I began writing this article months ago after HB2 was passed in North Carolina. I was still in Nicaragua at the time. Despite being surrounded and inspired by some great, really mindful people, mostly members of STAR and members of my Peace Corps group, I was not able to finish the article at that time. There were a lot of gaps in my knowledge and I did not want to tackle the subject without being certain about things.
With the new perspective of now being a resident of North Carolina, I’m taking a stab at finishing the article. I’d like to state outright that I may be wrong about the finer points and definitions in this article. In part, this article was inspired by a conversation I had with the STAR group in PC Nicaragua about the difficulty of assigning identities along the queer spectrum. I’ve dove further into gender theory and sexuality than I ever thought I would through the course of this article. If you think I am wrong, feel free to state your case, but please know that nothing I say here is meant to hurt anyone, and I write much of this to clear up misunderstandings on my part and on the part of others, not to propel them.
I think it is time to talk about transgenderism, both in Nicaragua and the United States. I didn’t understand transgenderism before I got here, but I have had a lot of conversations about it here, and now I think I understand what being transgender means. Lately transgenderism has been in the news a lot because of anti-transgender laws passed around the United States, particularly in North Carolina. I’m particularly astute to this new law, because I am soon to be an MBA student at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. Before I get into why I think the whole bathroom debate is a huge red herring meant to intimidate and discriminate, I want to explain what I understand transgenderism to mean.
What does it mean to be a transgender person?
To understand transgender you have to understand the different between sex and gender. To me, sex is physical. Sex is determined mainly chromosomatically. Sex is the parts that you have, whether being man parts or women parts. A person with a parts mismatch or possibly some hormonal irregularities is not transgender. They are intersex. A person who has medically transitioned from one sex to the other is commonly referred to as transsexual.
Gender, on the other hand, is not physical. It is mental. Society has behavioral expectations for men and behavioral expectations for women. These expectations are varied but they extend to feelings, clothing, occupations, pastimes and hobbies, preferences, and duties with regard to households and families. Generally, women are expected to like pink and chocolate and drama. On the other hand, men like blue, meat, and violence. Humans are not born with any of these norms pre-programmed into our minds. We acquire being male or female from society. That is gender. For most people, through societal conditioning, their gender coincides with their sex. However, when someone has the body of a man but mentally feels like a female they are referred to as a transgender woman. We call them a woman to respect their choice and acknowledge that gender is not something innate, like sex, but instead is something arbitrary and often at the whims of society. Likewise, a transgender man is a woman who feels like a male.
What do I think about the bathroom debate?
The bathroom debate is a great big red herring to intimidate and discriminate against transgender people. First of all, in public restrooms the only truly intimately shared public spaces are the urinals. Transgender people cannot use urinals. A transgender man does not have the means to, and a transgender woman does not have a urinal to use because there are no urinals in women’s restrooms. Ostensibly, these bathroom laws would force transgender men and women to use the bathrooms of their sex.
Before I address a transgender person using the bathroom of his or her own sex, I wanted to address another concern that people bring up. People say that even if someone is in another bathroom stall they still do not feel comfortable with a man or a woman in the bathroom with them. This argument betrays a lack of understanding for transgenderism. That person in the other stall is a man or a woman, just like you. You can’t see their body, nor would it matter if you could. In terms of how most people relate to one another, our beliefs, values, actions, words, preferences, deeds, and merits matter. That’s what “makes” a man or a woman. We do not judge people based on their bodies; reject nor accept. In fact, we teach our children that someone’s appearance does not matter – it is all of the other intangible qualities that matter. Saying that we do not want someone in a bathroom with us because of their appearance is just like saying that we do not want a man or a woman with a visible hormonal imbalance or deficiency in a bathroom with us. I think that most people would call that discriminatory and not make that request.
If the thought of having a transgender person in the stall next to you “creeps you out” you need to recognize that just like society conditions our genders, it too has conditioned us to conceal our sexes and keep our bodies apart from one another accept at the most intimate of times. By no means am I espousing that we discard the use of clothing, but I am arguing that society’s sexual norms need to be updated. They were created to control women and put them to work for the ruling class. Society’s sexual norms were created over the millennia to preserve economic power in the hands of the few – a few men, that is. We expect women to dress modestly rather than having heterosexual men control their desires. This puts power in the hands of men, and casts femininity in the light of sin. While we expect women to rear children and maintain households, unremunerated, men are free to manage companies and design products, all with the aim of selling that modest clothing to women and keeping them maintaining women as ever-desirable to men, further expropriating them of any economic means of independence.
Just as one day it “just felt weird” for a White man in Montgomery to sit next to an African American on the bus, it may feel weird to have a person of the opposite sex concealed behind the bathroom stall next to you. Ethically, we need to overcome that feeling. That is all it is: a feeling, imposed upon us by society.
