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Creating Space for Difference: Advocating for Trans Individuals

Art by Hax Shannon

*Disclaimer: Doodles below for mature audiences*

I have been putting off writing this because the topic is close to my heart and lately I have been absorbing a lot of distress around it.

Two weeks ago, multiple situations in my life surfaced regarding:

  • Cisgender resistance to, or questioning of, gender pronouns

  • The coming out process

  • Discrimination within the trans community itself

These themes came up repeatedly. Whether I was trying to defend the importance of using gender pronouns respectfully, supporting a client as he so bravely came out to his family in my intimate office space, or listening to a friend (stay tuned for my co-writer buddy Hax) discuss being insulted for not being “trans enough,” because he is uninterested in top surgery (surgery involving removal of breast tissue +).

Interestingly enough, a week later I attended a panel put on by JQ, an organization celebrating the lives of the Jewish LGBTQ community, with a spotlight on Persian Pride. The event shined a light on the intersections between Persian, Jewish, and Queer experiences. I think this may have been the second time I’ve witnessed both reference to and representation of trans individuals in my specific community. If you’re Persian, Jewish or not, you may understand how historically taboo and unheard of this topic is for former generations and still very much in Iran today.

My point is, multiple times in the last month I was up close and personal with the marginalization trans individuals face on a daily basis. As a straight, cisgender person, I’m feeling emotionally loaded about something I am only indirectly confronted with when I choose to immerse myself in these spaces. To be real about my level of privilege here, and I think this is important for all the straight cis readers, this is not an option that members of the LGBTQ community have. If I feel emotionally loaded about this on occasion, imagine being discriminated against for expressing yourself authentically, microagressed on the regular, and feeling threatened by your government on the daily.

So with this privilege, I try to do things like listen, write, and speak in spaces where I may spark some sense of normalization for marginalized communities and, wishfully, contribute to mobilization on the whole. Advocating for people to live their best life is my shit. Which is why I partnered with my friend, Hax, who’s gonna school you on a thing or two through his own experiences—along with his cheerful, beautiful little body doodles.

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Thanks Lilly!!! I feel so much gratitude for you sharing your platform with me :)

Disclaimer: Gender is complicated, and must be understood from an intersectional lense. The words I offer here come from my own thoughts and experiences and do not speak for all trans and queer people. I am privileged to have been born and raised in the state of California, a state with many accessible resources for trans people (specifically the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the Planned Parenthood locations that currently offer HRT). For the most part I feel safe in public spaces here.

We live in a world governed by a very powerful, misleading myth about gender: there are only two types of human bodies: “female” and “male.” It is believed that each type of human body develops physical, physiological, and psychological traits that are completely different from the other. “Female” bodies develop a vagina and breasts. “Male” bodies develop a penis and do not develop breasts. But this myth isn’t true! I’ll use myself as an example.

When I was just a wee foetus, I developed a vagina. When I was born, the doctor saw this physical trait and declared: “it’s a girl!” I was then raised to be all that it means to “be a girl,” which it turns out is a complicated thing to be. Ultimately, it turned out that I was not, and never have been, a girl.

I’m a trans boy. I like to use the terms genderqueer and transmasculine because I do not fit into the binary category of “man.” I enjoy wearing makeup and wearing bright colorful clothes, much like any man who is seen as “flamboyant.” My pronouns are he/him/his and they/them/theirs. I’ve been on testosterone for almost two years, and I have no plans, nor any desire, to get top or bottom surgery. On my ID card, it lists “M” next to “Sex.” So, I’m a male-bodied person with a vagina and breasts. Gender myth disproved!

But don’t you need to get surgery in order to be trans?” Nope! In fact, I was trans even before I started HRT (hormone replacement therapy), and I would continue to be trans even if were to stop. I don’t have to perfectly fit the binary category of “boy” to call myself a trans boy. There are no requirements to being a trans person besides your own sense of identity. If a person lets you know they are trans, that’s all there is to it. They are trans!

Unfortunately, in my view at least, this doesn’t seem to be a universal view shared by all trans people. Late 2018, I experienced one of the most overwhelming and stressful situations I’ve ever encountered on social media. Feeling let down by the representation of trans men’s bodies that overwhelmingly feature top surgery scars (which I think are beautiful embodiments of courage and self-determination, but not an option for me or something I want), I doodled an idea that I’d had for some time.

