Back to the Bathroom


Michael Tew

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has introduced legislation to bar individuals from using the restroom corresponding to their gender identity. Similar to the highly controversial North Carolina HB2 that did the same thing (along with banning local governments from passing civil rights ordinances), the proposed legislation is opposed by businesses and business associations, LGBT advocacy groups, and progressives. This development comes as a disappointment but no surprise as social conservatives across the country are feeling emboldened by the results of November elections. Sticking to legitimate studies and facts, here are some consequences to this kind of draconian legislation.

From the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (sponsored in part by the National Center for Transgender Equality), of the Transgender individuals surveyed,

59% have avoided bathrooms in the last year because they feared confrontations in public restrooms at work, at school, or in other places.

12% report that they have been harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted in a bathroom in the last year.

31% have avoided drinking or eating so that they did not need to use the restroom in the last year.

24% report that someone told them they were using the wrong restroom or questioned their presence in the restroom in the last year.

9% report being denied access to the appropriate restroom in the last year.

8% report having a kidney or urinary tract infection, or another kidney-related medical issue, from avoiding restrooms in the last year.

According to the Williams Institute, a think tank and research center housed at the UCLA Law School, conducted a bathroom experience survey of 93 transgender and gender nonconforming people in Washington, D.C., “About 70 percent of the sample reported experiencing being denied access to restrooms, being harassed while using restrooms and even experiencing some forms of physical assault,” says the studies author Jody Herman.

Called the Texas Privacy Act, the only privacy effect the legislation seems to have is to take away the privacy of Transgender individuals. Alison Gill, vice chair of the Trans United Fund, says some people just don’t understand that when it comes time for a transgender person to start using the other restroom, they’d rather do it privately, and with as little fuss as possible. An inquisition into a person’s birth record is in itself a privacy violation and is practically unenforceable on a large scale. The only purpose of such legislation is a public declaration of intolerance. Besides the moral bankruptcy of policies like these, there are potentially more dire human consequences,

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Homosexuality found a significant statistical association between denial of access and suicide attempts, suggesting that “there may be a distinct relationship between the stress of not being able to use bathrooms…and one’s mental health.”

As reported in Newsweek (5/1/16), 25% of those surveyed said “they had been denied access to campus restrooms. (The study did not specify how respondents were denied, but says they may have been by students, campus security or another way.) Of those people, 60.5 percent said they had attempted suicide. For those who said they hadn’t been denied access, the percentage was 43.2. In other words, transgender people who were denied access were 1.45 times as likely to have attempted suicide as those who had not been denied access.”

For readers or audiences disinterested in human consequence, perhaps some economic effects might be informative. A study conducted by the Texas Association of Business showed such legislation in Texas could result in economic losses ranging from $964 million to $8.5 billion for the state. North Carolina’s experience suggests that statistics like that are real and repeatable.

In the name of privacy, right? Whose privacy? The folks who might freak out because they have invaded the privacy and intruded on a person doing the one of the most personal things people do? Hardly. Real privacy legislation might encourage us all to keep to ourselves when using a restroom.


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What we say when we talk about Orlando.

Michael Tew

In Orlando, on June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed and 53 wounded in the worst mass shooting in American history. They were not random people gathered together for a social occasion. They were at Pulse, a gay bar (not a bar that euphemistically “caters to LGBT clientele”). Lets be clear. The victims of this shooting rampage were members of LGBT communities and LGBT community allies or, at least, supporters. That critical element of what happened is getting increasingly lost in our public conversation. Initial press conferences regarding the tragedy had representation from nearly every conceivable official and constituency – except LGBT people. Mainstream media covering the murders seemed incapable of actually reporting what kind of nightclub Pulse is (or was). Almost as if they wanted to avoid offense by speaking the truth. This was a place for LGBT people and their (our) friends.  A kind of sanctuary. Not saying so suggests there is something wrong with that or something to hide. Something unspeakable. As we move forward, some media coverage has begun to include token voices from LGBT communities.  Good. Straight audiences need to hear from us. The headline is that the shooter went to an LGBT venue, a gay bar, and committed this heinous crime.

