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ALLY IN THE ACADEMY

Look outside the binary

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By Trum Simmons

When it comes to the challenges faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming members of our LGBTQ+ communities, it’s difficult to say how far we’ve come. And let’s add bisexual identities to this concern as well, given how much misunderstanding they continue to face in this brave new year of 2019.

I’m not talking about The Great Backlash of 2016, when the new administration in Washington, D.C. began to roll back the gains that had been made in the past two decades.

I’m talking about the great lack of understanding and, yes, much willful ignorance of so many people who just don’t want to look outside the binary, the either/or of life.

In a recent opinion piece, Andrea Long Chu, who is transitioning from male to female, declared, “My vagina won’t make me happy, and it shouldn’t have to.” She believes the definition of gender dysphoria is too narrow, as it emphasizes the distress many people feel at the incongruence between the gender they express and the one they have been assigned.

“By focusing on minimizing patients’ pain, it leaves the door open for care to be refused when a doctor or someone playing doctor, deems the risks too high,” she writes.

Chu believes that in much of current care there is an underlying assumption that “people transition because they think it will make them feel better. The thing is, this is wrong. …

Surgery’s only prerequisite should be a simple demonstration of want.”

A lengthy and well reported cover story in The Atlantic last year led with this: “Your child says she’s trans. She wants hormones and surgery. She’s 13.” The author goes on to discuss newly emerging protocols of social and physical transition for young people and adults who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

With adolescents the new protocols are called “affirming care” and involve thorough assessments of the young person; of course, the parents need to make the final decision for children under 18. Many gender clinics are following “informed consent” protocols for adults, which means that once they are fully informed of potential benefits and risks of medical procedures, they shouldn’t be questioned about their needs by medical professionals.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), has created Standards of Care and Ethical Guidelines and has established a Global Education Initiative that conducts training for individuals worldwide. WPATH is “a nonprofit, interdisciplinary professional and educational organization devoted to transgender health” and has been around since 1979.

We need more education like that provided by WPATH. These matters are extremely complicated and can’t be resolved without some deep learning. Deep learning requires a careful consideration of the issues, which includes taking the time to research and reflect. 

There are so many aspects to consider in the challenges our TGNC sisters and brothers face, beginning with language. As the LGBTQ spectrum has continued to add more and more letters, too many people are simply shaking their heads, saying WTF? and stopping there.

But as I have noted before in citing media and language scholar Neil Postman, learning new words is not a cosmetic activity. It entails developing a new understanding of the world—in this case, seeing people in new ways. And humans are so wonderfully diverse, aren’t we?

To achieve true understanding and affirmation of that diversity we need to dig into the multiple complexities of life. I used to tell my students at the beginning of every semester that we were going to deal with three major concepts: chaos, ambiguity and paradox.

Apparently, I used these words a great deal, as I was gifted with a T-shirt emblazoned with them from one literature class. Come to think of it, another class gave me a T-shirt with Bart Simpson on the front and “Trum Simmons: HACC’s Underachiever” on the back, but that’s another story.

If you can’t deal with all the chaos, ambiguity and paradox in life, then you are not going to do very well with understanding TGNC people and their challenges.

I mentioned bisexual identities at the top of this column, as I had been thinking about the new HULU series “The Bisexual.” The show explores issues surrounding female sexuality and the discomfort many people, both gay and straight, have with bisexuality.

In a recent interview with co-writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan, she was asked about the show’s title. “I think it will turn off a lot of viewers,” she said. “I want to know why that is and to stand by it: I know that I’m playing the long game, and I want you to watch this thing and be like ‘Oh, that’s not what I thought it would be.’ ”

I think she’s right: In the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and social change, we need to play the long game, and we need to be prepared to learn that gender and sexuality are not what we thought they would be.