Gender Inclusivity and the Importance of Community Support
This discussion and Q&A took place at the 2019 Bioneers Conference during the panel “Radical Inclusion of All Genders and Sexualities“.
With Erica Anderson, Ph.D., President of USPATH, the newly created affiliate of WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health; Fresh “Lev” White, CEO of Affirmative Acts Consulting; Salgu Wissmath, a non-binary photographer whose work explores the intersections of mental health, queer identity, ethnicity, and faith.
ERICA: Until about three or four years ago, I used to hear from younger queer people all the time: Why do we need pride? We’ve got marriage equality, we’ve got protections here and there, why do we need pride?
I came out in high school. I’m accepted by everybody I care about. And then we had an election, and now we know why we need pride, and why we need to be together, and why we need community, and why we need to empower each other, and why we need to love and accept each other.
The gains that had been made can be quickly lost, and we’re in jeopardy of losing them now, from the forces on the right and the people who are repressing. And I deliberately included that word denial in what I talked about because I think there’s a similar dynamic at work with people who are denying climate change and the science around climate and the environment, and the people who are denying the beauty of gender diversity.
SALGU: Right now there’s a big movement in the journalism and photojournalism world to make sure that there’s diversity and representation – not just the photographers that are hired, but the type of work that we’re doing that gets published. I think that can be translated to any industry. So if it’s environmental work, social work, I think it’s important to be inclusive and intersectional in anything you do. As queer people, trans people, I think that we have a unique life experience and unique perspective that probably shapes the way that we approach our work, whether that is faith work or journalism work or social justice work. Being present, being seen and visible allows our full selves to come to whatever movement it is that we’re involved in.
LEV: I really appreciated you saying queer and trans, because not everybody’s both. Some people are queer identified, but not part of the trans community and vice versa. So thank you for calling that out. When I was here 19 years ago, it was a lonely place, so some of it is about just seeing that there are other people of color who are clued into some of the environmental injustices or experiences that are happening, especially in our communities, and that we can do something about it. And then the part about visibility, thank you so much for doing that.
The safety part comes in that we have an impact in numbers. I can say that I’m being harmed, but when 50 of us say that we’re being harmed, it helps people who are simply ignorant. Maybe they have the best intention, but simply ignorant of their harms to decide that they need to do something, because like us they are overwhelmed. Not to make an excuse, but it’s what happens.
Q: What does it means to be gender creative?
ERICA: When you’ve seen one transgender person, you’ve seen one. So I think gender creative means someone who is really thinking about who they are and what their gender is. I see a lot of young people who are experimenting, who are thinking about who they are in a very deep and abstract way – way deeper and more abstract than you’d expect based on their chronological age. I take great comfort in and am inspired by that, because these kids are really thinking deeply about some important things, and that’s great. So gender creative, I think, just means you’re thinking about who you are, and maybe it’s fluid and dynamic.
Q: What are your perspectives on community support?
LEV: I don’t know if there’s anything more valuable. I’ve been a healer and a counselor and a coach, and I didn’t reach as much out as I could have. Part of it is because of my age, part of it is my personality. At that time, I didn’t know how to lean in. But now I do, and I advise everybody to do that when they can. I have communities now everywhere, globally. This morning, one of my 16-year-old friend/client folks wanted to know about top surgery. I can reach out to 500 people on my mailing list that I know fairly well. Connecting with people, especially spiritually, as well as around gender and ideals is important.
SALGU: I think community is important. I’ve traveled a lot in the last 10 years, I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and every time I go somewhere, I try to connect with community, and especially the queer community. Some people find it hard to make new friends. When you’re older in life and you’re not in school anymore, it’s hard to make new friends. But I think it’s so important, because if you live in a new place, if you don’t know anyone and you don’t have community, it can be really hard to be your full self and enjoy life.
I found Meetup to be a really great way to create community. There’s always queer meet-ups in any town that I’ve ever been. I’m very active in the LGBT center community in the town I’m in, but there’s also a Meetup group that I go to that’s a board game night. I just love going there. There’s always ways to find community, and I think it’s really important.
