On perceptions of beauty and race, with film recommendations

The availability heuristic is often summed up as the human tendency to think that easier something is to remember, the more frequently it must occur. Another neat summary, this time from a Wikipedia contributor, runs as follows:

“The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind.”

 

It can cause us to make a number of errors, such as overestimating the prevalence of a given phenomenon following an increase in media coverage of that phenomenon. By extension, it also causes us to accept as ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ occurrences or phenomena that are in reality only one version from within a wide range of possibilities. Another error we make for this reason, is the association of groups of people with certain traits or characteristics based on depictions of those persons in the media.

 

An example might be associating people from the Middle-east with violent extremism because international news coverage for that region is focused on warfare and violence, providing our minds with a disproportionate number examples of overlap between people of a certain religion, appearance or nationality, with those traits.

 

Similarly, media depictions of certain traits can be disproportionately linked to a given group of people. An example might be when national crime reporting unnecessarily specifies the nationality of a suspect when they are not native to the country, but often omits the nationality (or race) of a suspect when it is in line with majority of the population. Violence, theft or other acts are therefore disproportionately linked with minority races or nationalities in the public mind.

 

This undercurrent of media influence is what prompts much of the research on gender and media, such as the findings shared in this recent post on the visibility and representation of women in mainstream film.

 

Today’s post concentrates on a subject equally vulnerable to media-influence, our concept of beauty, particularly female beauty. Advertising, film, television, magazines and so on, heavily lean toward one, very specific, depiction of female beauty. That depiction influences our social norms and our beauty ideals.

 

We all know the depictions of female beauty in the media are less than genuine. We know about photoshop, professional lighting and make up. We also know they tend towards one body type, including weight range, height, bust etc. Considering how much alteration these images undergo and the very selective representation of women, we also know that the body type depicted is considerably more rare in reality, than it is in our media. These depictions present a fiction as a reality and make it the goal and the expectation.

 

But what about race? When you think of “female beauty” as depicted in the media, how many of the related images in your mind involve women of colour?

 

Media depictions of beauty also create another norm; they promote a predominantly white beauty ideal. Depictions that do involve women of colour often represent them as “exotic”, a distinctly “othering” term with highly sexual connotations. Black women in particular are sometimes portrayed as bestial, animalistic and thus quite literally de-humanized, while the implied “wildness” heavily sexualizes them. You may also notice that the media more often displays black women with features more typically associated with whiteness, such as lighter skin and chemically relaxed hair, rather than with natural hair.

 

This leads us to the first of two documentary suggestions, looking at predominantly female-centred beauty ideals as they intersect with race; Chris Rock’s Good Hair. As informative as it is entertaining, this film explores what is meant by the term “good hair”, the business behind it and the worrying perceptions that some people appear to have of natural hair, considering it less presentable, less professional and less attractive.

 

For me, the most affecting aspect of this film was seeing women in India have their hair removed, ostensibly for religious sacrifice, only for the hair to be later sold to distributors in the United States and elsewhere. Suppliers will eventually sell the hair to a predominantly female, African American customer base as one means of conforming to the innately prejudiced beauty ideal dominating society.

 

If you have a particular interest in this topic, you might enjoy reading, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” by co-authors Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, originally published in 2002 and now updated for 2014.

 

The second film I want to recommend is entitled Dark Girls, by film-makers D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke.

 

Dark Girls explores the concept of colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker to describe discrimination and prejudice based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. The term is usually only applied to prejudice occurring within one’s own race. The film doesn’t limit itself to the United States; and while it discusses the white beauty ideal in mainstream media as one factor, it also covers the historical causes related to white imperialism and slavery.

 

Following the release of Dark Girls, a news discussion featured a short excerpt from the movie, showing a brief clip of some telling research on children’s perceptions of others, based on skin colour.

Sadly, the clip is representative of the majority findings of the study, both black and white children displayed a bias in favour of whiteness. The bias was stronger among the white children. And the study also found little difference among the two age groups involved 4-5 and 9-10 years old.

Finally, I leave you with the video below, an award winning short film, entitled “A Girl Like Me”. Even if you watch nothing else recommend in this post, I urge you to watch this.

Despite a running time of only seven minutes, it manages to express the broad scope of its topic. In the interview-based début documentary by director Kiri Davis, a series of young black women express views on physical appearances including skin colour and hair, societal perceptions and expectations, and the impact culture can have on self-esteem and identity.

 

 

The rhetoric of gender equality; Emma Watson and other public discourse

As you have no doubt read, seen and heard, UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, recently delivered a speech for the launch of a new campaign, entitled  “HeForShe”.

 

The speech garnered criticism for several reasons. It framed the solution to gender inequality in terms that many found patriarchal. It extended what many felt was a naive and unnecessary invitation to men, inviting them to participate in the movement for gender equality. Critics also argue that Ms. Watson centred the issue on the benefits men can garner from equality, undermining the moral right and the true value of equality.

 

This post represents a considered view not only on Ms. Watson’s speech but also the general rhetoric surrounding the issue of gender inequality and feminism. Please note that this opinion is nuanced and as such I urge you to read it in its entirety.

 

 

Problematic Phrases

Rephrasing the problem of gender inequality in the terms of patriarchy, which is the social system of primarily male dominance that is responsible for the cultural mindset that passively or actively supports unequal treatment of women including their objectification and victimization, is not the solution.

 

We see this use of patriarchal language in President Obama’s response to a prominent domestic violence case, which used several problematic phrases,

 

“Hitting a woman is not something a real man does..”

