If you’re up to date on recent U.S. natural disaster news, you may have heard about the surge of wildfires across California this past week. Weirdly enough, even if you aren’t, you still may have heard about these fires because they’ve been a discussion topic among the transgender community recently.
The connection, bizarrely, is a gender reveal party.
Thrown by a couple who violated COVID-19 social distancing and quarantine protocol to launch fireworks into the dry countryside of California to announce their unborn child’s genitalia, the party quickly turned from weird and uncomfortable to outright disastrous as the fires ignited. At the time of this post, the fires have spread across more than 13,500 acres, causing tens of thousands of people to evacuate.
California’s wildfire warnings are plastered all over the state in an effort to reduce fire damage and prevent disasters like the one caused by this party. Astoundingly, this is the second time in the last three years that this type of incident, at the same type of party, occurred. In 2017, a wildfire was started by another couple throwing a gender reveal using pyrotechnics.
Following these incidents, many trans and non-binary individuals, other members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and allies expressed distaste for the concept of gender reveal parties. Not only do these parties subscribe to the binarist, cisgender social narrative that is imposed on our children from birth, but they also enforce sexist gender roles, and contribute to transphobic rhetoric that is so often weaponized against our community.
Some examples include:
“Well you were BORNa boy/girl…”
This statement implies that genitalia is synonymous with gender identity—which is untrue.
“Didn’t you used to be a boy/girl though?”
This question implies that because the trans or non-binary person on the other end may have been raised as a different gender, or that they used to identify differently, their current gender identity is invalid or untrue.
Again, this is false, and dismisses the trans person’s autonomy and selfhood. Additionally, not everyone wants to talk about what their lives looked prior to coming out. It is best just to be polite, and avoid this line of thinking.
“Right but what parts do you have? Like biologically?”
This question is insensitive and invasive, and once again implies that the asker equates genitalia to gender. When a trans or non-binary person shares their pronouns, that is all you need to know. You probably wouldn’t ask a stranger you perceive as cisgender what their genitals look like, so don’t do it to queer folx either!
In the wake of these fires, the womxn who came up with the concept of gender reveal parties spoke out about how she feels regarding the situation now:
“Stop having these stupid parties. For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid’s penis. No one cares but you,” Jenna Karvunidis posted on Facebook.
She says she regrets the popularization of the parties, and also that her perspective on gender has since changed. Karvunidis feels that putting children in boxes limits their potential and talents “that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.” Coincidentally, her own first-born now identifies as non-binary.
“There are plenty of reasons to eat cake,” Karvunidis said in a statement to The Guardian. “You can pick one that doesn’t reinforce an attitude of harm toward members of the LGBTQ community.”
Karvunidis’ insight and support for the LGBTQIA+ community is refreshing and valuable. It is also worth mentioning that when she held the first gender reveal party with her husband, it was to celebrate a healthy pregnancy following complications and miscarriages—gender had very little to do with it, other than marking the stage in which the sex of the baby could be determined.
Hopefully, these recent disasters will help more people understand the need to move away from the heavy emphasis on gender roles and binary sex characteristics. It is healthier and happier for everyone to let children grow into their gender identities naturally, rather than saddling them with expectations based on what’s between their legs.
It must have been 2004 or 2005, because I was high on the couch (with a prescription, of course) with a broken ankle and a copy of Rolling Stone, featuring Green Day on the cover for their political pop punk manifesto, American Idiot. It was fifteen or sixteen years ago, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t recall all of the other articles that were featured in the overpriced homage to Mick Jagger and company (or that Bob Dylan song—who knows?). The one article I do remember (aside from the Green Day one) was about a Latinx womxn who was killed in Newark, CA in 2002.
Gwen Araujo was seventeen years old when Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson, José Merél, and Jaron Nabors murdered her. The details of her death are gory, horrific, and predominantly fueled by homophobia and transphobia. Upon learning that Gwen had what her assailants considered to be “unladylike” genitalia, the four assaulted her until she passed out, and then strangled her and beat her to death with a shovel.
This was the first portrayal of a transgender womxn I ever experienced: violence and sensationalized headlines. She was the first time I saw myself in the media.
Prior to reading Gwen’s story, I thought the most closely-guarded part of my identity—that secret I never intended to share—was an impossibility without a fairy godmother or a primitive intervention. Occasionally, some of the 90s and early 2000s cartoons I watched would play around with gender (who could forget the episode of Fairly Oddparents where Timmy gets girly for a day?), but for the most part, gender was an immovable, unchangeable construct that kept me up at night.
Before creating this website, I wrote a book of macabre poetry about my life and experiences with gender. Sufficed to say, it was not an uplifting tale, despite the story’s happy (most days) ending. There were poems about eating disorders, self-harm, suicidality, and a number of other mental health risks that were easy to hide from my loved-ones (sometimes), but that made functioning in the world difficult. I’ve never been a very talented visual artist, but I even had a few dopey sketches to include with the poems.