Now, a transgender person who openly expresses her or himself would truly stand out in the bathroom of their own sex, more so than in the bathroom that aligns with their gender. That could elicit remarks. You could imagine complaints, or violence, if that were to happen. Clearly, it does not happen now because transgender people stay in the closet! They are afraid of those reactions, so they do not express themselves freely. I believe that is one of the purposes of these laws: to intimidate transgender people and keep them in the closet.
Why does this issue beg for a solution?
Being in the closet is not a happy or a healthy lifestyle. It lowers one’s self-esteem and can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, inadequate access to sexual health resources, and depression. However, beyond these serious problems, I believe that the bathroom debate is partially meant to hide larger problems for transgender people: primarily a lack of acceptance by friends and family, and especially homicide of transgender people, especially transgender women of color.
According to a 2015 study, 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide. For transgender people of color, 49% of Black transgender people have attempted suicide and 47% of Latino transgender people. 2.6% of transgender people are HIV positive, which is 2% higher than the national average. 2015 had the most ever reported transgender homicides in the United States: 21, and there have already been more than 15 in 2016. I could go on with the grim statistics. Not only does it seem that transgender people, whether they are of color or not, are disadvantaged, but the hostile debate over their rights seems to be exacerbating the problem!
Transgenderism in Nicaragua
I’d like to pivot the article here and focus for a time on the transgender experience in Nicaragua. Being homosexual in Nicaragua does not necessarily mean that you will live a life of discrimination, rejection, and isolation. Many geographical regions and social groups share some modest levels of acceptance for gay people in Nicaragua. However, from what I have heard and observed, in some smaller towns and among certain religious groups there is far less acceptance, sometimes to the point where gay people are rejected by their families, face severe economic hardships, and are the victims of violence.
That is for gay people, but I have observed less acceptance for transgender people generally. Transgender people are more ostracized, even in the more liberal cities of Nicaragua. I’ve heard of transgender people in the central park of León being accused by the police of soliciting sex and being asked to leave. I’ve seen firsthand teachers singling out the more flamboyant boys in their class for their behaviors and actions, while other people exhibiting similar actions are not called out for their behavior.
Peace Corps Health Volunteers in Nicaragua, who work nearly exclusively in sexual and reproductive health, have consistently observed a small number of men who have sex with men in Nicaragua, but they do not identify themselves as gay either openly or privately with doctors. Often times this is associated with alcohol consumption and older men abusing boys under 18 or paying young men for sex. The defining characteristic is that they do not consider themselves gay, nor do many other people in society (deviants, maybe, but gay, less so). Sexuality seems to be defined by power in Nicaragua, not overt actions. Machismo culture reigns supreme, and just like control over women is a core value, it seems that having sexual control over another human being regardless of their sex can be considered a de facto heterosexual act.
What does this power dynamic have to do with the bathroom debate?
Sexism remains rampant in the United States, not just in Latin America, and I believe it goes a long way to explaining why transgender people can be even more ostracized than homosexuals.* Transgender people threaten the predominant gender-relations scaffolding of society. Transgender people completely invert traditional sexual norms. They act how they feel despite what society has imposed on the sexes. A transgender man is a physical woman acting, behaving, and feeling like a man. Cisgender homosexuals do not rise to the same level of non-conformity. For someone who benefits from the gender-normative view of the world this is usurpation. This is threatening. Their knee jerk reaction is to intimidate – in the parks of Nicaragua, with nonsense bathroom red herrings, and with homicide.
Another way to intimidate transgender people is to deny them an identity. I saw this a lot in Nicaragua, and the logic of the argument is understandable.
“They have boy parts. They act like a girl. They dress like a girl. They like other boys. And you are telling me that they are different and not just another gay?!”
First, the argument betrays itself. It states that there are ways that boys and girls, men and women, are supposed to act. This is purely societal. There is nothing in our DNA with a gender roles code of conduct. Rather, I think the more compelling part of the argument, which I ultimately reject, is that in our society, part of our gender association, being male or female, is to be attracted to the opposite sex. Does that automatically make gay people transgender too? I don’t think so. One can feel male and gay, or female and lesbian. There is a clear delineation between gender and sexual orientation. I believe that just like gender roles and clothing styles, the notion that one ought to be attracted to members of the opposite sex is societal. It is not physical. Gender is something that you acquire from society by age three. Sexual orientation is beyond society’s control and probably has genetic origins.
If the knee-jerk reaction to transgenderism is discrimination, we need to continue engaging and educating, both here and abroad. With this approach eventually people will realize that what they are doing is wrong and that transgender people and their allies pose no threat to society. The leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s took the same approach. Their collective work convinced many people, including the majority of the US Congress, that Black people pose no threat, whether they sit next to us on a bus or lunch counter, or enjoy the same incomes, access to schools, and economic and political power.
*This argument hinges on sex being perceived as less of a power act in the US than in Nicaragua, which is why more people would consider all men who engage in sex with other men as gay or bisexual. I am sure that there are many women who would strongly disagree with this argument, and I myself am skeptical of it.
“A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”
– Frank Underwood, House of Cards