 

Attempting to update or redefine the term “real men” only serves to maintain the fiction that there is one way to be a man. By definition, the term “real men” requires there to be men who are less than real. This reinforces rigid gender roles and more specifically, it promotes socially approved scripts that ultimately encourage homophobia and transphobia, that fuel peer pressure and that breed insecurity.

 

Speaking on the same subject, a White House representative issued another phrase which in this context, becomes somewhat problematic:

 

“The President is the father of two daughters.”

 

Though intended to be reassuring, this statement implies that a personal, vested interested is required in order to truly care about violence against women. For me, it was reminiscent of the phrase “someone’s daughter” as often used to discourage mistreatment of women.

 

“Someone’s daughter” belongs to a group of similar phrases, such as “Someone’s wife or girlfriend” or “What if that were your sister?” and so on. These phrases all attempt to re-humanise women to the hearer, by reminding them of a woman’s social connections and her significance to others. The worrying implication however, is that women are not fully fledged human beings in their own right. Their humanity is granted by association, often by association to male figures.

 

Women should not need to be contextualized. Humanity is not bestowed by virtue of belonging to a larger social or familial group. Equality is not deserved by association. The reason it is wrong to demean or assault a woman is not her association with some other human being, male or otherwise.

 

There is a similar statement in Ms. Watson’s speech,

“I want men to take up this mantle, so their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice…”

 

Whether intended to mean that men should strive for equality because of their “vested interests” or to mean that Ms. Watson’s wish that men to join the movement is caused by her own desire for women to be free from prejudice, this statement defines women by their roles in relation to men. It prompts empathy, but in a diluted form, encouraging men to think of women in relation to themselves.

 

 

“Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”

 

In connection with this statement, Ms. Watson makes the case for male participation in the movement based on the benefits that gender equality holds for them as men.

 

Certainly, the best advocates of equality are not those who seek personal gain but are instead driven by a sense of justice. That applies to all of us, not just men. We ought to strive for equality for those from whom we differ, as much as those with whom we share obvious commonalities. That sense of justice is the force behind truly inclusive, intersectional feminism.

 

In addition, this rhetoric places the emphasis on male-centred issues, when we know that the vast majority of gender inequality is to the detriment of women.That is not to say that there is no room within feminism to discuss areas of inequality that affect men, such as unmarried fathers’ rights, to give an example. Rather, it is to say that our conversations should reflect the work that has to be done, most of which involves primarily female-centred issues.

 

However, there is a common misconception that feminism is a synonym for misandry. Perhaps this is the reason that Ms. Watson refers to many men feeling unwelcome in the movement. This misconception is the product of misogynistic detractors, poor research and the sad but undeniable fact, that some people with misandric views do identify themselves as feminists. Given all of this, it doesn’t hurt to assure people that feminism is fundamentally about equality.

 

Some criticise Ms. Watson for extending an “invitation”, citing the thousands of years that the majority of men have been indifferent to or in favour of inequality and accordingly ignored the open invitation.

 

While this is very true, it has very little meaning to a seventeen year old boy from Lancashire, England, for instance. Surely he can only be held responsible for his own choices and certainly, for events within his own lifetime. However, upon seeing one such critic regard all men as an apparently immortal, collective consciousness, he may very well feel unwelcome. Such statements only perpetuate the misconception that feminism is rooted in reactionary misandry.

 

Many feminists are apprehensive to discuss any male perspective or experience. It’s an understandable fear too, since the main narrative within this community should generally be centred on the issues of those who have the least voice in wider society.

 

That being said, keeping the main narrative focused, does not require that we employ prejudice, deny the existence of other forms of inequality or display a lack of compassion and respect in our treatment of them. We can learn about those inequalities, we can even discuss those inequalities without losing all perspective or allowing them to eclipse other issues.

 

We shouldn’t allow fear to decide our discourse. We shouldn’t allow a fear that looks all too like anger, to become the public spokesperson of our community.

 

 

Considering the Speech in Context

 

Emma Watson is a highly influential figure, particularly to younger people. And while her UN speech uses the familiar phrases of patriarchy, it is an introduction. For the most part, it uses language and terms appropriate for an introduction, appropriate for its audience.

 

People engage with feminism on different levels. We rarely approach any new or unfamiliar ideology at the highest level. Introductory level conversations of feminism will make use of the familiar language and concepts of patriarchy because we must begin somewhere. We must begin with a common language and tangible, graspable concepts.

 

Ms. Watson’s speech speaks not to established feminists, but to the next generation of feminists and those not yet versed in feminism. Her speech encourages people to engage with this movement. From there, they can investigate, explore (find out that not everybody falls into one of the “HeForShe” titular categories) and learn that there is so much to feminism that we have yet to discover a “highest level”.

 

Not only does it take time to integrate feminism into our worldview, but even then, it is an unending education. Perhaps Emma Watson has more “to learn” as critics around the web have stated, but so too have all of us.

 

And perhaps, when viewed in context, her speech, which has moved its intended audience and started them on what we can only hope will be a lifelong endeavour to learn and engage, is not quite so naive as some have suggested.

 

Higher-level or in-group rhetoric on any ideology only appeals to those who are already familiar with its concepts, its terminology and so on. This speech, appeals to those who possess its sentiment, its sense of justice.

 

Furthermore, it brings a more positive representation of feminism into the public awareness, counteracting those misconceptions and lazily trotted-out stereotypes.

