"If you’re going to ask a question about a trans person’s experience of gender, try to preface these questions with, 'Is it okay if I ask you about…?'
We’re people just like everyone else, and are generally okay with questions that aren’t invasive, offensive, or which call into question
the legitimacy of our identities."
Evanston Township High School is hosting its first LGBTQ Student Summit today from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The summit will focus on the unique and diverse experiences of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and their allies. The summit is hosted as part of the school’s ongoing “Social Consciousness Series,” which, for several years, has included a Black Male Summit and a Black Female Summit.
"I'm really excited to feel the warmth and pride of our community here at ETHS and I'm hoping the day will bring people together who might not have been connected otherwise and add a little queer knowledge and light to everyone's lives," said Yonit Slater, a member of ETHS' Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), a group of about 60 students.
Two hundred students have registered to participate in the summit, which will include workshops, speakers, and performances that contribute to a greater understanding of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation within the school community. Janet Mock, writer, TV host, and advocate whose book "Redefining Realness," a New York Times bestseller about her journey as a trans teenager, will talk to students.
"The goal of the day is to help students feel empowered, to provide a space where they can feel affirmed, and empower them to be advocates to create more inclusive school community," said William Farmer, who co-sponsors the GSA with Dr. Adrian Slaton.
"We’re intentionally trying to highlight the intersectionality between gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Through the theme of “Pride, Not Prejudice,” participants will address topics that affect LGBTQ students, such as representation, inclusive education, bullying and discrimination, and how to be a supportive ally. Participants will identify ways to help affect change to positively affect the experiences of LGBTQ students at school and in the community.
With this event in mind, I recently asked ETHS graduate (2015) Leor Miller, who is my daughter and is transgender, to help define some vocabulary and terms that are becoming a more common part of our lexicon, but which still leave many of us perplexed. You may have more questions--please ask them and we'll try to get the answers!
DE: You graduated from ETHS in 2015, when there was little support for LGBTQ students, especially trans students. What do you think of this summit?
LM: I think it brings awareness to the fact that these are vulnerable communities and that there are issues much more vital to queer liberation than marriage. It also shows how ignored these issues have been, since this is the first summit at ETHS about queer issues.
DE: So, what is gender, anyway?
LM: Gender is the way an individual conceptualizes and expresses themself as a man, a woman, or something outside of the binary notion of “man” or “woman.”
DE: What does "assigned at birth" mean?
LM: The gender a person is assigned at birth is often based on a false binary of sex characteristics, where the presence of certain genitals will cause someone to be assigned a certain gender. This often ignores the existence of people who are intersex, or whose chromosomes, sex organs, or hormones don’t necessarily adhere to the binary notions of sex.
DE: What does it mean to "transition”?
LM: To transition means different things to different people. There are transgender people who transition socially, medically, or not at all. This could mean changing the way one dresses, taking steps to undergo different hormone replacement therapies, or undergoing certain medical procedures to look a certain way in regards to social ideas of gender. However, not all trans people go through a process of transition, and those who don’t are just as valid as those who do.
DE: Does transgender refer only to someone who has transitioned?
LM: The term “transgender” refers to anyone whose gender identity is different than the gender they were assigned at birth, regardless of the status of their transition. There are many different ways for transgender people to transition, including not transitioning at all.
DE: What about the word "cisgender" (cis)?
LM: Cisgender refers to a person whose gender is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth.
DE: And genderqueer?
LM: Genderqueer is a specific label used to describe a person’s gender when it is outside of the binary of male and female. This term is purposefully vague, as genderqueer experiences vary from person to person, and not all people who are non-binary identify this way.
DE: What do you mean by non-binary?
LM: Non-binary is a word that acts as an umbrella term to describe gender identities that fit outside of the binary notions of man and woman. Not all people whose identities fall outside the binary use this term to describe themselves. A person may identify as being or having both masculine and feminine characteristics, having neither, or any combination of expressions. Just because someone is transgender, doesn’t mean that their gender necessarily falls inside the binary.
DE: So binary, then, describes the gender identities of "man" and woman?
LM: Yes. And there are binary cis people, and there are also binary trans people. Just because someone is transgender, doesn’t mean that their gender necessarily falls outside of the binary.
DE: What does gender diverse mean?
