The Transgender Rights Movement Is for Everyone

Lulu, a transgender girl, reads a book in her room at her home in Buenos Aires July 25, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

The summer after I began injecting testosterone and sprouting thin patches of blond facial hair, I returned home to visit my parents. One morning while watering some tomato plants, I saw my former neighbor—whom I had baby-sat for as a teenager—walking toward me, her toddlers in tow. I panicked. I briefly considered running into the house and refusing to come back out. I also considered pretending to be a secret child my family had never spoken about—maybe my former self's twin brother? But alas, it was too late. She descended, hand outstretched, with a loud, "It is so good to meet you!"

The conversation went as well as it can—she told me I seemed happy, that she had heard about my "situation" and was glad I was moving forward. "Like Cher's son," she said, to show she knew the deal. "It's not your fault!" she proclaimed, "You can't help you were born in the wrong body!"

In the four years since this conversation, I have had one like it at least once a week, wherein a well-meaning cisgender (non-transgender) person gives me their blessing to assimilate to cisgender life.

Little do they know I desire much more than that.

While the overall population may be becoming more accepting of transgender folks—though the public embrace of Caitlyn Jenner doesn't resurrect the dozen transgender women of color have been killed so far this year—this tolerance is often built on with familiar narratives: Trans people, who suffer from a rare condition, are trapped in the wrong body ("born this way," essentially) and have no choice but to transition from male to female or female to male in order to live normal (i.e., cisgender) lives. As long as we let them get surgeries and use hormones, everyone's happy.

The familiar narratives are so pervasive because they mean cisgender people don't have to confront their own gender identities, or disrupt the idea of gender as being binary by divine design. But once you acknowledge that everyone has a gender identity, that there is a spectrum of transgender identity and that no one is the pure, cisgender paragon, the truth is much more expansive. It means, that, as Transparent actor and trans person Ian Harvie told The New York Times last summer, "everyone is trans."

It's natural for a cisgender person—someone who looks at the "M" or "F" on their driver's license without a second thought; a person who lives, for the most part, happily within the gender binary—to feel threatened by this development. It seems like the transgender liberation movement stands to burn down a well-functioning societal mechanism that affects everything from government record-keeping to what color onesie to get your co-worker's new baby: the gender binary.

And yet, the gender binary doesn't actually work so well. Have you ever been told that you were not acting like enough of a man or a woman? At one time or another, we modify or hide behaviors, talents, or desires that do not align with our assigned gender, or never consider alternatives to gender expectations that might make us happier. Nuance around gender identity and expression will make the world a safer place to be transgender, yes. But it will also improve the quality of life for all people.

It isn't just people on the right who critique trans identities. Some feminists have had a contentious history with the trans community—either saying trans men are butch women abandoning the cause, or that trans women aren't women at all. In reality, when functioning at their best, both the transgender and feminist movements are about something larger than advocating for binary gender equality, or a reversal of the gender hierarchy. These movements are about everyone having the freedom to self-identify their gender identity and move through the world without being treated unequally because of it. With the uniting of these two movements, many perceived "women's issues"—unequal pay, sexual assault, access to birth control—will be shown to be what they really are: dire social issues that every person, regardless of gender identity or genitals, must address.

But the question remains: "What would a world without the gender binary look like?"

Some smirk as they pose this question, expecting me to put forth a convoluted system whereby each morning we all select our preferred gender pronoun and wear it on a name tag. Others imagine a world lacking distinctiveness: babies named Ashe or Jo clad in gray swaddling clothes; adults sporting bowl cuts and ill-fitting clothing; college students lining up in confused agony outside gendered bathroom doors.

Here is what it may really look like: I recently went to an event where most people in the room were trans or gender non-conforming. I saw a friend; we chatted. She asked if I knew someone else who was in attendance. I had met them briefly, but was unsure of their pronouns. So we walked over to say hello.

The person I met was tall and lanky, wearing a bright pink silken shirt with a skinny striped tie and loose trousers. Their nails were polished black, and they were chipping. Half their head was shaved, the other half braided and swept over their shoulders. They looked lovely, and smelled like eucalyptus oil.

"Hi," I said, "We met once before, I think. But I didn't catch your preferred gender pronouns."

"They/them," they said, "And you?"

"He/him, thanks for asking."

We smiled warmly at each other.

The above exchange took at least 30 seconds for me to complete—but it was worth it. And if you do the same, I cannot promise you it will be easier but I can promise that it will be better.

What for some sounds like an intellectual obstacle course is, for us transgender folks, everyday life. The transgender experience is where theory meets practice. The answer to most questions is a two-step process: (1) Ask someone respectfully and (2) Listen. That recognition, communication and respect is what a world without gender presumption looks like in practice. And practicing recognition, communication and respect for others' gender identity is what the transgender liberation movement means.

The transgender movement is about gender liberation, and we all stand to benefit. The transgender community is working toward this goal. As the world eagerly declares that we've passed a tipping point, now I ask whether cisgender people are ready to be liberated.

Consider this your invitation.

Liam Lowery is a transgender writer and public educator in Queens, New York. Find him at Everyone Is Gay, an advice site for LGBTQ youth, and elsewhere.