Presented in Sydney, Australia on 3 March 2016 as part of the Intelligence Squared series airing on BBC. The topic was Society Must Recognise Trans People’s Gender Identities.
I’m nervous! Transgender people so rarely get an opportunity like this to speak about our own lives in our own words. Others often try to speak for us. Now I can’t speak for all trans views and experiences. But I can share what I’ve learned in 20 years of activism.
What I’ve learned is that most of society already recognizes trans people’s gender identities. In fact, Australia leads the way in many ways, like the government’s Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender.
But even today, some people still see us as a threat. We have been condemned in God’s name. We’ve been wrongly diagnosed. We’ve been called criminals. We’ve been mocked in the media.
That’s how society has historically described being transgender: Sinners. Criminals. Diseased. Punchlines.
That’s why so many trans people have lived in secrecy in the past. Trans people who could blend into society often did just that, because if we didn’t, we could be fired without recourse. We could lose the love of our families. We could be banished from our communities of faith. We could experience harassment, and even violence.
Sin. Crime. Disease. Joke. Imagine if you heard yourself described that way from earliest memory? Imagine what that does to a child?
Now consider this radical thought: What if being transgender is simply a normal human trait? Not a sin. Not a crime. Not a sexual or mental disorder. Not a birth defect, but simply, something else. What if our disease, or should I say dis-ease, is actually just being not at ease in a society that forces everyone to conform to rigid gender expectations?
But who enforces those rigid gender expectations? Who is standing in the way on society’s path to acceptance?
Sadly, it’s often religious leaders. Now, many religions already love and accept trans people. But some have taken a stand against us, most notably the Catholic Church. According to The National Catholic Reporter, Pope Francis made a short list of threats to humanity. It included nuclear warfare and gender theory. Why gender theory? The Pope said gender theory does not “recognize the order of creation.”
That’s what this all comes down to. Order. People who don’t accept trans people invoke God’s order. Or law and order. Or a natural order that diagnoses us with a disorder.
Societies often try to force us all into nice orderly groups, and then rank us based on an order. But humanity transcends simple categories. Each of you resists the expectations in society, and that’s fantastic! Society’s irrational fear of difference is no match for the astonishing diversity of humanity.
To paraphrase Professor Milton Diamond: Nature loves diversity. Society hates it.
Why does society have such a hard time accepting gender identity?
I have a theory about that. Let’s call it The Tyranny of the Binary. We live in a society where everything has to be these simplistic binaries. Good or evil. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Male or Female.
But we know that traits are rarely binary. Your ethnicity can be any wonderful mixture of ancestry. You can be gay, or straight, or anywhere across a whole spectrum of orientations. So of course simplistic binaries like male and female or masculine and feminine can’t begin to describe the countless shades and mixtures of sex and gender.
Nature loves diversity. Society hates it.
Even a binary like left or right. We used to force left-handed children to use their right hands in school. Teachers would physically punish them when they used the “wrong” hand. Now we know handedness is a spectrum. Some of us can use both. Imagine being labeled a sinner, or criminal, or mentally disordered, or a pathetic joke, simply because you did not conform to society’s view of handedness. That’s what trans people have had to endure.
Tyranny of the Binary.
Another group that stands in society’s way on its path to trans acceptance might surprise you: a small but vocal minority of feminists. Mainstream feminists have long accepted trans people and our gender identities. But other more radical or gender critical feminists make many of the same arguments that conservative religious authorities make. They say trans people pose a moral and ethical threat to society. That we are mentally disordered and self-hating. That we deceive others and even ourselves about who we “really” are. They reinforce the gender binary, rather than blur and disrupt it.
This small group of feminists and religious leaders have set themselves up as judges for who is a man or a woman. They’re like gender police. The order they believe in is biological essentialism. That biology equals destiny. Now I can’t win with these gender police. If I’m too masculine, they say. “Oh, well you’re really a man.” If I’m too feminine, they say “You’re really a man who is perpetuating stereotypes and hates women.”
Tyranny of the Binary.
Their voices get amplified far beyond their numbers because of other holdouts making a last stand. These holdouts in religion, law, medicine, and media gladly give platforms and support to anti-transgender views, often while denying us the chance to respond. They misrepresent and vilify us. They even attack the parents who love and support young trans children.
They say our activism has gone “too far.” But I say we haven’t gone far enough. Because this goes far beyond gender identity.
Being transgender is not a sin, or a crime, or a disease, or a joke. It is a great gift. We are living our dreams, like the generations of transgender people before us. Their hard work and suffering allowed me to stand before you tonight with this message. We exist in every society. Every language has a name for us. Many societies have an honored place for us. We’re artists. We’re spiritual leaders. We are healers.
So I come to you tonight with a message of healing.
Each of you contains multitudes. You are more than just your body parts. You are more than just your experiences. You are more than just a bunch of simplified labels.
Each of you can transcend the oppressive roles under which we all labor in society. That is the promise of the future that trans people embody now.
Dare to imagine a society where we don’t blindly accept limitations imposed on our bodies and minds. Where we are no longer limited by the accident of our birth.
The path to that accepting society begins by recognizing and honoring our differences.
And acceptance does not come from society. Acceptance comes from each of you.
I’m no longer nervous. I’m full of hope, not fear. And I hope you are, too. Thank you very much.