With the advent of mainstream movies such as, Transamerica, Normal, and Boys Don’t Cry starring gender variant characters, we have become more in tune to the challenges of other marginalized members of our society. A group of minority individuals, that some say are forming the last frontier for civil rights movements in the United States. Visibility is finally coming of age for gender nonconforming persons.
Two recently featured media reviews made it into American homes and beyond. Just a few months ago we saw international headlines that announce that Thomas Beatie, a Trans man, was pregnant. He has since delivered a healthy baby girl and is currently enjoying the role of father (Anonymous, 2008). 20/20 with Barbara Walters recently revisited and shared with viewers, a year later, the continuing development in the lives of three families and their gender nonconforming children (Adriano, 2007).
Alright, so how do I explain this to my teen? What is the T in GLBT? Who are these sexual minorities? These are questions that I frequently hear when my students are taking a closer look at gender. Our American culture has constructed identities and roles around only two sexes and two genders; male and female, who are served by only masculine and feminine defined traits; never, or with limitations, should the twain meet. It is certainly an interesting discussion.
To begin the dialog, we need to look beyond biology to a complex mindset that allows the integration of possibilities for the mind, body and spirit to meet. If we do so, we can see some of the non-normative struggles that those in this very diverse population are challenged with each day. Gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation. Gender identity, is something that is not void of innate understandings, nor can it be ascribed to an individual’s choice. The conversation lacks an understanding that there is a vast compendium of humanity that does not fit into those neat little boxes of what our society believes make a boy or a girl. By reframing our thinking we can expand our categorical assumptions and begin to accept that we come in all sizes, shapes and a spectrum of genders.
Did you realize that not to long ago, a ruler was used to decide that if a penis was not a certain length then it would be shortened and the child declared a girl? Fortunately, we are a bit more progressive and conscious of the fact today that more than biology makes a person. Now any decisions for alterations are typically made after the child is older and can personally have a say in the decision. Alterations frequently remove most if not all neural sensations. More individuals are choosing not to alter.
Let’s revisit Thomas Beatie’s story, the pregnant Trans man. Thomas was born with functioning female reproductive organs that allowed him, to conceive after the fertilization of a sperm cell being introduced into a hormonally conducive environment in the uterus. Full surgical sexual re-assignment had not occurred and birth genitalia were still able to function, albeit hormone adjustment. The article in the Advocate (Anonymous, 2008) lead me to believe Mr. Beatie had top surgery, or breast reduction, thus his flat-chested appearance in his waist up picture featured in the news media. Thomas identifies and expresses his gender as a man. His psyche and spirit are honored by the authenticity of his individual biological and psychological makeup. He is, as a Trans man, one who will raise his child as a male-identified parent and as his daughter’s father; along with all of those other socially constructed gender roles that we place on men. He was not defined by his birth genitalia.
Indeed, Mr. Beatie chose a life path that allowed his psychology and biology to meet in order to celebrate his identity by retaining some or all of the gifts of his own birth. They may choose hormonal adjustments, surgery, or any variation and or combination of the two, yet expressing their gender as who they see themselves, as a man or a woman or neither. In Beatie’s case, he capitalized on his ability to carry his own child, regardless of whether it fits our cultural views for that to be an act of a man. We all are collective composites of our psyche, our physical selves, and our spiritual selves – with limitless variations.
Some Trans persons, fall into the Trans gender community category simply because of the cost, both financial and biological; loss of sensations from surgery are not appealing to many people. Also, because more individuals are refusing to accept that they must change the state or expression of their gender to fit the cultural binary. Others that may fit into this broad community include those that bend gender by cross dressing or dressing in drag. I suppose the next question is, then, exactly why is it that we have all of these customs, laws, beliefs and rituals that only honor two genders? Author, Riki Wilchins offers some further insight to answers for those questions in Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, if you are inclined to consider a more academic inquiry.
If not, Jenn Burleton, creator of the film Out of the Shadows provides one of the most useful tools for families and educators to quickly access and locate support for trans youth. Its YouTube.com debut 18 months ago has received, and rightfully so, rave reviews for its portrayal of gender non-conforming children and youth. If you access any resources from this article I urge you to view Out of the Shadows at the link below on the TransActive.org website. Two additional resources, one a web link, Gender Talk’s website for families and Trans youth with parallel links to many other useful sites and the recently published book by Jamison Green, titled Becoming a Visible Man . Green’s first chapter gives tremendous insight to his experiences as a female-bodied child.
Trans youth are making their debut, more openly and visibly than ever before. Let’s extend a hand to the families and adolescents that are challenging our culture’s gender barriers by providing them with the nurture, safety, love and encouragement that all children need to reach their potential.
Adriano, J. (April 27, 2007). Transgender children face unique challenges:
Families talk to Barbara Walters about rejection, harassment and isolation. ABC News Retrieved July 17, 2008 from http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=3091754&page=1
Anonymous. (2008). Trans man gives birth to girl, Advocate.com: The Award Winning LGBT news site. Retrieved on July 16, 2008 from http://www.advocate.com/news_detail_ektid57036.asp
Gender Talk – Trans resources for family and youth Retrieved July 16, 2008 from http://www.gendertalk.com/info/resource/trans-youth.shtml
Green, J. (2004). Becoming a visible man. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Intersex Society of North America (2008) Homepage Retrieved on July 16, 2008 from http://www.isna.org/
Rudacille, D. (2005). The riddle of gender. New York: Pantheon Books.
TransActive Education and Advocacy (2008) Homepage Retrieved on July 16, 2008 from http://www.transactiveonline.org/
Wilchins, R. (2004). Queer theory, gender theory: An instant primer. Los Angeles: Alyson Books.
Kathy McCleaf, Ed.D serves Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia as a faculty member in the Department of Sociology/Social Work. She holds a BS and a MS from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and an Ed D from University of Phoenix, Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. McCleaf’s research examines sexual minority youth, their identity development and how they acquire success and manage challenges across the lifespan. Studies in health and the interdisciplinary field of human sexuality are the focus of her undergraduate course offerings. In the off hours during the academic year she spends her time writing, researching, fly fishing, and enjoying the company of family, friends, and her big yellow lab, Ringo. During the fall and spring, the height of trout season, you can find her at the nearest coldwater fishing spot throughout the beautiful state of Virginia.