5 Reasons Why We Need to Stop Saying That ‘Women Are Half the World’s Population’

Feminists, I have a pet peeve that I really want to talk about. Namely, this business about women being half the population.

Have you heard this before? An activist is explaining why focusing on women’s rights is so necessary, and as they passionately make their case, they tack onto the end of their speech, “After all, women make up half the world’s population!”

And of course, there’s agreement all around – we can’t perpetuate an injustice against half of the world. That simply won’t do!

I’m not a woman, but I understand the impulse to advocate for women by pointing out just how many women there are. No doubt, it’s compelling to talk about the sheer number of people being denied their autonomy and human rights.

The more people suffering, the greater the injustice, right?

Here’s the thing: I don’t see this “women are half the world” thing as being intersectional, nor do I see it as being correct.

And perhaps most importantly, I don’t see it as a step in the right direction: It marginalizes other people in a heck of a lot of ways, trying to uplift women at the expense of others – specifically people of marginalized gender and sex.

Not cool.

When I was a wee baby feminist – name-dropping bell hooks in conversation and proudly displaying my new nose ring – I didn’t realize how ineffective and harmful it was to hinge my arguments about women’s rights on a percentage.

It didn’t occur to me until I began my gender transition, identifying now as genderqueer, that the phrase started to rub me the wrong way – because it erased transgender people like me, for starters.

That’s why I’m writing this article.

If we want to make a case for women’s equality around the world, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t erase or harm people of other genders and identities. We need to be bringing in a more intersectional approach.

It’s time we did away with this talking point once and for all. Because as you’ll see, it’s not doing women – or anyone else, for that matter – any favors.

Here are five things to consider the next time you’re thinking of spouting off the “women are half the world” argument.

1. It’s Ridiculously Cisnormative

Let’s be real: This phrase isn’t logically correct. When we’re saying that women are half the world, what we’re actually saying is that roughly half the world is assigned female at birth.

We aren’t talking about gender (and therefore, women) at all. We’re talking about sex, and assuming that everyone assigned female at birth must identify as a woman.

This is totally cisnormative – reinforcing the assumption that being cisgender is the default, and centering the experiences of cisgender people, effectively erasing transgender people – and makes this phrase really problematic.

Think about it: This “statistic,” focusing on birth assignment, technically includes me – someone who doesn’t identify as a woman, but was assigned female at birth.

And more importantly, it doesn’t include trans women. Since this is a percentage that relies on assignment at birth, we’re inherently excluding transgender women – who have a different birth assignment – in favor of propping up cisgender women.

In doing so, we are replicating the kind of cisnormativity that not only assumes everyone is cisgender, but actually privileges cisgender people over transgender people – with transfeminine people in particular getting the worst of it, as per usual.

Why are cisgender women the only women that count in this statistic?

This phrase ultimately fails us as feminists because when it confuses sex and gender, it’s only really speaking to and about cisgender people. And while trans women may not be a huge percentage of the population, your movement is not for women if it doesn’t explicitly and intentionally include all women.

Which leads me to my next point…

2. It Upholds the Gender Binary and Erases Non-Binary People

Let’s see here. Women are half the world. So men must make up the other half of the world. That’s 100%. So presumably, this includes everyone! Right?

No, it really doesn’t.

Gender exists on a spectrum, and thus, there’s no concrete way to measure just how many genders there really are. What we do know for sure is that there are more than two – but this so-called “statistic” relies on the idea that this isn’t true, and that everyone fits into this binary of men and women.

Anytime we normalize a phrase that says there are only two genders, we’re erasing anyone and everyone who identifies differently.

As non-binary myself, when I hear the saying “women are half the world’s population,” I not only feel erased, but I feel misgendered. The saying upholds a binary that has never quite fit. And I know it’s really talking about sex assignment – so by extension, I’m being labeled a cis woman.

Honestly, when I identified as a cisgender woman, I didn’t notice these issues, and the phrase felt empowering – it felt radical to claim our collective power as women!

But when I started my gender transition, I immediately saw the ways in which it reinforced my own oppression as a non-binary trans person and pushed me further to the margins – just because I didn’t fit the binary, and because I didn’t identify with the gender I was assigned.