People who are uncomfortable dealing with LGBT people have seized the opportunity to talk about this event in the context of international terrorism. How fortunate for them that they can speak without actually talking about gay people. But people in a gay bar were attacked. Is that terrorism? Yes. It that a hate crime? Yes. Is it fair to call it homophobic terrorism? Probably yes.  Attacks on people in gay bars, or LGBT spaces writ large, are nothing really new (calling it terrorism – that’s new). At least its not new to people who have been in those spaces for the past hundred years (0r so). Its hard for mainstream culture, particularly public figures, politicians, media figures, etc., to talk about what LGBT people live with. But we have to talk about all of the features of this violence. Not just the parts that are more “accessible”  or less “universal.” That conversation masks the sexuality and gender of many of the victims (and the communities which occupy this space) while amplifying the role of Islamic “religion,” the availability of guns, or the faith of more than 1.6 billion people around the world who have nothing to do with these murders.

Again, let’s call it what it is. Omar Mateen, a violent and clearly twisted person, slaughtered 49 people in a gay bar. Maybe because he was inspired by the extremist ideology and brutality of ISIS (which masquerades as religion). Or, maybe he was inspired by the 10 U.S. Christian pastors who have advocated for the execution of gay people during the last 10 years (yes, there are sources on that, you are welcome to ask but first just look up Scott Lively, Kevin Swanson, Curtis Knapp, Steven Anderson). They are also extremists masquerading their ideology as religion (Christianity), but perhaps they are less easy to talk about (especially when 3 GOP presidential candidates appeared on stage with Swanson). This so called “radical Islam” is not Islam, just like those extremists pastors are not Christianity. But they both have followers. So while we can call this an act of terror, until there is actual evidence that some group specifically orchestrated this massacre rather than inspiring the horrible actions of a home grown homophobe and ISIS sympathizer, we should recognize the shooting as the homophobia that it is. The same hatred for LGBT people advocated by religious extremists in many places, not just Islam.

We need to talk about all of it. To privilege one dimension of the conversation quiets too many, deeply entrenched issues and needed voices. We have to talk about all of the bad and all of the heroes and love that come out of this tragedy. Both are there. There are straight and LGBT, there are all religions, there are people with a platform and people who express their love and support with simple, quiet actions. We need to recognize and talk about all of it.




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Challenges of Trans* Parent Identities

Research reviewed by Timothy Ward

“Making trans parents visible: Intersectionality of trans and parenting identities”, Beth A Haines, Alex A Ajayi, and  Helen Boyd

The study examined what challenges uniquely facing Trans* parents either during or after transition. Trans* parents want the same thing for their children as everyone else, to be happy and safe. This research sought to bring to light the difficulties of being a Trans* parent by dentifying three major themes that were expressed from over three hundred parents who participated in the survey. The challenges were well-being of the child, conflict with co-parent, and balancing transition with parenting and family structure. Each of these three major themes are reflect commonality amongst all parents, a focus on their children’s well-being.

The majority of participants expressed great concern over the welfare of their children as a result of their Trans* status. Many expressed that their child had been the victim of bullying because of their parent was Trans*. Some participants added even further insight into some of the strategies they employ to combat such issues.  The study revealed that some Trans* parents have even gone so far as hiding their Trans* status from school officials and their children’s friends. While this tactic is not new or unique to Trans* communities, there is a large body of research that LGBQ communities are beginning to enjoy higher levels of acceptance when it comes to parenting. While the need to hide ones orientation for the sake of one’s children in LGBQ communities has gone down, it has not for Trans* parents.

In addition to their child’s welfare, participants explained that co-parent conflict was another major concern for Trans* parents. Many discuss the relational difficulty with their co-parent and, often former, partner. This study supports the research suggesting that Trans* families may have higher levels of resultant family conflict. The overwhelming majority of participants revealed that conflict with a co-parent was a serious issue in their families.

Finally, the third theme to emerge from the surveys was balancing transition with parenting and family structure. Of the 334 respondents, the majority acknowledged their belief that their transition would not significantly impact their family structure. However, many also explain how the transition was much harder than expected. They were concerned about how their children would react to their Trans* status and in some cases concealed it from their children out of worry for it being too much pressure. Again, the research points out that this is not a unique situation for Trans* communities. What is unique is that while acceptance of LGBQ parenting is higher than ever, community acceptance of Trans* parents is lagging severely behind.

