How to Ensure Atheists Win at Transgender Acceptance
Greta Christina has said it, and I agree: atheists are very accepting of QUILTBAG peeps. When surrounded by secular supporters, I don’t have to worry about anti-transgender propaganda shit like this being flung in my face. Atheists seem to realize that other oppressed minorities aren’t the enemy, that we all need to stick up for each other. I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate all our cisgender allies do for us. This world is full of bigotry, and I’m glad to have so many fighting the good fight, even though it doesn’t benefit them directly. All for one and one for all!
Unfortunately, wanting to be a good trans ally and successfully engaging in gender-inclusive practices aren’t necessarily the same thing. We live in a society so saturated with media misrepresentation of basicgender identity concepts that we often lack the resources to determine what is and isn’t an accurate portrayal of gender minorities.
“I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” If I had a dollar for everyone who thinks that is the definition of being transgender, I could build my very own beer volcano. What’s wrong with that definition – aren’t there people who feel that way? Well, yes. And no. The problem lies in assuming that’s the beginning and end of the issue.
Take me for example: I was questioning my gender identity at age seven. I didn’t realize that’s not typical, that not every little child is questioning God why He made such a crucial mistake in the womb.** For almost 2 decades I was unable to connect my feelings with the concept of transgender itself because of that “X trapped in Y’s body” trope. I don’t feel particularly trapped by my body, but I’ve always felt trapped between the only two gender options offered by society. It wasn’t until I really started digging into gender identity concepts that I was finally able to understand that my gender is real and there’s nothing wrong with me after all.
Having said that, I have to ask: if it’s so difficult for even trans people to fully comprehend gender identity diversity, who do so many cisgender freethinkers act like they have it all figured out? The hardest part of my coming-out process wasn’t confronting my conservative Christian parents (since I was well aware of how bigoted their reactions would be, I was able to emotionally steel myself). The hardest part was surviving the onslaught of well-meaning but painfully ignorant questions from my secular friends, questions I still receive on a regular basis from other members of the community at large.
If I could pick one question I’d like never to hear again in my life, it’s “are you getting The Surgery?” Yes, I’m asked this surprisingly often. First of all, there is no The Surgery. There are several different sexual reassignment surgeries that a few transsexual people pursue, and they all serve different purposes with different results. Second, that’s just about as rude as asking if “the carpet matches the drapes”. You don’t need to know how long or brown or fat or crooked or whatever anyone’s bits are. End of story.
Past that, there are a few common tropes that come out in my conversations with cisgender people. This is where I introduce Richard, your stereotypical atheist: white, male, straight, politically progressive, etc. (Note: I changed his name, because the FSM said I’d get a larger beer volcano in the afterlife if I addressed this in a gracious manner.) The following stereotypical conversation actually took place on Facebook. Let’s use it as a case study for what not to do.
I came across Richard while participating in a feminist discussion. This comment of his was just begging for a response:
I regularly put such neanderthals in thier place by reminding them that it is woman who possesses the power to create and that the participation required of men in the process is as limited as, it would appear, is their intellect.
Like so many other atheists of his caliber, Richard has made the assumption that “woman” is defined as ”a human which is in possession of a reproductively-functioning womb”. He seems to think that placing women (as so defined) on a pedestal and denigrating the intelligence of men is the equivalent of supporting women’s rights, an act I can assure you is not required for the advancement of gender equality. Since people who don’t fit into his definition of “woman” don’t exactly go around wearing signs on our foreheads, we are often quite invisible to the Richards of the world. That does not, however, mean we don’t exist, permeating every corner of society. It was with that thought in mind that I replied:
Yeah, see, this is where you all lose me. I popped a kid out, and last I checked, I’m not a woman. Oh, ye of little transgender. :)
When faced with this situation, every atheist has an opportunity: to be the best at transgender acceptance; better than the fundamentalist bigots, better than even the liberal Christians who pass out hugs saying “we love you because Jesus loves you”. Atheists have the opportunity to be the group known for best accepting trans people as if we were the most normal people on the planet and as if being a gender minority is as mundane as having red hair. This means, whatever you do, do not respond to a transgender person by telling them how you think they ought to define themselves, as Richard did:
If you gave birth naturally, you did so as a physical woman, regardless of your mental perception of your gender identity. While you may perceive yourself as a male, your body remains female until after you have undergone GRS [editor note: gender reassignment surgery, by which he means sexual reassignment surgery, since gender is not defined by genital shape]. A uterus is NOT a male organ.
Perhaps my readership doesn’t know what is so offensive about this statement. Here is the atheist equivalent for comparison: “Any atheist who is an ex-Christian never really believed in God to begin with.” It’s insulting as hell (pun intended) when I’m telling the truth of who I really am, for the Richards of the world to replace my reality with their ignorant version thereof.
Who said I perceive myself as male? Again with the limited understanding of the diversity of human kind.
Some of you readers might be confused by now. Neither man nor woman? Correct: I’m genderqueer - my pronouns are ze/hir. I intentionally didn’t reveal my personal gender identity in this post before now, because I want to make a very important point: there are going to be times in your interactions with other atheists when you meet someone who has an identity you may never have heard of. The surprise (or possibly shock and confusion) of that is something you’re going to have to get used to dealing with gracefully if you want to create an exceptionally strong and cohesive atheist community. Richard responded in probably the worst way possible, short of telling me that my identity has earned my place in hell (a response I’ve actually not yet received since I try not to talk to Christians):
You cannot invent a third gender. The anomoly that has you caught at odds between your physical body and your mental and emotional identity does not constitute a third gender.
Here’s something anyone can do to be more accepting of transgender people: Don’t make claims about gender identity that can be shown to be verifiably false after a 5-second internet search. You just look stupid.
I didn’t. Research the history of other genders if you doubt how far back this very real concept goes.
Richard, having the extremely limited understanding of the topic that he does, can do little other than start repeating himself several times more, explaining how babies are made, telling me I’m confused, etc. The conversation became rather tedious (I’ve spared you most of it), and I finally pointed out the obvious: that he’s acting against gender equality and civil rights. That’s when he threw out this little gem:
I am familiar with transgenderism, as I work closely with several transgendered persons, both M2F and F2M.
That’s right, it’s the old “some of my best friends are ____” defense! Also, nobody even calls it “transgenderism“. Nothing says “I don’t really care what you have to say about the realities of your own life because I already know everything ever” quite like sheer unadulterated ignorance waved around as true fact. Richard then tried to soften his public image with a reminder of his initial support of gender equality:
I have always stood for equality between men and women, without regard to their respective genders. No one person should be forced to accept less from society than another in performing the same tasks, simply for archaic notions of social roles.
By this point, even scrubbing a toilet seemed more enticing than spending another minute on him, so I left him with this:
You say “You cannot invent a third gender.” You do not stand for gender equality, as you have just rendered my gender inequal to yours. Good day sir. I have better things to do with mine.
I must point out that Richard is basically the worst case scenario. The average secular response is “You’re genderqueer? What’s that?” or even “oh, cool.” And honestly, that’s A-OK. I don’t want to stick out, or be treated like a special snowflake, I simply want to be a part of the atheist community like any other member.
I don’t intend for this to be a rant against cis people or anyone, really. My hope is that in sharing my experience, I’ll have educated at least one more person on how to stick up for gender equality, and to fight ignorance where it lurks. If we put our minds to it, we atheists can be the best at transgender acceptance.
**If this sounds like you, whether you first became aware of these feelings at age 7 or age 77, feel free to message me. I’m happy to answer any questions or help you find resources for support, or even just to offer a listening ear.