Cis privilege can make us oblivious to the harm present in the things we may otherwise find empowering. And that’s why it’s important for cis folks to tune in when transgender and non-binary people are naming their pain.

I’m naming mine now.

There are better ways for women to advocate for their rights – ways that do not further oppress people outside of the gender binary.

3. It Erases Intersex People, Too

Yes, the phrase “women are half the population” focuses on sex. And so what, right? Sex is a 50/50 deal, so it’s not totally inaccurate.

Nope.

This mentality – that we are born female or male and there’s no in-between – is actually the source of a great deal of oppression and pain for intersex people.

The reality is that biological sex also exists on a spectrum. But those who don’t “acceptably” fit the binary we’ve created are violently forced to conform through invasive and non-consensual surgery.

We need to stop buying into this man/woman, male/female binary. Just like it hurts transgender and non-binary people, it harms intersex people, too. It doesn’t allow for any human diversity. And when we create these rigid rules, we’re harming everyone who doesn’t conform.

When we divide the world into halves, what we’re saying is that there are only two ways to be. Two ways to do gender, two ways to do sex.

If this “women are half the world” thing is meant to advocate for gender equality, why is it upholding both the gendered and sex-based oppression of entire marginalized populations?

Intersex folks are some of the most badass people that I know. They may not be half the world, but they count. Their lives are important. Their struggles matter.

And any kind of “empowerment” mantra that further erases them is not pursuing social justice – it is selfishly pursuing its own interests at the expense of others.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in throwing intersex people under the bus under the banner of “women’s rights.”

4. It Assumes That Women Are a Monolith

When I talked to women about this article, a complaint that we talked about most often was that the phrase “women are half the world’s population” was problematic simply because it lumped all women together – as if their issues were universal, and their experiences largely the same.

This is where intersectionality comes into play again.

Even if it were true that half the world identified as women, that doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to advocating for their rights.

Factors like race, disability, size, class, sexuality, gender identity, citizenship, nationality, and more all intersect to shape a woman’s experience of power, privilege, and oppression.

While the sentiment behind the phrase is powerful – look how many women there are, you can’t deny our power and our dignity! – it may, in fact, be oversimplified. A universal experience of womanhood, many would argue, just doesn’t exist.

And when we advocate for gender justice, the conversation needs nuance and intention so that those most marginalized are empowered.

Motherhood, for example, is often assumed to be a universal desire among women – but we actually know that many women choose not to have children, cannot have children, or do not consider parenting to be a significant part of their identity.

Menstruation is often held up as a rite of passage for women, and yet transgender women do not have this experience, numerous transgender men and non-binary people do, and plenty of cisgender women do not have a menstrual cycle (or have an atypical cycle) for various reasons.

You could easily argue that women are more diverse than they are similar – but that doesn’t mean they can’t unite to fight patriarchy together.

Womanhood – and a/gender as a whole – is so much more than a singular identity that everyone understands and relates to in the same way. Different aspects of our identities will shape how we move through the world as a/gendered people.

One shared category is not a guarantee that our experiences are uniform or even similar, and awareness of these differences is important.

When we talk about advocating for women (or any marginalized group), we definitely have to acknowledge everyone’s unique situations – because if the movement isn’t intersectional, it’s bullshit.

And if the language we use to uplift women isn’t intersectional, I suspect it’s bullshit, too.

5. Because Equality Shouldn’t Be a Numbers Game in the First Place

Here’s one of the reasons I hate this phrase the most: The dignity, autonomy, and rights of a marginalized group should have nothing to do with how large or how small that group is.

Social justice is not a popularity contest, and shouldn’t be treated like one.

Women don’t deserve their rights because they are a large percentage of the population. They deserve their rights because they are human beings. Full stop.

As far as transgender people go, I recognize that we make up a much smaller percentage of the population. I recognize that there are many people in this country that have never met someone like me. I recognize that my own parents still struggle to understand me. I recognize that when I move through the world, I am an oddity to most.

