Transgender Community Seeks Dialogue to Break Barriers

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A crowd participates in a Rally Against Hate, organized by members of New York's Lesbian-Gay-Transgender-Bisexual community, on May 20, 2013 in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Has someone ever asked you an awkward question that turned into a teachable moment? Something about your race, religion, or gender that seemed offensive, but you knew wasn't coming from malice?

For Thomas Page McBee, managing editor of Policy Mic, and Jennifer Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College, those awkward questions have been posed over and over again to them throughout their lives and focus around their identity as transgendered individuals.

Conversations about their gender identities, according to McBee and Boyland, have become so common that it's gone from a collection of awkward, teachable moments to a much more open, cultural dialogue, particularly among people younger than themselves.

They say these questions are posed to learn more about the individual or an entire group of people that are sometimes referred to simply as "other."

While the questions can be uncomfortable, eventually enough people begin to have real dialogues and deeper conversations about how one's identity is and isn't related to that one thing that most people see—and a whole group of people eventually become accepted, not as sidelined as "other," but just part of the whole group of us.

"Increasingly, it's young people who can get their mind around it, and who can get their mind around the larger issue of identity and the search for self," says Boylan. "I think to some degree, it's also that young people are growing up in a different era. They're growing up in era where there are more stories that are public, there are more trans people in the public eye. But it's kind of a hard call to make of who's going to 'get it' and who's not going to 'get it.'"

Today, Boylan says acceptance of transgender people comes on a case-by-case basis. Her own mother, whom she describes as a conservative 90-year-old Evangelical Christian, understood right away.

"She got it instantly," says Boylan. "She said, 'Love will prevail and I would never turn my back on my child.' Some other people, including gay and lesbian allies, weren't necessarily as quick on the draw as my conservative mother."

McBee echoes Boylan's comments, saying that while mainstream media has struggled to tell the stories of transgender people, younger people have had more exposure to the trans community because of social media and new media platforms.

"If you're getting only one story from mainstream or legacy media outlets, I think that approach has always been more about interrogating trans folks or otherwise trying to understand us in a way that assumes that there's something very different about us," says McBee. 

While the media shift has allowed for new narratives and portrayals of the transgender community, Boylan also says that today's broader acceptance of trans people comes as a result of time.

"It feels to me as if we're actually at a tipping point," she says. "For decades now, I think trans people have been defined by others and we've often been defined by people who want to exploit us or see us as some sort of experimental version of a human being. Now I think we're beginning to control the discourse for ourselves and tell our own stories, which is a nice change."

Boylan adds that the larger LGBT movement in the U.S. has helped to change things for the transgender community.

"One effect of the marriage equality movement has been a change in the way we speak about gay men and lesbians in this country," she says. "We've moved from a discussion of gay sex, in terms of how straight people think of gay people, to a conversation about love. The narrative is now who is for love and who is against love."

Though the dialogue around the gay and lesbian community has become more humanized and assisted the trans movement, Boylan says there is still a great deal of room for improvement when it comes to the broader dialogue specific to the trans community.

"For transgender people, to some degree, the conversation has been about surgery, endocrinologists, and transitions," she says. "What we are approaching, I hope, is a time where that's not the conversation. [Instead] when we talk about trans people we talk about freedom of identity and freedom of self. We're slowly, at least I hope, moving away from pictures of before and after, and discussions of the medical profession."

"That means, I hope, that trans people are being seen as more familiar and more human," adds Boylan.

McBee says that awkward and at times inappropriate comments or questions can sometimes open up a dialogue that helps to drive the narrative away from more primitive conversations about transitioning. 

"One really strange thing for me about being trans is other people's need to understand my psychological process around my own body," he says. "I don't really need to understand other people's psychological processes, I just sort of accept at face value that your body is your body."

McBee says that when people ask him specific questions about his body he provides answers as an individual.