I yearn for representation of my body: a boy with tits! (Note: I’m present to the fact that “tits” is a loaded term that comes from a patriarchal society, it’s my choice to reclaim the word and that may not be true for others). The post took off, to my surprise, and heartbreakingly evoked the ire of other trans men.

“You’re not a trans guy if you use they/them,” “I don’t see how any real man or real trans man could love their [tits and call them tits],” “You need dysphoria to be trans,” and most heartbreaking and invalidating of all, “Fuck this. Honestly fuck this. Goddamn dysphoria inducing shit. Delete this, please.”

These are just a handful of comments I received from other trans guys who reported to have had second-dysphoria triggered by my drawing or who invalidated my gender. Usually when trans people talk about dysphoria, they’re specifically referring to gender dysphoria, which is a very negative, painful experience of feeling that the way one is identified out in the world (as a man or woman) does not align with one’s identity (as man, woman, neither, or somewhere on the gender spectrum). As someone who has struggled with gender dysphoria my entire life, these calls to delete a representation of my body, and the term I prefer to use to refer to my body parts, hit me hard. I believe every trans person has every right to call their body parts what they like. Some trans guys don’t use the term tits or even breasts to refer to their chests. Some people might not be inclined to use the terms "male" or "female" at all. Sometimes I wonder if these terms are any good, and recently I've felt inclined to destabilize what they're currently held to mean. And trans people have every right to seek out HRT and/or surgery they know they need to alleviate their dysphoria. And I think trans people who either cannot or do not want to have those procedures are just as valid and should be free from dysphoria in a way that makes them feel whole in their bodies. For me, that happens to be embracing the fact I’m male with tits.

Prior to coming out as trans, I scrolled through transition blogs and sobbed, feeling as if I could never access the things these brave people had because I lacked the courage and resilience to pursue them. Even if I were start HRT and get top surgery, I had no way of knowing how my body would look in the end. Plus, as a non-binary person, I was afraid I wouldn’t be considered “trans enough” to get a prescription for hormones.The fear kept me from pursuing transition for years until I hit an extreme low in my life and I knew I had a responsibility to myself and others to seek what I needed to feel whole.

I was so delighted, relieved, and privileged to have had the chance to consult with doctors who understood non-binary identities. I didn’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. But even after starting testosterone injections, I still look feminine. After many hormone level tests, I am currently on the highest dose of testosterone prescribed for transitioning purposes. I still get misgendered. I’m still scared to use public restrooms. And while it hurts each time, the pain feels a lot smaller knowing I am being true to myself, regardless of how others may see me. It feels more like brushing away a fly than a hot searing dagger in my soul. And every time I hear “sir” from a stranger, the euphoria of that experience outweighs the negative experiences I encounter on a daily basis. This was true even when I was only out to close friends, when I was still pre-HRT, who would gender me correctly despite the fact I may not have matched societal expectations of manliness. This is why it’s so important to correctly gender people, regardless of how you may read them. It is all our responsibilities to broaden our understanding of gender and see its beautiful variations than require people to confirm to our internalized expectations.

There is nothing about my body that makes me “female,” there is nothing about being a person who develops breasts that makes anyone “female.” It just so happens that a lot of people who end up physiologically developing breasts are assigned “female” at birth and grow up to feel aligned with this identity (that is, they are cisgender people). But assuming that genitals and gender are inherently linked is false and damaging. Instead of allowing human appendages to imprison us in gendered assumptions of who we are, I long for a cultural understanding that gender is vast and never to be assumed of anyone. I want a world full of boy tits, man breasts, girl penises, femme cocks. In fact, we already live in that world! I’m existing right now so that world does exist!

I daydream of what a world without gender could look like. Instead of human body parts possessing some kind of inherent gendered quality, humans could just be described without judgement. Here are some examples: this human has a high pitched voice, long hair, smooth skin, breasts, and a vagina. This human has a medium-pitched voice, no facial or body hair, and a penis. This human has a high-pitched voice, no hair on their face, a penis, and breasts. For example, you might be helped by a person at the DMV who has long dark hair, a soft voice, breasts, and smooth skin. You wouldn’t assume things about this person like what their favorite color is, what they like to have for lunch, or what their hopes and dreams are. Why assume this person’s gender?