I am not half of the world’s population. In many places, I am barely a small sliver of a big pie. But that doesn’t make me less worthy or less entitled to my rights. That doesn’t make me less important. That doesn’t make my struggle less real.

I really despise the underlying message of “women are half the population” because it implicitly communicates to me that because my community isn’t as large, the fight for transgender rights is somehow less of a priority or less significant.

Every marginalized community is important, no matter how many people occupy those spaces.

And I think if we are using language that suggests otherwise, we need to reevaluate our concepts of “justice” and our own sense of entitlement. We can do better than this. And we need to.

***

Here’s the thing: It’s important that when we build our movements, we create language that reflects our values. And if you take anything away from this article, it’s that we must be intentional about our words – because our words mean something.

As genderqueer, people like me are not “half” of this world. But I’d like to think that, however small a percentage we occupy, our experiences are still important.

So many women in my life are my fiercest advocates, and I try to show up just the same – when our movements work together, I know that we’re stronger.

But our language has to reflect this kind of commitment to each other, to being anti-oppression across the board.

If we want to tackle systemic oppression, we can’t uphold one kind of harm while trying to address another.

That’s why I think examining our language is so important – it says something about who we are and what justice means to us. And in my opinion, “women are half the world’s population” reflects a kind of movement that I don’t think feminists want to be a part of.

We can do better than a lousy 50/50 percentage that lacks nuance. We can do better than a so-called “statistic” that erases people of marginalized gender and sex. And we can definitely do better than a phrase that upholds oppressive binaries.

It not only hurts women, but it hurts people of many genders – and this kind of harm is not what feminism is about.

If we’re going to make a case for women’s rights, let’s start with dignity. Not with erasure.

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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

ETA: I no longer identify as a trans guy — this piece was mistakenly published by an editor before the correction was made.

The Absent I: Marriage Equality and the Continued Erasure of Intersex People

Guest Post! This week’s article at LQTU is written by Celeste Orr.

The image features colorful beads that spell out the words, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual."

Why is “intersex” an afterthought in our community?

While many queer and allied folks have been celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, many others rightly question whether this time is indeed a time for celebration.

How can we celebrate as our fellow queers, specifically trans people of colour, face homelessness, un/underemployment, housing discrimination, staggering suicide and murder rates, and police and prison violence?

Recently many articles address this matter and note that trans issues are the “next fight” or the “next step” in fighting for LGBTQ equity, freedom, and liberation. But framing trans issues as “next steps” neglect that fact that, for trans folks and many other queer people, same-sex marriage was never the first step.

For many queer folks same-sex marriage was never the first step because we think that marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution. Marriage has deep sexist, anti-poly, and queerphobic roots. Many queer people are not homonormative and marriage, therefore, does not reflect their lives. For many other queer people same-sex marriage was never the first step because evading being killed was and remains the perpetual, all too often unachievable first step.

For queer and trans people who do not have white privilege, class privilege, homonormative privilege, and/or non-trans privilege, mere survival is always (and already) the first step.

Framing trans issues as “next steps” erases the (continued) activism and work it took for transphobia to be recognized as not just as the “next step” but a “step” at all.

Even if well-intentioned, framing transphobia as the “next step” also inadvertently re-creates a hierarchy of queer lives, identities, acts, and of (life-threatening) queer issues. Many trans activists, queer people of colour, and queer poly people have criticized this very hierarchy. Queer and allied folks should be wary of reproducing this hierarchy with “next step” discourses.

In thinking through the ways in which certain queer folks, even within queer and feminist communities, are marginalized, regulated to the bottom of the hierarchy, or are the proverbial “next step” I am not too surprised that, in the midst of this supposed queer watershed moment of same-sex marriage, the “I” in LGBTQI has been dropped, forgotten.

All of the articles I have come across in mainstream and feminist forums that address marriage “equality” and the “next steps” queer folks are “going to fight for” (or more accurately have been fighting for) exclude the “I.” Why is the “I” not a “next step” in mainstream discourse?

