Our society has a rigid definition of gender that separates us into the categories “man” and “woman.” This system, however, fails to acknowledge the existence and diversity of the trans community. Sometimes when pursuing social justice, we are challenged by information that may not be compatible with our experiences. In order to respect the trans community, we must accept that our knowledge of gender is incomplete.
A more nuanced understanding distinguishes between sex and gender. Sex is biological, determined by our genitalia, hormones and secondary sex characteristics. We indicate sex with the words male and female. However, gender is a set of social expectations that may influence how we dress, behave and are perceived by others. Gender differs by culture, meaning that men in the United States have different gender expectations than men in Bangladesh.
Gender isn’t something you can see. Having male genitalia indicates that I’m biologically male but doesn’t necessarily make me a man. I am a man because this is a gender that I feel comfortable associating with and that matches how I feel inside.
Every individual can articulate their own gender. Those of us whose biological sex corresponds with our expected gender identity (female-bodied people who also identify as women, for example) are called cisgender. Cisgender people rarely reflect on our gender as an internal feeling because society tells us that we are ‘normal.’ Like straight people don’t need to come out as heterosexual, cisgender people don’t need to come out as men or women. These identities are assumed. The fact that I am male biologically and identify as so doesn’t make me normal, only cisgender.
An individual can be biologically male but feel like a woman inside. They may prefer to identify themselves as transgender, trans, a transwoman or simply as a woman. All trans people are different.
Trans people may want to physically alter their bodies through surgery or hormone therapy, or they may have little interest in this. Either way, it’s considered inappropriate to ask a trans person whether they’ve had “the” surgery. Keep in mind that trans people also have sexual orientations.
We are the only people capable of fully articulating our gender identities. Some trans people, therefore, may desire to change their name and go by different gender pronouns in order to better reflect their identities. When we don’t respect their desired name or pronouns, we are sending the message that their trans identity isn’t authentic.
Unfortunately, AU policy doesn’t fully respect students’ rights to articulate their own gender. All official campus records and documentation, including Blackboard and e-mail services, use our legal names. Changing your legal names takes significant time and financial investments.
Because AU continues to call students by their legal names even as they go by a new one, trans students may be forced to come out to their professors and classmates. This policy not only delegitimizes trans identities, but could also create a situation that ranges from awkward to even hostile. It’s never OK to ‘out’ somebody against their request.
Learning about trans identities can be overwhelming because it deconstructs much of what we know about gender. Even though sorting through these terms and concepts may be difficult for cisgender people, it isn’t a trans person’s responsibility to hide their gender or qualify their identities to us. Rather, we must learn to adapt our own understandings of gender in order to respect all the people we may encounter.
Derek Siegel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.