Jason Baskette, who uses they/them/their pronouns, attended the University Of Connecticut with me and we had never formally met until I asked for an interview for a class assignment. I was writing about a group on campus called ‘Out of the Box’, a discussion and support group for non-binary and gender expansive identified individuals, that Jason facilitated. I only knew of them, through mutual friends, as a LGBT advocate, ally, and all around good person. We also shared a supervisor and I think I can speak for both of us when I say it was a pleasure to both work for and with JT.
As I am continuing on my Social Justice Journey, I continue to tell people that I am not an expert, but I do want to share my continuous education with others. I think it is important to keep conversations going and to bring attention to issues that are otherwise forgotten or not known about. I especially like talking about issues I care about.
I asked Jason to help with my first blog post back from my hiatus because, while I advocate the ‘T’ in LGBT, I felt I didn’t have as much education on the topic that I could have. I admire Jason’s knowledge and education given to friends and family. This series of blog posts discusses Caitlyn Jenner and her transition in the public eye and a better understanding of the ‘T’: how it is defined, how we should use it and recognize that not everyone’s “gender journey” is like Caitlyn’s. As I continue my blog I hope that Jason becomes a frequent commentator and even writer for the blog. Many hands make light work and when it comes to social justice there sure is a lot of work to be done.
Please enjoy this 2 part blog post about Caitlyn Jenner and understanding Transgender.
Jason On The Interview Specifically:
When I watched the Jenner Interview, I was in shock and completely disgusted. Before I get into all of this I want to make it clear that I think Caitlyn is incredibly strong and brave for what she is doing. She is transitioning in front of billions of folks who have no clue what it means to be terrified of your own existence for the majority of your life. Most folks have no idea what it means to stand up and be open about something most of the world sees as weird, different, or a personal freak show. So for her to be seen as an American Hero because of her Gold medal at the olympics and still decide to transition and transition openly to the world, that’s incredible. It takes strength to do that.
This does not mean we should not be conscious of how she is portrayed in the media or how she is being perceived by the general public among other things. I celebrated her coming out and her bravery for about a day and then I promptly resumed analyzing what was occurring.
We need to constantly be questioning how our actions and others actions are impacting marginalized folk, regardless of the intent of those actions. Caitlyn Jenner is no exception. There is a reason I celebrated her bravery and her coming out but not any of the conversation surrounding that process and her being.
In the first trailer for Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show, Caitlyn said, “I am the new normal.” That may seem like a great thing to say or for people to hear. However, normalization is a form of assimilation and assimilation is something that has placed us in this position in the first place.
Normalization is not what we need to be striving for, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” (Audre Lorde, Master’s Tools) So while Caitlyn Jenner is incredibly brave and strong, she is no expert. Just like any other trans person, she is an expert of her own experience but not an expert on transness or gender expansive identities and experiences. We cannot simply accept her existence and ability by to exist as good and a step forward.
In the interview, the word transgender is spoken like it is some unfamiliar disease magically popping up all over the country. It rolls off Diane Sawyer’s tongue like a dirty sock being peeled off the floor. This is a problem. This is not a disease. This is not a disorder. This is not a mental illness. Gender is a socially constructed concept that people do not actually fit into and those who do not identify with the genders assigned to them are outcasted, even though gender is a concept that is not inherent to our beings in the first place.
One of the biggest issues I had with the interview was the use of the psychiatrist Dr. Levine:
“Dr. Steven Levine, a psychiatrist in Ohio who has treated hundreds of transgender patients, worries that so many people are unprepared for the social and emotional upheaval of a transition and rush ahead too fast:
Levine: “there are kids who get hormones from the internet, they get hormones from their sister’s birth control pills or whatever.” Levine says there is one study that shows that there is still a suicide risk after full transition. He urges therapy after and before to ensure that patients really know this is what they want.
Sawyer: “It’s not going away, it’s just how you decide to live with it.”
Levine: “well exactly exactly”” (Quote from Jenner Interview)
Simply put, this is entirely misinformed to the point where I pray he just miscommunicated his point and does not actually believe this as a Psychiatrist who sees trans patients for a living.
First of all, not all trans folk transition. This is a very very harmful and erasive myth about trans folk. For those who do transition, is there a social and emotional upheaval that comes with medically transitioning? For some people, yes. For others, no not at all. A lot of the social and emotional upheaval that I and other folks have experienced is due to the way people around us react to us. While I was transitioning I was put in many awkward scenarios where I was forced to choose to out myself or risk being misgendered, I have been and continue to be used as a walking encyclopedia for folks who “just want to understand”, I have been violated and harassed and almost destroyed many times over. So yes, I experienced an emotional and social upheaval. However, that was not my fault. That is the fault of those around me who are ignorant and refuse to acknowledge the fact that I am not responsible for changing their ignorance.
Another really big problem with his statement is how he brought up kids who get hormones from “the internet” or “their sister’s birth control pills”. This does happen, yes. However, out of context, it is a very dangerous statement. Aside from this being a extremely classist statement, he only states the how and not the why. Many trans folk have limited if not no access to health insurance. Hormones can run upwards of $85 to $100 per month, depending on your insurance or lack thereof and type of hormone treatment.
So why are these kids getting their hormones in seemingly dangerous places? They have no where else to get them. We are not providing them with access to the things they need. When I say need, I mean it seriously. For many folks, transitioning is a matter of life or death.
