Being Transgender Isn't the Problem. We Are.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 by Meg   •   Filed under General

Transgender identity, as a broad term, is the idea that some people do not conform consistently or unambiguously to the typical (or accepted) notions of “male” or “female”. When we hear the term, it is often used to describe someone like Caitlyn Jenner whose gender identity (sense of themselves as male or female) or gender expression differs from that usually associated with their birth sex. However, not everyone whose appearance or behavior is gender atypical will identify as a transgendered. Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t necessarily transgender just because he loves women’s lingerie. He could just be a proud dude in panties.

But the issue is far beyond dressing a certain way or acting a certain way. The transgendered population is under attack at every turn due to forces they cannot control. I mean, why are we so worried about where people can pee for fuck’s sake?

Gender identity, like sexuality, exists on a spectrum. And as a society, we disregard anyone who doesn’t fit into these little tiny boxes of “normal.” We label them as mentally ill. We try to take away their inherent human rights. And that is a huge part of what triggers depression and anxiety and suicide in misunderstood and persecuted populations. 

In short, being transgender isn’t the problem. We are.

In recent months, many—including some prominent psychiatrists— have proposed that transgender identity is a mental illness as opposed to a sincere identity issue. This has been taken to the extreme and used as a crutch for “bathroom-bill” legislation where the transgender population is viscously attacked (literally and figuratively), generally with cries of: “Transgender women are men! They’ll rape our daughters!” I guess first and foremost, they think, “Well, fuck our sons, they can fend for themselves,” which makes me want to punch someone in the dick.  And of course both of these completely ignore the fact that the transgendered population is almost never responsible for sexual assaults (unlike the clergy or sports coaches and even politicians…AHEM).   

So let’s ignore that. The statistics clearly show that these arguments are not supported by anything other than blind ignorance. But what about the shrinks claiming that being transgendered is a mental illness? 

Transgender Identity as a Mental Illness

Okay, first let’s address the elephant in the room. Is there any truth to the notion that transgender identity is a disorder? 

There are a few main arguments here, so let’s start with the one that says something like “the transgendered population is suffering from a delusional disorder as they are actively denying physical reality (read: they have a penis or a vagina) and are identifying incorrectly based on a psychological issue because they believe this to be unreflective of their true identity.” 

This argument for “mental defect” is supposedly reinforced by the fact that most transgender people continue to have poor mental health and considerably increased suicide risk following sexual reassignment surgery, even though the surgery gets rid of the whole “gender dysphoria” (ie I’m physically a different gender than I am inside) issue3. The notion here is that, “Well if they were in the wrong body and we gave them the right one, than clearly their mental health should improve. The fact that it didn’t means that this whole thing is bullshit.”

EXCEPT that ignores um…everything else

People who commit suicide aren’t doing it solely because of their penis or lack thereof. And those who identify as transgender have higher risks for depression and anxiety not because something was inherently wrong with them before, but because of the way we treat them. Recall from past posts that depression starts young with “kindling” or early negative experiences (more here). Now consider that those who identify as transgender suffer from maltreatment. In some studies more than one-fourth of patients report childhood maltreatment and abuse and tend to display more mental health issues1 (though the actual numbers are likely higher once different forms of maltreatment). And these links of higher abuse of LGBT populations in childhood are likely bidirectional2; in other words, people around these children see them as different and are more likely to harm them. Much like children with depression and anxiety (both of whom tend to suffer at higher rates from abuse both early on and in later life) the vulnerability traits shown to others increase incidence of harm from bullies and dysfunctional parents alike

But the LGBT community is often blamed for these issues in ways other population are not. The rates of abuse for those with physical and mental disabilities are also far higher than the general population, but there are few who would argue that the abuse caused the disability. Most disabilities are caused by genetics. They can’t be helped. Much like being gay or straight or bisexual or transgender. The issue is that we see some of these are “normal” and others as “abnormal.”

So what of the argument that a sex change didn’t fix the problem, ergo, the problem was a problem only in the mind? 

News flash: bigotry doesn’t stop with sexual reassignment nor does depression or other mental health conditions. Transgendered individuals will have a more difficult time finding partners and finding general acceptance from the masses and family members. Their experience is received as “illness” or “wrong.” And obviously isolation is a great way to feel your best, right? Not like loneliness in and of itself can cause mental health problems. (facepalm) Depression gleaned from years of maltreatment doesn’t go away with a surgery and is degenerative over time (more here). Depression that cropped up due to early isolation remains after reassignment surgery. 

No responsible practitioner can say that “the surgery didn’t fix it, therefore that wasn’t the problem.” If they’re spewing that nonsense, they’re looking at the wrong problem. Also they need to stop being cunts.

So what about these other arguments? 

Transgender Identity as an Alternative to “Male” or “Female”

Perhaps the issue here is less that trangender people are mentally ill and more that we as a society are narrow minded and short sighted in our identification of gender. We assume that gender identity is male or female, but not both, never both. You can't be male but feeling female or female but feeling male. In our hyperseualization of women and of men we have lost something critical that other cultures throughout history have always known: that there are in fact more than just these two gender identities that are normal, that are usual, that are common. 

Perhaps the problem is not that the transgendered population is mentally ill, but that we as a hypersexualized nation see only male or female as viable options and stigmatize anything else. Perhaps it is not the gender identity itself that leads to this increase in depression and suicide risk, but the inability to ever feel acceptable within the context of the society one resides. Which is fucking bullshit if you ask me.