Building from the Organisation Intersex International’s (OII) definition of intersex, “intersex” is a general term “applied to human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly” or exclusively “male or female. An intersex person may have the biological attributes of both,” typically Western, culturally recognized, legitimized, and institutionalized “sexes or lack some of the biological attributes considered necessary to be defined as one or the other sex.”

Put differently, “intersex” refers to numerous kinds of embodiments that deviate from the (hetero)norm or, what Abby Wilkerson refers to as, “normate sex.” In other words, intersex embodiments illustrate that the cis-trans binary is insufficient.

Intersexism – the structural and systemic oppression of intersex folks – is real and palpable. Despite the fact that intersex embodiments, specifically those with variant genitals, typically pose no health risk, intersex infants and children are often subjected to state-sanctioned, non-consensual, genital mutilation at the hands of medical professionals.

This mutilation is paternalistically done in the name of fixing, curing, or managing the queerly disordered intersex body. In the United States alone, Emi Koyama reminds, “five children are being mutilated everyday.” That means approximately 1,825 children will have their genitals non-consensually cut on and de/reconstructed this year in the US by “benevolent” medical professionals.

In addition to this unspeakable violence with various long- and short-term physical and psychological effects, many intersex folks face systemic shaming, gender policing, queerphobia, and discrimination at school, work, and home.

Historically, many medical professionals have kept intersex folks’ medical records secret even when asked to view them. Some intersex people struggle with fitting into sexed and gendered spaces, like bathrooms. Some intersex folks also struggle with filling out governmental (or otherwise) forms that force one to pick a sex or gender.

In fact, these spaces and institutionalized sexing practices utterly erase the very existence of intersex people.

So I ask, why is the “I” forgotten; why is the “I” not the “next step” in the emerging LGBTQ next step discourse? Answering this question many seem easy, albeit devastating: the “I” is rarely taken into account or represented. In 1999, near the beginning of the Intersex Rights Movement, Robert Crouch referred to this absence as the “structural invisibility” of intersex people and the systemic violence they face. That invisibility still persists today.

It is true to state that the “I” has probably been forgotten because historically, intersex rights – like trans rights, disability rights, and the rights of people of colour – are invisible to the majority of people. But, I want to complicate this narrative because sometimes the “I” (like the “T,” “B,” and POC) is tactfully excluded at the expense of homonormative or (white) women’s rights. Or, if intersex rights are visible or added to the queer feminist conversation, they are added superficially.

That is, the “I” is present in “LGBTQI” but it is never meaningfully addressed. With this in mind I cannot reduce the absent “I” to thoughtless negligence. Even if the absence is thoughtless, it is political.

I suggest that the “I” is forgotten or is being tactfully excluded because intersex embodiments, by definition, illustrate and remind us that the way in which we understand sex as dichotomous is a farce. And, in turn, we are reminded that the institution of marriage, an institution based on the dichotomous understanding of sex, is insufficient. If we remembered the “I” we would have to address the fact that the same-/different-sex marriage model erases intersex bodies, experiences, and people.

At this moment of the same-sex marriage “win,” many people probably do not want to be reminded that the institution excludes a part of our queer community, intersex and genderqueer people alike.

But it is imperative to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is not really a queer “win” or it is not a win for all queer or differently bodied people. Same-sex marriage is not really a “win” because an entire community cannot fit into the sex binary. Same-sex marriage is not really a “win” if we recognize that intersex infants and children are literally being cut on so they can fit into the sex binary the institution of marriage and our culture is based on.

It is true that for some people with intersex embodiments, specifically those who do not identify as intersex and/or identify as exclusively male or female, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a win if they want to marry their partners. For other intersex people it may be non-consequential.

Ultimately, though, it is another instance of erasure and marginalization. It is another law, another moment that further entrenches the idea that sex is binaristic, that intersex bodies are “wrong.”

If we remember the “I” and advocate for intersex rights, as I call all queer and allied people to do, we cannot make the same mistake and narrate the “I” as a “next step.” We cannot continue to reproduce the violent hierarchy of queer lives and issues. Like trans people, particularly trans people of colour, the crises intersex infants, children, adolescents, and adults face is immediate and dangerous.

These issues are not “next” – they are now and always.

