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Transgender misconceptions

GC and I went to a workshop about transgender people at Venus Envy on Sunday night. It was part of Radical Queer weekend. I think we were arguably the oldest and straightest looking people there. Not only that, but because we were so old we got sleepy and had to leave during the break, so we missed the movie, Cruel and Unusual, which we really wanted to see.

But we did manage to catch the first hour and a half, which was a talk by Nora Butler-Burke, a transgender woman from Montreal.

I don’t know a lot about transgender people, and I’m sure I still subscribe to some myths about them. But I’m not as misinformed as I used to be.

For example, years ago I believed trans people must have really rigid gender stereotypes, if their idea of what is male (or female, as the case may be) couldn’t expand enough to include themselves. I thought that if you felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body, then maybe your concept of womanliness and manliness was to blame, rather than your body.

Like most people, I believed a person’s gender was ultimately determined by their genitalia. When we were introduced to the concept, as preschoolers, that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, nobody said anything about any exceptions. So even now, when I meet a trans person, I tend to automatically think that they are “really” whatever gender their genitalia is.

But there are other ways to think about it. Maybe hormones determine gender. Maybe psychology determines it. Maybe it’s some complex combination of factors. The bottom line is, if someone with a penis says they’re really a woman, who am I to say they’re not? If someone’s gender identity does not correspond to their genitalia, should they get to decide which is correct, or should their genitals get to decide?

I admit to some confusion around the sexual orientation of trans people. I used to think they were all gay. (Actually, I was doubly misinformed on this one, because I wrongly assumed that a trans woman was gay if she had sex with men.) Trans people can be straight, gay, bi, poly, pan or asexual. There’s quite a spectrum of possibilities; you can’t assume anything. But I found myself wondering about the actual mechanics of sex, even though it’s none of my business. For example, if a trans woman is gay and she’s having sex with another woman, how does her penis factor into the equation? And in the case of two lesbian trans women, aren’t they actually having gay male sex? (I admit it, I’m still confused.)

Up until the workshop on Sunday night, I was under the mistaken impression that all trans people wanted to make the surgical/hormonal transition to the other sex. I realize now that this is not always the case, nor is it always an option. I also learned about some of the serious issues trans people face with respect to harassment, criminalization and incarceration.

I learned a lot at the workshop. But sometimes, the more you learn about something, the more you realize how much you don’t know about it.

12 comments to Transgender misconceptions

  • grace

    And now MY head wants to explode ;o)

  • In the last few weeks, I’ve had one friend discover and announce to me that she is a trans, and another friend–who always gave the impression she was a lesbian–offhandedly mention her boyfriend.

    Not that I have any problem with any of it (nor, for that matter, is it really any of my business in either case), but I discovered that it takes a heck of a lot of mental energy to move someone from one category in your mind to another, especially if that category didn’t previously exist.

    But then I get the same way at parties. So much effort, so many unwritten rules about social engagement to remember. Being anti-social is so much easier.

    – RG>

  • XUP

    We can do a lot of wondering about other people’s sex lives, but what they do in their bedrooms (within the bounds of legality) won’t ultimately tell us very much about them as people at all. But it will mess with our heads. I used to amuse myself in church as a youngster by imagining how some of the people in the church might have sex. I would completely freak myself out with this exercise, but it helped to pass the time. A couple of really good movies on the transgender topic I would recommend are Ma Vie En Rose and Normal. I think I have Normal at home I can lend you, if you’re interested. It’s an amazing movie.

  • Anonymous

    Oh yes, it’s all very confusing. My husband is trans. We’ve been together almost 20 years – the first 15 of which as a “lesbian” couple. And I put lesbian in quotes, because although I identified as a lesbian, he did not. He always identified as a straight man. He told me that early in our relationship, but I didn’t really get it then. He tried to fit in to the lesbian world, but it just wasn’t right. Finally, almost 5 years ago, at the age of 40, he made the decision to transition. As you can imagine that turn both of our lives upside down.

    For him, the hardest part was during the “in between” stages. For a while, people couldn’t easily tell whether he was a man or a woman. That makes most people extremely uncomfortable. Whether we realize it or not, we relate differently to men and to women. It was fascinating to watch. During that period, both of us could tell immediately whether someone saw him as a man, a woman, or wasn’t sure. It became very difficult for him to remain in the neighbourhood we had been living in.

    For me, it threw my whole identity up in the air. I strongly identified as a Lesbian, and had for a long time. However, I had, in fact, been living with a man all those years. So what did that make me? Now the world sees me as a straight woman – that took a while to accept. At first, most people who knew me, knew about him – as I couldn’t just switch pronouns with no explanation. But now, most people who have met me in the last few years have no idea. Out of respect for his need to only be seen as a man, I don’t tell most people, and I don’t use my name when I post things like this.

  • Em

    I had a friend in university who was transitioning (ftm) and I saw a lot of the things he had to deal with. He ran into a lot of trouble with bureaucratic/legal stuff involving the change from an “F” to “M”. Even with notes from doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, a lot of organizations made it an insanely difficult process.

  • Nat

    I think it’s tricky. I know of couples who don’t make the transition easily when one partners becomes the other gender. (I know many who break up.) Yeah, and I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

    I believe the transgendered are revered in India…

  • Anonymous

    Em – I agree – the whole process of legally changing one’s sex is a nightmare. In most provinces in Canada, you can get a new birth certificate if you’ve had 3 irreversible procedures (so, for example, hormone treatment, hysterectomy and chest surgery would suffice). However, if you were born in Quebec (where my partner was born), you have to have had SRS (genital surgery). Not only is SRS extremely expensive (like starting from $20K), the options for FtMs are not yet as good as they are for MtFs (it’s easier to make an innie than an outie). Thus, there are lots of guys out there with full beards and receding hairlines that still have an F on their ID.

    Nat – I also think it’s quite rare for couples to survive the transition. When this all began for us (after the initial shock), I was all “but this will make my partner a happier person – how can that be bad for our relationship”. Yes, I was naive. Now I totally get why most relationships don’t survive.


    The first trans m to f I knew I didn’t even know she was trans until I’d known her 4 years. She’s a prof at U of T.

    The next I got to know was younger and an activist so very much out about it.

    I wonder how many other trans people I know but don’t know y’know?

  • I didn’t know it was Trans Visibility Day!

    Grace, maybe it gets easier the longer you think about it. (Either that, or the opposite.)

    Grouchy, I know what you mean about the mental energy involved in moving people into other categories, especially categories you didn’t know existed. And the trans category is especially tricky because you can’t assume many similarities between all the people in it, which is the whole reason for categorizing in the first place.

    XUP, that’s hilarious about church. Bring the movie on Saturday,okay? I’d like to watch it.

    Anonymous, thanks so much for sharing your experience. I found it very enlightening. Especially since you talked about the way it re-shaped your own self-concept and your role in relation to him. I think you must both be very open-minded and committed for your relationship to survive that transition.

    Em, Norah talked about that too – how ID that correctly identifies our gender is something the rest of us take for granted, but how many problems trans people face because of that one issue.

    Mudmama, hmmm, I’m going to be looking at everybody differently now…

  • I have learned an enormous amount from my friend Nicole who is parenting a “gender fluid kid.” I really love her blog (It’s Hard To Be Me”) –

  • Laurie, I’ll check it out. I listened to a fascinating podcast from This American Life a few months ago, about transgender children. They had the most amazing audio of two trans girls, aged 8, talking about how they feel. I had forgotten how self-aware and insightful eight-year-olds can be. One of them mentioned that sometimes she just likes to watch TV because for a little while she’s neither a boy or a girl, she’s not really anything.