I am privileged to have a body that fits my gender, and for the majority of my life I was unaware of this ingrained and assumed personal and public privilege. As is the case with many in our world, during my adolescent years I never realized that “gender” and “sex” were two different aspects of my male identity, or in the words of Virginia Prince, I was unaware that “… gender is what’s above the neck and sex is what’s below the neck.” In light of these often ignored differences between gender and sex, I have come to recognize that many in our world do not experience full harmony between the two, and the result is a significantly misunderstood and strikingly marginalized transsexual and transgendered community.
While the differences between gender and sex are complicated, and the various distinctions between cultural and biological identity constructs are ongoing, The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that 1 percent of all U.S. citizens are “trans.” However, as gender variance is rarely discussed in mainstream society, it would appear that far too many continue to make false generalizations based upon sensationalized media accounts of cross-dressing and transsexuality. As stated by Deborah Rudacille in The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights:
Gender variance still seems to be considered a more suitable topic for late-night talk show jokes than for journals of public health and public policy, even though a recent needs assessment survey in Washington, D.C., estimated that the median life expectancy of a transgendered person in the nation’s capitol is only thirty-seven years … Though many are far better off materially that the subjects of the Washington, D.C., study, transgendered and transsexual people of every social class and at every income level share many of the same vulnerabilities. Public prejudices make it difficult for visibly transgendered or transsexual people to gain an education, employment, housing, or health care, and acute gender dysphoria leaves people at high risk for drug abuse, depression, and suicide.
In light of the startling statistics and misunderstandings surrounding those in the trans community (and due in part to my own disturbing levels of ignorance), during the past months I have tried to learn more about adult sex reassignment, gender confirmation, and on a larger scale, consider that which is often called “transition.” I met repeatedly with some trans women, read several books and articles, and also engaged in many long conversations about stigma and social norms. A report by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” was an invaluable and (heart-breaking) resource. I also learned about surgical procedures, counseling, and I even attended (and experienced a small part of) a painful electrolysis session. And by trying to learn more about the transition process as a whole, not only did I learn about the extreme persecution that our trans companions face, but I was also shown the massive commitment they exhibit in order to bring their gender and sex more fully into synch.
I will be the first to admit that I had – and will surely continue to have – numerous misjudgments about the trans community, and for such past, present, and future ignorance, I ask our trans companions for absolution. I also recognize that a few conversations and experiences by no means makes me an expert, nor does it give me the right to speak with any level of authority on this important matter. But I do believe these (yet to be fully developed) thoughts are worth sharing, for my recent interactions have been deeply moving, and I believe the same would be the case for others who wish to step out and learn more about a segment of our community that continues to be deeply misunderstood and marginalized.
As we tend to fear that which we do not know and/or understand — and because fear too often leads to hate and suffering — a much-needed step may be simple conversations, humility, and a willingness to be formed and informed by those in the trans community that wish to reach out. While the U.S. trans community is relatively small, it is by no means insignificant. So to achieve a genuine collective good, we need a full awareness of what the collective actually entails. And so, may we learn to accompany those whose gender and sex are not fully aligned, and in doing so, may we remove generations of undeserved social barriers and embody a more faithful and comprehensive trans-inclusive common good.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).