A deeper truth

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday October 5, 2011
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I was recently talking with an acquaintance of mine. She is a transwoman, and a writer. She is also a self-described political junkie. It was during one recent political discussion where someone who opposed her views – presumably out of valid talking points to counter her side of the debate – went after her, referring to her by her old name in some attempt to win the argument.

In talking to her after the fact, I counseled her to assume that the person attacking her is an idiot, and move on; that the person really wasn't worth her time. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the use of former names and former genders as a way to discredit anything we may happen to say.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the use of wrong names and pronouns is entirely meant to discredit transgender people, either by saying that we're deceptive and untrustworthy, or that we are not of sound mind to begin with. While my acquaintance's example was surely yet another Internet troll attempting to score points, this tactic has existed outside of the digital realm for many, many years.

Now, I've talked about the deception issue before. Simply put, it's the blanket assumption that the only reason someone would present in a gender opposite the one they were assigned at birth is because they're trying to hide something. This is at the heart of the so-called transgender panic defense, this notion that a murderer was "deceived" by a transgender person, panicked about it, and killed another human being. It's at the heart of countless comedies, from classics like Some Like It Hot to decidedly non-classics like Sorority Boys.

It's even part of the bathroom meme – the belief that giving a transgender person equal rights will somehow allow pedophiles and rapists to stalk people in women's restrooms – because, again, cross-gender appearance is about deceiving others for an illicit purpose.

It's a "gotcha" of sorts, an attempt to say, "Well, you've lied about your name and gender, so what else are you going to lie about?" I picture the person in the argument above like a bad detective novel protagonist, revealing that the butler is really a renowned jewel thief.

The thing is, it's not a gotcha. Yes, many transgender people choose not to reveal their past to everyone they meet – and really, why should they? Unless it is somehow of specific importance to the conversation at hand, such information is irrelevant.

Indeed, in the case of the argument that started this, it would be as relevant as her having not mentioned a maiden name, or an ex spouse, or even a college nickname. It didn't have bearing or relevance, and simply did not matter to the topic at hand.

For that matter, misgendering and misnaming is an error. It is not being deceptive not to bring up your past at every turn; because the real truth is what you are when you show your preferred gender to the world. To be deceptive is to continue to hide that away in the first place.

Of course, using it in some way to imply that a transgender person is not mentally stable is also in error, though some might consider this a bit tricky. For those who opt to aim for genital reassignment surgeries you actually have to be judged to have a mental disorder. Specifically section 302.85 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Gender identity disorder in adolescents or adults.

For that matter, it's likely not uncommon that many transgender people suffer from heightened instances of depression and other issues that are tangentially related to being transgender in a society that doesn't always exactly support gender difference.

So yes, in some cases you likely could make an argument that a transgender person is mentally ill. Much like the deception issue above, this is what lies at the heart of a movie villain like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. This is also the gateway into reparative therapies, which help transgender people as much as they've helped our gay, lesbian, and bisexual siblings, which is to say not at all.

Of course, none of these classifications should somehow discredit someone in the course of debate. Depression, let alone gender identity disorder, does not prevent one from having an opinion, nor does it invalidate it.

In the current standards of care from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the move is very much on to remove this assumption of transgender identity as a mental disorder, including recognition that gender nonconformity in and of itself is not a disorder, and focusing on gender transition as a medical issue. The European Parliament has also petitioned the World Health Organization, asking that it stop classifying transgender people as mentally ill. The fight is still on with the next edition of the DSM.

Presenting yourself as you prefer is not a sign of mental illness. This has been proven, time and again. Even with a mental classification attributed to it, it appears to be more a medical issue than a mental one – and the treatment of same is not to try and curb the identity with or expression of one's preferred gender, but to facilitate the expression of that identity.

Expressing a chosen gender identity of any sort is to be truthful about who you are, and reveal a truth deeper than what a doctor may have declared with a glance at one's genitals in the delivery room.

Indeed, gender identity and gender expression in and of itself is not a sign of insanity. Neither is it a sign of deception. It simply is, as inherently immutable as eye color or handedness.

Gwen Smith is a lousy deceiver, and not all that crazy. You can find her online at http://www.gwensmith.com.