Understanding What It Means To Be Transgender
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues that people usually keep private. Today, we want to have a conversation that kind of straddles the line between public and private. And I say that because we're following up on a conversation we began last week about the experience of being transgender. We're talking about this because there's a new law in California that allows transgender students in public schools to use restrooms and participate on sports teams based on the gender with which they identify, not the gender into which they were born.
But policies intended to make gender nonconforming students feel more comfortable makes some people - other people - uneasy. And we talked about this last week but we realized that we really only scratched the surface. So a number of our panelists were kind enough to come back to talk more about some of the issues, the truths, misperceptions involving transgender and gender nonconforming people. So joining us once again are Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Gayle Trotter is a conservative columnist, a mom of six. They're both here in Washington, D.C. And from Missoula, Montana we have Jennifer Savage, a writer and mother of two. Her 7-year-old is a gender nonconforming child. Welcome back to everybody. Thank you all so much for joining us.
MARA KEISLING: Hi, Michel.
JENNIFER SAVAGE: Great to be here.
GAYLE TROTTER: Thank you.
MARTIN: Mara, I hope you don't mind my mentioning that after our program last week, you and Gayle stuck around for quite a while to talk about some of the things that you think people don't get about the experience of being transgender. So can I just ask you to start by saying what do you think is the number one thing that people don't get about your experience as a transgender woman.
KEISLING: I think all of the challenges people have with transgender people, all of the misunderstandings, all come from one thing and that is not understanding that somebody's gender identity really is a core part of who they are. Most people are lucky enough that their gender identity matches what they were told their whole life they are in terms of either male or female. But for some percent of the population, that isn't the case. And people aren't yet familiar enough with that to understand that they have a gender identity, I have a gender identity and mine just doesn't match what the doctor said. And from that...
MARTIN: And you knew this your whole life?
KEISLING: Oh, from the time I was 3. Every day of my life I've thought about this. And that's why people often mistakenly we're being fraudulent in some way or they'll say we are trying to live our lives as a woman or as a man. And I think they don't understand that it's really actually quite the opposite. An out transgender person is somebody who is saying, I am not making the choice anymore to pretend to be somebody I am not. This is who I am.
MARTIN: Jennifer, let's hear from you. You are navigating this as the parent of a gender nonconforming child. Your 7-year-old daughter kind of sometimes identifies herself as a boy and sometimes not, if I have that right? I mean, when she was little, sometimes she'd say, no, I'm a boy. And now she kind of says, well, I'm half-and-half - does that sound right? Is that about how it feels to you?
SAVAGE: That sounds right. Yeah, when...
MARTIN: Is there something that you would really wish people would understand or is there something you think most people don't get about your daughter?
SAVAGE: You know, mostly I think that I would just agree with Mara in that, you know, I really do believe that her gender identity has been there all along and we're sort of still watching it play out in terms of our everyday experience.
But as I always say, she is who she is. And we love who she is. And, you know, that there is no other acceptable opinion about that and that's kind of how we've broached it with her teachers and her school. And there was a time when she preferred the pronoun he when she asked to be called by a boy's name when, you know, all of these different things. And, you know, I'm learning, as a parent, that gender is a spectrum and my child is on it, just like we're all on it. And so I do see her moving along that spectrum. And I'm not exactly sure - we take this day by day. We're not exactly sure where this will land with her.
MARTIN: And, you know, to that end, we received tremendous response to our conversation last week, as you might imagine, people who liked what we had to say in that conversation. A lot of people didn't like what some of the things that we're said in our conversation, of which we'll - I'll get more later. But one woman posted to our website saying that as a child she very much wanted to be a boy.
She said I wished it badly, let me just say, I have vivid memories of praying for it - however my mother required me to wear dresses to church, there was no ambiguity about my assigned sex. The woman goes on to say she's grateful for that guidance because she is who she was created to be. She identifies fully as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. So Mara, is that part of the experience too?
KEISLING: Well, great for her. She seems to have come to a comfortable place for her. And, you know, really more power to her. But you can't generalize from her particular. And it's certainly not my experience and is not the experience of a lot of transgender people - or most transgender people.
MARTIN: Gayle, let's hear from you. One of the things I wanted to pick up from our conversation last week was that you were saying that - she feels that sometimes that advocates in this realm have an agenda. And that was one of the things that some of the people who wrote to us to said - I challenge you on that. And said that's not my experience, my experience is that the parents and the activists themselves, they're just trying to create some space for themselves. A lot of listeners said I don't agree with that, I think there is an agenda. So can you talk a little bit more about that? What do you think the agenda is.
