Dear Christine, Reasonable in Rochester

  • Posted on November 19, 2017 at 11:49 am

By Christine Cantrell, PhD, LP

Dear Christine, I wonder if you have any good articles or references about transgender or more specifically, non-binary people that describes the uses of pronouns. We have a situation in our Indivisible group that people have taken offense and some are not understanding about pronouns. Sincere leaders are trying to mend fences and have withstood some kind-of mean attacks and their apologies weren’t accepted. We can’t get anything done if we can’t talk to each other. What would you suggest? Signed, Reasonable in Rochester, MI

Dear Reasonable,

This is a complicated topic, so I will answer in three parts.
Part 1 Gender Identity
Part 2 will explore Transgender Issues.
Part 3 will explore the Pronoun Issues

Part 1
Most of us go through life as male or female and never think anything more about it. It seems that the all creation divides in two, every species… well, most of them at least! However, there are about 2000 children born each year with genitalia that doesn’t look normal.

Until 50 years ago, surgery was performed to “fix” these babies’ genitals to look “normal,” sometimes without the parents’ knowledge. The non-conformity was hidden. Sometimes those babies grew up to be very confused adults, feeling like a boy, but having the genitalia of a girl, say from a botched circumcision, causing doctors to refashion a truncated penis into a clitoris. (The actual story David Reimer, Some specialists now challenge the norm to surgically correct the defect. Studies now show that a wide range of disorders may be responsible and that imposing gender can be horrific. David Reimer, born a boy, was surgically corrected to be a girl as a toddler and was raised as a girl. But unlike what experts expected, he did not feel like a girl inside and suffered depression and identity confusion when he was required to take estrogen at puberty. Eventually, as a teen, he won the right to surgically return to being male, and later married and was step-dad to 3 children. Finally took his own life in despair.

We don’t know what creates gender identity. We do know that having the internal sense of being a male or female is usually in concert with having a male or female body. But not always. We also know that sexuality and orientation is not necessarily connected to which set of plumbing we may have. Men can be gay or straight, women can be lesbian or straight. We are familiar with homosexuality and the civil rights movement that has granted rights of marriage to gays and lesbians.

But, someone in a male body may internally experience being female. Gender identity is complicated, and does not arise simply from genetics, socialization or parenting or physical genitalia. In 1967 a Johns Hopkins psychologist, John Money, argued that in the first 19 months of life, gender identity was changeable. He was consulted in David Reimer’s case and recommended David be remade into a girl. His parents raised him as a girl. But that didn’t change how this child always felt inside. He had a twin brother, but David, even as a girl, was much more “masculine” than his twin. Dr. Money was wrong, but his theory and practices continue.

There are babies with both male and female genitals. Sometimes a genetic boy who looks externally like a girl. Sometimes children don’t show any gender anomalies until puberty. Sometimes these variances are caused by hormones in utero or genetics or developmental disruptions, as in a child that has an androgen disorder. More of these babies are being allowed to grow up as “indeterminate” sex and define who they are. And if they are sexual beings and have a personality, even if their sexuality is not “normal” they reject using the pronoun “it” as it is too robotic and not human. So, pronouns are changing with the greater understanding and acceptance that human beings don’t always appear in just two defined sexes, male and female.

The bottom line is that there is diversity within 1. gender, 2. gender identity, 3. sexuality and 4. sexual orientation. It is for each individual to decide how those four aspects of selfhood mix and match. Thus, it may not be common to run into someone who tells you they are non-binary and bisexual. Or you may meet someone who looks male to you, but experiences being female. And maybe that “man” is starting to take estrogen and discovers that “he” is attracted to men. Is that trans woman then straight?

We can pick up clues as to the pronouns that an individual prefers by looking at how they present themselves (clothes) and how they introduce themselves (words). If someone presents as female, use she/her and if the person presents as male, he/him. If you can’t tell for sure by looking at someone, just ask: “What is your name and what pronouns do you prefer?” It’s awkward and new, but it will go a long distance towards making that person feel acknowledged and respected.

As you open yourself to noticing and accepting these differences, you will notice that some people seem to defy gender. They don’t seem to fit in either the male or the female category, much less the gay or straight types. Take a deep breath, and ask that person “what is your name?” and “how would you like me to address you?” I guarantee they are used to rude stares and they will welcome a direct question that demonstrates respect. It seems weird and unnatural if you’ve never met someone who experiences life as “gender fluid” or as “non binary.” If you can give that person a modicum of respect, as sincere questions with interest, that person will more than likely give you answers and welcome more questions. Each of us is unique. Each of us is different. Those differences are normal. Those differences are aspects of humanity and life that we don’t have to fear, but we can celebrate. And take a deep breath…. Go home and think about your life. It probably looks pretty simple in comparison. Exhale! Diversity makes us all stronger. Really!

Several articles were helpful in researching this topic:

More next week,
Christine C. Cantrell, PhD

Christine C. Cantrell, PhD
1026 W. 11 Mile Rd,
Suite C
Royal Oak, MI 48067

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