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OP-ED: What it means to be transgender

  • Published at 01:15 pm June 27th, 2020
The stigma of being a transgender in Bangladesh still remains | Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

We need to embrace a world of diversity

What would it be like to have a body that causes others to perceive you in a way that you know is incorrect? If you’re a man, how would it feel if your voice and facial features caused strangers to constantly address you as Apa? If you’re a woman, how would you feel about growing a beard? 

There is no objective evidence you can use to convince others that you are, in fact, a man or a woman. All you have is your own conviction of who you really are. 

Wait, so can my mind be different from my body? 

Sex and gender are often used interchangeably in our everyday language, but they are different. Sex is assigned when a child is born. It is usually linked to biological traits of the body, such as reproductive organs, hormones, chromosomes, outward appearance of genitalia, of secondary sex characteristics such as development of facial hair or breasts. 

Your sex is either male, female, or intersex. Intersex babies are born with any of several variations in sex characteristics that can’t be classified as male or female. Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Gender identity is our personal sense of our gender. Cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. Transgender (adjective) is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. 

Among transgender individuals, those who seek, or have undergone, a medical transition to the sex they identify as are transsexuals. 

Is being transgender just a phase, a choice, or an act of rebellion? 

Available research indicates that sexual differentiation in the brain happens much later than gonadal differentiation. Transgender brains are more similar to their experienced gender identity than their biological sex. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience indicates sex hormones affect how the networks are formed in brains. 

For example, transgender men may have been exposed to inadequate levels of estrogen during prenatal development. Gender dysphoria is a sense of unease that many transgender individuals have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity, according to the National Health Service (UK). 

You want to present yourself wearing that sari or using the pronoun “she,” but you are not allowed to. This sense of dissatisfaction may be so intense it can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Think of it -- if being transgender was a choice, why would anyone purposefully subject themselves to a life of difficulty? 

When approaching a transgender person, if you only look for similarities with your experience and assume the physical body is the point of commonality, you will try to change the mind, in this case the “mental illness” of a trans person. Imagine being strapped to a wooden chair as doctors dip electrodes in brine and attach them to your arms. 

A surging shock wrenches your hand painfully upwards as your arms remain pinned to the chair! The doctors are convinced that if you “learn” to associate your gender with memories of pain, you will dissociate from your gender identity. Conversion therapy is still practised in many parts of the world and has not changed anyone’s gender identity. 

It has only resulted to serious psychological distress and potentially fatal suicide attempts. In May 2019 the WHO approved a resolution that no longer categorizes being transgender as a “mental disorder” in the 11th revision of International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). 

Misleading and derogatory labels harm our understanding

Transgender individuals are often addressed using derogatory terms such as half-ladies, or shemale, which refer to someone being half-male and half-female. That goes against the spirit of how transgender persons wish to define themselves. Many cisgender people watch porn and adopt the idea of shemales, fetishizing transgender individuals. 

Transgender people do not exist to fulfill a sexual fantasy. Those who fetishize transgender bodies participate in transphobia that deems transgender individuals’ bodies as relevant only when they’re sexualized. “Tui ki hijra?” is a common insult to accuse people of being weak, effeminate, impotent. 

This reflects our attitude towards anyone who doesn’t conform to our idea of cisgender individuals. Hijra (eunuch) is a transgender community in South Asia. They were appointed guards of the harem, and were believed to possess divine power. The British colonists passed a law in 1897 categorizing them as criminals, subjecting them to a loss of status that still prevails today. 

The social identity of a hijra centres around the hijra way of life, consisting of allegiance to a guru, pooling of earnings and submission to group rules. In fact, hijra is a community, and not a sex or a gender. However, hijra is included as a gender or sex in Bangladesh Gazette 2014. In December 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare invited hijras to apply for government employment. In 2015, the government announced plans to recruit hijras as traffic police. 

Government officials created a “third gender” category on Bangladesh’s national voters list in 2019. Despite welcoming the change in the law, not all transgender people feel comfortable being referred to as “third gender” or “hijra.” The transgender community is diverse and complex. 

For you, navigating this new territory can be difficult. Transgender people living their truth have it unimaginably harder. They face abuse such as teasing, beatings, sexual violence, often beginning early in life and in the privacy of homes, because people consider them abnormal and cursed. 

They have to make a choice: Do I live a life where I face untold difficulty to be who I am, giving everyone and everything up to achieve that. Or do I live in the shadows never achieving peace and living an unfulfilled life? Does it mean we live in a separate world from transgender people? No. Acknowledging transgender individuals is not equivalent to creating a divisive world. Labels are not meant to limit them, but to accommodate the spectrum we create together. 

Myat Moe Khaing takes an interest in indigenous and gender politics.

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