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What It Means to
Be Trans

What It Means to
Be Trans


LGBT leadership just went on record in a big way by insisting that ENDA should be trans-inclusive. Maybe now it's important to know what "transgender" really means

For months now, an amazing coalition of LGBT organizations has worked tirelessly toward passage of the first transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act bill in Congress. Yet in a weak moment at the very end of September, key legislators got cold feet and threw us out. Reaction was immediate and overwhelming. Almost all of the country's LGBT organizations -- the list continues to grow -- spoke out loud and clear in opposition to this ejection. Legislators had no choice but to give a trans-inclusive ENDA another chance.

If the developments of the last few days have you wanting to know more about what "transgender" really means, you've come to the right place. In the next 800 words I'll cover the key things you need to know. You may not be aware that I've actually written 20 columns over the past two years on transgender awareness -- you can find links to all of them on my own Web site. But no matter; I'll include links below where my back columns provide more information on particular topics.

Let's start with terminology. The trans-inclusive ENDA covers employment discrimination based on sexual orientation (who you love), gender identity (who you are), and gender expression (how you look and act). The last two are a bit of a mouthful, so they often get referred to as the "transgender-inclusive" parts for expediency.

Unfortunately, because of the stigma associated with any adjective beginning with "trans," many people affected by issues related to their gender identity or expression also deny being transgender and could be missing the fact that this bill is for them too. These people include the man or woman who occasionally dresses in drag, the intersex person born with any one of a number of conditions that make their sex inconsistent or ambiguous, the swishy man whose feminine behavior provokes catcalls, and the masculine woman who gets harassed when she uses the ladies' room.

Those who are more classically included under the transgender umbrella include transsexuals who transition genders as I did, cross-dressers who have an opposite gender presentation only part of the time, and gender-queer people who have a unique gender presentation all of the time. Sexual orientation has no relation to any of this. As an example, I proudly identify as a lesbian in my new life while my two best friends (also trans women) identify as straight.

What is the prevalence of transgenderism? For many years all we had to go on were the low numbers from the American Psychiatric Association, dating from the decades-old beginnings of transgender understanding. But trans woman Lynn Conway, a brilliant computer scientist who developed technology used in most computers today, applied her analytical smarts a few years ago to come up with a better estimate -- 1.5% of the population, or 15 people per thousand in the population. Comparing with the Williams Institute's latest statistic for gay/lesbian prevalence, that's one trans person for every three gay/lesbian people.

If that seems too high, it could be because transgender people have been highly closeted in the past. Those who transitioned genders often chose to live "stealth" in their new gender -- never admitting to being transgender -- because of safety concerns, societal stigma, and prejudice. And as GenderPAC executive director Riki Wilchins observed in her recent commentary, even the gay rights movement previously forced gender-nonconforming gays into hiding, arguing "that we are 'just like everyone else,' except that we sleep with same-sex partners."

Part of the stigma about being trans comes from the fact that "gender identity disorder" is still in the American Psychiatric Association's catalog of mental disorders. Why hasn't it been removed when homosexuality was removed in 1973? Because for those of us who need hormones and surgery to feel authentic in our new genders, paternalistic medical guidelines still require a GID diagnosis. Some believe that the diagnosis enables doctors to provide treatment when they might fear accusations of malpractice without it.

Another source of the stigma is what I call MIDS -- Man in a Dress Syndrome. Women were essentially required 30 years ago to cross-dress -- in masculine-looking skirt suits -- to gain entrance into corporate America. But even today, when a man puts on the clothes of a woman he is immediately presumed less capable. Sadly, this is not the only way in which overt sexism skews perceptions of transgender people.

A trans-inclusive ENDA is an imperative because only 37% of Americans live in areas explicitly banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression, the latest statistic from the National Center for Transgender Equality. In areas lacking protection, a simple "no-match" letter from the Social Security Administration, stating that the gender in its database does not match the one you listed in your employment application, can provoke your employer to fire you.

That's sad, because transgender people can be very capable employees. There are many success stories. Fortunately, acceptance in corporate America is growing rapidly. This year's Corporate Equality Index saw a stunning 41% increase -- to 195 -- in the number of major U.S. businesses banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression. If there is such a groundswell of support, why then did lawmakers get cold feet?

It's because conservative religious activists have been busy in the past few months too, learning everything about transgenderism so they can twist the facts and scare the lawmakers. Legislators need to know that trans issues are not a new ploy in the "homosexual agenda." Quite the contrary: Transgender people were visible in everyday life in the Bible, along with evidence that Jesus wanted us included too.

Lambda Legal's analysis says an ENDA without protections covering gender identity and expression would be inadequate for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals too. That makes it clear that we all need to rally behind trans inclusion in ENDA. Do what you can, even if it's just forwarding a link to this article to a friend. Help show that we truly want equality for all.

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Joanne Herman