"I usually just talk about myself as an individual person, with an individual body, having an individual experience," he says. "I usually turn the question around to them and ask them how they feel about their bodies—that usually does the trick pretty quickly."

Boylan echoes McBee's comments, saying that individuals do not need to know everything about a person in order to treat them with passion and respect.

"We're at this wonderful point in our culture—things really are changing," adds Boylan. "Culturally, we're at a moment where the world looks really different."




Jennifer Boylan and Thomas Page McBee

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson


T.J. Raphael

Comments [14]

Thank you for this piece! My spouse is transgender & this experience has helped me to realize that if I am encountering something outside of my personal experience (about any sensitive subject, not just transgender topics) I have questions about, or if I need to test out the way I am thinking or perceiving things in my efforts to understand, to first interact with others as a complete human being, not just focus on the one aspect of them that is new or different to me. And doing that first, then if it is appropriate as the friendship develops, the most respectful way is to ask "I would like to learn more about this because it is not something I have personal experience with. It is not your responsibility to educate me, but I'm all ears if you want to share or point me to resources that would help me learn more or that are good places to ask questions. And feel free to let me know if I am unknowingly being insensitive." And then being all ears & teachable when we hear people share from their perspectives & answer questions. People need not carry the burden of having to educate every person they meet, and we can help lessen that by being respectful & teachable, and putting forth effort to inform ourselves without putting a burden on or alienating others. We so often get a little bit of information or incomplete picture & then proclaim what makes sense to us & tell people who have more (personal) experience with it how we think things should the person saying "shouldn't your legs be shriveled up," or why didn't you cut them off... They all make sense from the perspective and limited information the people are coming from, but people often overlook the fact that perhaps the people actually living with it might have a more informed perspective and valid reasons. This happens a lot with transgender topics. A common one is judgement about when & if & what it is a good idea for a transgender individual to do with their bodies or how they should view them & assumptions about the motivations driving them. I have learned much more from interacting with transgender individuals on a daily basis, hearing their unfiltered personal stories, thoughts & experiences than I could ever have learned from the general coverage in the media, or non trans individuals trying to analyze. I watched those stories, before my spouse shared with me their experiences, and remember having just as many faulty judgements & (lack of) understanding. For those wanting to learn, the Facebook Transgender Alliance is a support group for individuals under the transgender umbrella & allies. If you can go with ears & hearts open, & respect that it is a support group...a place meant to be a safe space for transgender individuals, it could be a fabulous place to gain a better perspective & understanding.

Apr. 24 2014 01:16 PM
Ellen from Richmond Va.

Comments such as these are a breath of fresh air . When I came along in the 50's I thought I was alone until I met Christine Jorgensen . I realized there are way more of us than I ever imagined . Stories like this reinforce my beliefs !

Apr. 23 2014 08:08 PM
Meg from Seattle

As my husband and I left the house in our minivan, with our two year old and infant, for a coffee date with a friend, this episode was playing on out car radio. It brought smiles to our faces. My Trans husband and I appreciate your style of interviewing so much and we felt you truly "got" it, unlike many interviews we hear. Thank you for the parallel of your own SCI experience as well-- finally a parallel that makes sense and respects the experience. Keep up the great work!!

Apr. 23 2014 05:45 AM
Jet City Girl from Renton

I appreciate your comment Seattle Guy. There have been many people born with both male and female genitalia and that surely says something. Are the same people who are anti gay and anti trans gender against hermaphrodites and intersex?

Apr. 22 2014 10:45 PM
Alfred Jeffries

The acceptance of transgendered individuals has come a long way in recent years.

About two years ago Sally and Jessie arrived at our church both wearing engagement and wedding rings, and I though they were a "gay" couple. Sometime later Jessie told her story as a church service. She was formerly a man-with al the accoutrements, motorcycle, et al-in a woman's body. She had the internal female sex organs etc. Conflicted as I remember. She had the sex operation and is a happy person. And she and Sandy remain together as a couple. No one at the service "batted and eyelash."