The study offers up a suggestion to help alleviate these concerns and pressures on Trans* parent families. Schools need to have greater dialogue opportunities for students to be educated about different family structures that include Trans* parents. Also, there is very little literature available to guide Trans* parents and the unique challenges they face with their transition and family structure. We need educational support for Trans* parents so they can enjoy the sun like everyone else without fear of being burned. Ultimately in the fight for equality we are all one community and when some of us are lagging behind it is critical that we stand together, collectively, to ensure that everyone is considered truly equal.

Article Link:

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Changes in Policy Positively Affect Changes in Acceptance

Reviewed by Timothy Ward

Does Policy Adoption Change
Opinions on Minority Rights? The
Effects of Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage
Rebecca J. Kreitzer, Allison J. Hamilton, and Caroline J. Tolbert1

This fascinating study examined the role that policy changes have in altering public acceptance for the LGBT community. This study looked for the relationship between individual levels of acceptance and changes in public policy, to understand if court decisions are actually changing attitudes toward LGBT communities. This study took an in depth approach by examining, race, age, gender, education, religion.
Specifically, the study examined an Iowa court decision Varnum v. Brien , which was the ground breaking decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the state of Iowa. The study conducted phone surveys within two weeks, before and after, the court decision. This allowed them to focus on the impact of the court decision, before the ruling took effect. Researchers explored the reactions from the court ruling, asking respondents question about their political ideology and religious affiliation. Essentially, this study wanted to see the effect of what legitimizing same-sex marriage would have on an individual’s level of acceptance for LGBT communities.
The researchers randomly selected Iowa registered voters and received over a thousand valid responses. The political and religious breakdown of the study was representative of the greater voting base of Iowa. The majority of respondents from the first wave of interviews also participated in the second wave. This is significant because it allowed the study to reasonably measure any changes in opinions. The study explored a plethora of variables which in combination might effect the level acceptance for same-sex marriage due to a change in policy.
Initially, this study suggested that views toward same-sex marriage based on party lines or religiosity would not change. But overall the study showed that legitimizing public policy though a court decision does change people’s views toward same-sex marriage in a positive way. The research especially points out how those respondents who were considered more conservative, but who also had a friend or co-worker who was LGBT, were much more likely to change, in favor of accepting same-sex marriage, as a result of the court ruling. The study does admit that some level of backlash; that is individuals who had a negative view toward same-sex marriage before the court decision and have not since changed their views, did exist. However, it is undeniable that the impact of a change in public policy that legalizes same-sex marriage left a more accepting state of Iowa for LGBT communities.
In my own journey I have often struggled with the idea of forcing change on people who don’t seem to want it. However, this study and those like it should serve as a testament to the legitimacy of the path that the LGBT cause has taken on the road to equality. The legal battles across this nation, which are fought by trailblazers in our communities, are making progress toward greater tolerance, acceptance, and equality. Let important research, like this study, energize and inspire LGBT communities and allies to continue the fight, because it is working.
Article link:

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Organizations have a Role in LGBTQ Youth of Color Identity and Health

Reviewed by Timothy Ward

Identity Safety and Relational Health in
Youth Spaces: A Needs Assessment with LGBTQ Youth of Color
Kristi E. Gamarela , Ja’Nina J. Walkerb , Lillian Riverac & Sarit A. Goluba

This study focused on the role that LGBT Youth Organizations play in helping young people develop a sense of communal identity and how this sense of inclusion or the lack thereof contributes to their overall health. The research was conducted at an LGBT Youth Organization which had after-school programs that specifically catered to LGBT youth of color.

There is a plethora of evidence to suggest that LGBT youth of color are more likely to have poor health physically and mentally than there straight or even white LGBT counterparts. The study explains that because LGBT youth of color not only face the negative stigma of their sexual orientation, but also face the challenges of being a minority makes young people of this demographic far more susceptible to disease and mental health issues. The cause of this, is a series of factors that include an overall lack of education and understanding about safe sex practices and access to resources that give these young people the tools to negotiate their situation. Thus this study examines how LGBT Youth Organizations function to promote both mental and physical health for young people among the LGBT communities.

