Trans People and Basic Human Respect

There’s something that’s been puzzling me. I’ve been thinking about cisgender people who get upset about transgender people. (“Cisgender,” for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, is the opposite of “transgender”; it means someone whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.) Some cis people object to the new vocabulary many trans people are advocating for or are simply making use of—changes in names, pronouns, and so on. Others object to the very existence of transgender people: they think gender is solely and entirely determined by the genitals we were born with, and that any other perception of it is just nonsense.

Here’s what’s puzzling me: Why do these people care?

Let’s assume, purely for the sake of disproving the assumption, that trans people are somehow mistaken—that they “really” are the gender they were assigned at birth based on their genitals, and it’s silly for them to think otherwise. I obviously don’t think that—I think it’s a horrible opinion, deeply offensive, and out of touch with well-documented reality. But assuming that this opinion is true will help me demonstrate just how wrong it is. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s true.

So what? How could it possibly affect you? What business is it of yours? If someone else is identifying with a gender that you personally think is “wrong,” how does it harm you in any way?

In reality, I think there are a lot of answers to the question, “Why do people care?” I think accepting the existence of trans people makes everyone else rethink gender in ways that may be unsettling. If we’re invested in the idea that gender roles are “natural” and inborn, it makes us rethink that. If we’re invested in the idea that gender is 100 percent socially constructed, it makes us rethink that. It makes us rethink masculinity and femininity in ways that may undercut our sense of our own masculinity or femininity. Indeed, trans identity causes us to question the very idea of a gender binary—the idea that there are two and only two genders that are distinct and easy to identify. It makes us rethink what gender even is.

For years, the reasons I thought of myself as female (to the degree that I thought about it at all) were that (a) I was born with a vagina, and (b) I’ve been treated as female since birth and have absorbed my culture’s opinions of what it meant to be female. Even when I was defying those opinions, I was still accepting my basic femaleness. In other words, my defiance of sexist gender norms has been an attempt to redefine what it meant to be female, not an attempt to step away from it. But a trans woman identifies as female, not because of the genitals she was born with or how others see her, but for completely different reasons, based on her own understanding and experience of her gender. When I accept that trans people, you know, exist, and that they understand their own bodies and their own genders better than I do, it means I have to rethink why, exactly, I see myself as female, and whether that’s even important to me.

So yeah, it can be difficult. I get that. But I still don’t have any patience with those who can’t deal with transgender identity.

The existence of transgender people might make us question our assumptions. Since when is that a bad thing? We’re humanists and skeptics. We’re supposed to be willing to question our assumptions. If hanging onto our assumptions requires that we close our eyes to reality, that we ignore not only extensive research but also the lived experiences of millions of people, then there’s something seriously wrong with our assumptions. That’s true for people with traditional or conservative views on gender and sexuality, who are convinced that men are just men and women are just women and that the two are easy to distinguish and that’s all there is to it. And it’s true for a small but vocal subset of radical feminists who reject trans people’s very existence, in hateful and harmful ways, because accepting them would undercut the specific feminist principles they’re glued to. When our assumptions lead us to either internal contradictions or glaring ethical horrors, then those assumptions bloody well should be questioned.

Trans people aren’t making you redefine your gender. You can identify as any gender you feel comfortable with. That’s sort of the point. So why do you think it’s up to you to decide for someone else how they self-identify? I keep talking about cis people accepting trans people’s existence, but why should acceptance of other people’s identity even be in cis people’s hands?

As for the changes in language, yes, there are new rules to keep up with. Trans people often change their names, and some do it more than once. Some identify as male or female; others identify with blended gender identities, or with entirely different gender identities other than male or female. Others don’t identify with any gender, or reject the idea of a gender binary. Some choose to be identified with the gendered pronouns “he” or “she,” while others prefer new gender-neutral pronouns like “zie” or “hir” or use “they” as a singular pronoun. There are new words, new names, and new etiquettes.