TROTTER: Yes, I think first we need to be gentle with one another. And part of what I really enjoyed about our conversation last week when we went off the mic is that we could just be real with each other and share the experiences that we've had. In researching this, Massachusetts also has a similar school policy that California has now just adopted. And as part of that policy, it calls for disciplining children who are not calling transgender children by the pronouns that they want to be called by.
And I think that's really troubling, not only for the children who are transgender, but also for the other children who are not experiencing that. And we try to be gentle with each other, but it's very hard when the goalposts are moving all the time. And to say that children can be disciplined because they aren't saying something that to their mind and their eye conforms with nature, is very difficult on these children. And so, for me, pushing that into children who are preschool age or lower must be ideologically driven.
MARTIN: Well, tell me more about what you think the agenda is.
TROTTER: I think it is trying to take away from the nature. I mean, you can look at this as a lawyer, you can look at it as a mother, or - for me, I'm a Catholic. And going back to what Pope Benedict said last December, he quoted a famous French feminist who said one is not born a woman, one becomes so. And that's an understanding that God has created us as women and we decide are we women or not.
And there's a confusion about that. I think every woman has had the experience of, you know, having these markers of puberty or what does it mean to be a woman. And that's changed a lot in the last couple of decades - shorthair, playing on sports, being all that you can be. Those issues have really changed for women. So saying that you can't be who you are as a woman because you are genetically different is something that we haven't really talked about, but it's something I think limits our creativity and puts us in a box.
MARTIN: But - OK, I still don't think I understand what you feel is the agenda in your view because is that bad? To say that you can be a woman and...
MARTIN: ...Have short hair and you can be a woman...
TROTTER: That's great. Yes.
MARTIN: But is your argument that the agenda is to create acceptance for something that you don't agree with? Is that the issue? Is that what...
MARTIN: ...You think the agenda is?
TROTTER: Yes because we have the book of nature, which has explained that there is a duality of creatures. We are created by God, male and female. And you, in being a woman, can be very different. There's a lot of creativity, and in America, we particularly prize individualism and I support that with full strength. But there is a difference between men and women. Like, just take a practical matter - when you go into office buildings in Washington, D.C. the women's rooms are frequently locked and you have to have a code to get into the women's bathroom - why is that? Because women don't feel safe having an unlocked bathroom that men could go into because women face threats of sexual assault.
And there is a genetic, biological difference between men and women and that is - when we look at the politics and the law surrounding this, even with adults, not just in a school situation, we have to understand there are real risks for women that we can't disregard.
MARTIN: Well, I would say though that men do face sexual assault, which is something that has become abundantly clear as the reporting about just even in - the military has made clear that, in fact, the majority of the reported sexual harassment, sexual assault complaints, when the Pentagon did a survey, were from men, which is one thing to point - but OK - but, Mara can I get you to address this whole question of agenda. I'm sure you've heard this before.
MARTIN: When people say you have an agenda, how do you respond to that? Do you think you have one? Well, you're an activist so...
KEISLING: I sure do have an agenda.
MARTIN: Yeah, let's hear it.
KEISLING: And the agenda is, you know, I want Jennifer's 7-year-old to be left alone at school, to be educated. And I want what Gayle says she wants - and I should say, Gayle and I have become really good friends...
KEISLING: I want what Gayle wants, where people are allowed to be the kind of women they want. But I think Gayle is saying, I want the women I want - the women I want to be allowed to be the women I want them to be, that's OK, but here's a line that isn't appropriate for me, that I'm not comfortable with therefore, women shouldn't have that choice to be that kind of a woman.
MARTIN: Let me talk about, in terms of the whole comfort question - and if you're just joining us, we're talking about issues affecting transgender and gender nonconforming people. We're following on a conversation we had last week. We realized there was a lot more to talk about.
So our guests are Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Gayle Trotter, she's a conservative columnist, a member of the Independent Women's Forum and a regular contributor to our program. And writer Jennifer Savage, who has two children, one of whom is so-called gender nonconforming, which is to say that she is a girl but sometimes identifies as a boy. I want to play a clip from a conversation that daytime television host Katie Couric had last week with two transgender guests. They're both celebrities. One was actress Laverne Cox. Many people know her from the show "Orange is the New Black" And the model Carmen Carrera. And Carrera was talking about her transition when Couric asked this...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KATIE")
KATIE COURIC: Your private parts are different now aren't they?
CARMEN CARRERA: I don't want to talk about it because it's really personal. I just - I'd rather talk about my modeling stuff. I'd rather talk about being in W and being at, you know, maybe in Italian Vogue and doing fun stuff, and showing people that after the transition, there's still life to live.