Specifically the study searched for themes by interviewing several of the youth that were associated with the organization. Though personal interviews and a series of focus groups the study found two major themes that emerged, “Home” and a sense of “We.” One of the activities that the study asked was for young people to draw, using images, words, and symbols, what the organization meant to them. This helped to develop questions that could better understand the different experiences that each participant had with that organization.

What they found was of the twelve participants eleven of them explained that the organization was like family and that the space of the organization felt like home. This was significant given that ten out of the same twelve reported that they felt a stronger sense of home at the organization than where they currently resided. The next theme that emerged was the sense of “We” which was also reflected in the focus groups. Many of the participants vocalized the overwhelming blessing it was that such an organization existed that allowed them to express themselves without recourse or consequence. The fact the organization allowed these young people to be themselves in a safe environment that championed acceptance and dialogue to resolve differences was critical in order to this sense of “We” to emerge.

This study demonstrates the inherent need we all have to belong and the danger when we have no such community. The importance of finding a group that is accepting, edifying, and inspiring needs to be shouted from every roof top, but never more so then those in our society who are most vulnerable. This is why organizations that give young people the tools, time, and tenacity to face a world that is not quite accepting of them, is something in which we all need to be greater advocates.

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Rejected: Gay Blood and the FDA


Commentary by Nina Brennan

More than thirty years have passed since the lifetime ban of blood donation from MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) was implemented. Over the years, there have been small pushes for change: In 2012, for example, CNN reported 64 United States legislators, including Senator John Kerry, addressed a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to encourage research which would ultimately lift the ban.

“We remain concerned that a blanket deferral of MSM for any length of time both perpetuates the unwarranted discrimination against the bisexual and gay community and prevents healthy men from donating blood without a definitive finding of added benefit to the safety of the blood supply.”

​The ban was instituted in 1983, as the rising incidence of HIV infection was pervasive, and the technique for blood testing at donor banks was comparatively unsophisticated and outdated. Contemporary methods are able to indicate whether HIV is present in the blood stream within weeks of exposure, and the Center for Disease Control lists the incidence of HIV infection through blood transfusion to be one in 1.5 million, based on 2007-08 data. The CDC claims the current small risk of infection is a result of their questionnaires (which exclude “high risk” donors) as well as the highly sensitive blood testing protocol.

According to the Red Cross, high risk candidates for infection resulting in a lifetime blood ban are: a.) anyone who has used intravenous drugs not prescribed by a medical professional, b.) anyone who has taken any form of payment for sex since 1977, and c.) any male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977. Anyone who has had sexual contact with any of the described above is ineligible to donate for 12 months.

​Essentially, any individual who has had sexual contact with multiple partners, protected or not, is eligible to donate blood as long as they are not within the sexual contact parameters listed above. MSM’s who have had any sexual contact with any man, despite the use of a condom, are unable to donate.

​Recently, the news has been abuzz about the potential for the MSM blood ban to be lifted: The Department of Health and Human Services recommended MSM’s as eligible for donation, provided he was celibate for 12 months prior.

Unfortunately, the buzz regarding lifting the ban was perhaps too optimistic: on December 10th, 2014, the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Panel endorsed the lifetime ban. Mark Joseph Stern, of, argued the panel opposed the 12-month deferral of blood donation because they were concerned MSM’s would be dishonest.
“…the Blood Products Advisory Panel’s true fear is obvious: It is afraid gay men will lie. The advisers won’t support a one-year deferral because they believe gay men will lie about how long they’ve been celibate in order to donate blood. There’s just no other way to justify opposition to a one-year deferral.”

Even though it is bewildering the FDA panel rejected this 12-month caveat, the proposal itself was discriminatory and outlandish. It is deplorable to shame MSM’s into celibacy: this is a message that homosexual male sexual contact is dirty sexual contact, and any instance of sexual contact with another man should be viewed not only as risky, but almost probable of infection. It is extraordinarily invasive to police the sexual behavior of anyone, and use the results to reject and shame potential donors. Indeed, the “slut-shaming” of MSM’s must stop. Social justice supporters have long been championing for the end of “slut-shaming” for sexually active women on birth control, it is time to extend this campaign to MSM’s. There are millions of healthy men who are unable to donate blood solely because of their sexual history/orientation; with the need for blood outweighing current donations, the FDA must stop treating the ability to donate blood as a privilege, further ostracizing homosexual men and perpetuating the notion of male homosexual sex as “dirty sex.”