ERICA: I have also kind of an international community. I’ve been to Sweden a number of times, and I have Facebook friends all over the world. Some of those singular experiences for me have been connecting with people in other places who share some of my experiences as a transgender person. I’ve been to Brazil and been embraced by the trans community there, and that was really breathtaking in a way. They are really under duress now in the current political situation. They’re in my heart all the time.
I do some speaking in Sweden. Last year I spoke at EuroPride, which is in Sweden, and there was a human rights conference there about LGBTQ rights in Europe, and I really value hearing what’s going on in other countries. So there’s varying level of acceptance of trans identities all over the world. In Poland, you can get your birth certificate changed if you’re trans, but the people who signed your birth certificate have to sign an attestation that they lied on the original one.
Q: Coming out can be painful, how can we navigate awkwardness with family and friends?
SALGU: I can definitely relate. I mean, family’s awkward. I am out to my family, but they’re not necessarily the best about using my pronouns or things like that. But at least they kind of know who I am. And it’s still awkward.
I only came out four years ago, so I’m kind of a newbie at this, but as I’ve become more confident in my own identity, just as I’ve become more confident with the people around me. I find solace in my chosen family – really close friends, my career community that I lean on to accept all my identities and talk about the nuances, and debate about all the ins and outs about queerness. Those are not conversations I have with my family on a day-to-day basis. We eat dinner, we hang out.
Even though my parents don’t use my pronouns, it doesn’t bother me as much as it did when I first came out to them. It’s more about finding confidence in my own identity, which is always changing, and finding other people in my community like friends, family, chosen family, that I can really hash that out with, and that kind of helps with the awkwardness a little bit. I hope that helps.
ERICA: I’ll give you a handle that I use. I’m a psychologist for 40 years, and I’ve been through my own issues with this in terms of getting people to accept me. I hear all the time people saying to me, “Well, so and so in my family doesn’t understand, and they keep asking me, How do I understand? How do I understand this?” And here’s what I say about that: It’s not so important that you understand, just accept. If you accept, you’ll start to understand.
LEV: One of the things that I encourage is that whenever it is possible, allow our families to mourn. So, for example, I took 10 years learning about testosterone before I took it, so I had time to process my transition. Allow some time for your family to grieve who they’ve lost. At some point, hopefully they accept who you are and call you that.
I’m an adoptee. I’ve actually divorced my adoptee family. I gave them plenty of time, many years, in order to accept me as a queer and trans person. And just this past February, with lots of love and compassion, I just released them from my life, and let them know that I have no hard feelings – you’re having your experience and I’m having mine. I’m not recommending that for anyone, but just sharing my experience. I will not allow anyone in my life who can’t respect and honor me, especially when I’m doing that for them as well. [APPLAUSE]
Q: To recognize awkwardness & discomfort is a rebellious act in changing the world. What does it mean to be radically included?
SALGU: Any time I go to a conference and the pronoun’s already on there, or the speakers are intersectional, I can see myself represented. Not just queer stuff but also like people of color, brown, native, black— be totally as intersectional as you possibly can. Earlier this year, I went to a conference, and it was the most queer and intersectional conference I’ve ever been to, and it wasn’t even a queer conference. It was just so intersectional, I felt so seen there. I think every conference should be like that.
Put pronouns in your email signature. When you go to meetings, introduce yourself with your name and pronouns. Things like that can really make people feel seen, because microaggressions make you feel not radically included.
Make sure there are multiple gender options on any kind of form. So even though California has a third gender on their license – which I have – when you sign up for insurance or you go to the doctor’s office, or any other kind of bureaucratic form, there’s only two options. So they haven’t caught up yet.
I was asked to be on this panel, and I’m really blessed to be here. There’s two people of color on this panel that are queer, and that’s pretty awesome. Not every panel is like that. So just be mindful of the speakers that you choose, people that you invite to be part of any kind of organization, all of those things make people feel seen.
LEV: Being on a panel with an older trans woman who’s white and done her work so that she reached out to people of color to be with her, that’s radically inclusive. Because she could have reached out to lots of white trans men and white trans women. [APPLAUSE] So just want to call that out.
