Beyond boy and girl

Lorrin Johnson and Amanda Roberts

Imagine: You are right-handed. You know you are right-handed, and it feels natural to write with your right hand. But you are forced—day in and day out—to write with your left hand. You will not be accepted if you write with your right hand, and so you are forced to live with the awkwardness and discomfort of left-hand writing.

This situation is probably relatively easy to envision. But when you change the variables from hands to genders, people start to get confused.

The scenario is comparable to being transgender: it describes one being forced into a mold they know they do not belong to. But it isn’t comparable in the way it’s received: most people can relate to being forced to write with the opposite hand because they’ve probably tried it. However, to many, being forced into a different gender is something completely foreign.

Odds are the majority of people reading this article identify as “cisgender.” Cisgender individuals feel comfortable with the genders they are designated as at birth, and continue to identify with these genders throughout their lives.

It’s hard for most cisgender people to imagine what it’s like to lead a transgender life because it seems so far-fetched, and so unconnected to their everyday lives, that they may assume that it’s futile to try to understand what it means to be transgender. But Liberty is home to multiple transgender teens, and because as a community we are generally concerned for the safety and wellbeing of other students, the situations of our transgender peers are completely relevant.

Seniors Kim McVicker and Eren Brace know exactly how it feels to be forced into writing with their left hands. McVicker and Brace each have their own unique stories, but with a uniting commonality: neither McVicker nor Brace felt comfortable as the gender they were assigned at birth. Now, both have taken steps to reclaim their “right hands” and identify as their true selves.

McVicker made the decision to come out to her family and her community as a transgender female last year. She had been thinking about the change for a long time, but was held back at first by her own confusion about what she was feeling. She didn’t understand what being transgender meant, like many people who still find the term confusing.

“I feel like a lot of people aren’t educated on what it means to be transgender,” McVicker said. “Even if you do just say, ‘Hey, I’m Trans,’ 70% of people you say it to won’t understand.”

Much of the confusion about what it means to be transgender stems from the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation. According to GLAAD’s (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) transgender media and education project, one’s sexual orientation “describes a person’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person.” Examples of sexual orientations include—but are not limited to—gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight.

In contrast, according to McVicker, gender identity can be defined as “anything from male to female, to being gender fluid and feeling male one day, female the next, and in between one another.” Gender, she says, “is more of a spectrum than the two sexes of male and female.”

It’s important to recognize that transgender is an identity. A transgender woman is not a woman that was once a man, or a man transitioning into a woman. A transgender woman is a woman because that is her identity.

“It’s really difficult when people differentiate between men and transmen. When someone says, ‘you’re a transman’ I respond, ‘No I’m a man! That’s just who I am. I’m not any different than other men,’” Brace said.

That being said, one’s gender identity and one’s sexual orientation are two disparate things. Being transgender does not determine anything about a person’s sexual orientation.

“When you don’t think about people’s bodies identifying them as anything, you can think about their brain— who they are. That defies any label. People are more than just a pronoun,” sophomore and transgender ally Astrid Quintanilla said.

Although people are not defined by their pronouns, pronouns are still another important distinction to be made in understanding what it means to be transgender. Since gender is a spectrum, “he” or “she” are not the only pronouns applicable to addressing someone. For example, someone might prefer to use the pronouns “they” and “them.” If you are unsure of the pronouns a transgender individual prefers, just politely ask. Pronouns are a part of one’s identity and not respecting an individual’s preferred pronouns could be considered an attack on their identity.

“People need to realize that they are not just politely disagreeing when they don’t respect your pronouns,” Brace said. “You can’t just be like ‘I don’t agree with you, that’s just my opinion,’ because that opinion has a body count. That opinion has caused numerous deaths.”

Using the incorrect pronouns when addressing someone can play a role in gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is different for everyone, but can be defined as “the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex.” For some, the feelings come when they feel that their bodies don’t match the gender they know they should be.

“I get very dysphoric about my body. I look in the mirror and I see a male person staring back at me, and it makes me really uncomfortable,” McVicker said.