MARTIN: Mara, I want to ask you about this - I am reacting to this a little bit as a person in broadcasting because I realize that sometimes conversations are had before the program about what it is you're going to talk about and then somebody might come out and decide that they don't want to talk about it. But that doesn't mean - you know, so I don't know that that conversation did occur, but I'm interested in - there was a lot of negativity directed at Katie Couric because they felt that she was kind of treading into personal business. How do you respond to that?
KEISLING: Well, it is an obsession that Americans have with transgender people about our medical treatments that we've had, about our bodily configurations. Most people don't know what genitals anybody in their life has. Most of us have a couple of dozen people or a couple hundred people in our lives who we know and the rest of the people we just make those assumptions about. The real thing about being transgender is not that. It's not the most interesting thing about me, what my medical history is. When - Laverne Cox on that show said it right - when we focus on that, which is just such a small part about being transgender.
We don't focus on the violence that transgender people face, we don't focus on the fact that our unemployment rate is twice the national average, we don't focus on the fact that kids in Boston can - in some people's worldview it would be OK if they were tease and harass transgender kids by using the wrong pronouns. If someone says, you know, my name is Dave, not David, we cut the person some slack and we say Dave. But if the person says my name is Latisha, but we knew they were Marcus before, if a kid is saying, well, I'm calling you Marcus because I don't believe you, that's harassment. And that's...
MARTIN: OK, but isn't it a little disingenuous to say that this can't be discussed because isn't this the area that is of concern where the public sphere is implicated, which is locker rooms, gyms and spas -where you are - but isn't that- you see my question?
MARTIN: In the school setting, locker rooms and overnight school trips and things like that, I mean, isn't where - Gayle, you might want to back me up on this - this is where I think some conservatives say they feel there is an agenda to not allow other people to express their own standards of modesty about being in an intimate space, in an undressed space, with a person who is presenting as a different gender. Isn't that kind of really where the rubber hits the road?
KEISLING: Well, I think for some people, probably. But we're talking about facilities that everybody needs to use, everybody has the same right to use and these problems that everybody is worried about don't really happen. Right? Nobody's ever seen this happen.
MARTIN: Well, what about that case - I mean, this maybe seems like a small case and, yes, it's again an isolated example, but there was this big spa, Korean spa, in Virginia were a woman - a transgender woman - was asked to leave because other people complained. I don't know what it is they were experiencing that caused them to feel uncomfortable. So...
KEISLING: Sure. She wasn't asked to leave, she was asked not to come in in the first place. Somebody at the front counter said, I don't think you're woman enough to be here, so we don't want you to be here. There was some claim that somebody complained, but it would've been somebody in the lobby. It just doesn't - the story doesn't pan out.
KEISLING: It was an unnecessary worry. I don't - that transgender person who was involved in that - I don't have any idea what kind of medical treatments they've had and I wouldn't ask. But she wasn't asked.
MARTIN: I see. I see.
KEISLING: She was just turned away.
MARTIN: Jennifer, how are you hearing this as the mother of a child who identifies as a girl but often is more attracted to boy stuff - back in the day we'd call her a tomboy. How are you hearing this? And I apologize that we are again running out of time on something that's so complicated and sensitive.
SAVAGE: No worries. You know, it all just kind of goes back, for me, to this place of giving everyone the sort of respect and dignity that they deserve. And I would hope that, you know, if my child preferred a different pronoun, that, you know, her classmates and her school would do what they could do to make sure that that happened. And I agree that sort of it can get to a place of teasing, taunting, all of those things, pretty quickly.
A simple mistake is a simple mistake but - and I personally still trip over pronouns and have to really work at it sometimes. And I'm new to this whole topic in so many ways. But I try, and I really do try to make sure that even with my own child, that I ask her what she prefers and I adhere to that. So I do feel like in those sort of ways that, you know, it could get to a place where those things are used as tools of bullying. And in terms of, you know, I had heard about the spa story as well. And I didn't realize that that person was stopped at the front desk. I mean, to me, that's just - it sort of - I feel like - a sea change that needs to happen.
MARTIN: Just for - forgive me - just for point of clarification, the spa says that it was a language barrier issue and that they are sorry. Just to say that there was some misunderstanding of the person at the desk who didn't - whose command of English was not total. And I just felt, in the interest of fairness, it was important to let you know that. I apologize once again. I mean, I should have started the program by saying I'm sorry and that way I'm cover for the rest of the day. But, again, this is such an interesting and sensitive topic. Mara, I hope you don't mind returning to it.
MARTIN: Gayle, I hope you don't mind returning to it.
MARTIN: Because this is a cutting-edge issue, and I think we want to be part of people understanding it. Mara Keisling is executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Gayle Trotter is a columnist and attorney, mom of six, here in Washington, DC. Jennifer Savage is a writer and blogger, mom of two. She joined us from NPR member station KUFM in Missoula, Montana. Thank you all so much for joining us. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.