Seeking a post-gender society

BY KRISTEN STEAGALL
Daily Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2009

There is a story often read in woman’s studies programs called “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story” by Lois Gould. In it, a child named X is raised in a gender-neutral household. Neither X nor anybody else is privy to X’s biological sex and X is never assigned a gender. The child’s parents buy Barbie dolls and GI Joes, ballet slippers and toy fire trucks. X is allowed to grow up and develop interests independent of what society expects of a female or male child, and in the process, inspires other children to shed their confining gender roles.

CHRIS DZOMBAK/Daily
CHRIS DZOMBAK/Daily

While this method of raising a child is far from the norm, LSA senior Cayden Mak sees the value in challenging our society's assumptions about how gender is constructed.

Mak is part of a small and often underrepresented group of transgender students on campus. Transgender, as described by the Spectrum Center, is “having a gender identity or expression that doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘male’ or ‘female’ boxes.” It is gender expression that transcends the societal binary of “man” and “woman” in terms of appearance and behavior.

A female by birth who self-identifies as post-gender, Mak said that he identified more as a boy while growing up than as a girl. He, much like child X, was allowed to play with whichever toys he liked and pursue school subjects and sports that attracted him, even when they were “independent of common patterns seen in the gender roles of little girls.” When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would reply “a priest.” As Mak explains, he grew up in an environment that allowed him to be oblivious of the limitations society would place on him later.

Not all transgender people realize their true gender at such a young age. Charlie, who asked that his full name not be used for privacy reasons, is a University employee who was born a female but prefers to identify as a man. Unlike Mak, Charlie did not fully assume a masculine identity until well into his undergraduate career here at the University.

“I grew up with a very biological viewpoint of what a man and a woman is,” Charlie said. “I was a tomboy but still very feminine because that was what was expected of me.”

Some psychologists have a name for Charlie and Mak’s experience: Gender Identity Disorder. According to Psychology Today, it is characterized by “strong, persistent feelings of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one's own assigned sex.” The onset of these feelings usually occurs between the ages of two and four years old, and the feelings often disappear around the age of puberty. Whether or not the feelings change because of social pressures or because the children simply outgrow them was not discerned in the article.

Research conducted on transgender experiences is inconclusive. It’s unknown how many children and adults identify with the opposite gender, and for many years, research on the subject focused mainly on people transitioning from female to male while those transitioning the other way were neglected. A study in Psychology Today indicated that “roughly 1 per 30,000 adult males and 1 per 100,000 adult females seek sex-reassignment surgery.”

But by placing a label such as “Gender Identity Disorder” on those who choose to define themselves outside of conventional gender identities, society simply continues to perpetuate the confining nature of those roles. According to a gender philosophy supported by Mak, we should all strive to see beyond these blue and pink color lines, beyond the tutus and the footballs, and assume post-gender identities. Mak chooses not only to see beyond gender roles but also live beyond them, defining for himself what gender means.

“The way I look at my own gender is that I am post-gender,” Mak said. “I think of myself as sort of a synthesis of various gender stereotypes and roles.”

The idea of creating gender-neutral environments in which one can create one’s own gender identity is a recurrent theme in literature and resources provided by the Spectrum Center. In a DVD titled “It’s Who You Are,” students explain that the greatest challenge to discovering your personal gender identity is that others assign it to you before you have a chance to declare it for yourself. People are constantly judging you on how masculine or feminine you look. The University students in the video describe how gender should be viewed: “It’s not about how or where you go to the bathroom” but rather “how you see yourself inside and out.”

But in a world that is not quite ready to renounce established gender identities and roles, transgender students face challenges every day to their gender philosophies, such as that unavoidable dilemma of which bathroom to use.

The answer to that question is different for every transgender student. Mak, who feels comfortable passing in physical appearance as a man, uses the men’s bathrooms on campus. But Charlie struggles with that idea every day. On days that he feels confident that he effectively passes as a male, he uses the men’s bathroom. On other days, when he feels that people will perceive him as a “very butch woman”, he uses the women’s. It is an issue that could be easily solved with the presence of a unisex bathroom. But for Charlie, whose job at the University has him visiting different campus buildings every day, locating a unisex bathroom is usually not an option.

For all its relative openness, the University’s campus reflects the view that gender is a black-and-white binary. Everything from on-campus housing to student questionnaires unconsciously balk at any shade of grey, which makes life as a transgender student difficult.

“Gender is like the air we breathe,” said Gabriel Javier, senior assistant director at the Spectrum Center. “We do not notice it in our everyday lives until someone points it out.” But in the everyday lives of students, it is constantly being pointed out in the way we choose to dress, the bathrooms we use, the dorm hall we live in and the way our peers treat us.

