OPINION: Changing Assumptions

By, Lee Schubert


During my youth, very little was known about gender identity. Christine Jorgensen was the only transsexual anyone had heard of, and she was viewed as more of a curiosity and object of amusement than a cause for condemnation. It was only during the last 15 years or so that people became very aware that there are many transsexuals, and even then any attention paid to us tended to be in a comic context. Only for about five years have we finally been taken seriously and become the subject of an almost constant media barrage.

The increased interest in transsexuals has been accompanied by an important change in the way they are viewed by mental health professionals. Being transsexual is no longer considered a mental illness, and the term “gender identity disorder” has been replaced by the term “gender dysphoria,” which refers not to being transsexual, but only to the mental and emotional distress often caused by having a gender that is different from the biological sex one was assigned at birth. Also, there is now some movement away from the previous assumption that only hormone therapy and surgery could provide effective treatment for transsexuals. Now the mental health establishment is beginning to understand that sometimes gender dysphoria can be successfully treated just through psychotherapy.

The legal issues for transsexuals have been different from those for gays. The fundamental question is whether the law will treat trans men and women the same as other men and women. Some states have taken a major step in that direction by enabling people to have their birth certificates changed to reflect the sex that matches the gender with which they actually identify. Until recently, who a trans person could marry was sometimes a problem, but same-sex marriage has largely taken care of that. However, issues like employment discrimination, military service, and treatment in prisons remain problematical. And, of course, there is the notorious bathroom issue, which led to the recent Supreme Court decision to hear a case involving what bathroom a trans person should use. The outcome of that may shed important light on the future legal status of transsexuals.

But whatever direction court decisions and legislation may take, the real status of transsexuals in America will depend more on other people’s attitudes. The biggest question is whether people’s gender really is whatever they self-identify as. That is a very hard idea for many people to accept, since for many it seems to challenge the natural order of things. There is no more strongly held human conviction than that people’s gender is determined by the genitals they were born with. Changing that assumption will require a huge change in the basic social paradigm. Only time will tell whether that can happen.

 Lee Schubert is the author of Woman Incognito: Transsexual without Transition.