Full text sources:

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Female sexuality and gender expression, LGBT acceptance, and change

Student Research Review by Timothy Ward

The Cultural Significance of Homophobia on Heterosexual
Women’s Gendered Experiences in the United States:
A Commentary by Meredith G. F. Worthen
Meredith G.F. Worthen extends research examining relationships between homophobia, masculinity, and gendered experiences of heterosexual women in the United States. She asserts that decreasing homonegativity and increasing masculine fluidity in the United States contribute to a greater diversity of gendered experiences.
Initially, she contrasts perceptions of homophobia in the Victorian and Edwardian eras with current levels of homophobia in the United States. She asserts that during these eras hyper-femininity was highly promoted and that any behavior that might be interpreted as masculine on the behalf of women was stigmatized as having a preference toward homosexuality. Women who did not conform to this expectation were often labeled “deviant”. She notes that, attached to this hyper –femininity was the formal and informal expectation to marry heterosexual men. If women during this time failed to achieve these expectations then they ran the risk of being labeled as “old maid” or “spinster”. Worthen, explains that with the growing acceptance of LGBT communities in the United States, this hyper-femininity expectation has been reduced.
Worthen also argues that, with greater acceptance of LGBT communities in the United States, has come the ability for heterosexual women to be more assertive. “Women in the U.S. now constitute 24 % of chief executives and 34 % of physicians and surgeons (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011). Among U.S. leadership roles, women comprise 18.5 % of the U.S. Congress (compared to 3 % in 1979), 22.6 % of statewide elective executive offices (compared to 11 % in 1979), and 24.2 % of state legislature positions (compared to 10 % in 1979) (Center for American Women and Politics 2014).” Worthen takes great pains to emphasize that while there are many factors that have advanced and contributed to the rise of women in positions of power, greater acceptance of LGBT communities has been a significant contributor.
Worthen offers some important contradictory evidence lest we fall into the assumption that equality for the LGBT community and women has been reached. Specifically, she addresses the fact that much research does not address Transgender Communities. While increased acceptance of gay men and lesbian women has progressed significantly, Trans* communities still face heighten stigmatization. Furthermore she argues that sexual expression for women is still limited. While women are better able to be fluid in their sexuality and sexual expression, for heterosexual women, same-sex sexuality still has negative social consequences. Ultimately, things have changed, for the most part, for the better. However, progress should never become a deterrent to progress. Both heterosexual women and LGBT communities must take the advancements that have been made and use that momentum to continue the fight against discrimination, stigma, and homophobia.

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Shaming Prevention: Is PrEP a “Risky” Approach?

Commentary by Nina Brennan

Today is World AIDS Day. This morning, Michigan Public Radio reported a rising incidence of HIV diagnoses, with approximately 800 new cases per year. Complacent and/or apathetic attitudes which spanned the last decade appear to have placed HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention to the side; but advocates are urging public discussion about the pervasive rising incidence of diagnoses, indicating there is still a battle to be fought.

In mid-November, the New York Times published a spotlight on the controversial divisiveness between proponents of Truvada, an FDA-approved (2012) pre-exposure prophylactic (PrEP) which has been shown to significantly reduce the chance of contracting HIV, and one lone (or, at least, vocal) opponent: Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

In the article, Weinstein implied the push for Truvada is financially backed by “bareback porn” executives, and lambasted the drug as a “party drug.” He did not negate the effectiveness of the drug, however, and in fact, Truvada is prescribed to “at-risk” patients by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Yet, he implied the drug may serve as a false panacea: allowing for a deception of security which will undermine the importance of safe sex initiatives and condom culture. Proponents of Truvada counter that the use of condoms is markedly low in the clinical trial sample, and Truvada should be used for preventative health in lieu of total absence of protection – although, their use in conjunction is preferable. Additionally, there has been a long-standing stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, and some critics, including Daniel O’Neil, a physician and LGBT health advocate who wrote in the Huffington Post, argue that the opposition to PrEP is placing yet another layer of stigma on an already heavily stigmatized community:

