Opposites are entrenched within society. Black, white. Rich, poor. Gay, straight. Male, female. We are continually defined in binaries. At every box we are obliged to tick, we are pigeonholed into unrealistic social conventions. But what about the grey area?
Society is beginning to progress and acknowledge that we are not always one or the other. For instance, it is now recognised that you can be gay, straight, bi-sexual, queer or even pansexual (someone who is attracted purely to the person, and their attraction is not defined by gender), and in the case of class it is thought by some that it no longer exists in Britain. But what about gender?
Gender is one category that society just won’t let go of. We cannot escape being labelled as either male or female, and society’s expectations of our behaviour are constructed around the idea of what it is to be “female” and what it is to be “male.” All of which is neither necessary nor beneficial. A person shouldn’t be judged by their gender: in what way do people’s genders define who they are? Society, unfortunately, takes this gender malarkey very seriously. This rejection of ingrained gender expectations has led to some transgendered people facing prejudice and transphobic hate crimes.
We need to start at the basics. What is transgender? Well, in society, it is something that is hidden, pushed to the outskirts, as it does not conform to the neat boxes of gender binaries. In reality, “transgender” is an umbrella term which describes people who do not conform to the hegemonic gender stereotypes of society, that is, they do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.
Transgender incorporates not only transsexuals – those who identify as one gender and may have undergone gender reassignment surgery – but people who self-identify as genderqueer (neither male nor female), intersex (in which they were born as neither sex, were ascribed to a certain gender, and now want to re-define their gender), and people who cross-dress. Within the transgendered community, all of these descriptions are self-definitions. Some people who have changed their gender assigned to them at birth do not choose to identify as transsexual. For instance, the winner of Big Brother 5, Nadia Almada, recognises her transsexual history but defines herself as “a woman. I don’t want to tick a box and say I am transgender.”
There is a more sinister side to this idyllic fluidity of gender, which we must all remember in the hope that transphobia will one day become non-existent. On November 20, people throughout the world will commemorate the eleventh International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TGDoR). TGDoR is a day of memorial created by Gwendolyn Ann Smith in 1998 to honour Rita Hester and all those who have been victims of transphobic hate crime and murdered for being perceived as transgender. After 11 years of TGDoR, transphobic hate crime continues. Statistics collated by Remembering Our Dead, a project also initiated by Smith, shows that reported deaths due to transphobic hate crimes are rising. Between 1970 and 1979, there were 21 recorded murders of transgendered people in the United States, and one murder internationally. These figures have jumped in 2008 to 18 recorded murders in America and 29 internationally. This TGDoR we will be commemorating 537 lives worldwide that have been lost due transphobic hate crime.
In Scotland, people are still victims of transphobic prejudice and discrimination. The Scottish Transgender Alliance (STA) conducted a survey in 2008 into the experiences of transgendered people living in Scotland. The survey hoped to provide an insight into the lives and concerns of people in Scotland who identified as transgender. Out of those surveyed, 62 per cent stated that they have received some form of transphobic harassment in public spaces from strangers, who have perceived them to be transgendered. Mostly this was verbal harassment; however, 17 per cent of respondents reported physical harassment and four per cent had experienced sexual harassment. One University of Edinburgh student stated, “The worst I’ve ever experienced was when some kids were pointing and laughing at me as I waited for a train. I could hear them being negative about not being able to tell if I’m male or female. As I walked to the train, one ran up behind me and tried to pull my trousers down to ‘see what it is.’
“I can only describe the experience as dehumanising. In what sort of circumstance is it acceptable to do that to someone? I doubt those kids would ever do that to someone for any other reason, but they felt they had a right to know what my gender is. They thought they could find that out by finding out what is in my boxers. It’s not uncommon for people to think like that; it’s like they don’t know how to function around someone unless they know their gender. Thankfully, most people who think that just ask, but there are actually very few circumstances where knowing someone’s gender or what’s in their underwear is relevant.”
Not only do transgendered people experience unreasonable harassment in the public arena, but 53 per cent of respondents to the STA survey stated that they had experienced transphobic discrimination, and in some cases harassment, at work. This becomes extremely problematic for people who identify as transgender, as some people reported that the harassment was so degrading that they had to resign. Not only do transgendered people experience verbal harassment and disrespect at work for not conforming to society’s ideology of “natural” gender binaries, they are also discriminated against in terms of pay. Out of the people surveyed, 55 per cent had at least a degree, yet only 30 per cent of respondents were earning over £20,000. This statistic is incredible compared to the national average undergraduate starting pay, which, according to the AGR Graduate Recruitment Survey 2009, stands between £22,000 and £27,000. The STA survey hopes that its results will inform the Scottish Government Equality Unit and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s policy-making, so that they can implement schemes that will be proactive in tackling discrimination against transgendered people.
Two students at the University of Edinburgh who identify as genderqueer expressed further need for understanding and, subsequently, change. One student stated, “For male or female trans people it is getting better, but for non-gender binary people there is still nothing. For most people not being male or female, and not constantly presenting one gender or the other, is a foreign concept. To be socially comfortable, the key is to be confident enough to present my gender how I want and to be non-gender binary despite people’s expectations. Two years ago that wasn’t something I could do, but now I’m able to push a little bit when I need to ensure my own inclusion.”
Another student recognises the lack of understanding about transgender and people who identify as gender queer: “There was a time when I didn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to understand what I was feeling.” To overcome this uncertainty they suggested that the main change they want to see is “educating people, then the second thing would be moving society away from the idea of a binary gender.”
Both students admitted that they have never experienced any form of transphobic harassment or discrimination during their time at the University of Edinburgh. However, one issue raised was that in first year one student was put into a single-sex flat: “There’s an option on the form for not minding being in a mixed-sex flat, but there is no option to say that you’d prefer it. It wasn’t the fault of the people I was living with but it made me pretty uncomfortable.”
Kate Harris, LGBT Action Group Convenor, believes that we have a long way to go in terms of our attitude towards gender: “I think that there is a very deep-seated culture of gender binary norms and that transgender and intersex people are some of the most heavily discriminated against in society. We only have to look at the case of Caster Semenya to see that people have very crude attitudes towards gender. In reality there are several genders, if not an entire spectrum of genders whereas society only caters for two types.”
How can society break away from the conventions of gender binaries so that a person whose identity “changes from day-to-day” can become a fully accepted person and not an “other” within society? How can society break away from its prejudices to see the person and not the gender? One genderqueer student said: “In my ideal world people wouldn’t be so obsessed with gender. So many other parts of peoples’ identity changes all the time: name, age, religion, accent, class, political beliefs, etc. I wish people could realise that gender isn’t some primary divide of human beings, it’s mostly a set of irrelevant ideals.” We can only hope that one day gender fluidity, like other altering aspects of our identity, will be established.