The collection was called (W)hole to convey a self-indulgent sense of overcoming adversity to embrace my identity. Don’t get me wrong, trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) folx have to put up with a lot of malarkey, but as far as being trans is concerned, I have a lot of privilege.
Some of the poems were pretty good, while others were lazy and sad. In a hypothetical world where (W)hole sold as well as my last book (a dystopian novel about biking and David Bowie), I’d be able to say I’d sold two whole books in my lifetime. Watch out New York Times Bestseller List!
I thought about Gwen a lot when I was compiling my collection. Would another book of poetry have made a difference?
It’s been eighteen years since her death, and even though trans and non-binary folx are more visible than ever before, our community is being harassed, sexually, physically, mentally, and emotionally assaulted, and murdered more often than ever before. Are those figures actually representative of the violence against our community, or have the cogs that make up society been underreporting and misreporting trans and non-binary (especially our siblings from BIPOC communities) deaths and atrocities? I don’t know. Research is great, until it’s so flooded with transphobia, ableism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and all of the other biases and “isms” that perpetuate hate that it’s no longer useful.
School has always been my coping mechanism. When I was a kid, I figured that if I did a really good job in school, my family and friends would have to love me even though I was trans. There’s obviously a lot to unpack with that particular thought process, but regardless, I did well in academics, and it continues to be a place where I thrive (unless it’s Zoom class—barf).
Thus, in my first quarter of social work grad school (privilege, privilege, privilege), I wrote a loooonng, meticulously researched essay about queer youth suicide. About halfway through the paper, I started crying.
It very well could have been the estrogen that triggered my response, but more likely, the idea that 30%-51% of transgender and gender non-conforming youth—kids, mind you—attempt suicide was enough to break me (especially because I hypothesized that these statistics were low). To my infinite horror, I found that no interventions had been created or studied to make life less shitty for LGBTQIA+ youth.
It was all talk and no action.
I’ve been transgender for a long time. Longer than I’ve been sober, vegan, a musician, married—you name it, and the trans thing has been around longer. Consequently, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for mitigating gender dysphoria and not hurting myself (which work most of the time). Considering how sparse the research on gender dysphoria and queer folx in general is, I figured it couldn’t hurt to share what I know to be true.
As an adult, I’m afforded many of the privileges that I didn’t have as a kid: money, legal autonomy, a (mostly) developed brain, lived experiences, etc. These privileges have made living in a cis-heteronormative society easier, but I still can’t help but feel like I failed my twelve-year-old self by allowing her to carry around more self-loathing than any child should ever have to bear.
At that age, I didn’t know the lingo or have the self-confidence to fight for what I needed, let alone understand my own feelings. My parents and loved-ones came from a generation where gender fluidity existed within the unnamed confines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show—a.k.a. non-binary folx were seen as straight-up extraterrestrials. Many schools, shrinks, and doctors were in the dark about the needs of the queer community, and believe it or not, marriage equality didn’t yet exist in all 50 states.
Essentially, transphobia existed everywhere, and I internalized that shit like a child-prodigy takes up the piano. Consequently, I wasn’t particularly nice to myself for a very, very long time. The politicization of queer (and black, disabled, autistic, POC, Muslim, immigrant, etc.) bodies has to stop. My transness is a natural and beautiful part of human variation, just like redheads and left-handed folx.
My essay on queer youth suicide ultimately led me to transform the experiences I would have poem-ed about in (W)hole into Out of Yer Shell. I didn’t advocate for myself when I was a kid because there was nothing like OOYS at the time (trust me, I looked). Flooding trans and enby kids with shame to keep them from coming out of their shell is abuse in every sense of the word. Our community has to be active in combatting systems of oppression that disproportionately affect us, such as suicidality, murder, and homelessness. We need to change the culture surrounding coming out and transitioning and educate ourselves, our loved-ones, and our providers (teachers, principals, mental and medical health professionals, etc.) on ways to be more supportive and loving. The old way doesn’t work:
We need a revolution.
Out of Yer Shell may not be the Stonewall Riot of the internet, but hopefully it’s a start. A lot has changed since Gwen Araujo was murdered in 2002—most of it for the better. The “panic defense,” a term that refers to committing violent crimes because the perpetrator learns that their victim is gay or trans, which was used to defend Gwen’s murderers, has been outlawed in eleven states since 2013. Movies like Disclosure, which analyzes portrayals of trans and non-binary individuals in the media, and the negative effects thereof, are being made by mainstream streaming services. Gender & Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) have been studied, and proven to be effective forms of suicide prevention within schools for ALL kids. Violence and oppression still plague our community, but _____________ (insert something uplifting).
Sometimes it’s okay to leave a blank empty and come back to it later. Resilience refers to the ability to overcome adversity, not that you always have to have something positive to say.