If you’d like to know how any of these people like to talk about themselves and hear themselves referred to, all you have to do is ask: “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I use the pronouns he/him/his and they/them/theirs. What’s your name and what are your pronouns?”

When a trans person is referred to using the wrong pronouns or gendered language, they are being misgendered. Being misgendered is not unique to trans people. Cis people are also misgendered. For example, a cis guy with long hair might be mistaken to be a woman if seen from behind. It’s possible that you, the reader, are a cis person and have experienced this yourself! Maybe someone mistook your gender or you mistook someone else’s. It’s awkward and uncomfortable! Imagine what it must feel like to be consistently and systemically misgendered. This is the reality many trans people navigate on a daily basis, often without support, understanding, or compassion from others. We’re seen as delusional, told we don’t exist, by others and by our government (speaking as a resident of the United States).

What can we do to work towards a world that’s kinder and friendlier to all trans people, and just all people, whether or not they’re interested in hormone therapy or surgeries and whether or not they conform to the gender myth? One thing I try to do is to avoid gendering people I don’t know. And I don’t always manage that, I slip up, like anyone else. I’m not a gender expert! Just a gender weirdo ;) Let’s say I’m helped by the person at the DMV I described in preceding paragraphs. Maybe they make a joke that makes me laugh. Later in the day when I’m chatting with my partner I say, “the person who helped me at the DMV today made me laugh. They had a great sense of humor.” I don’t actually know how they identify, even if mainstream culture would categorize their physical traits as “womanly.” If I wanted to describe how they looked, I might say “they had a feminine appearance.” For all I know, they could be a very feminine cis man!

That said, if you know a person’s pronouns, use them. I think they/them/theirs is a great neutral option to refer to people whose pronouns you don’t know for sure, but if you continue to use they/them/theirs to refer to someone who does not use those pronouns and you know this, you are still misgendering them. It might be uncomfortable to refer to a person you misread as a woman using “he,” and default to a more comfortable “them.” But this is really hurtful. Don’t get caught up in your own discomfort. Once you know someone’s pronouns, stick to them, until someone informs you they’ve changed.

If you read this and you’re thoroughly confused, good! Unlearning something is disorienting. Realizing that truths you held to be real are in fact oppressive myths that cause people a lot of pain is hard. It wasn’t easy for me. Welcome to the chaos and confusion of gender. I encourage you to look up the work of trans creators, especially trans POC who can speak to intersections of gender and race that I, as a white person, cannot speak to. Read accounts of gender dysphoria from trans people who feel they fit into one of the binary categories of man or woman, and read accounts of gender dysphoria from trans people who fall somewhere on the spectrum, or not at all.

While you may not understand another person’s choice to get or to not get any kind of treatment or medical procedure, you don’t have to in order to respect them. If a person changes their name, practice the new name. If a person changes their name again, practice the new name again! If a person changes their pronouns, practice their new pronouns. Respectfully correct others when they get it wrong. If someone uses pronouns you’re not used to using, practice until they come naturally to you. Listen to trans people. Understand that any single person’s perspective (including mine) doesn’t represents an entire population. Imagine what a world without gender assumptions could look like, then practice living in that world. Be astounded by the possibilities and potentials of human beings. Be open and be kind.

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Back to Lill: Thank you Hax for sharing your valuable insight with us! I appreciate your willingness to be authentic, brave, and vulnerable on this platform. There you have it folks...I encourage you to practice some cognitive flexibility if this was a difficult read for you and please, do your homework. Ask questions, talk to friends and family, raise awareness, and check out the links below if you are still looking for answers.

hax shannon is a white queer transmasculine person living on colonised Ohlone land referred to as the SF Bay Area. he uses the pronouns he/him/his and they/them/theirs interchangeably. he is an artist with a preference for drawing weird animals, flowers, mason jars, and hella queer gay shit. he recently adopted an elderly chihuahua named Twinkle. Instagram: @hax.shannon


Affirming Organizations:

JQ International for the Jewish LGBTQ+ Community

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list! There are a ton of more resources out there and these are just a handful.

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