Most of us grew up thinking there were boys and girls, and who was which was determined by the sex organs a person was born with. The transgender rights movement challenges that. Its advocates say how a person feels determines whether that individual is male, female, both or neither. People who identify as transgender suffer from discrimination and persecution. Still, their efforts to gain acceptance and equal rights have made headway in recent years in Westernized countries, especially in the U.S. Supporters cast their campaign as the next chapter in the civil rights movement and as a way of liberating all people from gender stereotypes. Their advances have sparked a backlash in the U.S., with transgender rights becoming a new dividing line in the country’s culture wars.
In the last six years in the U.S., openly transgender individuals have been named to federal office and the White House staff, appointed and elected judge, nominated for an Emmy award, featured on the covers of Time and Vanity Fair magazines and admitted to a Division 1 college basketball team. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held that discrimination against transgender people is illegal. Medicare, the U.S. health-care program for the elderly, extended coverage to sex-reassignment surgery. The U.S. military has ended its ban on transgender members. Increasingly, states, schools and companies have affirmed the right of people to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. In mid-2016, the Education and Justice departments instructed U.S. schools to extend that right to students. Eleven states sued to stop the directive. The Supreme Court in October agreed to hear an appeal from a Virginia school board seeking to prevent a transgender high school student from using the boys' bathroom. In 2015, voters in Houston, Texas invalidated a city ordinance that barred discrimination against transgender people and homosexuals. North Carolina’s legislature enacted a law in March blocking local governments from adopting rules to prevent such discrimination. In response, the Justice Department informed the state’s governor that the legislation violates federal law. Those who are transgender report high rates of unemployment, poverty and attempted suicide. Worldwide, more than 2,000 were killed in apparent hate crimes from 2008 through 2015, by one count.
Transgender references reach back into antiquity. Plato’s text Symposium mentions a myth of a third sex. Some translations of the Kamasutra include references to the behavior of such a sex. In the Indian subcontinent, a long tradition persists to this day of hijras, male to female transgender people, who are recognized by law as a third sex. Some transgender people undergo hormone treatment to achieve physical characteristics of the opposite sex. A smaller number have sex-reassignment surgery. The first such operation is thought to have been performed in 1930 in Germany on the Danish painter who became Lili Elbe, subject of the 2015 film “The Danish Girl.” Some people who are transgender say they are a third gender or have no gender or identify at times as female, at other times as male. They often ask to be referred to as “they” or use created pronouns such as “zie” and “ey.” Gender identity is separate from sexual preference; transgender people can be straight, gay or bisexual. Researchers have found some evidence suggesting a biological basis for transgender identity.
Transgender people say they want acceptance and recognition for who they really are. They say people shouldn’t be confined by stereotypical expectations of how males and females are supposed to be. Skeptics say their movement reinforces such stock roles by suggesting that certain feelings, personality traits or ways of looking belong to one sex and not the other. Feminist critics argue that being authentically female requires experiencing women’s particular hardships, which they say is impossible for someone raised with male privilege. Other skeptics worry about excessive use of hormones and surgery, especially among children, to treat gender dysphoria, the name psychiatrists give to discomfort with one’s inborn sex. In a 2008 study, most children who’d been gender dysphoric at ages 5 through 12 did not remain so after puberty. Bathroom and locker-room issues are especially divisive. Activists say compelling transgender people to use facilities that don’t match their gender presentation exposes them to harassment. Opponents argue that allowing a physiologically male transgender person to enter a girls’ room invades womens’ privacy and invites perverts to abuse the privilege.
The Reference Shelf
- A New York Times video documents the relationship of a transgender couple serving in the U.S. military.
- An article in the Advocate explores the racial and class strains within the transgender movement, with a detour explaining how transwomen set cultural trends.
- A New York Times Magazine article reports on how U.S. women’s colleges are dealing with transgender students.
- A New Yorker article describes the clash between radical feminists and transgender activists.
First published Nov. 24, 2015
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