 

Yes, we should discuss the issue of patriarchal solutions to a patriarchal problem. But it’s not necessary to personally attack Ms. Watson, as some have done. The same is true of any high-profile figure who attempts to challenge stereotypes, spark interest in feminism or represent this multi-faceted movement in one neat bundle to an uninitiated audience. There will be errors, their feminism will differ from our own and so on. We ought to take a balanced view of these contributions, consider them in context, assess the positive and negative effects, not just the aspects we consider to be in error. In this case, one positive effect may have been to engage a previously disengaged audience, many of them younger people and men of all ages.

 

Personally, I welcome the next generation of feminists. I do so knowing they will hold different opinions, accepting that they will have different perspectives and personal experiences. But knowing too, that the learning process is ongoing for all of us – yes, their views will evolve as they engage more with feminism, but feminism will evolve too, in part because of their input. I welcome the next generation of feminists, knowing that we all share a common starting point, our sense of justice.

Postscript & Update

Some readers have heard of Iceland’s announcement regarding a UN-supported male-only gender equality conference on women’s rights and violence against women. While this Jackson Katz style approach can be beneficial in educational settings, excluding women from important dialogues between empowered leaders regarding gender equality and discussing women’s rights without women, strikes me as counter-productive, as I’m sure it does many others. Some newspapers have represented Ms. Watson’s speech and this announcement almost as cause and effect. While they share a use of patriarchal models of male protection and one has certainly popularised the notion of male-involvement in this issue, I feel quite strongly that it’s only appropriate to hold the conference organisers responsible for their own choices, their interpretation and over-stepping of that involvement and from the information currently available, what appears to be their major oversight of an inherent flaw.

Update: Following criticism, the conference organisers have decided to include women, full story here.

New Research: Only 30.9% of all speaking characters on-screen are female

For films made cooperatively between the US and the UK, that number falls to 23.6%.  These are the findings of the latest research from The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which compared visibility and representations of women in mainstream films globally.

“Research reveals that the percentage of female speaking characters in top-grossing movies has not
meaningfully changed in roughly a half of a century.”

-Smith, Choueiti, & Pieper (2014) Executive summary: Gender Bias Without Borders

The research examined G, PG and PG-13 movies from the United States and equivalent movies from the 10 most profitable countries internationally as reported by the Movie Picture Association of America, all with a theatrical release date between January 1st 2010 and May 1st 2013. Taking into account the success of US and UK film collaboration, an additional sample of these US/UK hybrid films was created.

120 global films were examined. Every named or speaking character (one or more words, discernibly uttered on-screen) was evaluated for “demographics, sexualization, occupation and STEM careers”. Read the report and considering sharing the following infographic from the Institute’s website and following @GDIGM on Twitter and Facebook.

Readers with an interest in the representation of women in mainstream media may also be interested in the documentary film, Miss Representation.

Better interactions with transgender family members, friends and acquaintances

This piece discusses some Trans* issues, it deals predominantly with transgender people who identify as male or female and choose to undergo medical intervention to various degrees (for example hormone therapy and surgery). However many aspects will apply to people who are not opting for medical treatment of any kind.

For those who aren’t completely familiar with the topic, please read this rough guide to the terminology.

Whether it’s from a cisgender family member, a friend, colleague or new acquaintance, transgender people often hear uncomfortable remarks and questions. Much of this is well-meant curiosity or advice. However, it can overstep the boundaries of person’s privacy and it quickly stacks up as each friend and relative has a harmless question they want to ask or another piece of advice they want to give.

These are some of the things transgender people regularly hear and often find uncomfortable or offensive. Some of them may seem obvious intrusions but others are less obvious. Please do read all of them.

What Not to Say to a Transgender Person and Why

If you’re completely new to this then please note that it’s considered disrespectful and often hurtful to refer to somebody using the wrong pronouns (eg. he, she, him, her) or their former name. It may take time to feel natural but please do try and if you slip up, correct yourself and then move on without drawing any attention to it. They will appreciate it.

“You should [blank] to look/sound more male/female” or “If you want to “pass” you should [insert gender stereotype here].”

Your friend, etc. already has a wealth of internet resources to help them in this area if they wish. Any behaviours or choices you notice that are not traditionally male/female are probably intentional choices for which they have their own reasons. Just as many cisgender people do not conform to traditional gender roles for their own reasons.

  

“You look like a real man/woman” or “You look just like a man/woman”

This makes it seem as though you believe your friend etc. is impersonating a man/woman rather than simply being themselves and living according to their gender identity. If you want to go one step further than simply omitting this statement, consider instead broadening your own concept of what a man or woman is, ie. She is a woman. Specifically, she is transgender woman, though you needn’t add that modifier any more than you need to specify when someone is a cisgender woman.

  

Similarly, “I think of you as a [gender identity].”

This isn’t something that cisgender people are told, singling out your transgender friend, etc. to tell them as much suggests that you think of them as anything but their genuine gender identity.

 

“What do you have down there?”

I’m sure it’s obvious to most people that this is an inappropriate question to ask anybody, transgender, cisgender or otherwise. Unfortunately, transgender people are often asked variations of this question. And because some people will go on asking questions like this, it’s even more important for friends and family of transgender people not to add to these invasions of privacy with less obvious but similarly uncomfortable remarks. So please, read on!

  

SURGERY

  

“Have you had the surgery?” or “When are you having the surgery” or “Are you having the surgery?”

Firstly, not everyone opts for surgery. There is also no set number of surgeries. Some people opt only to have one surgery but they could go further along the medical route if they chose. There may be as many as five or six surgeries required in addition to surgical revisions to improve results.  Secondly, let it be a person’s choice whether or not they share this information with you, as well as how and when they do so.

