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Trans 101: A Primer for the Ignorant and the Intolerant

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I hate to go back to Trans 101 material after earlier having been able to use words as complicated as "cissexist" without any explanation, but in light of the recent bill introduced in Tennessee that would make it a crime for trans people to use the washroom that matches their identified sex, I thought I would offer a bit of a refresher for the people who've been spilling a lot of ink, pixels, and vitriol on the issue. I want there to be no doubt as to what I'm talking about among people who don't know better or don't want to know better.

So, when a person is born, there's usually a declared sex for the child, based on a cursory inspection of genitalia. Sometimes the genitalia are ambiguous, and sex is often decided in those cases by the parents and/or doctors, based on an educated guess. (And that has a long history of not working out too well...) Those whose identified sex and declared-at-birth (or "assigned," as is common parlance in trans activist circles) sex match are cissexual. Those whose identified sex and declared-at-birth sex don't match are transsexual. To be called cissexual is no more offensive than being called heterosexual; surely we can agree on that much. This is simple, non-normative terminology that describes accord or discord with assigned sex, without legitimizing or delegitimizing either point of view.

Now, again, our understanding of human biology demonstrates that the genitalia aren't the only sexually dimorphic parts of the body. There are secondary sexual characteristics, from the texture of skin to the volume of mammary tissue to the concentration of neurons in the midbrain. Just as often happens in the genitalia, cross-development happens. Sometimes a midbrain that would be considered typically male exists in the same body as genitalia that would be considered typically female. I mean, we have cissexual (or cis) men who grow breasts due to hormonal anomalies, and we have babies born with anomalous genitalia, so why wouldn't we expect that the brain and genitalia could develop in different ways?

Now, I would submit that due to our sapience, we're unique among species on this planet. Our species, what we have built, the world we've remade in our own image, is only this way due to our brains. Basically, what makes us human, what makes us us, is our brains. They are biological, they are as natural as the rest of us, and they are the only part of us that you cannot remove and replace with a prosthesis and still say that you've got the same person in front of you.

Basically, the brain is much more important than the bits. Cis men who have lost their genitalia in accidents will often have them reconstructed, but do they cease to be male? That is on its face a ridiculous proposition.

Ultimately, those who cannot see the parallels between trans rights and the aforementioned evidence and refer to some element of biology to legitimize their opposition, as though having viable eggs or motile sperm or an outie or an innie is what makes a man or a woman, are, by definition, cissexist; they view assigned sex and the non-neurological sexual characteristics by which that sex is assigned as having legitimacy to either partially, totally, or conditionally undermine identified sex. Cis identity is considered valid and trans identity is considered not-as-valid. I don't think I've said anything here that anyone can disagree with, save for those who conflate "cissexist" with "evil person."

But there's a difference between being cissexist in theory and cissexist in law. Those who support allowing people to identify their sex, and who do not degender them or trans people in general, but hold cissexist views, are what one would describe as tolerant of trans identity. I'm OK with tolerance.

I've never been one for making people love me. If I were, I would promise everyone tax cuts and free beer when I run for office, instead of being my usual acerbic, know-it-all self. But I want to make the case to the intolerant:

1. Transition has always been with us.

Between rudimentary genital surgery and endogenous "hormonal" substances such as hops, aloe, lavender, pregnant mare urine, etc., as well as binding, tucking, etc., there have existed, for millenia, technologies that allow people to present at variance with their assigned sex. There's been a quantum leap in improvement in endocrinology and reconstructive surgery in the last century. Just as we turned diabetes into a condition when it used to be a death sentence, the technology surrounding transition has improved dramatically. This doesn't make more people trans; it does, however, make fewer trans people give up hope... which brings me to my second point:

2. The prevalence of transition has reached a tipping point.

There was a belief among several leading lights of the second wave of the feminist movement, such as Raymond, Dworkin, Greer, and Steinem (in an as-yet-unretracted essay that I referenced in an earlier piece), that as gender roles became less entrenched, less rigid, and that as there were more people like this little girl, trans people would slowly disappear. The idea was that trans people were simply men who wanted to wear dresses and women who wanted to have sex with women but didn't want to be considered gay and myriad other ephemera that confused gender with gender roles. Now, those theories don't really explain a makeup-and-heels-eschewing, trans lesbian, but evidence has shown that the argument against trans people actually being their identified sex doesn't have to be consistent; it just has to feed off consistent prejudices.

It was easy to keep trans people under wraps when the estimated prevalence of social transition was 1 in 30,000 and one had to jump through innumerable hoops to transition, but now the prevalence of transition (clunky language that obsesses about "The Surgery"TM aside) is closer to 1 in 200 or 1 in 300.

That's right, folks. There are about 1 million Americans who are trans, give or take. Many don't speak up because of a culture of fear, perpetuated from within and without the community that tells people that if they speak up, they face violence, ostracism, unemployment, you name it. So it becomes The History That Dare Not Speak Its Name... until recently.

3. Trans people are getting angry.

We're getting angry with the continual denial of such basic rights as access to public accommodations, employment, and housing, to name a few areas of concern. And the argument made, regarding disrespect of trans people, that being trans is a choice, that it's not inherently privileging cis people to have this bifurcated system of respect for identity, is the exact same argument used against gay rights and state sanction of marriage between two people of the same legal sex on equal terms as marriage between someone legally male and someone legally female.

There's an inherent hypocrisy in the way that cissexists deal with trans people, angrily demanding that people use public accommodations that are in accord with their assigned sex, not their identified sex, and that hypocrisy is such that...

4. Cissexists don't want trans people in the public accommodation of their assigned sex, either.

But, ignoring the first three points invites a particular brand of radical civil obedience (that's no typo: civil obedience). Andrea Jones, a Tennessean trans woman, was arrested for baring her breasts in protest of the state's decision that she be considered legally male, despite the state's indecent exposure laws not barring exposure of the chests of those considered legally male. It was a brilliant, simple, visceral, logical idea. She proved that while the state may refuse to dignify her identified sex, they cannot bring themselves to ignore it, either.

I wonder what would happen if, in every town and county where there were at least a dozen trans people (so, almost anywhere), groups of trans people got together to ensure their safety as they used public accommodations. I wonder what would happen if the owners of health clubs and dressing rooms and other sex-segregated public accommodations, instead of being able to marginalize one or two very silent and frightened trans people, were faced with two groups of trans people -- one group of trans men and one group of trans women -- that simply said to whomever had authority over the public accommodation in question, "Where do we go to change?"

I think any rational person would rather have trans women in the women's room and trans men in the men's room. Of course, if they clung to their cissexism, they could enjoy sending to the women's room half a dozen hairy, bearded, gravelly-voiced people who smell like men, call themselves men, are called men by the people they like and respect, and engage in the kind of talk that tends to happen between men in the change room, but who have vaginas. And they could enjoy explaining that to their children, should they bring those children into a clothing-optional change room, since, you know, they really believe that trans men are just women, and vice versa.

But what cissexists will no longer be able to do is quash trans people's presence in public life and public spaces. Pressure is building, and the community's tolerance for life in the shadows is waning. It's only a matter of time before those people who don't respect trans people are going to have to choose between assignment and identification, between intolerance and expedience.

Where do we go to change?