His statement about suicide post transitioning is almost laughable. Yes, trans folk, even post transition, have an increased risk for suicide. Of course! We are consistently the punchline to the cisheteropatriachy’s dehumanizing humor. We are at an increased risk for murder, sexual and physical assault, and we cannot even use a bathroom in public that corresponds to our identity without being at risk of harassment, violence, and being removed from the bathroom itself. If there wasn’t an increased risk of suicide in trans folk we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. This statement is so so harmful. I literally had to turn it off and walk away because I was so astounded that a professional psychiatrist, who claims to take care of and help trans patients, would say something like this.
Another problem with his statement, he says many kids rush into transitioning and they should wait until they’re better able to cope. Most folks spend years thinking about whether or not they want to make a physical transition. This isn’t a decision made on a whim by an “overly emotional teenager” who is “desperate to change their appearance.”
This decision is made by people who are coming to terms with an identity that is more likely to be the cause of violence in their lives than that of their cisgender counterparts. These people are facing the decision of moving forward in life as something that is seen as deviant, morally questionable if not seen as morally unacceptable, and not human. This decision is not made lightly.
It’s been proven time and time again that those who chose to transition, for various reasons, experience a shift in anxiety levels pre vs post transition.They found an abnormally high level of anxiety pre transition which decreased to having a standard if not lower anxiety level after transitioning. That does not mean that people who identify as trans or gender expansive in some capacity and chose to transition no longer experience anxiety. We must keep in mind that people are multi-faceted, intersectional beings and many of us experience mental health “issues” for reasons other than our gender identity and what comes along with that.
My point being, for those who want to transition, it is more often than not a very good thing. In many cases it can be life saving. So for Dr. Levine to state that kids rush into this too fast is a problem and reinforces problematic ideas of what goes into transitioning.
Dr. Levine’s statements are very shallow understandings of how transitioning affects children and teens. His statement addresses things that do occur however it fails to address why this occurs. The why is the violence trans folk experience, more often than not, at the hands of those who are supposed to take care of them. I have met very few trans folk whose parents were totally accepting and did not reject them in some way. The stories go all the way from my parents won’t use the correct name and pronouns to I’ve been kicked out of my house and completely rejected and so much more.
Another concept that I found very harmful about the interview is how they defined transgender. I don’t recall them specifically defining it. However, throughout the interview it was clear that they were defining transgender as someone assigned male/female at birth and transitioned to and identified as the “opposite” gender. There are many problems with this.
Transgender is a term that came from an attempt to bridge the gap between transvestites, those who “cross dressed”, and transexual people, those who identify as the “opposite gender” and chose to transition medically. So to condense that, transgender is a term to describe someone who does not identify 100% with the sex they were assigned at birth. This is an overall concept of transgender, the actual transgender identity is up to the individual to define. Not all people, who identify as something other than the gender assigned to them at birth, identify as transgender. So the definition I’ve given you is more of an conceptual idea of what transgender is rather than an individual identity. These are not mutually exclusive concepts but they are different concepts.
So to clarify why this male to female and female to male definition of transgender is a problem, we need to realize that trans people are as diverse as every other population on this earth. A lot of trans folks do not medically transition. A lot of folks we talk about as transgender do not identify as transgender. To go off of that point there is a huge population of folks who identify as both male and female, neither male nor female, and/or experience gender fluidly where their gender shifts on a day to day, week to week, month to month, etc basis. I am one of those people. I identify as agender and I fight everyday to have that be recognized by those around me.
We’re so busy discussing white binary trans folk, we haven’t even begun to acknowledge people whose genders exist beyond the binary of male and female. We have no box to check off on medical and government papers. We have no gender marker that aligns with our genders. We cannot go to a bathroom that corresponds with our gender majority of the time while in public because gender neutral bathrooms are not common. I exist in limbo in so many facets of my life that I’ve stopped living in absolutes all together. Nothing is static in my life. My gender, my sexuality, my thoughts and feelings, my existence, my very being are all constantly changing and shifting.
Some of this is a beautiful and amazing way to experience life but it comes at a price. A price that is including but not limited to constantly being misgendered, knowing that there is no possible way for me to “pass” as the gender I identify as; I highly doubt that, in my lifetime, I will ever have a form of identification in this country where the gender marker is affirming of my identity and not just partially accurate or not accurate at all. My gender is almost always seen as illegitimate and just a phase because I “haven’t decided on a gender yet.” I am constantly being asked to explain my identity over and over again and when I refuse to educate someone the response is, more often than not, violent towards me because they feel entitled to that information.
I am only ever seen as attractive if people believe I am a man or if I am being fetishized and objectified. My lack of gender has become a target on my back for violent hateful behavior. Yet non-binary and gender expansive identities are not discussed. Even our fellow “trans community” members, particularly those who are binary identified, often participate in behavior and actions which are erasive and oppressive to gender expansive and non-binary folk. I have been reduced to an “it” more times than I care to remember. Needless to say gender expansive folk experience oppression and violence in a very different but just as harmful way than binary trans folk.
This interview does not acknowledge anything beyond male or female, at least not in a significant enough way for it to do anything at all. This interview is not new, nor groundbreaking, and most certainly not worthy of the hype and praise it has received. No trans person who is undocumented, low income, homeless, or a trans person of color, among other things, has received this kind of praise and attention. It redefines transgender in the same way society has been doing so for decades. Someone who identifies as male/female and identifies as the opposite gender. We know transness is much more complex than this.
So for those of you who believe this is educational and helpful for people, I encourage you to think again. Knowing this is not new, the violence and hatred has existed for longer than anyone knows and nothing has changed, and the information in this interview is not accurate, do you really believe this is going to change anything? This is not change. This is not helpful. This is not movement. This is not a step forward. This is another distraction from the real issues.
In the words of Laverne Cox,
Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class.
Until we commit to and follow through with uplifting those who are the most at risk for violence and discrimination among other things, the movement will not progress in any direction.