Smarten Up & Stand Up: Gender Identity

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The first time I (knowingly) met a person who is transgender was in 2004.  I had come out as a gay man six years prior and had just begun working at UCLA’s LGBT Center…yet the “T” in the acronym was still completely foreign to me.  My boss at the time had informed me that one of the Center’s interns recently began to socially transition from female-to-male, and was to be referred to by a different (preferred) name and with male pronouns.  I was secretly excited to meet a trans person for the first time…and also nervous, considering how little I knew about trans people and my fear that I would somehow end up putting my foot in my mouth.

I spent the next few months, and over a dozen years since, learning about gender identity and the experiences of people who are transgender and/or gender non-conforming (GNC).  Through this journey, I have gotten to know some of the absolute nicest and bravest people imaginable.  Many are trans/GNC, and others are parents, loved ones, and allies of trans/GNC people who are helping fight the good fight.  This community of amazing people has been kind enough to help me learn, patient with me when I have flubbed up, and appreciative of my actions when I have stood up.

As a cisgender person (meaning my gender identity matches my biological sex), I have come to learn that I have immense privilege when it comes to gender identity. Based on this, I feel it is my obligation to advocate for those who are less privileged and face oppression.  In fact, I believe that all cisgender people should advocate for the equity of people who are trans/GNC.  Considering statistics show that nearly 50% of trans people have tried to attempt suicide (so often due to lack of support), how could we not all feel obligated to educate ourselves and do all we can to improve such a horrifying reality?

Life could be a lot better for trans/GNC people if we all took the time to understand, support, and advocate.  Understanding the complexities of gender identity (and specifically the transgender experience) is a process.  Having trans/GNC people in your life and getting to know them is a blessing.  Being able to call yourself a trans ally is an honor.

As a proud trans ally, I authored an OpEd in the Boston Globe in 2015 titled “Transgender equality is still an issue in MA and the US.”  It focused on a “public accommodations bill” that many of us were trying to pass that would make it illegal to discriminate against trans/GNC people in places that are open to the public (restaurants, hospitals, public transportation, etc.).  After a long fought battle, the bill finally passed and just recently went into effect on 10/1/16, making MA the 18th state to grant such legal protections.

This was a huge win. However, two big problems remain: 1) opponent are now trying to repeal the bill through a ballot initiative; 2) there is still a tremendous amount of ignorance and bias that exists towards people who are trans/GNC.  The work is far from done when it comes to creating safe and inclusive spaces for trans/GNC people.  I hate to say it, but I’m not sure a law on its own will drastically improve statistics such as: ‘65% of trans/GNC people (in MA) have been discriminated against in places of public accommodation,’ or ‘82% of trans/GNC youth feel unsafe in school because of their gender identity.’  I believe there is another component that is just as critical when it comes to decreasing the discrimination, stigma, and hardship that trans/GNC people face: the education and enlightenment of society at large.

If you haven’t begun already, I highly encourage you to start the journey of educating yourself immediately.  Even if you haven’t yet been fortunate enough to know someone who is transgender or gender non-conforming, chances are good that you soon will.  By educating yourself, you will be better equipped to stand up and help make this world a better place for those who are transgender or gender non-conforming.  Do it for others, and do it for yourself.  Because ultimately, a world that is better for those who are marginalized is a better world that is better for all of us.


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