Every year on 20 November, we pause for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. The week before that day is designated as Transgender Awareness Week. Individuals and organizations participate in this week to help raise the visibility of transgender people and address issues members of the community face.
My own awareness of Transgender people (the T in LGBTIQA+) has been a slow and gradual process of increasing awareness and understanding. Whilst trans people have been a reality in humanity ever since when, the public discussion of such people has been slow to emerge, only picking up visibility in the public arena in recent years.
In considering the sexuality of people, we have become familiar with the terms “gay” and “lesbian”—male and female people, respectively, who are attracted sexually to people of the same gender as they are—as well as “bisexual” (attracted sexually to people of either gender) and “asexual” (people who have no feelings of sexual attraction to others).
Alongside the terms that relate to our sexuality, there are terms that relate to gender. To put it simply (perhaps to oversimplify), if sexuality is about how our feelings of attraction are expressed, then gender is about how we identify ourselves, in terms of being male or female, the traditional terminology used over the centuries.
Often the genitals found on a person determine how gender is assigned. Think the classic film scene of a woman giving birth—after the mandatory cry from the baby, to assure people present that the newborn is breathing, the next matter is, “is the baby a boy or girl?” A quick look at the genitals—is there a penis or a vagina?—usually provides the answer to that question. Although, these days, for an increasing number of births, the gender of the baby has been explored and determined by means of ultrasounds, so more and more, parents already know the gender of their child.
However, as we have become aware in recent times, not everybody is born as clearly identifiable as either male, or female. The vast majority of people are; but for a significant minority, they may have been born with both male and female genitals. A superficial inspection may mean that answering the question, “boy or girl?”, can’t be readily answered. Such people are identified under the letter I , LGBTIQA+, I being short for Intersex.
For other people, whilst the genital determination of their gender is straightforward, the actual sense that such individuals have of their own innate gender is more complex. The deepest meaning of gender, is that is describes who you really are; what you feel, inside yourself, that your actual identity is. It is far more internal than it is external.
For the majority of people, they are cis-gendered—that is, their assigned gender correlates exactly with their physical body and their innate sense of who they are. (The prefix cis- comes from the Latin word which means “on this side of”; it is the opposite of the Latin word trans, meaning “on the other side of”. ) However, for others, these feelings may not necessarily fall into the assumed, “natural” category that is conveyed by their genital configuration. These are people who are referred under the letter T, standing for transgender.
In short, someone who is transgender most likely does not feel that “who they are” on the inside matches their assigned gender on the outside. This is quite different from intersex; it is a matter of personal psychology and self-understanding. Indeed, more recent scientific studies indicate that there may be differences in the white matter tracts in the brain between cisgender (agreement between gender and sex) and transgender men and women. See https://www.jneurosci.org/content/34/46/15466
The transgender flag, created in 1999, uses the stereotypical colours, “blue for boys, pink for girls”, and splice in the colour white, signalling those undertaking transition from one gender to another. With the T and I colours, they have been added to the now-traditional rainbow flag, representing LGB people, along with black and brown stripes, to represent marginalized LGBTIQA+ communities of colour. It is an ever-evolving symbol!
One important aspect of the recent discussion about transgender people relates to the emotional cost that comes with living in a body that does not correlate with the realities of emotions and experiences that they have. This is often called “gender dysmorphia”; the Mayo Clinic defines this as “the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics”. See https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gender-dysphoria/symptoms-causes/syc-20475255
Those who are closely related to people who are experiencing such “gender dysmorphia” would do well to take careful advice about how they can support people through this process. See https://facty.com/lifestyle/wellness/what-does-transgender-mean/
Transgender people may choose to undertake a slow, lengthy, graduated process of transitioning from their assigned gender, into their innate gender. This may start with a time of sharing with people closest to them about their inner feelings. They may then adopt the clothing and grooming habits of their desired sex. Some may change their name at this point, or later.
The availability of hormone therapy means that transgender people who are transitioning are able to assist their bodies to take on the various characteristics of the gender to which they are transitioning. Likewise, they may decide to proceed with surgeries to modify their bodies to reach an external expression of the gender they are internally. Both hormone therapy and surgery are undertaken in close conjunction with counselling sessions from appropriately qualified people, to inform, guide, and support people through the transitioning process.
Such processes must, surely, be emotionally challenging and personally costly for transgender people. However, as I have been learning from friends that I know who are transitioning or who have transitioned, the deep-seated inner sense of “this is who I really am” is the primary factor that drives the complex process of transitioning. Empathic and patient listening, embedded within a non-judgemental attitude which is open to hearing and learning new things, is the best gift that a cis-gendered person can give to a person who is undergoing, or has competed, transitioning.
Being true to oneself is a virtue that has long been lauded in our society. “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man”, says Polonius in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. In Ancient Greece, a well-known saying connected with the Adelphi Oracle was “know thyself”. The famous existentialist philosopher, Sören Kierkegaard, advised that “Not to be one’s self, as God created you, is despair”. There is plenty of good philosophical and ethical consideration of the importance of being true to oneself.
For myself, there is a strong theological affirmation that also undergirds this issue. It comes from the opening story of scripture—the story of creation. When God created Adam from the earth, God breathed the breath of life into the human, and Adam became a nephesh, a living being (Gen 1:30; 2:7). All human beings—indeed, all living creatures—are given life by God’s spirit and share the essence of a nephesh (Ps 104:24–30; Job 12:7–10). That is the fundamental feature of all of God’s created beings.
This is what God first declared to be good (Gen 1:21, 24)—indeed, to be very good (Gen 1:31). So, as human beings, how we were made (straight or gay, identifying as male or female, or sensing that our biological gender does not match our inner sense of gender) is good; God made us that way, we are called to be true to ourselves, honest about our identity, comfortable in our own skin.
Transgender Awareness Week is a week when transgender people and their allies take action to bring attention to the community by educating the public about who transgender people are, sharing stories and experiences, and advancing advocacy around the issues of prejudice, discrimination, and violence that affect the transgender community. It is a good thing for each of us to make sure we are aware of the reality of Transgender people, and to ensure we relate sympathetically and encouragingly to such people when we uencounter them.