The Radical Inclusion of All Genders and Sexualities

Current debates about the standing of LGBTQIA+ persons have raised new awareness around gender and sexuality. People whose sexual attractions and gender identities cannot be contained within hetero-normative (and binary/cisgender) culture have always existed, but oppression, discrimination, and violence against them have long been the norm and continue. In the U.S. transgender people have been especially singled out for targeted abuse. We must re-envision a radically inclusive society that gives full permission to individual sexualities and identities. This discussion looks at the systemic oppression of gender and sexual minorities in the context of intersectionality and explore how to achieve the full inclusion of all genders to help bring humanity to its full potential.

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 ANDERSON: Good afternoon. I’m Erica Anderson and this is Salgu Wissmath, and Fresh “Lev” White, and we are here to share with you about gender. We hope you’ll keep in mind that when you’ve seen one transgender person, you’ve seen one transgender person. And we each are speaking for ourselves. 

Please be kind. I may use language, we may use language that’s different than the language that you prefer. This is a big challenge for us, I think, in society in understanding each other around these issues. I’m trying to be respectful, and I hope you cut me some slack. We’re here to be involved in a heart-centered change, and all of us want to share our experiences and our observations, and engage you.

I’m going to set the context a little bit. We’ve never been here before in this society, and we could elaborate on that in a lot of ways. It’s not just because we’re on the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century, but this society hasn’t ever existed before. The threats to humanity are real and dire, both the environmental threats and the social threats. And the need to evolve to create sustainable solutions to our environmental challenges and our social and cultural challenges is real and significant.

A lot of people at Bioneers are talking about what’s sustainable. Certainly not environmental degradation and exploitation. And there’s a social version of that as well. What is sustainable is not colonialism, racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, or cisgenderism. That may be a new one for some of you. These are also social degradation and exploitation.

The threats to the environment are better known, I think, to most of you. I like to talk about the fact that nature loves variation, and that when the variation decreases, that we have a problem – the exploitation of the environment, the change in the distribution of wildlife and so forth.

As far as threats to environment and humanity, obviously the Trump administration, which ignores science and attempts to bend it in the direction of moneyed interests by releasing public lands, suspending environmental regulations, instructed the CDC (Center for Disease Control), to not use the term transgender, eliminating data collection about violence to transpersons, and argued very recently to the Supreme Court – in a case around having to do with sex discrimination – that the Civil Rights Act has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity.

Erica Anderson

Can we create a better society? As Martin Luther King observed years ago, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I had an occasion recently to test that justice. I was invited to the 68th UN Civil Society conference. It was the first time it had ever been in Salt Lake City. They wanted me to do a session on gender, and after we went round and round about it on a conference call, I said, “So in the Salt Palace, where the event is going to be held, there will be gender neutral bathrooms, won’t there?” And what happened then was silence, stammering, and a lot of pretext. And then later – surprise, surprise – I received a form letter disinviting me. The CEO didn’t know it had happened. She got on the phone with me. I said, “Well, this is interesting you’re calling me; I’ve been disinvited.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Well, you better find out.”

Until recent years, few people knew about gender identity differences, and most gay and lesbian people were closeted. We didn’t refer to a spectrum of genders until very recently. I’ve been a psychologist for 40 years, so I can say something about the training of health professionals, who subscribe to the dominant, binary construction of gender, so-called “men are from Mars and women are from Venus”. A lot of bunk.

Here’s some language for us in our conversation today. This is our version of “Trans101”. Sex or gender as designated at birth on the birth certificate has historically been binary, and in most states there still are only two choices. But that’s the sex as designated at birth. Sexual identity attractions or sexual orientation, as we say it, is different than sex. Gender identity is the felt identity someone has about who they are and, according to us, is a spectrum. Gender expression can be very individual and different, but we generally think of things like masculine and feminine or neither, androgynous.

What’s the difference between non-binary, gender queer, and gender non-conforming? Think about it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary just added “they” as an acceptable pronoun to refer to a single person. Generally, we think of someone using “they” as someone who might be non-binary. California has a third gender for driver’s license applications, now. So my question is, in terms of inclusion: How big is the trans tent?