  

“Are you going all the way?”

See above.

“What size are you going for?” or “Here’s how I think you should get your [body part] done” or “Take it from someone who’s had [body part] all their lives.”

This is pointless because all surgical decisions must be made in conjunction with a medical consultant. And unless you are that medical consultant, this really isn’t your business. Transgender people frequently deal with their genitalia being discussed as though it were public property or a matter of public interest – please don’t add to this for them by being one more person who does so.

  

“What’s it like now that you’ve had [blank] surgery?”

Surgeries and their outcomes are private, a person may or may not be pleased with the outcome. If someone wishes to share that information with you, they will. But allow it to be their choice. Consider instead asking them how they’re feeling and recovering after their surgery. This shows genuine concern without appearing voyeuristic and overly curious.

  

“What will you do when you have [body part]?” or “How will you feel when you have [body part]?”

Just how uncomfortable this is will depend on the body part. If it relates to having sex, the question may come off as voyeuristic and feel like an invasion of privacy.

In addition, your friend is unlikely to feel any more “like a man/woman” than they already do. They will most likely feel relieved, it may make their life easier and so on. But when you ask this question, they may believe that you think of them as being other than a man/woman until they’ve had this surgery.

  

“I bet you/your partner are really looking forward to that!”

This may be a joke to the speaker but again, transgender people frequently hear others discuss their genitals and their sex lives as though they’re public property. In addition to this, the statement implies that a couples’ sex life cannot be satisfactory or complete until a certain surgery or without a particular body part. Commentary on other people’s sex lives, even as a well-humoured joke, is generally inappropriate. Negative commentary usually causes offence.

 

“A sex change”

Avoid the phrase “sex change” surgery or “a sex change”. Firstly, because what is meant by this term actually takes more than one surgery and extensive hormone therapy. But more significantly because this term is outdated and harkens back to a time when Trans* people were considered “freaks shows” and later as fodder for poorly made talk shows. An attitude which unfortunately still partially informs how society regards transgender people today.

  

Comparing surgical procedures to “superficial” cosmetic procedures

Surgeries that do not directly affect a person’s physical health but rather alter their appearance in some way are deemed to be cosmetic surgeries. To deem all of these surgeries “superficial” however would be to drastically understate the effect that they may have on a person’s mental health. This is not limited to surgeries that a transgender person has as part of transitioning. However, those surgeries are of the utmost importance to their mental health. As such, they should be regarded as health care and not as luxuries as these comparisons are often intended to suggest, nor should their importance be trivialised.

  

Asking transgender people these types of questions is just as inappropriate as it would be to ask a cisgender person about their genitals or sex life.

QUESTIONS/REMARKS ABOUT “COMING OUT” AS TRANSGENDER

  

“I know someone who cross-dresses.”

These are different two situations and different experiences. Crossdressers don’t necessarily have any conflict between biological sex and gender identity. Referencing cross-dressing is likely to make the other person feel as though you think of them as merely adopting the guise of a particular gender when in fact they identify as that gender.

  

“I know someone who performs drag.”

Referencing drag performance is likely to make your friend, etc. feel that you think of them as a male/female impersonator who needs to “act” as something other than they are. Whereas in fact, by living according to their gender identity, they may feel that for first time in their life, they no longer have to act.

  

“Is that like a transvestite?”

No, it’s not. The term transvestite, while still used by some, has largely been abandoned due to negative connotations. It also refers to an entirely different experience, see the two paragraphs above.

  

“I know how you feel, I cross-dress or am a transvestite.”

If you are versed in terminology and involved in the wider Trans* community or consume Trans* media or content, it’s possible that you will have some areas of common interest. But the experiences and feelings are different. It’s important to remember that the other person permanently feels like, and identifies as, their particular gender.

  

“I know someone who’s gay..”

This a very different thing. Gender identity and sexual orientation are completely unrelated. While both groups are minorities and are marginalised in society, their experiences will be different (though for some people, there will be an overlap – there is some information about sexual orientation and transgender people below). To an extent, the two groups share a community, but not every gay or transgender person chooses to participate in that community. This applies to all gender, romantic and sexual minorities – while there can be overlap, as there is among cisgender people and there is a common community, try not to lump these minorities together as though they’re one.

  

How does your partner feel about that?

Firstly, this implies that you assume their being transgender would be problem for any partner or potential partner. Needless to say, this may make your friend etc. feel that you are suggesting they are less attractive or loveable. Secondly, while many transgender people do experience relationship problems or divorce upon coming out, many others are able to transition with the support of a loving partner (if you are dating a transgender person, there are links related to that further on). It is considerate to let someone know that you’re there for them if they do experience difficulties of any nature, but zoning in on or prying into somebody else’s relationship is always inadvisable. This also relates to the next question.

  

“How did your family take it?”

Realistically, there is a chance that the person’s family (or social group, colleagues etc.) reacted negatively to their decision to transition. If so, is that really anybody else’s business and is it likely that they would want to discuss something which may be quite hurtful? As with so many other things, let it be their choice if, when and how they discuss it with you.

“We’re not your soap opera,” quips one Youtuber in discussing this question.

Also be aware that in some circumstance, this question can suggest that you prioritise the impact it has had on their family, over the significance that coming out and transitioning holds for your friend, etc. It make it seem as though you believe your friend, etc. has done something negative or inflicted something awful on their family. When in fact, their alternative to transitioning may be a life of unhappiness and possibly even one they find unbearable.

  

“This is very difficult for me.”