Apr. 22 2014 09:19 PM
SEATTLEGUY from Seattle, WA

I think that the most significant thing that the LGBT community can do to further their cause of acceptance is to begin presenting themselves as, and accepting themselves as, victims of yet another of natures cruel birth defects. Just like all congenital conditions, the DNA which defines one as LGBT is surely a defect, since the law of nature as regards ongoing existence is propagation, pure and simply. The interaction of the sexes is necessary to give birth and continue the species. And, like all birth defects LGBT people should be accepted by society and allowed to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
What could be a more cruel and difficult birth defect to deal with than feeling that your very body is not the sex your mind knows it is?

Apr. 22 2014 07:07 PM
Jay from California

A couple of years ago, I started seeing a chiropractor. My first time on her table, she commented on my scars--visible because I was shirtless. "Scars! How'd you get them?" Taken aback by her lack of professionalism, I still felt compelled--reluctantly so--to explain that I'm trans. She never saw me in the same way after that. How do I know? Because on another occasion, I said to her, "Can I ask you something?" and she replied "Yes ma'am!" There's just no way she would have blurted that had she not known my history. Clearly my gender was very much on her mind in a way it's not with other people.

Apr. 22 2014 04:08 PM
Fey from san francisco

Does the trans community urge surgery and gender selection at too young an age? Even a 19year old full of the angst many of us felt is not in a position to select surgery as the answer to gender identity concerns. One can be a masculine woman or a feminine man and shatter the paradigms rather than succumbing to choose one or the other. Flannel for lesbians - we got it. Skirts for men - we got that too. Be who your are and dont impose a pressure on yourself at an age where rebellion is a daily struggle.

Apr. 22 2014 03:45 PM
Eva Mahoney from Edmond, OK

I was born with alopecia. Although my mom had this too, I was raised to believe being female and bald was something to be ashamed of. I tried for years to hide my problem but in my late 20s I had no choice but wear a wig. I recall going to work with my new hair prosthetic upon my head. I was the librarian for a large law firm. I had the quiet of my library broken as attorneys and staff ask, "IS that a wig? Are you wearing a wig?" I was mortified.

Apr. 22 2014 03:14 PM
Rae from Mple

The most awkward question I've heard is: so are you (or have you) going to get 'the surgery'? or....are you going to go 'all the way'? like there is a stopping point to transition and that surgical is the only end point. It's an individual choice that has nothing do with how a person presents to the public. We would never dream of asking a stranger if they were circumcised!

Apr. 22 2014 02:40 PM
Jennifer from Seattle

One of my most long-term friendships is with a woman who was born as a male. Our friendship began when we were very young, and for years I knew and interacted with my friend as a male. We kept in touch via letters, mostly, throughout the years, In our mid -30s, my friend had a gender reassignment surgery and is now female. Our friendship continued throughout, and continues now. The greatest challenge, I find, is pronouns. When I talk about our friendship historically, I find myself referring to my friend as "he." Now, of course, I refer to her as "she." I haven't yet figured out how to handle this well. It occurs to me, as I write to this, that I should just...ask.

Apr. 22 2014 12:52 PM
francesca from St. Louis, MO

My godmother of a now-deceased gay son) asked me (a lesbian) why I wanted "to be a man." After a break-up with a partner of three years, she asked me if I was going back to men. Her issues speak for themselves!

Apr. 22 2014 12:51 PM

There's no excuse for ignorance and/or poor upbringing. My parents brought us up to not ask questions, but "smile and listen and think how you'd feel." Then, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Apr. 22 2014 12:45 PM
Paula Peters from Cape Cod Massachusetts

As a Native American the only thing worse than being asked "are you a real Indian?" is "how much Indian are you?" or even more insensitive "what breed of Indian are you?" all questions posed to me by adults who think it's quite okay to ask as if we register with a pedigree association like dogs and cats.

Apr. 22 2014 11:55 AM

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