Earlier this year there was a conference called Soul Play, which is like the hippie event in the woods, and I went to speak there. Before I went they called me up. In the first conversation I asked them about restrooms, and of course they didn’t have any gender neutral restrooms. And unlike in Erica’s story, this white-run, straight-run organization called me back in two days and said all the bathrooms are now gender neutral.
We have to ask for what we want, to look around to see who and what is missing. We have to look for our own scarcity around if there’s enough, making sure we’re not excluding anybody. We have to learn how to say yes more, and figure out how to make that yes work so that people feel included.
ERICA: I’ve been a professor, and I teach about gender. One of the things I say is that humans are hard-wired to detect differences between other human beings when they encounter them, and the first detection, which isn’t even conscious, is of threat. Is this other person a threat to me? And then very quickly on after that is: What’s the gender of this person? Okay? And to some extent, those are sort of intertwined. They’re not mutually exclusive, because of course we know that in urban society, males are more of a threat than females. Or here in the suburbs.
I think we want to take people off the hook and say, okay, you were wired this way, okay, but you’ve got to get over it. You’ve got to learn to accept other people and their differences. And there’s so much inflammation of divisions in the last few years, and we are here in this beautiful community to try to change that.
Q: What about the expression “you guys”?
LEV: We actually use it less and less because people call it out. So please, continue to call it out. I don’t know, less and less certainly in this lifetime in this experience, more and more people are learning not to use that term. So it used to be used a lot more, believe it or not.
SALGU: Not everyone knows that that could be offensive to some people, or that it’s something you might want to be mindful of. If you hear someone saying it, by all means, let them know, and educate them, help them by offering other phrases, like “y’all” or “everyone”, or whatever it is.
You want to be as gender neutral in our language as possible to be respectful of everyone’s identities. Even “ladies and gentlemen” is outdated. But you have to learn an alternative, you can’t take something away if you don’t replace it with something.
ERICA: Having great empathy for people over 50, I want to say if you’ve overlearned something for many decades, it’s really hard to retrain yourself. Thank you, we need to get called out and offered alternatives very much. Even in our community, largely, the word gay used to be a slur. It was embraced by those who themselves decided that being gay was something they could be proud of. Queer was also a pejorative term. Language itself is very fluid, that’s why I include that comment about please be kind, be forgiving. If we have that spirit, and we say let’s be inclusive, let’s be respectful, let’s try things, I think we’re going to continue to move things in the right direction.
Q: What pronouns are triggering?
LEV: I don’t ask anybody without sharing mine first, and then I don’t expect that they’re going to tell me theirs. My introduction is: “Hi, I’m Lev. My pronouns are they.” Then if the person decides they want to share their pronoun, that’s great, otherwise I get used to using their name. My other pronoun is just my name. Be consistent, so you’re introducing yourself the same way to everybody.
SALGU: I also think it depends on the context. Any time I’m in any queer setting, I always ask people’s pronouns because it’s I know it’s safe to, and I don’t have to worry as much. But I think Lev had a good example, you can always introduce with your pronouns so it leaves it open, like if they want to share theirs, they can, and if they don’t, they don’t have to.
I help at my kid’s school a lot, so when I approach young people, I say: Tell me something about yourself, or tell me what makes you you. That way some of them say like, “My name’s Kyle and I’m a boy”, or “My name’s so and so, my favorite color’s pink”. Like I know that that’s the answer that they have and what they want to share with me about who they are.
ERICA: I have kind of a complicated life because how I do this varies setting to setting. I’m in the Child and Adolescent Gender Clinic at UCSF, so I’m seeing trans youth, gender creative, non-binary youth and their families, and more often than not I, upon meeting a child, will say, Oh, and what is your name? And what pronouns would you prefer? I’m almost always the first doctor who’s ever asked them. I’m kind of making a point that we’re here, we’re going to embrace you for being you, and we want to be respectful, whether they’re 5 years old or 15 years old. And it works pretty well. Believe it or not, I’m kind, so kids are happy about it generally. And very rarely does a kid seem to be very uncomfortable. If they do, I’m completely backing off, I’m trying to say something reassuring to them.