It can be very difficult for family members to come to terms with what appears to be a new identity. But know that your relative is exactly the same person they always were, you’ve just learned something new about them, that’s all. Their name and pronouns may change, but your relationship won’t and what is more, you have the chance to strengthen it by being supportive at a time when they probably need it and the chance to get to know even more about them as they get to be entirely themselves without reservation or apology, for the first time.

I would suggest that you seek resources to help you manage any difficulty you’re having in coming to terms with it. But avoid language that may make them feel guilty or ashamed or may give the impression that you prioritise the feelings you’re experiencing now over those they may have secretly and silently endured for their lifetime. Not to mention the feelings of apprehension they will be experiencing as they prepare to tell others and perhaps also tackle what can at first seem a daunting medical bureaucracy and intervention.

  

“Why did you choose your name?”

This may be fine for some people, but it’s best to let them tell you if they want to rather than asking them. If you don’t like the name somebody has chosen, it’s as well to keep that to yourself as it would be if you didn’t like a cisgender person’s name. Your friend, etc. is the one who has to live with the name, so all that matters is that they like it.

  

“You haven’t made it easy for yourself.”

This statement is based on the false premise that it is a person’s choice to be transgender. It is a choice to “come out” as transgender, it is a choice to transition (although the alternative may feel impossible and in-viable) but being transgender itself is not a choice. A cisgender man doesn’t choose to “feel” male, yet he does and he would continue to feel that way even if his body were surgically and hormonally altered. That’s his gender identity and he didn’t choose it. The same applies to transgender people.  Steer clear of this statement as it makes the transgender person responsible for something that is entirely beyond their control. And if they could feel comfortable and happy without going through the difficulties associated with being transgender, they most certainly would.

  

OTHER BODY PART QUERIES

  

“How do you go to the bathroom?” or “Do you still stand/sit?” or “It’s okay, I sometimes sit.”

This just isn’t anybody else business. That’s it.

  

“Which bathroom do you use?”

If you want to reassure a newly transitioning or even a newly-hired transgender employee that they can use whichever bathroom they prefer, that can be a good idea. Do it discretely and leave it at that. Asking the question however, is different. It’s probably going to be considered an invasion of privacy. It’s also a surprisingly sensitive issue. Navigating public bathrooms can be a major anxiety for transgender people, particularly those who are transitioning.

We think of bathrooms as being sex-segregated but the truth is that judgements are made not based on anatomy, but on general appearance and presentation. Transgender people may face disapproving looks, comments, harassment and even violence if they are judged by others to be in the “wrong” bathroom. This can happen in either or even both bathrooms depending on how their appearance is perceived by others. This also happens to other non-traditionally presenting people, who are judged to be in the “wrong” bathroom.

If you see someone who you perceive as being in the “wrong” bathroom, leave them to it. As long as they’re in there for the same basic functions as everyone else and are doing no harm, it really has no impact on anybody else. They have probably made that decision to avoid endangering their safety and/or privacy, as well as their own personal comfort.

  

“How do you have sex?”

This is an inappropriate question to ask anyone and frankly, there is a huge amount of variation in how couples of all types have sex, whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex couples, whether they are cisgender, transgender or any combination or variation. Also, transgender people are no more or less sexually experimental than cisgender people. Once again, the fact that transgender people are asked questions like this provides more reason for those who care about a transgender person not to add to their sense of invaded privacy in other ways.

  

“Is that a wig?” or “Is that your real hair?”

Compliments can be nice. But comments of this nature about a person’s hair can make them feel self-conscious.

  

“What size are your feet?” “It’s a shame your hands are so small/big.” “Will your hands/feet/height change?”

Once again, comments like this may make your friend, etc. feel self-conscious.

  

“What do you do with your [body part]?” or “Do you bind your chest?”

Referring to body parts that a person may be uncomfortable with is generally a bad idea. People will sometimes have questions about various body parts, but this again belongs in the category of being nobody else’s business. If you absolutely have to refer to body parts, which is unlikely outside of medical scenarios, it may be better to use neutral terms such as “chest” and “genitals” rather than referring to body parts your friend etc. is uncomfortable with in terms that will increase that discomfort.

  

Requests to see or touch surgical sites, scarring or body parts are entirely inappropriate. Unless of course you’re a doctor and you have a good medical reason for needing to see or touch the site!

Asking people these types of questions is as inappropriate as it would be to ask a cisgender person about their sex lives, bathroom usage or body parts.

 

SEEKING UNDERSTANDING

These are questions often asked or statements frequently made by cisgender people as they try to gain insight into or express an interest in the experience of a transgender person. This can happen both when a person is “coming out” and afterwards as someone learns that the person is transgender.

  

“When did you decide to become a man/woman?” or “How is it now that you’re changing into a man/woman?”

Transgender people identify as their preferred gender. Their body may be changing and the pronouns used to refer to them may change. Their name may change. But the one thing that isn’t changing is their personal identification as a man/woman. That is the thing that remains certain, while other aspects are brought into alignment with it. As such, words and phrases like “become” or “change into” or “used to be” a man/woman, are inaccurate and most likely hurtful.  As for the word “decide”, see “You haven’t made it easy for yourself” above.

  

“What’s it like to be transgender?”

When you frame this question so casually, it can suggest that you expect an equally straight-forward and easy answer. Being transgender is a part of how your friend, etc. experiences the world and everything in it. They have been transgender every moment of their lives. There is no way to sum up that entire experience and dispense it in one or two convenient sentences.

“There’s a person at my supermarket who is transgender” and similar statements.

