This past weekend, I spent time with the lovely folks at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium. I had a great time sharing but more importantly learning, learning, learning. Being challenged. Doing some growing.
One of the themes that seemed to run throughout our time together was the importance of people of privilege taking up the gauntlet to do this work of awareness-raising and education. For me, particularly in the context of this specific gathering, it really resonated as a call to step up my game as an ally to trans and genderqueer people.
As a cisgender woman, there was a time when I was thoroughly confused by the distinction between sex and gender. I just couldn’t get with the idea of gender being a social construct and marked by fluidity. I’ve since come to a better understanding of what this means and figured I would share my thought journey as a way to help educate other cisgender folks who may be mired in lack of understanding. My hope is that my process can serve as a potential resource so that trans people aren’t forced to bear the emotional burden of fielding ignorant and insensitive questions from confused cis people.
Though I also want to note that our understanding as cis folks is really not the point in the grand scheme of things. The Struggle is real for trans and genderqueer people whether we understand or not.
So, think of sex as nothing more than a biological description. Sex organs are like kidneys or blood type. There’s no social meaning to kidneys or blood type. You can be A or B or AB or O, and it really doesn’t matter from a social standpoint. It only matters for medical type stuff.
Now imagine that a group of As and Bs, the dominant groups, randomly decide that A blood types would distinguish themselves by only wearing the color red and B blood types would only wear the color blue. Anyone who has an A blood type but really identifies more readily with the Bs or feels more comfortable wearing blue is ostracized and vice versa. The random clothing rules are strictly enforced.
And when the ABs ask, “What about us?” The answer is, “Just pick one. We don’t want to deal with your difference.” And when the Os ask, “Well, what about us?” The answer is, “You’re really different, and we hate that. Just pick A or B and dress accordingly. Now, go away.”
And for those who don’t identify with blue or red, regardless of their blood type, and simply want the freedom to wear purple or orange or chartreuse? Just forget about it.
That is gender. This random social construct created by folks in the dominant group. Now, there are complexities to this—for example, the As could be further dominant over the Bs, in an intersectional twist, devaluing their labor and only paying them 76 cents on the dollar among other things—but I’m going to keep it simplistic for now.
Let’s take it a step further. Imagine that in order to buy food, which is essential to everyone’s survival, people have to go to carefully marked shops according to their blood type. Red shops are only for people with A blood type wearing their requisite red. Blue shops for the B blood types in blue. No exceptions. If you aren’t following the color-coded, blood type rules, then you aren’t allowed to get food. There are no shops for A blood types identifying as Bs, Bs identifying as As, or anything for ABs or Os or anyone who does not identify with either blue or red. Those folks just have to starve or find food where they can.
This is the kind of situation trans and genderqueer folks face when restrooms are marked according to the male/female binary and strictly policed. Transphobic actions, attitudes, and laws–like HB 2 in North Carolina–are an affront to a person’s basic human and civil rights, much like denying food to people based solely on their blood type.
There is, of course, so much more to know and learn. Like I said, this analogy is simplistic. But hopefully, my thinking out loud can help other cis folks out there get started in doing this kind of background ally work. We really need to step up to help fight the injustices constantly committed against trans and genderqueer folks. Let’s do our part to be effective and informed advocates and allies.
A few recommended readings:
“My Gender is a Journey” by Eric Anthony Grollman
Anything by mx. b. binoahan
“Intersectionality and Bathroom Panic” by Chris Bourg