LM: Gender diverse is a word that describes people who, by nature or by choice, do not conform to gender-based social expectations. Being gender diverse does not necessarily mean someone is transgender, but it's often used as an inclusive term for people of varying identities.
DE: Then what does it meant to be gender expansive?
LM: Gender expansive is similar to gender diverse, but uses a different descriptor for how people relate to gender. These terms have begun to be used as alternatives to the term “gender variant,” and are preferred because they don’t imply a normative notion of how gender “should” be.
DE: What's gender fluid?
LM: Gender fluid is a word used to describe someone whose gender fluctuates between identities. These identities can be binary and/or non-binary.
DE: What are the pronouns that trans people use?
LM: Trans people use all kinds of pronouns! They vary from person to person, but include he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, ze/hir/hirs, and many more. A great way to find out someone’s pronouns is to politely ask them what pronouns they use.
DE: What’s the difference between gender identity and sexual identity?
LM: Simply put, your gender identity is who you are and sexual identity is who you sleep with. Transgender people can be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or an even wider range of sexual identities. Being transgender is NOT a sexual orientation.
DE: Is gender identity just male and female? Is there anything in between?
LM: Gender is male, female, in between, and outside. Gender is not just male and female, and to imply otherwise is to erase many varying experiences of gender.
DE: What does it mean to “misgender?”
LM: To misgender is to refer to someone using the wrong gender-coded language to refer to that person. Using the wrong pronouns, using gendered terms that someone doesn’t identify with, or any act of imposing the wrong gender upon a person is misgendering.
It's not always intentional, but it's harmful for trans people to be misgendered. A lot of the misconceptions about and violence towards trans people begin with misgendering. A good way to avoid misgendering is to ask people’s pronouns politely when you meet them, whether that person is cisgender or transgender, and making sure that you check to make sure you’re using terms to describe people’s genders that they feel comfortable with.
DE: What is gender dysphoria?
LM: Gender dysphoria is a medical term that's used to describe a dissociation between the gender one was assigned at birth and the gender they are. This could be dysphoria about gendered roles and expectations, the body, being wrongly perceived by others, or other areas of transness.
Not all trans people experience dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is used as a medical diagnosis for transgender people and is often essential so that they can get access to hormone therapy, document changes, or other medical procedures relating to their transition. But t’s important that trans people have access to these resources regardless of whether they experience dysphoria, so there's work being done to remove gender dysphoria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
DE: What questions should people NOT ask a trans person?
LM: Questions that people feel uncomfortable answering vary from person to person, but there are a few general questions that are pretty overwhelmingly unacceptable. These questions include questions about the kind of genitalia someone has, how far along in a process of transition someone is, how someone has sex, questions about people’s dead names (names given at birth that someone may not use), why people look a certain way, asking invasive questions about someone’s experience being trans (especially regarding bullying/hardship/trauma if someone doesn’t bring it up themself), what bathroom someone uses, asking people to speak on behalf of the entire transgender community.
It’s important to understand that not all trans people will want to educate cis people about what it means to be trans.
Try to be respectful and acknowledge the emotional labor that goes into these interactions. Respect the privacy of transgender people, if we want to disclose something to you, we will.
DE: What questions are okay to ask a trans person?
LM: Questions that people feel comfortable answering also vary from person to person, but some generally accepted/appreciated questions include privately asking what pronouns someone uses, what gendered language is okay with someone, offering to accompany that person to the bathroom if they feel unsafe.
If you’re going to ask a question about a trans person’s experience of gender, try to preface these questions with, “Is it okay if I ask you about…?” We’re people just like everyone else, and are generally okay with questions that aren’t invasive, offensive, or which call into question the legitimacy of our identities.
DE: Ok, my last question. Thought I know there are probably lots more. Biologically speaking, can you be a woman and not have a vagina or a uterus? Or a man and not have a penis or testes?
LE: Yes. There are many trans women who don’t have vaginas or uteruses, and there are also cis women who don’t have vaginas or uteruses (because of certain medical conditions, procedures, etc.). There are also trans women who have vaginas, as well as non-binary folks who don’t have a vagina or uterus. Gender and sex are separate entities.
And a man? Yep! There are many trans men who don’t have penises or testes, there are cis men who don’t have penises or testes (because of medical conditions, procedures, etc.). There are also trans men who do have penises, as well as non-binary folks who don’t! Again, gender and sex are different.
DE: Thanks, Leor!