When ‘male’ or ‘female’ isn’t enough

Panel on transgender and intersex issues

By Chandra Smith

Transgender student Selena Xochitl Martinez, and her daughter Lorena Lua Martinez.

Transgender student Selena Xochitl Martinez, and her daughter Lorena Lua Martinez.

The Panel: A typical day for most: wake up and get dressed in clothing that is perceived as appropriate for your gender, conduct your daily business while being both addressed and treated as the gender you identify with on the inside, and go to bed. . . All without really having to think about your gender at all.

Imagine if the world constantly referred to you and treated you as a gender other than the one that you identify with. That used to be student Selena Martinez’s experience. Assigned a gender determination of “boy” at birth, it was a jolt to learn that she was seen as different from the other little girls she was used to playing with.

“I think it was when I was told to start playing like a boy, and I wasn’t allowed to play with my cousins, my girl cousins. We were very close,” Martinez says. She had no idea she was considered “other” than she experienced herself, until her uncle told her to “man up” when she was a small child. She was told to play ball and to stop playing with jump ropes.

“Privilege to me is the right to not have to pay attention,” Joel Baum, Director of Education and Training at Gender Spectrum, says. Both Baum and Martinez were guest speakers at the first event of the Students, Safety and Sexuality series.

The series, championed by biology professor Anne Gearhart, kicked off with the panel “When ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ isn’t Enough: A Panel on Transgender and Intersex Issues,” earlier this month. It is sponsored by ASCOM and by members of the Students, Safety and Sexuality Series Committee.

Gearhart felt it was important to address the intertwined issues of safety and sexuality here on campus. “Being a sexuality instructor for community college students, I really wanted to make sure the college that I was at was approaching that topic in the best way possible,” Prof. Gearhart said. Concern about the incident that occurred on campus in January, coupled with some conversations she’s had with students in past semesters, spurred her to contact the Dean of Student Success Derek Levy. Together they started the process of producing the series.

The panel took place during Gearhart’s section of Human Sexuality, and was open to the community. It began with Baum, who gave everyone in the room a crash course on gender and the insufficiency of the current gender binary.

Biology, expression, identity: For the most part, we are accustomed to recognizing two genders: “boy” and “girl.” Polarized on each side of the binary, not everybody sticks to the same side in all instances. There are three instances, or elements of gender. They are: biological gender, gender expression, and gender identity.

“It’s the interaction of these three that really matters,” says Baum. One person may be assigned girl gender at birth, yet express herself as a boy, while identifying as a girl. Perhaps another is assigned as a boy, and expresses herself as a girl, and identifies as a girl. Yet another may be born a girl, but identify and express herself or himself as an androgyne. Really. These are just three of many possibilities.

“At the end of the day, gender is about self-determination,” said Baum. “By the way, notice I haven’t mentioned sexual orientation,” he said, after he finished taking us through the many possible “genders” one might be. “Gender is about who I am. Sexual orientation is about who I’m attracted to,” he said.

Sex, gender, expression, identity, sexuality: Not only does gender not necessarily have to do with a person’s sex, neither does it have to do with their sexuality. “You know the ‘T’ doesn’t fit with the ‘LGB.’ I’m not going to speak for everybody, but believe me a lot of us don’t feel that the ‘T’ belongs with the ‘LGB.’ ‘LGB’ is sexuality,” says Martinez.

This is an issue that commonly arises when cisgendered people (people who identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth) try to speak about, and understand, what it is to be a transgender person, and to live as one, in a ciscentric society.

 Selena’s Delestrogen hormone therapy, which must be injected twice a week.

Selena’s Delestrogen hormone therapy, which must be injected twice a week.

The times they are a-changin’: Perhaps at a slow rate, things are changing. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (The DSM-5), released on May 22, 2013, did away with the now-defunct diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID), and renamed the condition “gender dysphoria.”

“This shift reflects recognition that the disagreement between birth and gender and identity may not necessarily be pathological if it does not cause the individual distress,” said Robin Rosenberg, psychologist and writer of “Abnormal Psychology.” This shift of the named-state of being transgender away from “disorder” indicates a significant change in perception, at least in the medical sector.

Australia now allows a third gender option for passports, for transgender or intersex citizens. Germany allows an “indeterminate” gender option at birth. In February, The Daily Beast reported on 51 gender options now on Facebook.

Many health plans cover hormone treatment and sex reassignment surgery, should a person decide that’s what is best for their life. Again, not all transgender people option for surgery. It is a self-determined identity, and only one’s self knows what that encompasses.

For Martinez, estrogen has completely changed her life. “I am no longer living in limbo, waiting for the next life in order to be a whole person,” she says.

This is the experience of many transgender people, who choose to go through hormone therapy, and live as the person they’ve always experienced themselves to be. “Who I am now is about a 1000 times more accurate than who I was before,” said Dean Scarborough, transgender man and guest panelist.

Strides are being made in government, education, and healthcare, yet a lot of people don’t completely understand what all the issues are. Panel-discussions like the one that took place in Gearhart’s class are a place where people can learn the basics, hear some first hand stories, and learn how to further educate themselves.

“I mean obviously the goal is to just eliminate that whole thing and just have transgendered people considered normal, cause they are,” said Kristian Sloan, an English student in attendance at the panel. Sloan took advantage of the question and answer period after the presentation, and asked how to be a better cisgender ally.

“So I guess I just wanted to know what’s the best way to talk to a transgendered or intersex person without treating their gender identity like it’s an elephant in the room. Like, both acknowledging it, but also not being too intrusive, to the point where it would be inappropriate,” he said.

Student Alex Karimzad learned more than he expected. “When we went to the panel it really hit home for me. It was really eye opening. It opened my heart in a way, because I had no idea about these things they were talking about you know? I had no idea.”

Scarborough had explained that, “The isolation and the sense of shame are probably the hardest aspects of being transgendered,” and it seems as though there are students who are trying to remedy that problem.

For Sloan, it’s basically this, as he quotes Vonnegut, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

gender101

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