The University continues to try and meet the needs of transgender students and those who are in the process of transitioning. There is a special policy on gender-neutral housing which tries to work with students on a case-by-case basis to provide adequate housing, whether that is a single or double room with a private bathroom attached or a unisex bathroom nearby. But students may be denied these options due to a lack of availability, which means they will simply be assigned to a room based on birth gender. In Mak’s own experience, he was not allowed to request gender-neutral housing because he had not undergone any surgical procedures. Instead, he was lucky enough to avoid an uncomfortable living situation by rooming with a female high school friend. For many students, though, this may not be the case.

Another challenge a transgender student may face is in the classroom when a GSI takes attendance or at a sporting event when students show their MCards. Since androgynous names are less common than gender-specific ones, transgender students’ birth names don’t always fit the gender identities they assume in adulthood. But the University provides assistance in fixing this gender predicament. A policy enacted in April 2008 allows students to choose the name that will be listed on class rosters and printed on their MCards.

Charlie, who has changed his name from a more feminine one, never registered his preferred name with the University, opting instead to simply tell professors and GSIs to use the name Charlie in place of his birth name. Charlie hasn’t decided whether he will ever change his name legally — a long, paperwork-intensive process that can cost several hundred dollars in fees. The decision to take Charlie as his everyday name was gradual. It began as a stage name, but felt too right to discard once the show ended.

“Initially, it was part of my drag name,” Charlie said. “Drag helped me express myself better physically and gave me a better understanding of my body.”

Charlie began dressing in drag as a part of a performance group called Drag King Rebellion, which originated at Michigan State. The group tours the Midwest, lipsynching pop hits and performing choreography in a way that Charlie says integrates “all kinds of identities and experiences into a medley that turns out original, quality and socio-politically conscious performances of gender.” In the role of Chapless Charlie, dancing on stage with his friends in the troupe, Charlie is able to express his true sense of self.

If a transgender student is ready to take the surgical plunge and undergo a sex-change operation, the University Health System offers some of the most complete services in the nation with its Comprehensive Gender Services Program. Through this program, transgender students can find general physicians and psychologists who cater specifically to their gender-related needs. Patients have access to services that include medical and mental health care, speech/voice therapy, and hormonal and surgical treatment. But often, patients must also pay for these treatments out of pocket, since many of the procedures are not covered by insurance.

When Mak decided that he was ready to change his sex from female to male, he used Comprehensive Gender Services. He started out with hormone treatments, rubbing a testosterone-laden gel on his upper arm once a day that is released throughout the day to simulate natural production of the hormone. Already, after only four months, Mak said he has a voice that is an octave and a half lower, is able to grow some facial hair, has seen an increase in his muscle mass, is constantly horny and easily angered — all qualities generally associated with increased testosterone. Mak finds an aspect of his transformation humorously ironic: in his pursuit of a post-gender identity, he has “become the stereotypical male.”

“It is complicated because a lot of these things are rooted in biology,” he said. “We really don’t understand it … that even though we are ruled by all these biological factors that doesn’t mean that we are just one thing or another because everyone’s biological factors are wildly different.”

Mak plans on having chest reconstruction in May. He will have a full mastectomy and then have a plastic surgeon reshape the tissue to resemble a more masculine pectoral muscle. His insurance will not cover the procedure, but it may cover the hospital fees.

The University has taken steps in recognizing and accommodating freedom of gender expression. In 2007, it became one of 266 colleges in the United States to include gender identity and gender expression in its non-discrimination clause, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute.

But even with progressive policies, the University cannot ultimately control the way that people on campus view transgender students, some of whom have been the targets of hate crimes and discrimination. Many of them have not come out to their peers out of fear of how the people around them will respond. Others have not revealed their true sexual identity out of fear of losing their jobs.

Charlie and Mak have both experienced discrimination on the Michigan campus. Mak has been accosted on the street walking home at night and last winter, he was reproached for the bandages he uses to make his chest appear flatter when he went to the emergency room of University Hospital for minor injuries he received in a car crash.

In the words of Javier, “there is always more to be done” despite all the policies the University has adopted to accommodate transgender students. There could be more unisex bathrooms offered on campus, and the forms the University requires students and employees to fill out could include a blank space after gender that would allow people to fill out a true description of their gender expression if it falls outside the male and female dichotomy.

The University of Michigan Gay and Lesbian Association offers two $1,000 scholarships every year to students who demonstrate a commitment to gender and sexual orientation on campus. But Mak hopes to help establish the first scholarship at the University specifically geared toward transgender students.

When addressing a subject so closely tied to our self-perceptions and the perceptions others hold of us, anger and misunderstandings are common. Gender is an issue that is constantly discussed in our society, whether it be in politics where pundits argue if Hilary Clinton should wear pantsuits, in a clothing store where men discuss whether or not they should wear pink or in academia, where there is an entire department devoted to the study of women.

The discussion that transgender students put forth is a continuation of the greater gender dialogue, but one of a different flavor. A discussion on how we can better fulfill gender stereotypes becomes a discussion of how perceptions of gender can better suit our individual wants, needs and desires. But with progressive policy making and transgender activists, the University might see the day when it has achieved a truly “post-gender” campus.