For most of my life “transgender” wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I never knew there were any options other than male and female, congruency in body and spirit.
This week Chelsea Manning brought transgender to the front-page news. It is clear from the reactions that many others also assumed that gender identity was cut and dry—the genitalia you were born with determined whether you were male or female.
It’s not that simple. Being asleep to this reality, however, doesn’t make the reality “strange” or “wrong.”
Transgender is a relatively new term (though not a new experience). Trans Basics gives three definitions: “someone who doesn’t fit within society’s standards of how a woman or a man is supposed to look or act,” someone who was assigned a gender at birth “but later realizes that label doesn’t accurately reflect who they feel they are inside,” or someone who feels like “they’re in between those two options; both male and female; or outside the two-gender system, entirely, neither male nor female, outside of the strict division of male and female.”
Even believing that all babies are physically born either male or female is untrue; it is estimated that 1 in 2000 babies have ambiguous genitalia. The societal stigma of parents not being able to answer the critical question, “Is it a boy or a girl?” is so powerful that typically the doctor will decide the baby’s gender and perform “corrective” surgery. As the child (most often “reassigned” a female) grows up, she/he may, or may not, agree with the doctor’s choice.
Dr. Milton Diamond, professor of neurology and intersex, said, “Nature loves variety. Unfortunately, society hates it.”
Yet even if genitalia are not ambiguous, they don’t always align with an individual’s inner experience of being male, female or gender non-conforming. Those who experience a disconnect between their physical gender and their inner-knowing gender have a challenging choice before them.
Live a lie about an important aspect of life.
Or live what is true, and face opposition, stigma and daily challenges. Simple things become complicated. Public bathrooms. Forms with binary gender boxes. Personal pronouns. Name change. Greater possibility of ridicule and violence.
Chelsea Manning. She.
As a nation, we can react from our (often) non-existent personal experience and societal-affirmed assumptions about being trans and speak from ignorance, fear or prejudice. Or we can stop. Listen. Seek out information. Read about the experience of people who know what it is like to live outside our culture’s rigid belief that people are born either male or female. Allow the boundaries of “normal” to expand to include all of nature’s variety.
I believe that a society thrives when we can each bring forth the truth about ourselves. Chelsea Manning just spoke clearly, publicly. It won’t make her life any easier (despite what too many newspapers speculate), yet it will make her future more honest.