Let’s take the gender dysphoria issue on its own, since this is often cited as an argument. Let’s pretend that’s the problem: a dissociative issue where one looks in the mirror and says, “This is me, but it’s not really me.” With a reassignment surgery, the mirror matches their experience, the gender dysphoria is “cured” right? 

Those who subscribe to the “transgender illness” theory are quick to say, “This is rather like the dissociation or delusional patterns seen in the eating disordered population. “This is me, but it isn't really, I can see the fat on those bones, I need to stop eating so I can be the me I want to be inside.”

Except…no. Now, there may be some connections: both may rely on the issue of third party observation, or the notion that the inside must match the outside, and that only certain traits are inherently desirable—“thin” is for one with an eating disorder, or sexy (one way or another) for someone who feels less of a man or less of a woman because their mirror didn’t match their internal experience. But this isn’t always an issue.  Because in other cultures, many transgendered people don’t need the mirror to match their internal experience to be whole. We live in an environment of hyper-masculinity and hyper-sexualized femininity, an environment which may be contributing (or flat-out causing) the issues experienced by those who experience their identity as transgender. 

Transgender Populations and Gender Roles

Transgender people exist across cultures. But there may be some cultures where it’s better to be a transgendered person. Spoiler alert: it isn’t us with our stringent gender roles and aisles of pink “Girls Only” bullshit.

Now this is clearly not to argue that “gender roles” in and of themselves have bearing on why the issue arises in the first place. Another argument against the existence of transgender identity is that children who experience these feeling of being “in the wrong body” often lose those feelings at some point, making the notion that transgender identity is "a real thing" dubious. 

Except…no. Stop it. That’s the wrong issue. 

Kids are creative. They explore, they think, they imagine. And over time, they lose those fantasies. They lose the idea that they might be Spiderman. Some little boys start out wanting to marry their mother and yet never become the embodiment of Jung’s Oedepus complex. Likewise, some kids start out wanting to play at being another gender but don’t really want to be that gender. And while some of these children are not actually transgendered, more of them are likely identifying with the things they do like. A little boy who loves glitter and is told that these are “girl things” might want to identify as a girl to embrace his passions. It doesn’t make him transgendered, it makes society an asshole for telling him that he can’t embrace glitter “while male.” THIS is an issue of gender roles being forced on children who simply want to play with things their opposite-gender friends have.  

But this is NOT how transgender identity works. And to lump these children, possibly driven by gender roles, together with the transgender community and assume that “Well since some of them lose those feelings the transgender population must be making it all up too…”

Seriously. Stop it. 

Transgender Populations Across Cultures

Biological factors such as genetic influences and prenatal hormone levels, early experiences, and experiences later in adolescence or adulthood may all contribute to the development of transgender identities. But it’s more than that. Research confirms that those with “gender identity issues” have structural differences in their brains, differences that are distinctly male or female (due to the influence of hormone on brain structure)4. Men and women alike who identify as women have brains that are somewhere between their biological gender and the gender they identify with. And what we call “gender dysphoria” sits well within the range of normal human biological variation (i.e., it’s normal on the scale of gender identity).

In other words, this isn’t abnormal or even that unusual. What’s unusual is how we treat these individuals within the context of our society. 

For the whole of human history, individuals in other cultures who experience themselves as more than one gender have been noted and recorded and often revered. 

Are these people suffering from higher rates of suicide? Fuck no.

Our current notion that there are only two genders is a new idea one that is harming those who don’t fit into this mold (much like the term “gay” which implies there are only two sexual orientations). Other cultures recognize more categories than those we subscribe to in the west. For instance, in Two Spirits, a transgender Navajo boy was recognized as both a boy AND a girl (as opposed to a boy who wants to be female) and was revered for his “two spirits”5. Compare this experience to that which befalls the transgender population in America—a culture that will put that little boy into therapy, that will bully him and attack him and try to get him to conform (and ostracize him when he can’t).

Some cultures embrace hemaphrodites and have specific roles for them within society, acceptance without requiring a change of genitalia or choosing one gender or the other (unlike here where parents are asked to choose at birth). Some cultures worship two gendered gods. Greek Mythology is full of these people. Some revere the transgender population seeing them as two spirited, the ultimate convergence of masculine and feminine. So if you get tired of the bullshit over here, a little vacation to one of these places where you’re revered instead of shit on might be the way to go before coming back here to fight the good fight for basic human rights.

Just sayin’. 

According to the American Psychological Association: 

“A psychological state is considered a mental disorder only if it causes significant distress or disability. Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling, which implies that identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder. For these individuals, the significant problem is finding affordable resources, such as counseling, hormone therapy, medical procedures and the social support necessary to freely express their gender identity and minimize discrimination. Many other obstacles may lead to distress, including a lack of acceptance within society, direct or indirect experiences with discrimination, or assault. These experiences may lead many transgender people to suffer with anxiety, depression or related disorders at higher rates than non-transgender persons.”

Not all transgender people experience their gender as distressing, though many experience mental health issues related to the way society treats them. And with legislation that allows bigotry, we are creating an environment of hate. An environment of suffering. We are punishing people for things they cannot control by refusing to see the wide variations in sexuality and gender that have existed throughout human history, and will continue to exist. We, as a culture, may be triggering depression and anxiety in innocent human beings for no reason outside of ignorance and bigotry. 

This is especially when transgendered people have to worry about everything, including their most basic human rights—like where they can fucking pee. 

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Citations
  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21833007
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3535560/
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21364939
  4. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/34/46/15466.long
  5. http://www.amazon.com/Two-Spirit-People-American-Sexuality-Spirituality/dp/0252066456
  6. http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx


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