I was on a TV show in Sweden three years ago, and I came out to two million people. It was the first time an openly transgender person was on primetime television. I was also on the cover of a Swedish psychiatric journal. They wanted to do a special issue on gender – that’s what [SWEDISH WORD] with the two symbols – and they wanted me on the cover. That’s a pretty bold move. I wouldn’t have done it in the USA. I probably would have lost my license, or certainly been soundly criticized. But Sweden is Sweden.

The presidential election of 2016 kind of blew a hole in a lot of my plans, and really created havoc in terms of our progress towards inclusion in our society. But resisting the cultural backlash has further emboldened me. Has it been hard? Damn right it’s been hard. I’ve been discriminated against in housing, healthcare, employment, and public accommodations. I’ve been roundly criticized by my own community, including those most marginalized. There’s cross-sectional, cross-generational trauma in the trans community, and a lot of hurt. And I have to remember from time to time that I have my hurt, but I also have privilege. And I try to use that privilege in a constructive way. 

I have found my voice, literally, for speaking out about injustice, and particularly about gender inclusion through working on a song about being gendered, called Man, and performing a shtick that I call My Neo-Vagina Monologue – thank you to Eve Ensler.

But we’re in a society that exercises denial every day – of climate change, of the spectrum of genders. In my own work with trans youth, there’s a disinformation campaign about the work that we’re doing in gender-affirming youth. One of the publications says, “Medication used to block puberty in transgender youth is associated with thousands of deaths.” That would be alarming if it’s true. How did they get to that statement? Well, one of the medications used for blocking puberty is also used in a different formulation for males who have prostate cancer as a palliative to slow down the rate of growth of a cancer. And the deaths are all associated with that use.

We have a lot of disinformation. There’s a lot of fear-mongering about trans persons being sexual predators. In the red states, the so-called bathroom bills. And just recently the Supreme Court, when it heard arguments about these cases before it, heard from our federal government that it should be legitimate, in effect legal, to discriminate against gay and trans people. 

We’re at a crossroads in the plight of gender minorities, transgender creative, non-binary persons. Coming out and transitioning is hard. Often it means that someone has had decades of self-torture. We call it in the trade “gender dysphoria”. It’s really self-torture. Facts about self-harm of transgender creative and non-binary are very alarming. A significant portion of the majority have had suicidal thoughts, and 40% are reporting as attempting it. The long struggle for acceptance is illustrated in a study I became aware of from Los Angeles which looked at people who had transitioned in mid-life. They said they came to terms with who they were and their identity 20 years before they stepped forward to talk to anybody about it – 22 years for trans men and 27 years for women.

The divisions among people in the last few years have spiked. We need truth and reconciliation in so many ways. But imagine a society, if you will, in which every person feels free to be themselves, and every child feels loved and accepted; that no one is marginalized or discriminated against, and that everyone feels free and empowered to be themselves authentically. This would, in my judgment, constitute evolutionary consciousness. We’re quite a ways away from that, but everyone in this room has a place to play and contribute to this emerging society. We all have our given opportunities. If everyone recognizes the legitimacy of others’ identities, including the complexities of their identities, no one is “less than”. Others different than ourselves are not abnormal, since we are normal. That’s been a paradigm used by many.

What if we stopped arguing whether Title 7, Discrimination on the Basis of Sex, included sexual orientation and gender identity – that in this society there is no permissible discrimination based upon someone’s identity. None. Imagine. And what if sincere religious beliefs did not trump (pun intended) individual rights? Individual differences are often cast as the question “Is it nature or nurture that contributes the most to an individual’s identity?” That’s the time-honored paradigm in psychology. Arguably this question lies at the heart of psychology, and the raison d’etre is how does one person differ from another. But here’s what I say. The new answer must be it’s neither nature nor nurture, it’s nature through nurture in culture. It’s the culture that must change in order for us to evolve.

I’m sure you’re here because you want to be part of the solution, recognizing that a great deal must change. So let’s be the change that we want. Thanks. [APPLAUSE] 

SALGU WISSMATH: Hi. My name is Salgu. I identify as non-binary, and I use “they, them, their” as pronouns. I’m a photographer based in Sacramento, and I freelance right now for editorial publications, nonprofits, and just other odds and ends.

