Transphobia in The Gay Community: Understanding Gender
Gender is a topic heavily disputed on the global political stage, and many communities have utilized legislation as a means of particularly targeting and isolating individuals with different gender identities. This antagonism is not exclusive to cis-identifying (identifying with the sex and gender that you were assigned at birth) heterosexuals, many sexual minorities also have difficulties reconciling differences in gender which, in turn, has led to divisive and prejudiced rhetoric.
What is Gender?
While argumentation is rife, both inside and outside the sexual minority communities about gender identity, many individuals are not taking the time to do research on what gender even means before addressing its different manifestations. It may seem cliché, but the dictionary definition of gender is a good starting point, as many individuals falsely attempt to conflate biological sex (i.e. genitalia) with the idea of gender without realizing that the definition of gender specifically separates the two. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the current use of the word gender as, “The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one's sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way.” This poses an essential question; if gender is not based on your reproductive organs then what factors define your gender? Is it defined by your mannerisms, clothing, expectations, psychology, or social norms? To answer is not as clear-cut as our society attempts to make it, but phenomenon as western culture has a long history rooted in attempting to strictly divide everything into binary opposites.
Origins of The Binary and Where It Falls Apart
Because of the assumed connection between biological sex and gender, it is especially difficult to contextualize a less strict understanding of gender. Historically this division has existed in western ideology for millennia, with some of the earliest markers of what many academics call “The Binary” having been seen as far back as the Pythagorean Table of Opposites. This table is simply a set of ten pairs of words categorically divided into two columns. These opposites included good and evil, male and female, as well as light and darkness. In Aristotle’s work on dualism, these words became associated with the other words in their category, like male and good or female and evil and divisive wall separated the two. Long after the fall of ancient Greece, the ideological resurgence of Greek philosophy during the Enlightenment reemphasized this dichotomy and developed a conversation about the binary system into current times. French linguists and philosophers like Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida note that in western languages we tend to define subjects in opposition to one another (which was termed "binary opposition") similarly to Aristotle's ideas.
These strict categories do not hold together on a global scale. The idea that gender is attached to biological sex, because it is just an XX (generally deemed female) or XY (generally deemed male) chromosomal difference has been shown to be flawed by scientists worldwide from University College London to the University of California, Los Angeles. Claire Ainsworth in an article for the scientific journal Nature describes that biological sex is far more differentiated and complex than middle or high school courses would lead one to believe. Examples include partial attachments of a Y chromosome to an XX that give an individual who is chromosomally female, male genitalia, or non-intersex individuals who have two-thirds XX chromosomes and one-third XY. This showcases how dubiously founded the argument against gender differences is, and is only further amplified in the face of non-western evidence. Not only has The Binary proved to be problematic and ideologically oppressive as it grew to include categories like white versus black, rich versus poor, west versus east and masculine versus feminine, but when one looks beyond western notions of male and female over a hundred cultures worldwide have been shown to possess three, five and sometimes more genders. To name a few, the South Asian Hijra, southern Mexican Muxes, Samoan Fa’afafine, and Native American Two Spirit people. These groups have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the largest challenges have come from the introduction of western ideas via colonialism – like the Fa’afafine with the introduction of Christianity which tended to define gender in western terms. And some nations, like Thailand and India, have a religious and cultural attachment to non-binary gender identities that have led to voting rights and allowances to designate their gender accurately. Even nations that have been considered more traditionally religious have made major changes to their treatment, because while Hinduism in India has the deities who do not conform to the gender binary, even the conservative, Islamic Pakistan has made incomplete but positive moves with the Hijra people by granting them burial and marriage rights with muslim citizens. With this information, it is particularly important that members of the LGBTQ+ community take this information as an opportunity to move past the narrow perspective that has dominated western zeitgeist, which has been maintained despite persistent examples of its flawed reasoning.
Challenging The Mental Health Myth
Another issue facing trans individuals is a belief that they are suffering from a psychological illness. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until it was removed from the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. Numerous studies since have shown that sexuality is genetically tied and in fact not a mental illness, so why are we not doing the same for gender? The World Health Organization has removed the classification of gender as a mental disorder and provides a list of the scientific studies and evidence that have directly showcased why gender identities outside The Binary are not a disorder. Leading organizations and research institutions from the American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press’s scientific Journal, Brain, to the University of Hawaii, Manoa and the Journal of Psychiatric Research have pioneered studies including measurements of neurological similarities between cis and trans men and women as well as genetic connections to gender in twins. To be candid, the amount of research evidence that exists is staggering and cannot even begin to be summarized in a mere article. It is dangerous to approach this topic without engaging with the real world evidence first. As political pundits draw on the hype of legislative action taken against members of the trans community to further attack them without any evidence, it is important that we not only stand up for those in the LGBTQ+ community but take the time to educate ourselves on these issues. For example, discrimination, harassment, violence, and even trans suicide rates are amongst the highest in all communities, as evidenced by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality’s comprehensive report on widespread discrimination against transgender individuals in 2011. Our similarities, differences and the complicated nuances of sexuality and gender are what bind our unique community together and the impact of trans individuals in our community is undeniable, with some of the original leaders of the LGBTQ+ movement and riots at Stonewall being trans women of color, like Marsha P. Johnson. As such, it is important that we continue to educate ourselves, and challenge old perspectives rather than blindly following fallacy-ridden ideas, like the gender binary. Falling into these poorly founded ways of thinking compound the violence, legislation and discriminatory acts against individuals in our community whose gender identity are outside of the traditional western binary structure.
Written by the amazing Matthew Farrar
Post Script/Authorial Note:
It is important that I recognize in the writing of this piece that I am a cis male. And while the data, science, and history presented here are drawn from reliable sources, the perspective of this article is naturally limited in two ways:
It is only a small piece of a very complicated puzzle and may not address every facet of gender identity, every social or political complication associated with being outside of the western gender binary, or identify every culture which may have a tradition of non-binarism -- and the potential existence or non-existence of discrimination that led to those culture’s acceptance. This, of course, creates a limitation on the content and perspectives that can be explored in a single article, and I mean no exclusion by not addressing every available perspective, history, or factor in the complex web that is gender.
Having not personally faced challenges due to my gender, I recognize that I cannot speak from personal experience on topics like dysphoria and gender difference in the same way as an non-cis individual.
This being said, this article is aimed at positively contributing to the larger dialogue of gender identity, which is so often overwhelmed, by individuals unwilling to see how fallacious the western binary is.
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