempt suicide and you’ll see there’s a big problem in the way society views being transgender.
Trans people are people too! They have their own individual preferences and some transgender people don’t want to undergo hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries.
According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted in the United States, about 14 percent of trans women and 72 percent of trans men said they don’t want full genital construction surgery.
Additionally, some trans people may desire or require medical procedures but can’t access necessary care because of poor medical facilities or prohibitive costs.
This misconception is based on a misunderstanding of how sexual orientation, gender, and sex interplay with one another.
Sexual orientation is who someone is sexually attracted to while gender identity is how someone perceives themselves. It’s really that simple! A trans woman can be attracted to a cis-female (that’s a female individual whose gender identity aligns with what they were assigned at birth) or a trans woman or a trans man and so on and so forth.
Here’s a neat little infographic that visually charts these different characteristics and employs a happy little genderbread person!
And finally one that’s specific to the Indian context:
‘Hijras’ are male-to-female transsexuals and have a recorded history of over 4,000 years in India. Tradition and mythology confer them with ‘special powers’ to bring luck and fertility and they’re popular invites to weddings and funerals. Despite this, hijras face severe harassment due to their gender nonconforming identities. Hijras are commonly portrayed as tricksters or freaks in popular media and are often forced to leave their family homes because of prejudice. Hijras only recently gained legal recognition in 2014, yet discrimination and violence against hijras remains rampant.
Things are certainly not all wedding bells, roses, and good cheer for hijras – so take the time to learn more about them.
While it is often hard to have open discussions about societally-deemed ‘sensitive’ topics like sexuality and gender, it makes it all the more important that each of us as individuals take the time to find out accurate information about these issues. So don’t stop here! Read more about the gender spectrum, the Kinsey scale of sexuality, and the LGBTQ movement in India, and abroad! Only by exploring and learning about ourselves and the experiences of others can we move towards a more accepting, empathetic society.