Firstly this assumes that all transgender people are somehow automatically interested in the existence of other transgender persons and particularly those in the vicinity. If they are interested, there are online communities and meet-ups they can join and attend. However, the other alarming factor here is that the speaker has taken it upon themselves to mention someone else’s transgender status (with or without including their whereabouts), seeing that person as a topic for discussion. Your transgender friend, etc. may worry that you will use them in conversation or discuss their transgender status as a form of gossip.

  

“I saw Chaz Bono on TV” or “Conchita Wurst in the Eurovision” etc.

The latter is not transgender but rather a drag queen who like many drag queens, uses female pronouns to describe his female on-stage persona. That matter aside, transgender people are individuals just as cisgender people are. And while they may have this one particular thing in common with the celebrity figure of your choice, they may not like the idea of being lumped in with every other transgender person in existence. In addition, your friend, etc. may hear about it endlessly every time a transgender celebrity appears on television or a new reality show featuring a transgender person is aired. If so, they’ll likely be quite tired of hearing it. Likewise…

  

“I saw a TV show about a person who was transgender.”

While it might be valuable to watch a well made documentary, do bear in mind that the experiences of transgender people vary, as do their preferred terms and descriptions of their experiences. Those you see on television are not representative of the entire transgender population. Hence…

  

Anything at all about being “trapped the wrong body”.

While some people do describe their experience as one of being trapped in the wrong body, many people feel that while they may opt to alter some parts of their body, it is very much theirs. For these people, they are more likely to feel trapped by a multi-headed hydra of bureaucracy, a healthcare system, a society that awards them less respect and privacy than it does to others or in some cases a financially constrained situation that prevents them from getting the treatment they need.

 

On Preferred Language…

I have used the word “transitioning” throughout this piece. The word is frequently used by many people to describe the process of permanently altering their gender presentation to agree with their gender identity. However, not everyone will be comfortable with this word as it may be reminiscent of such terms as “becoming” or “changing”. As with all of this, take your lead from how the individual talks about themselves and what language they employ.

On related note, I have used the term “preferred gender” purely for explanatory purposes. Although it’s a common term, I would advise the term “gender identity” instead wherever possible.

  

“What was your name?” or “What is your real name?”

A person’s birth name is probably associated in their own mind with years of privately-held unhappiness and perhaps depression, as well as experiences that they may have found uncomfortable and even degrading, with or without being consciously aware of the reason, such as having to wear traditionally gender-specific clothing or attend single-sex schooling etc.

For some, that experience with all its degradation, discomfort, confusion, repression and fear can be encompassed by a single word, their birth name. Some people may tell your their former name, but never ask it. And incidentally, the name a person was assigned at birth is no more “real” than the name they have chosen. There is also a reasonable chance that their chosen name is now their legal name, but in the vast majority of interactions, that distinction won’t be relevant.

  

“Can I see a picture of you before?” or “What did you sound like before?”

These questions remind people of a time they may not have been particularly happy and does so by referring to areas that directly contributed to their unhappiness, that is, their appearance and presentation. As questions, these serve no function but to indulge idle curiosity. Equally, showing your friend etc. photographs or recordings of themselves in the past may make them intensely uncomfortable.

  

“Did you always know?” or “When did you know?”

Like a person’s birth name, the time referenced may be a very uncomfortable one for the person to discuss. They may choose to discuss it with you, but let it be their choice.

 

MISCELLANEOUS

  

References to “when you were a man/woman” or “when you were [birth name]”.

This person has likely never felt they were anything other than their preferred gender. It may cause feelings of discomfort or humiliation to hear you refer to them this way. Thankfully, you can easily alter this statement to “before you transitioned” or “before you went for treatment/hormone therapy” depending on their own choice of terminology. However, is it really necessary to use their transition as the time reference?

And is the question or statement so important that it requires you to mention what was most likely an extremely uncomfortable and unhappy time in that person’s life, for that very reason? Some people may be fine with direct references to their history, but know that others will not, though they may not show it. As mentioned before, take your lead from how they talk about themselves and what language they employ.

  

“This is my transgender friend.”

Never introduce somebody as being transgender and never disclose or discuss their transgender status to others. Some people are very open about being transgender, but that is their choice and not everybody will feel the same way for a variety of reasons.

  

On using the right pronouns in professional writing..

While the entire body of terminology may be quite daunting, pronouns are pretty easy. Pronouns should always match the person’s gender identity and not the sex assigned at birth, even when you’re referring to the person pre-transition. This error is quite common in news articles where the subject is described as, for instance, a transgender woman and then referred to by her former name (which there is no need to mention at all) and using male pronouns. As mentioned previously, apart from being quite hurtful to many transgender people, it is also disrespectful. Furthermore, in this context, it misleads and miseducates the public, poorly equipping them for interactions with transgender people in their own lives.

  

Any use whatsoever of the words “tranny” or “shemale” or “he-she”.

Some people will use the word “tranny” to describe themselves, but the vast majority will consider it extremely offensive. Similarly, while the term “hermaphrodite” has been used by the medical profession in the past to describe people with intersex conditions, it is now largely considered a derogatory term. When you consider the material on this list and the length of the list itself, even a joke of this nature is just another unnecessary addition to the ongoing commentary, jibes, etc. that your transgender friend, etc. has to endure.

  

“Are you a man or a woman?”

Never ask this question, of anyone. It’s horrendously rude. If you know someone falls into the Trans* category and you’re unsure how to refer to them, you can ask what their preferred pronouns are.

 

“Wait, you’re transgender and gay?”