When we were creating the content for Out of Yer Shell, it felt like there wasn’t a really good place to remember Gwen, but it felt wrong to not include her at all. For better or worse, her life taught me so many different things about myself and my community, and eighteen years later (she would be 35 this year), her story and the stories of other queer folx are still changing and reshaping the world. The Matthew Shepard Foundation is doing incredible work to honor Matt’s memory, including Matthew’s Place and their “Vote 4 Matt” campaign, while the Marsha P. Johnson Institute unabashedly fights for justice for black transgender individuals. Queer poets, such as Andrea Gibson, Mary Oliver, and Alok Vaid-Menon, are celebrated for their words and experiences all over the world, while queer stories, such as Pose and Queer Eye are embraced by mainstream audiences.
See, I filled in that blank with optimism!
That being said, “Silence = Death” was the ACT UP slogan that defined the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s, and it’s the same logic that applies to suicidality, homelessness, and mental health struggles among transgender and gender non-conforming youth today. If we do nothing, our kids and our community will continue to suffer. If we don’t change the way cisgender society perceives and treats trans and non-binary youth, they will keep dying. This isn’t a message of hope, but of necessity.
There’s a lot of work to do, but I believe that people, and society at-large, can change. Protecting trans and non-binary kids is so so soooooo important, and with the help of loved-ones, providers, and the LGBTQIA+ community, we can shift the narrative surrounding transition, coming out, and acceptance. It might start with pronouns, but hopefully it ends with saving a young person’s life .
For a long time, I have been challenged when I expressed my identity as a transman. Unfortunate as this is, I’m sure many people can relate to hearing things like:
Are you sure? Maybe you’re a lesbian?
Well, you’ll grow out of that phase.
But you’re biologically female, so you’re not really a guy.
Have you had “the surgery?”
What’s your REAL name?
All of these questions are rude, invasive, and inappropriate on a number of levels—and yet for most of my adolescence they were all pretty typical reactions I got to speaking about my transness. It’s bad enough being questioned on the validity of your gender identity and dismissed, but like many other trans folx, that is not the only adversity in response to my identity that I face.
I am someone who struggles with severe and persistent mental illness—meaning that a lot of my behaviors, thought processes, and reactions can seem bizarre to people who don’t know me well or aren’t aware of my diagnoses. However, despite my symptoms seeming strange to others, I have lived with them for a long time and know how to function around the obstacles they create, and I’m able to live my life most often as comfortably as those who don’t experience them.
Unfortunately, in the same way people ask about and then deny my transness, my mental illness means I get my capability for decision making and autonomy as a person questioned even more often. And occasionally, people will attempt to use my mental illness to discredit my gender identity—which is entirely absurd, because there is no correlation between my gender identity and the symptoms I experience.
I have no qualms about identifying as male—it’s comfortable, it’s true to myself, and it’s how I’ve felt for as long as I can remember. Which is, notably, far longer than any of my current mental illness symptoms have been on my or anyone else’s radar.
Despite pointing out this conflict to people, it’s as though they don’t even bother to listen, and I’m left with the same irritated feeling I get when I’m misgendered even without the added ableism thrown in.
Symptoms of mental illness do not necessarily have anything to do with gender identity. A lot of transphobic rhetoric seems to center around the false belief that trans people are mentally ill because their identities don’t align with their presentation. The reality of the matter shows us that this perspective is skewed; trans people are more disproportionately affected by mental illness, however this is because of the social stigma and transphobia they face from cis people for being trans.
There is a relationship between the trans community and mental illness, but transphobic rhetoric posits that mental illness leads to “becoming” trans, when actually it would be more accurate to turn that around. Coming out as trans often leads people to face more adversity, more bigotry and discrimination than remaining closeted (or in their shells)—and when pressure is piled on from every aspect of someone’s life simply because of their identity (denied employment, denied housing, denied healthcare, etc.), it isn’t hard to see how that community is particularly susceptible to mental illness.
So, to set the record straight: “transgender” as a descriptor has the same use as “cisgender,” and someone’s gender identity does not make them mentally ill by default. However, the transgender community as a whole does have a higher prevalence of mental illness due to social stigma and systemic oppression.
It’s a tough existence being discredited on the basis of one facet of your identity or another, and mentally ill trans people are a particularly vulnerable population due to these identities (and others, such as race and socioeconomic status also play into discrimination faced by the trans community) overlapping.
I don’t often see trans positive pages that include this part of the conversation. I feel often as someone who is both trans and mentally ill that despite being offered resources (help lines, therapy numbers, crisis prevention, etc.), there is little recognition that it is okay to be mentally ill and trans. We face an enormous amount of adversity even outside struggles specific to our gender identities, and yet I rarely see it spoken on.
Mental health is important for everyone, particularly trans folx. Talking about it should not be something so stigmatized when our community is so affected by it. A lot of trans people have significant trauma they’ve experienced that can manifest as mental illness—and while this is unfortunate, it does not make your identity any less valid.