A 'Transgender' Primer and Conference Preview

by Amy Eisen Cislo
Senior Lecturer, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies

Since Caitlyn Jenner publicly transitioned from her life as Bruce Jenner, her story and image have become synonymous with the term “transgender” for some people, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, Jenner shows us that even a celebrated athlete who once embodied an ideal form of masculinity could feel disconnected from the gender others had enthusiastically celebrated. She also reminds the world that people can, and do, transition later in life. But for all the ways the spotlight on Jenner has brought some positive attention to transgender issues, there are numerous ways that her own projection of what “transgender” is has been a disservice to the majority of people who identify as transgender.

Few people have the resources to undergo the types of cosmetic surgeries Jenner has used to transform her face and body. Few people can transition without fear of losing their jobs, their friends and their families. The reality for many people who transition after puberty from male to female is fraught with danger, especially for trans women of color. It is important to keep in mind that most people who identify as transgender are actually very different from Jenner, despite the fact that she keeps talking about “her community.”

“Transgender” is an umbrella term that can be used to describe someone whose identity does not align with the sex assigned at birth. In other words, a parent could send out birth announcements that declare, “It’s a girl!” usually based on the child’s genitalia, only to find out later that the “girl” does not feel like her identity aligns with the things we associate with femininity. A person might insist, or declare, that they are not what the happy birth announcement told the world; instead that person might identify as a boy or as non-binary, gender queer or many other words that indicate that one does not fit within the assumed direct relationship of gender and sex.

Transgender Spectrum Conference
For more information, check out the conference's Resources page

Further, the term “transgender” includes the sex category “intersex.” Intersex includes androgen-insensitivity syndrome, progestin-induced virilization, adrenal hyperplasia and Klinefelter’s syndrome. Babies born with any of these conditions are assigned a sex at birth because birth certificates in the United States allow only two choices: male or female. As a result, people who are intersex sometimes confront the same situation as those born male or female when the sex assigned to them at birth does not match their gender.

Our legal and medical discourses are structured around the idea that humans should be easily identified with only two sex categories: male and female. For a long time, the sex categories were believed to be the same as gender categories, so that a female was a woman and a male was a man. The sex categories were also assumed to align with a person’s sexuality. In other words, psychologists thought that a healthy female was a woman who was attracted to men. All kinds of methods were used to align these aspects of a person in order to achieve mental health. Today, we recognize these categories — sex, gender and sexuality — as different and sometimes independent of one another. It is important to note that even though we often see LGBT grouped together, transgender is not a type of sexuality. People who identify as transgender may be homosexual, heterosexual, asexual, pansexual — just about any sexual category you can imagine. Transgender simply describes how a person understands their gender identity.

The Transgender Spectrum Conference, which will be held at Washington University November 4–5, explores and celebrates the complexity of transgender issues. We celebrate by hearing the stories of people who identify as transgender and by learning about the legal and medical advancements of the last few years that have begun to support and affirm the lives of people who identify somewhere under the transgender spectrum.

Recently, under the directive of the U.S. Department of Education, Title IX was expanded to include gender identity. As a result, schools are quickly trying to adapt to affirm students’ gender identities. The conference includes papers and workshops on how to make schools compliant. The Affordable Health Care Act was also expanded to include some health care for people who identify as transgender, so a representative from the department of Health and Human Services will explain those changes.

Our keynote speakers include Johanna Olson-Kennedy, a leading pediatric specialist in the care of transgender children; Bear Bergman, a well-known author of numerous works that engage with his personal life experiences as a trans man; and Shannon Price Minter, a lawyer famous for his work in LGBT rights.

Our conference seeks to de-center the discussion of transgender issues from a famous white trans women to focus more on the experiences of queer and trans people of color. As the anthropologist David Valentine made clear in his book Imagining Transgender: Ethnography of a Category (2007), the category “transgender” has largely been associated with, and used by, white people and mostly by those in academic settings, but there has been, and continues to be, a popular ballroom scene in large cities across the United States where people of color explore and celebrate a whole spectrum of gender identities. The conference will have an entire set of presentations that confronts race in transgender studies, including a session on the ballroom scene.

We are also pleased to welcome the founding members of the Detroit Sistas Project, an organization that was founded to explore the intersections of race and gender in the Motor City. Finally, our conference offers a forum to discuss spirituality and transgender identity. Our focus is on how various Christian faiths address transgender issues. We have papers on this topic, a panel of clergy and a plenary talk by delfin bautista. [Ed. note: bautista prefers the lower-case form of their last name, as well as gender-neutral pronouns.]

It is an honor to host the 2016 Transgender Spectrum Conference at Washington University. This is the third year of the conference, which was first initiated by Sally Ebest at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. UMSL was an exceptional host the last two years and we hope to build on their success.