Finally, gender and sexual orientation are unrelated and same general rules of categorisation apply to both cisgender and transgender people. For instance, a transgender man (transman) who is attracted only to men is gay. A transgender woman (transwoman) who is attracted only men is straight.

Incidentally, the same categories apply in reverse; a cisgender woman attracted to a transgender woman is gay or bisexual etc. I could provide a vast range of examples by utilising different combinations of gender identity and sexual orientation, but these examples will suffice for now.

If you are dating a transperson and want to learn more from that perspective, here is a link to one of many relevant videos. This is one of several videos by the same Youtuber on that topic.

So the last item on the list is this: Don’t question whether or not there was any point in a gay transgender person transitioning, of course there was. They want to be happy, comfortable, healthy etc. and that’s independent of the sex of any person they’re attracted to or with whom they are in a relationship.

If you’re still confused by this, here is a NSFW Youtube video of a bisexual transgender man and a gay woman discussing the topic in a very light, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, fashion. It’s quite tame but I’ve marked it NSFW (not safe for work) because it briefly features two men in their underwear.

 

Remind me, why this is important?

I will also leave you with a video entitled “Cis Curiosity” by one Youtuber who talks about what it is like to be asked these questions. There are no shortage of these videos on Youtube. This particular video addresses the feeling of dehumanization that some transgender people experience having been asked these questions repeatedly and had their privacy completely disregarded on a regular basis.

“Bottom surgery” in this video refers to genital surgeries, as opposed to “top surgery” which refers to the chest. There is also a sterilization surgery required in many countries and optional in others.

If you made it here, I thank and applaud you. Now you’ve read it, please go ahead and share it.

 

 

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Better Interactions with Transgender Family Members, Friends and Acquaintances by EqualitySpectrum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. This means that for non-commercial use you can easily share, copy or adapt it in any format or medium as long as you follow the few simple rules explained here.

A rough guide to some Trans* terminology

This is not intended as a stand-alone post but rather to work as a reference guide to supplement the post “Guide to better interactions with transgender family members, friends or acquaintances“.

The term “sex” here refers to a person’s biological status. Contrary to popular belief, in humans, sex is not determined by any one trait or feature. Determination relies instead on internal as well as external organs, the presence or absence of a Y-chromosome, hormones and the presence or absence of testes or ovaries. If these five factors agree in a typical fashion, a person is classified as either biologically male or female accordingly.

The term “gender identity” refers to a person’s own sense and subjective experience of their gender. This is what the American Psychological Association’s Definition of Terms calls “one’s sense of oneself as male, female..” etc. Though simplified, those are the standard definitions for these two terms and they are recognised as being distinct from one another, though not everyone is aware of the fact.

Transgender people are those whose gender identity does not unambiguously align in the typical manner with their biological sex (that is, the sex assigned to them at birth). Some of these people choose to undergo medical treatment to alter their bodies, others do not, according to what is right for them and their own needs.

 

Cisgender is the medical term for people who are not Transgender, people whose biological sex and gender identity conform with each other. The majority of people are therefore cisgender.

 

Transgender is actually an umbrella term because it encompasses a vast array of non-traditional possibilities, though the two most common are MTFs (male-to-female) and FTMs (female-to-male). These initialisms refer first to the assigned sex and then to the person’s gender identity.

Under this umbrella is the word transsexual. This is a very specific term used to describe people who opt for some degree of medical treatment. Some people reject the term transsexual, feeling that it is too often and too easily shortened to the derogatory word “tranny” or because they feel it may lead to others placing a greater emphasis on sex and sexuality when discussing their transgender status.

 

Transgender is often shortened to “trans” and it is sometimes used in this way to describe people who choose not to take medical action and by those who do opt for medical intervention but reject the term transsexual. To differentiate between the descriptive term for MTFs and FTMs who do or do not opt for medical treatment and the term as an umbrella which includes people of non-binary gender identity (people who don’t identify unambiguously as men or women), the categorical, umbrella term is increasingly written as Trans* with an asterisks.

 

In short, trans/transgender may mean a male or female identifying person whose biological sex is female or male respectively. Meanwhile Trans* with an asterisk refers to a broad variety of non-typical gender identities, including MTFs and FTMs, among many others.

 

The broad category Trans* also includes people who are born with interex conditions. This is a range of conditions in which a person is born with a sexual or reproductive anatomy that cannot be defined as typically male or typically female. Although these conditions are present from birth, they may not always be apparent. Exterior genitalia may appear to be one sex, while internal organs conform to another etc. Many people do not discover they are intersex until later in life or not at all.

This is not a complete explanation of terminology but hopefully it will be helpful to those who are unfamiliar with the language surrounding this topic.

If still you’re finding it at all difficult to understand, I suggest you have a look at The Genderbread Person 2.0 which explains some complex issues with clear language and a nice visual representation too.

This might be what a feminist looks like

Last month Everyday Feminism published an article by Jack Qu’emi, entitled “4 Ways to Be Gender Inclusive When Discussing Abortion“. The article addressed the issue of trans- and non-binary exclusion in pro-choice rhetoric.

Transgender men, women and non-binary people are overlooked in so many areas. The comments on that article alone are enough to confirm the fact that even in the feminist community, this section of society is sometimes overlooked and wilfully misunderstood for the convenience of others.

The article examined more than just online feminist circles, but it struck me because of something I’ve been noticing in our online communities:

A comment on an article or a social media link, bearing a traditionally masculine name being dismissed as insignificant, irrelevant or simply not welcome, not because of its content, but based on the assumption that it comes from a cisgender male.  If the avatar displays a person of traditionally masculine appearance, the same response can occur.

