Born this way: Breaking gender stereotypes

Jane* is not unlike any other young woman at Laurier. She loves her program, stresses about getting things done on time, spends a lot of her time with her friends, has a younger sister back home whom she adores and volunteers on campus.

However, one aspect of the second-year music student’s identity has unfortunately made her an easy target for alienation and abuse.

Jane is a trans woman, meaning that although she was born with a male body, she always knew that who she was on the inside didn’t quite line up.

“Gender is socially constructed,” explained Rainbow Centre coordinator Chris Owen. “From the moment you’re born it’s like, ‘You have a penis, you’re a boy. You have a vagina, you’re a girl.’”

The Rainbow Centre, Laurier’s safe space for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, coordinated last week with the Centre for Women and Trans* People to host their second annual celebration of Trans Awareness Week, a week dedicated to rejecting transphobia, gender binary and social norms surrounding gender.

In honour of the week, The Cord sat down with Jane and listened to her story, learned what life as a trans woman entails and gained perspective on what is still an under-exposed topic.

An outside metamorphosis

“A trans person is someone whose gender does not match the one that they were assigned at birth,” Owen elaborated. “They may transition – or they may not.”

The physical transition is a process that some trans people go through so that their physical body matches their gender. The process usually begins with hormone therapy, followed by supplementary surgeries such as chest surgery and the filing of the Adam’s apple and finally full gender reassignment surgery involving the reconstructing of the genitalia.

Not all transition processes are the same, but Jane is someone who intends to fully physically transition. Though she hasn’t begun hormone therapy yet, she has big plans for the future.

“I intend to go all the way,” she explained. “Ideally I would like to be able to have kids but I know that’s not possible. Hopefully someday medical developments will allow me that possibility. Right now I’m just trying to correct a mistake that nature — or God, or whatever you believe in — made. Mistakes happen.”

“Even when you get into those little subculture labels — like jock, nerd, band geek — there are different gender roles you have to fit into,” Jane explained. “There always seems to be that division between how a boy is supposed to act and how a girl is supposed to act.”

Jane was aware of the social stereotypes surrounding gender from a very young age. “When you’re little and you play with toys, boys are supposed to be into the big, strong, burly athletic types — those are their heroes,” she said. “Girls, you’re taught to be more sweet and submissive — princess-types.”

When Jane decided to come out this summer, she took a risk and tied her long black hair back and put on women’s clothes on a night out with friends. “It felt amazing,” she recalled.

“I was out with a group of friends and we decided to go bar-hopping,” she explained excitedly. “At one bar it was ladies night, ladies didn’t have to pay cover, and I got in for free.”

Of course, since embracing her identity, Jane still has several bumps to get over. “I’m not very good with hair or makeup yet,” she admitted. “But I’m learning!”

Fitting in

Since her coming out, things haven’t been as simple as dressing up and having fun with her girlfriends. Like almost all trans people, Jane has had to deal with ignorance.

Jane had apprehensions before returning to Laurier at the end of this past summer. “I had prepared myself for the worst, but no one really said or did anything that was very hurtful — to my face. What I found was it was more of a passive-aggression,” she said.

“I’m getting looks like, ‘Ew, look at that… whatever.’ I think people are bothered but they’re not telling me because they don’t think they’re supposed to, but that mentality was still there. It isn’t always something people understand, sometimes it goes against their belief system.”

Because of the lack of positive portrayal of trans people in the media, transphobia still runs rampant in many settings. While Jane has stated that she’s never been explicitly attacked for her gender expression, she feels that being trans makes her peers squeamish around her. “Everything I do is sort of put through a lens,” she said. “I’m a very touchy-feely person and I like to hug everyone, but I’m the only one getting flack for it. Someone might do something like, when they get too drunk just make out with everyone, and that’s more accepted.”

Owen, who spearheaded 2010’s celebration of Trans Awareness Week, agreed that students may be suffering from underexposure to trans-specific issues and vocabulary. “Just because you were born with a certain body doesn’t mean you identify as a man or woman,” Owen clarified. “And you could identify as both, or neither. You could go back and forth day by day, and that’s okay.”

School has just been one of the hurdles of the transition. Back at home, Jane is dealing with her parents’ struggle to accept her identity. “They didn’t react in the worst way possible,” she said. “They didn’t kick me out or anything. But my father goes back and forth from one day saying, ‘I love you no matter what,’ to, ‘you’ll never be a real woman, you can’t have kids.’”

Many trans people feel that public bathrooms are one of the most difficult aspects of being out in public, especially before the point of physical transition or passing. Many public places in Canada have debated implementing non-gender specific washrooms, which would aid in relieving some of the anxieties that trans individuals feel.

Recently, schools in Western Canada made news when they debated the implementation of gender-neutral washrooms.

Though Laurier has not yet discussed the matter, Jane has found that there are many trans-positive spaces and people on campus. “The Rainbow Centre has been wonderful,” she said, “And my friends, my roommates [and] the people I volunteer with have all been a great support.”

Compared to others, Jane has had it easy so far. November 20 is an international Trans day of remembrance to honour those who have lost their lives to both transphobic violence and suicide as a result of depression or alienation.

According to the Trevor Project, a resource used to assist young victims of homophobic abuse and prevent suicide, trans people represent 31 per cent of suicides every year, and at least 50 per cent of trans people make at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday.

The suicide rates are tragic, but sadly not alarming when considering the amount of violence against trans people.

The Transgender Community Health Project reports that 86 per cent of trans people experience verbal abuse and discrimination on a regular basis, and 35 per cent are victims of physical violence. Trans adults also report experiencing discrimination when applying for work or seeking housing. The organization Youth Pride reports that over 90 per cent of trans students feel unsafe on their high school, college and university campuses.

With the safe spaces on her side, Jane feels empowered but still apprehensive. “I like that I can feel safe to be myself here,” she said. “But at the same time because of the reactions I’ve gotten from some people, I’m not going to go around like, ‘Hi, I’m trans!’ I’d kind of just like to be a Jane Doe.”

Hurtful words and assumptions

Like many members of the LGBT community, Jane feels that many students don’t think about their word choice. “I can’t stand hearing people say ‘that’s so gay,’” she said. “It’s all about the meaning behind it — if you think that ‘gay’ is a bad thing on the same level as ‘stupid,’ it makes [gay people] feel less human.”

Two of Jane’s least favourite words to hear are “shemale” and “tranny.” “Shemale’s a bit worse to me, because I’ve heard ‘tranny’ sometimes used affectionately between [trans] people, but ‘shemale’ is definitely the most offensive trans-specific word you could say.”

Owen feels that one problematic assumption resulting from a lack of exposure is the frequent confusion of drag performers with trans people. “A drag performer is somebody who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth — usually, not always — and simply dresses in drag and performs as the opposite sex.”

Labels aside, Owen also added that it’s important to know that even when accepting trans people, nothing is black and white. “You shouldn’t have to choose,” he said, referring to the gender roles we’re assigned from birth. “My very best friend in the world is gender-queer and identifies as both a woman and a man.” He explained that because of his relationship with his best friend, he felt compelled to be involved in trans issues in university.

Jane echoed these feelings. “I don’t want it to be like there’s four genders — man, woman, trans man and trans woman — that’s not how it is.”

“You’ve got people from all fronts who will try to tear you down,” said Jane. “Even some people who are more towards the left and more open to homosexuality and stuff don’t fully understand it.”

“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s horrible,” she said. “It’s worth it. If it’s really what you want, it’s worth the world. ”

* = Name has been changed for the safety of the interviewee.

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