A lot of my personal work is about identity – my own and others – and it’s focused a lot on the queer community. I started this project Without Disguise about four years ago while I was figuring out my own coming out journey, and my gender identity, and also dealing with depression.

One of the first things I did when I came out is go to the thrift store and buy a tie. And I just remember that feeling of gender euphoria when I first got to wear a tie. It just really fit. So a lot of the images are just me dealing with a lot of emotions, a lot of depression, a lot of fear, a lot of shame. As you know, coming out can be a really hard experience, and I think for a lot of people who do come out, they say that the hardest part is coming out to yourself, and that was definitely one of the things that I found.

Salgu Wissmath

After that project, I was living abroad at the time teaching English in South Korea, and I knew I wanted to go back into photography full time. So I applied to grad school and I got in. I went to Ohio University and worked on my master’s project called “Documenting Dysphoria”. It’s a photographic project trying to illustrate what dysphoria feels like.

For those who do not know, gender dysphoria can be defined as the distress a person experiences as a result of the disconnect between their internal gender identity and the sex or gender they were assigned at birth. For many people who identify as trans or non-binary or anywhere on the spectrum of gender, this is often a way that they figure out their own identity.

Some of the images are just illustrations of each individual’s own journey with dysphoria. I had conversations with them, asked them how gender dysphoria felt to them, what situations made them experience it. So based on their own lived experience, we created an illustration of that feeling. It was a gallery show, so along with the photographs, there was text along with the images from their own words answering these questions and describing their own journeys. 

Photograph by Salgu Wissmath

This first picture is Megan. She describes what gender dysphoria feels like to someone who maybe doesn’t know what it is. She says, “First, picture in your mind someone you dislike. Then imagine tomorrow, when you wake up, every single person on the planet insists you have to act just like them; you have to dress like them; you have to like the types of movies and TV shows they like; you have to read the kind of stuff they do; and all the stuff that you want to do you are absolutely not allowed to do it without being extremely ridiculed, mocked, and ostracized by society. That’s basically how it feels to suffer dysphoria.”

This is Cricket. She described an experience to me that she had when she was a kid. She was playing with some other children in the neighborhood – some boys, some girls – and didn’t really feel like she fit in with either of them. She says. “I remember going over to the other side of the street, sitting on the bridge overlooking the brook that fed the lake, and just wondering, What am I? Am I an alien? I was about 5.”

This is Taylor. He uses he/him pronouns, and he shares: “I think visibility of transgender people is incredibly important. Without it, I probably would have never come out, and I wouldn’t have had the multitude of opportunities I do now.”

That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to share this project, is just to increase visibility and representation. There’s a lot of negative representation of trans people in the media, and there are so many people that don’t discover their identity until later in life, or maybe they discover their identity early in life, but they keep it hidden for years and years, as was mentioned earlier. So this project is just a way to increase that visibility, both for people that are not part of the LGBTQ community, but those who are, and so that they can see themselves represented.

This is Danny. Danny uses he and they pronouns, and he describes an experience going to the bathroom, which is kind of a trigger point for a lot of transgender folks. Danny says: “I got hit with a purse once, and I was like, ‘I’m just trying to pee,’ because she thought I was a boy. I was like, “That’s fair, but where am I supposed to pee?”

This is Skylar. She uses she/hers pronouns, and she described the feeling of seeing her other friends have children and not being able to. So she says: “I really wanted to be a mother and have that physical and emotional connection with my child. Because I can’t have that, it’s very devastating.”

This is Bea. Bea uses he and they pronouns. Bea answers the question: What do you hope people come to understand through these images? “The idea that trans doesn’t look a certain way, and that it’s expressed in so many different ways.”

That’s another kind of point I wanted to share through these images is that I think, as was mentioned at the beginning, when you meet one trans person, you meet one trans person. There’s such a range in the spectrum of identities, of gender identities, and experiences also with gender dysphoria. So a lot of people experience gender dysphoria in different ways. Some people who identify as trans or non-binary may not experience gender dysphoria. Not everyone chooses to transition medically or socially. Some people prefer to kind of challenge gender-normative expression and they might identify a certain way but not conform to like what it looks like to be a girl, what it looks like to be a boy.