This is not my feminism. This is not reality.

The reality is that a name and even a photograph tell you nothing of a person’s involvement with issues such as abortion. A name doesn’t tell you what reproductive organs someone possesses or once possessed. No more than a traditionally feminine appearance ensures the desire or ability to carry biological children.

 

My feminism looks like this:

 

A comment is left on an article, a forum, a social media link or spoken at a rally, an event or a meet-up. The name, vocal or physical characteristics of the speaker do not imbue their comment with any additional validation, nor does it discredit or detract from it.

The comment is judged on its own merits, on the worth of the idea itself. From this we get the best of ideas, we improve ideas and with any luck, we might improve our own understanding of the topic(s) discussed.

If the world can be improved by removing the obstacles that stand in the way of more than 50% of its population, making their world better, allowing them to reach their full potential and by extension giving the entire human species the benefit of their ideas, their knowledge and ingenuity – then it must be equally true that feminism, the very fight which hopes to achieve that breaking of barriers and removal of obstacles, can itself be improved by means of removing any roadblocks to knowledge, ingenuity and good ideas.

By allowing people, all people, who meet the definition of a “feminist” to contribute, how much faster can we reach our goals and achieve our milestones? And let us not forget that the standard definition of a feminist is “a person” who advocates for feminism. It is not a man, a woman, nor any other, but a person who advocates for equality between the sexes on social, political and economic grounds. A person who stands against inequality and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and so on.

It has been said that women in the workplace often have to be twice as good at the job in question as their male counterparts in order to receive half the recognition. It has been said with good reason that this is so. This is the discrimination and inequality, conscious and unconscious that we fight. And yet, do we as a entire community live up to our own standards? Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

If a man, a cisgender straight male, with scholarly honours in gender studies and feminist theory has a suggestion – we hear it, we judge it on its own merits and we either embrace or reject it in whole or in part on that impartial criteria. But does a person have to introduce themselves with their qualifications in order to be heard? And why is it only this kind of knowledge, the kind so many people can’t afford to have verified through education institutions, that we respect?

It’s true that cisgender straight men cannot experience the world as women do. It is equally true however, that no two women can experience the world alike. No one woman can experience the full breadth of the issues examined in feminism and yet feminism is a place where all of these women have a voice.

In many parts of the feminist community today, people are discouraged from becoming informed and engaged simply because they identify as male or are assumed to identify as male. And not only that, but we discourage them from contributing their ideas and thoughts. Ideas and thoughts, among which may be some insight into what needs to challenged, what misapprehensions needs to addressed and even ideas that are valid and worthwhile contributions to our movements.

Throughout history, every revolution and social movement has had among its proponents some who were not directly affected by the issues. And throughout history, their contributions have been just that, contributions. They are not the shining light of saviour, no one person or idea usually is, but they can be helpful, valid, worthwhile contributions. By becoming informed and engaged, people can be effective in their own ways, ranging from bridges of communication between those who are and are not personally affected, to legal and political strategies or visibility initiatives.

I can’t go further without explicitly acknowledging that the prejudice against ideas and suggestions offered into our community by persons who are either male, whether cis or trans, or assumed to be male, are but a drop in the ocean when compared the discrimination, harassment and violence suffered by women throughout all of human history. It does not begin to compare to the discrimination endured over the course of even one woman’s lifetime. And it amounts to little when considered alongside the ongoing trials suffered by women throughout the world.  However, I am also compelled to add this:

Equality is not a finite resource.

There is no need to limit the equality we grant to others.  We do not begin each day with a finite number of “equality tokens” requiring us to limit and to prioritise their distribution. We can take ideas and thoughts on their own merit. In doing so we uphold the standards we hope to see upheld in the wider world. We accelerate the pace at which we can enact those standards of fairness and equality for  this and future generations, throughout the world.

We do so by engaging the entire voting public, by enriching our community and our efforts with the full potential and intellect of humanity and by informing and engaging those we hope will share their information with others.

In my own feminism, ideas are taken on their own merits and are not diluted with hasty judgements. The speaker or author of a comment does not have to have their privacy wrenched from unwilling hands in order to avoid an angry mobbing. They need make no disclaimers as to their own disenfranchisements or areas of disadvantage. Nor must they choose between their privacy or the basic respect of being heard fairly – If a person’s right to be heard hinges on what organs they possess, have ever possessed and/or whether those organs function, they will have to choose between that right and the right to privacy regarding their gender identity, assigned sex, pre- or post-op status, fertility etc.

Conclusion

I live in a country that has denied abortions to those who need them, that has passively exported those people to foreign shores for treatment in the hopes of exporting “the problem”. Finally, after tragedies that caused media-storms and tragedies never even spoken aloud, after marches in the streets comprising men, women neither and both, we may have the much demanded opportunity to vote on this issue (relatively) soon.

When I go to vote in favour of choice, I will not be asked about my sex, nor my gender identity. I will not be asked about my reproductive organs or my history. Nobody will be asked those questions. Nobody will be stopped and asked about their fertility before they can vote. Nobody, in short, will need to prove their personal involvement with this issue to be granted a vote. So why must a person prove their involvement in order to respectfully discuss it? Why can we not engage as equals, mutually seeking to establish equality?

For those who cannot be directly affected by abortion, we want them in the debate because we want them to be informed, we want them to be engaged and most of all, we want them to vote.

Yet the fact remains, we cannot determine who those people are from a name or a photograph. And we cannot with any integrity, dismiss the respectful contributions of others, on grounds that violate our own doctrine of equality.