For others, gender dysphoria expresses itself in the form of sickness, fear or nervousness.

“My body just gets chills and I feel very uncomfortable and exposed every time I am misgendered,” Brace said. “It feels like I’m kind of just out there for everyone, exposed.”

The internal battle of gender dysphoria is not the only challenge transgender individuals face.

Transgender teens in particular have a wide range of people they must face upon coming out: family, friends, classmates, and community members.

McVicker had a plan to come out in front of all of these people—a plan that she believed would induce initial shock, but hoped would be a quick and easy way to reveal her true identity.

“I made a decision to wear a dress to school one day,” McVicker said.

McVicker’s bold decision led to a number of different reactions and outcomes.

“A lot of people thought it was a joke at first, and that I was just cross-dressing or something because I thought people would think it was funny. I then had to explain myself to everyone,” McVicker said. “I had a fairly large group of friends that, after I came out, never really seemed interested in talking to me anymore. I lost about six of my friends that way.”

Brace went about his coming out in a different way, taking advantage of his school’s GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance). Brace said he was lucky to have a support system to help him through his transition and support him.

Although Brace and McVicker had very different coming out stories at school, both experienced some sort of hostility from their families.

“My stepmom got very, very upset. It was not pretty. I was basically told that I could not be female because of my genitalia,” McVicker said. “The argument ended in me leaving home.”

Escaping the situation, as McVicker did, is sometimes the only option transgender individuals have. Brace was faced with a different situation, a family member choosing to leave him.

“My brother was very hostile and acted as if I was doing this for attention,” Brace said. “Of course, not only did he come and tell me that, but he also told a lot of my family that. That was really rude and I don’t talk to him anymore.”

According to Brace and McVicker, cisgender people are not expected to understand what it’s really like to be transgender. But because cisgender individuals don’t face these challenges, the best thing they can do is ease the transition and provide support for their transgender peers.

“We’re still people and we want to feel safe. Even if you don’t disagree with someone, you are still making their environment unsafe unless you are making them feel welcome,” Quintanilla said. “And I know that’s not what Liberty students want for their school.”

Embracing one’s identity and being met with rejection from friends or family can result in hopelessness and pain. For this reason, a staggering number of transgender individuals face depression.

“I did go through, and kind of am still going through, a severe case of depression,” McVicker said. “About four days before I came out to my family I almost attempted suicide.”

McVicker’s story is all too real. In 2012, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention stated that 45% of transgender people ages 18 to 24 had attempted suicide. In contrast, the average rate of suicide within the general population stood at 12.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012—less than 1%.

Such data is hard for many people to see, but it also prompts people to listen to transgender voices. Take, for example, actress Laverne Cox. Cox is an openly transgender woman who has starred in shows such as “Orange is the New Black,” and she is using her influence to increase understanding and support for the transgender community.

“If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is okay,” Cox said. “They should not be bullied. They don’t deserve to be victims of violence. … That’s what people need to understand—that it’s okay.”

Such progress for the transgender community has prompted transgender individuals to be “okay” with themselves as well. Coming out stories like McVicker’s and Brace’s seem to be more commonplace today.

“Before I came out it felt like I was in a costume,” Brace said. “Now I’m me. People are actually seeing me for who I am and not this presentation of who they think I should be.”

A trend towards national transgender support can also be seen on a political scale. Just last month, on January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama became the first president to use the term “transgender” in his State of the Union address. Obama’s use of the word may have seemed minuscule to many, but to the transgender community this one word means that people are starting to view being transgender as a norm.

Closer to home, measures have been taken to ensure the safety and comfort of transgender teens in the Issaquah School District. Teachers are being educated on what it means to be transgender and how they can make sure transgender teens are treated exactly the same as every other teen.

From Obama to English teachers; from celebrity allies to local support groups; people are taking action to ensure that transgender individuals are given the same opportunities and respect as their cisgender counterparts. People are starting to consider respect for one’s identity as a right, not a privilege.


Links to related articles and information:

The true colors of an LGBT ally

What is GSA?

Key Terms