How to learn about gender identity and ask the right questions.
I can still remember watching skits on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s featuring Pat, the awkward, ambiguously gendered person whose gender identity everyone was desperate to discern. The vague questions everyone asked were a source of high hilarity for the average viewer, but even as a child I was uncomfortable with them.
Flash forward about 10 years. It was the early 2000s, and I worked at a coffee shop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A person started working there who appeared quite androgynous and had a name that wasn’t gender specific. Coworkers would ask this person questions like “What kind of name is that?” This new employee would reply, “A family name.” The questions skirted around the preferable questions, which were “What is your gender identity? What are your pronouns?” All my coworkers talked about this new employee endlessly, as if the person were a puzzle to solve.
Photo by Andrea Ronchini/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.
As someone who was assigned female at birth, wears their hair short, binds their breasts, dresses androgynously, identifies as genderqueer, takes hormone replacement therapy and fantasized about being David Bowie since age 12, I find myself wanting to say, “Just ask!”
Ask respectfully — don’t ask about someone’s genitals or conflate being transgender or gender nonconforming with being gay; don’t automatically assume being transgender means being a man born in a woman’s body or the other way around. Don’t put the whole burden of education on the shoulders of the person whose gender identity you’re interested in learning more about — read up on gender issues on GLAAD’s website or on the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Trans 101 page or on Tumblr. But don’t be afraid to ask respectful questions like “What are your pronouns? How do you identify on the gender spectrum?” They are certainly preferable to acting out endless versions of SNL’s dated Pat skits. The person you’re wondering about will probably be much, much happier with your directness.
Most people view gender identity as a strict binary, with the two options being male and female. While cisgender people (who identify with the gender assignment made at birth) certainly make up a huge part of the population, there are countless other points of gender identification. When I was volunteering at a shelter for homeless LGBTQIA youth, we were encouraged to view gender identity as a galaxy with the endless points of stars and nebula representing the endless choices for how one could identify. Some identities include cisgender, transgender, transmasculine, transfeminine, demigirl or demiboy, genderqueer, genderflux, boi, and two-spirit.
Transgendered woman Tanisha Phillips, 20, hugs Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby. Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Some people throw their hands up at these options, proclaiming, “What’s wrong with this special snowflake generation? What happened to just boys and girls?” The fact is that nonbinary ideas of gender go back quite far in history, at least back to the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. In many pre-Colonial societies in the Americas, there existed roles such as Winkte, Muxe, and Quariwarmi, which would all be considered gender-nonconforming identities by modern western standards. India has an ancient traditional gender role called Hijra (a third gender role) that extends into roughly 2,000,000 modern-day people of the country.
“But what about biology?” is a question many other people ask. This one can actually be broken down in several ways.
First, there is no such thing as a biological binary in sex. The actual makeup of people’s bodies varies in as many ways as you can imagine, though for years people born outside the binary were put into it by forced surgical intervention.
Second, chromosomes aren’t as simple as XX or XY. One operating theory of what causes trans identity biologically is that no matter what the chromosomes of a fetus, a wash of hormones while in utero can hardwire a brain to expect them, despite those hormones not being what the body is built to produce. Therefore, the theory goes, trans people’s brains expect one hormone while their bodies produce another, creating dissonance and dysphoria (the sense a transgender person can experience of being at odds with one’s body).
I know this can all be overwhelming to people who have never heard of many of these things. But the key is not perfect understanding or coming out of the womb knowing every point in the gender galaxy. The keys to understanding these concepts are (1) knowing that one’s gender is a deeply personal identification irrespective of what their exterior looks or doesn’t look like and (2) compassion.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images.
Being an identity in a world that doesn’t quite grasp you, or even erases your existence, is not an easy way of living life. Do you know someone who’s transgender? Be honest. Be open. Listen. When they tell you about their struggles, don’t dismiss them as “too sensitive” or “looking for attention.” Read a book or an article or a blog post or two. And if you’ve made it to the end of this, congratulations — you’ve started on the path to understanding.
My generation grew up with Pat from SNL and hundreds of representations that are even more harmful. Maybe most of us will wander around acting out those scenes over and over. But the other day, my eight-year-old niece was talking to her friends about me. “Alex is kind of a boy and kind of a girl, mostly a boy, I think, and their pronouns are ‘they.’” Her friends all nodded in acceptance. Maybe the next generation won’t have to play the games we play instead of simply asking.