“The ultimate concern is not that gay men would be unable to adhere faithfully to the daily dosing regimen and otherwise use PrEP as it was intended under a health provider’s care. Rather, it is a fear that some of us — for one reason or another — simply will not do so, and that some might indeed use Truvada as a ‘party drug,’ taken like candy before crystal meth binges or indiscriminate bareback sex parties. That said, it is clear that many responsible gay men already take PrEP because they are in a serodiscordant relationship or some other ‘high-risk’ situation, know the risks associated, agree to the regular checkups and lab work, and have made a conscious decision with their provider.” Indeed, the implications that Truvada is or will be used as a fail-safe in an effort to allow for risky sexual behavior reeks heavily of the same “slut-shaming” techniques, hurdles, and indictments women faced regarding their use of oral contraceptives, or other accusations of “improper” behavior which requires the HPV vaccine. In short, the assumptions that these preventative medications and vaccines are used as alternative to safe sex, that they are gateways to promiscuity, and the judgements about the people who use responsibly use them are dangerous and derogatory.

Weinstein alleged he is not the sole opponent of “over-prescription” of Truvada, but insists other high-ranking officials are scared into silence because of the economic control that Gilead, the manufacturer of Truvada, has on the non-profit AIDS organizations. While Michael Weinstein does appear to be the strongest opponent, his opposition to its use merits an interesting debate: Are researchers and activists favoring passive prevention methods? Michael Weinstein argued the reliance on Truvada negates decades of education and awareness, and the hard work to establish condom culture. Proponents argued that the condom culture which Weinstein is lauding, is clearly not as established as he thinks.

Full text references:

Global Study which resulted in FDA approval:

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Transgender Awareness after the Week

Commentary by Nina Brennan

Most people would argue that the momentum for LGBTQ equality has been gathering remarkable steam over the past few decades; same-sex marriage, of course, being one of the most forefront debates across the United States. Yet, LGBTQ advocates are also making strides in educating the public that there are many more significant issues which must be bolstered into the public conversation. Yes, marriage equality is extraordinarily important, but it is not the sole important talking point for LGBTQ equality.

Earlier this month, Private Chelsea Manning was, once again, thrust into the public dialogue when a New York Times editorial indicted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other officials for denying her necessary medical treatment:
Clinical evaluations since have confirmed the need for care that includes hormone treatment, psychotherapy with someone qualified to treat gender dysphoria, and access to grooming standards for female prisoners — allowing her to grow longer hair, for example, to express her gender identity. A failure to follow this standard protocol for people with Private Manning’s medical condition can have a dire impact — creating a growing risk of serious depression, self-mutilation and suicide.

Full text:

Not surprisingly, toward the end of National Transgender Awareness week (November 14-22), there have been multiple stories regarding transgender issues which reached the public realm. Another notable example – Michael Phelps’ alleged ex-girlfriend announced she was born intersex, and had her male birth organs removed. In a Facebook post, she wrote:
By the time I could walk and talk I made it clear I was a girl and dressed as one. In my early teens I was medically diagnosed and went on testosterone blockers, at 15, estrogen enhancers. My birth certificate was modified along with my name while I was a teenager, prior to any corrective surgery.

Full text:

A common criticism of the news media storm regarding Taylor Chandler’s proclamation, is that it should not matter, and it should not be news. In lieu of belaboring perspectives about the necessity for public discourse, there is also another significant reason this story should be attended to. Again, she remarked “My birth certificate was modified along with my name while I was a teenager, prior to any corrective surgery.” Because she was born intersex, Taylor Chandler may not have been subject to the same requirements of those who were born with wholly improper genitalia, or perhaps she applied in a state which did not require invasive proof. The National Center for Transgender Equality has provided an interactive map which shows legislation regarding transgender issues across the United States. For example, the image below indicates the requirements for changing gender distinction on birth documents:

trans bc change

In Michigan, for example, a woman who is born with male genitalia will not be able to change her birth certificate to correct her gender without proof of sex reassignment surgery. Currently, even the definition of sex reassignment surgery is vague. For example, chondrolaryngoplasty, otherwise known as a trachea shave, is typically considered a gender reassignment surgery.