Photograph by Salgu Wissmath

This is Delfin. Delfin uses they/them pronouns. They identify as non-binary. I asked them: What are some examples of types of situations where you are more aware of gender dysphoria? When it comes to what does it mean to dress professionally. What does it mean to enter into spaces where there are very rigid gender norms, especially around professional dress. So Delfin was the LGBT Center Director at my school in Ohio, and they shared an example once, kind of snarkily. “They said I had to wear a tie, but they didn’t say what I had to wear a tie with.” I think this was an outfit they had worn to a wedding. But this image especially is really important to share, because they were actually fired from their job a year later without cause. In Ohio, they didn’t have to have cause to fire them. That’s a really important thing to keep in mind, given the Supreme Court case questioning whether we can have a right to have jobs as LGBT people in this world.

These images are intended to affirm and offer visibility to the trans and non-binary experience from a queer lens. First and foremost, this project is for the trans community for us to hear and see fellow trans people’s stories, for us to recognize parts of ourselves in the experiences of others. Ultimately it is to empower us to embrace our own skin. For everyone who is trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming are questioning their gender identity, this project is for you.

That’s my work. In case you’re interested, I have a few zines of this project. And you can find me online – Twitter, Instagram. If you are interested in learning more about this project, participating, or you need a photographer. 

FRESH “LEV” WHITE: So my name is Fresh “Lev” White. I go by Lev. My pronouns are “he” and “they”. How many people, when you were a little kid, did your parents ask you what your gender was? Who did that happen for? Yeah. It didn’t happen, did it? So somebody decided that based on your sex, that’s what your gender was. I want to talk a little bit about what that means.

Fresh “Lev” White

They ended up putting us in particular clothing, and deciding what kind of games we can play, and toys we can play with. So what we’re talking about up here is deconstructing the gender construct. Before the ‘40s, boys wore pink here and in Europe, and girls wore blue, based on the virgin Mary. It wasn’t until society pages decided to switch it. There’s literally a line in the newspaper that says: “Boys shall no longer wear pink”. Right?

There was a time when women couldn’t drive cars, own homes, vote, right? Those are social constructs. It’s not real. They made it up. It was illegal for men to go topless until the late ‘40s. Their bathing suits looked like a tank top with shorts, and they fought that in court. So the idea that women’s bodies are indecent and men’s bodies are decent is a social construct and a lie. It’s just got passed on that way.

These are the best of times and the worst of times. In the worst of times, we are living with legacies of scarcity that support racism, sexism, classism. The whole idea that there’s not enough is the only reason that we experience these kinds of -ism experiences – transphobia – trying to keep people down, because we need to make space for us. That’s a lie. You can actually be your full self, and the person next to you gets to be their full self, and the person next to them gets to be their full self. There’s enough for all of us, and we can actually thrive.

It’s the best of times, because we’ve never been in a time in human existence where violence has been so low, believe it or not. Our ancestors could not have dreamed of the tools that we have in order to live good lives. And we have to break out of the constructs and get past the -isms in order to step into our power and see where we can have impact, and move there, and have impact there.

In respect for Salgu’s and Erica’s reference to dysphoria, me as a spiritual being, that’s not my experience. My experience is that gender is a social construct, and dysphoria is anyone who believes that there are only two. As human beings we’ve always walked this planet in expanded genders. If you look back to the histories from Asia to Africa to Native Americans to Europe, you will find people of various genders.

By the time I was 6, I was really clear that there was more to my gender than I was allowed to express. I didn’t know how to express it, but I still played into it whenever I could. Being labeled female at birth, having to wear a dress and patent leather shoes to church on Sundays – that was a problem that I worked out on the streets with the boys playing stick ball or whatever I had to do. I used my body in a way as a defense. I was sort of the bully’s bully person, and grew up to be butch identified, very much honoring the fact that I was born female, and honoring as well that I’m a masculine person. Take away this beard, add some breasts, I don’t look much different than I looked 10 or 11 years ago when I transitioned. I am in this body again having a spiritual experience. What I am and what all of you are is much bigger than our society ever lets us know.

As a meditation instructor, but more importantly my title is love and compassion activist, I just want to remind you that are you loved, and that you were meant to be here, and your impact matters, and you are worthy of everything that you dream and desire, so thank you.

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