Q: What advice do you have for people in professional settings who want to be inclusive, but don’t know how to be?
LEV: Number one, invite me in to do a training. I was on retreat and found out that one of the people in my community who’s a trans gender woman committed suicide. We’re not talking about, oh today this is my gender and I’m playing around, but to actually take it seriously. At least 19 trans women of color have been killed this year, and suicide. It’s actually a life and death is what we’re talking about.
It’s not just about who we want to be called and how we want to be recognized, but that this is about our life and our life experience. We know we’re supposed to be here, and we know that people can make space for us if they can get over their own insecurities. This is the importance of why we’re here, not just to educate a few people who are clueless, but to let people know that it’s a critical thing.
SALGU: I do a lot of work with the Sacramento LGBT Center, and they have a specific branch that’s just for outreach and training. I’m sure whatever city you’re in, there’s a local center or other organization that will offer training to educate people.
ERICA: I’m at UCSF currently, and I’m actively involved in training future health professionals – doctors, nurses, psychologists. I spend time every week with people at varying levels of training, and who are trying to learn about all of this, accepting LGBTQIA+ youth, especially. I’m really encouraged personally by what I’ve seen in the last five years. In fact, the whole field has moved a lot. My college human sexuality textbook didn’t have transgender in it. It had transsexual in it, and said that people who are transsexual have a deep-seated psychiatric disorder. That has radically changed.
There is an organization worldwide that’s devoted to the science and the practice of transgender healthcare – WPATH – and I’m very active in that. I think that we’re moving in the right direction. Today’s professionals, whatever profession it is didn’t get this in their school, in their training, and so they’re coming from way far behind, I’m afraid.
Everyone has their own individual pathway. There’s no rule book here for LGBTQIA+ identities or life courses. And we all have to make our own decisions. I happen to be very out in public about the fact that I’m transgender. But, I know a lot of transgender people who still are really preferring to be just kind of blending in and kind of quiet and private. That’s fine.
Everybody comes to their own awareness of themselves in different ways, some very quickly, maybe early, some over a long period of time. I’m the kind of slow learner that way. It took me a long time to sort of figure out who I was. But it’s okay. We’re all individuals, and that’s one of the beauties of what we can do in the LGBTQIA+ community is recognize the differences, but the similarities, that we’re all trying to be ourselves and authentically so.
LEV: I run meditation groups and day-longs for trans and gender queer people, and some gender queer people have felt uncomfortable because they “pass” as cigender people, and they feel they don’t belong there. My work is to help expand the human experience. So that means showing up as you are in whatever form that you show up in, and then being held and respected. And then holding particular space so that when I’m with young trans people and trans women who may be targeted, I’m not trying to push myself forward. I’m being an ally, and putting trans women of color first, putting trans women in general, putting young gender queer people first, doesn’t erase me. Right? I still get to show up as me, and they honor me as me.
Q: What about when no box really fits, and someone could like anybody, but has fear of getting involved in the community due to lack of experience?
LEV: Oh my god, youth. It’s real. People will tell you you’re fake or you’re not this, and you have to show up that way or else you’re not that. I totally feel you and hear you. I want to encourage you to be yourself, because the community is there. There are people there who don’t care about who you sleep with, and the people who don’t care about how you identify, they care about all the other gifts that you bring as much or primary. You will find your tribe.
SALGU: Before I came out, I spent a lot of time on YouTube and Tumbler, and it was a great community. It really helped me come out, I learned a lot about all the identities. But there’s all sorts of communities out there, online communities, in-person communities, and microcosms of each community. There’s a place for you. On Tumbler, there’s a lot of that negativeness like, “well you’re not really part of the community because of this or because of this”. But then you go to Meetup in person and nobody really cares if you’ve dated someone or if you haven’t dated someone. They don’t know, they’re not going to ask you. It’s not a question when you go to a queer meetup, they’re like, “excuse me, like how many people have you dated in your life?” No one asks you. You just say what you are and they’re okay. So don’t be afraid to go and meet the community because, and they’re there for you, and they will accept you.