Upcoming legislation is particularly important. If we are to require transgender individuals to undergo invasive surgery in an effort to change their birth documentation to agree with their gender identity, we are dangerously suggesting identity is only a physical body distinction. And as Laverne Cox sternly implied to Katie Couric, no one should be forced to identify solely with what is underneath their clothing.

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Listening to Trans* Stories is the Way

Research Reviewed by Michael Tew

This review examines the conclusions of two studies about Trans* identity development. One is from a social work perspective and the other from communication studies. Both conclude that expression of the self is central to healthy identity development. True for most everyone but particularly important to Trans* people. Most importantly, both research projects are based on listening to authentic Trans* narratives.

Heidi Levitt and Maria Ippolito listened to the narratives of 17  Trans* people.  According to the participants in the study, the experience of being transgender entails (1) developing constructs to represent one’s gender authentically; (2) finding ways to communicate one’s gender to others and be seen; and, (3) balancing these needs with the need to survive under discriminatory political, social, and economic conditions

The themes that emerged in the analysis seemed to illustrate a core theme of trying to cultivate a multifaceted identity within a restrictive social gender paradigm, “much like trying to illustrate a vibrantly colored landscape when only black and white paints are available.” This finding highlights the importance of preserving Transgender clients’ sense of self-determination. Levitt and Ippolito identified three core experiences that led to participants’ understanding of and development of their identities as Trans* people: 1. From childhood treated like damaged goods: Pressure to be closeted about gender often led to self-hatred and isolation, all while under others’ scrutiny; 2 The power of language in fostering acceptance: In hearing other Transgender narratives, the possibilities for self-exploration and affirmation expand; and,  3. Identity formation is an ongoing process of balancing authenticity and necessity (e.g., safety, how much I can cope with, resources, legalities)

Audra K. Nuru listened to the narratives of 37 Trans* individuals who posted videos for the “It gets Better” project. The study identified the way conflicting personal and social identities are communicated in complex layers of expression. Nuru identified specific gaps in expression of Trans* identity and communication strategies commonly employed for crossing, filling, or negotiating those gaps. First, discrepancies between an individual’s self-view and the self as expressed when communicating with others are often negotiated by relegating certain dimensions of gender expression to private arenas and others to public arenas. Second, the gap between how people perceive the individual in different ways than the way the individual sees theirself  is frequently negotiated through relational disengagement and passing. Finally, incongruity in the way an individual enacts their identity and the expectations others have of gendered performances is often negotiated through label changing in reference to the self.  Based on these Trans* narratives, the study observes that difficulties in working through these gaps between a personal understanding of the self and the way the self is expressed in social contexts can result in relational dissatisfaction, relational strain, depression, or self-harm. The role of communication of the self, taken for granted by most, cannot be overstated in its effect on personal, interpersonal, and relational health.

This study is unique because it addresses discursive processes – the ways messages about identity are continuously created through communication. Specifically, negotiating Transgender identity is a complicated, overlapping process that involves cycles of constructing, reshaping, and making sense of gender identity through communication. Trans* identities are not just products of communication, they are constituted by communication in the context of relationships and other social interactions.

Both of these studies are important for two reasons. First, this research comes from authentic narratives of Trans* people. These are not survey projects asking people to respond to categories of identity questions pre-determined by the researchers. They are the amplified voices of people speaking from their lived experiences. In other words, this is research that draws conclusions from Trans* people’s stories rather than fitting Trans* people’s experiences into foregone conclusions.  Second, this research is important to the extent that it should inform social workers, counselors, and psychologists about the complexity of Trans* identities and the multitude of ways gender identity is expressed. There is no one way of expressing the self as a gendered individual and attempts to fit a client’s identity into a box, no matter how progressively informed that box, the more likely that the client is not getting the help and support they need.

Levitt, H. & Ippolito, M. (2014) Being Transgender: The experience of Transgender identity development, Journal of Homosexuality, 61: 1727-1758

Nuru, K. (2014). Between layers: Understanding the communicative negotiation of conflicting identities amongst Transgender individuals. Communication Studies, 65: 281=297.

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