So if you’re having a hard time with the new rules, there’s a very old, simple rule that covers the situation perfectly. To quote Miss Manners, “The polite thing to do has always been to address people as they wish to be addressed.”

When people get married and change their names, when they get doctorates and change their honorifics, or when they stop wanting to be called by their childhood nicknames, we usually try to keep up. Is it really that much harder to try to keep track of trans people’s preferred names and pronouns? Mis-gendering trans people isn’t just a casual bit of poor manners; it reinforces, even if unintentionally, the oppressive weight of a culture that disrespects trans identities and tries to silence them with shame, ridicule, hatred, harassment, discrimination, denial of their very existence, and all too often with violence and death. Is it really such an imposition to try to get it right?

I can’t speak for trans people, as I’m not one (and obviously, not all trans people are alike or think alike). But I do know that, in general, most people of any kind are fairly forgiving of honest mistakes. Now, when it comes to trans people even an honest mistake may be one more demoralizing drop in the bucket of being mis-gendered dozens or hundreds of times in a day, so even if trans people are forgiving of your slip-ups, it’s still important to work on getting it right. But if you clearly regret your mistakes and are clearly trying to get things right, most people of any kind will probably cut you some slack. “I’m genuinely trying but I sometimes screw up” is a valid reason for making a mistake. “Screw you for even asking me to get it right”… not so much.

And one last thing on the topic of language : some cisgender people object to the word “cisgender” on the very basis of self-definition. Even if they understand the word’s origins (the Latin-derived prefix “cis-” means “on this side of” and the prefix “trans-” means “on the other side of”), and even if they understand that “cisgender” is simply a descriptive word and is not a slur, they still don’t like it. Some dislike the word even if they understand that it doesn’t imply any kind of acceptance of traditionally rigid gender norms and that it really just means “I identify as the gender I was assigned at birth, whatever that means to me.” They argue that they didn’t choose the word, and that therefore they shouldn’t be expected to use it, or accept it being applied to them.

Fair enough. If we cisgender people had come up with another word to describe ourselves, that would be a fair critique. But we didn’t. We were content to let ourselves be called—what? “Not-transgender”? “Normal”? Nothing at all? We were content to let ourselves be defined as the default assumption, as the thing that doesn’t even have to have a name because it’s just how people are. We were content to let our lack of a name mark trans people as other—as not like regular people.

So a word got chosen for us, by people who were sick of being disparaged, disrespected, and marked as other, and who needed parallel language that framed different gender experiences as equally valid. We cis people had the chance to choose our own language. We blew it. We need to suck it up.

Trans people in the United States have nearly double the unemployment rate of the general population. Forty-seven percent have been fired or denied a promotion for being transgender or gender non-conforming. Trans people in the United States are nearly four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty. Nineteen percent have been refused a home or an apartment, and 11 percent have been evicted based on their gender identity. Among trans Americans, 29 percent have experienced police harassment or disrespect; 19 percent have been refused medical care; 57 percent have experienced significant rejection by their families; and 41 percent have attempted suicide (compared to 1.6 percent of the general population).

Violence against trans people is likewise epidemic. Seventy-two percent of all LGBT homicide victims are trans women. Over 50 percent of transgender people have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. In elementary and secondary school, 78 percent of trans Americans have experienced harassment; 35 percent have been physically assaulted; and 12 percent were sexually assaulted. (Not incidentally, these incidents disproportionately involve trans people of color.) These statistics from prominent LGBT advocacy groups are probably low; because of the trans stigma, violence against trans people is almost certainly underreported.

Given all this, are cis people really going to complain because we have to rethink our ideas about gender and remember some unfamiliar pronouns? Trans people are human beings. We’re humanists. Let’s act like it. Giving people the basic right to define themselves, and the basic acknowledgement that they know more about their bodies and their lives than we do, is not too much to ask.

(Many thanks to my trans friends and colleagues who gave me feedback on this piece.)