 —

Celeste Orr is a Ph.D Candidate at University of Ottawa in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies.

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Binding While Broke: I Tried All These Cheap(ish) Chest Binders so You Don’t Have To!

The image features two characters talking. One says to the other, "My binder is so old I can put it on over my head!" They laugh together.

Comic via Tumblr

So if you didn’t know, I got married last Saturday! Hooray! It was magical, and queer, and everything I had hoped it would be.

(And if you somehow missed the momentous announcement, this is a great opportunity to like our Facebook page so you’ll never miss another update like this again. Harhar.)

As someone who is trans and has a lot of dysphoria around my chest, one of my biggest concerns for the wedding was finding the right binder. It had to be comfortable enough to wear for the entire day, offer excellent compression for all of those wedding photos, and breathe so I could bust out my best dance moves without feeling gross. It also had to accommodate my larger chest and tummy.

Most importantly, it had to be cheap, because, like many trans folks I know, I have very little money.

For the last year, in anticipation of my wedding, I’ve been trying out a whole assortment of binders. And as a service to those of you who are broke but still wanting to bind, I thought I’d review three of the binders that I think are worth knowing about.

For the record, I’m not getting paid to review any of these binders… though if I’m being honest I totally wish I was (hit me up; I’ll be waiting!). I’m doing this because I know what it’s like to desperately need a binder but wonder if emptying out my wallet was really worth it.

From least impressive to most, here are the three cheapest (but still reputable) binders I could find, and how they held up:

Tri-top Chest Binder from Underworks

tritop

My smile is deceiving: This binder is a pain!

Compression: 5/5

Comfort: 2/5

Mobility: 2/5

Price: $30 + shipping

The tri-top is a really popular binder, priced at around 30 dollars. It’s often the first one that folks will try out because it’s such a recognizable name. But despite its popularity and hype, I’m personally not a fan.

The compression was superb; I am a very busty queer and getting things to flatten out is a real challenge. If your primary concern is compression, you won’t be disappointed.

It is an enormous challenge to squeeze into at first, but overtime, this binder will lose some of its shape; great, because it’ll be easier to get on, but not-so-great, because it will also lose some of that impressive flattening. This is the case with most binders, but it’s a complaint that I hear about tri-tops most often.

Even with its magical compression, I couldn’t get past how uncomfortable this binder was. The material has very little give to it, my mobility and breathing were noticeably restricted, and no matter how many hours I spent in it, it wasn’t the kind of binder that I “forgot” I was wearing – I seemed to be aware of its annoying presence almost constantly.

Even after trying a couple different sizes to ensure I had the right one, it never felt right. It’s a basic binder that is fine for shorter hours of use, but it’s not a binder I find myself wearing often, if ever.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is the worst binder. It’s just not an exceptional one. It’s worth noting that there are folks who absolutely love the tri-top, and it tends to rate highly, so as with any binder, what it really comes down to is personal preference.

Just not my cuppa tea, it seems.

Extreme MagiCotton Sports and Binding Bra from Underworks

The image features the author waving a rainbow flag and saluting.

Thought I should look as queer as possible for this photo. Featuring: The binding bra!

Compression: 3.5-4/5* (depending on cup size)

Comfort: 4.5/5

Mobility: 5/5

Price: $35 + shipping

This is one of the best kept secrets of the binding world. Because this is marketed as a bra, most folks miss this one entirely. But if you’re binding or interested in trying it out, you need to know about this binder’s existence.

I first heard about this from a couple of trans guys who were buying these damn things in bulk because they were great for working out. A traditional binder just doesn’t offer enough mobility for exercise, so they sought out something specifically designed with athletes in mind.

In the time since I first wrote about this binder on Tumblr, I’ve found out that folks who have chronic pain and can’t wear traditional binders have also started trying this one out. I can confirm, as someone with on-and-off pain in my shoulder from an injury, that this is an option worth looking at if you need a binder that’s less harsh on your body.

An additional benefit for some is that, if you are still not out as trans and living under your parents’ roof, this passes easily as a sports bra and won’t raise any red flags.

The downside is that because of its stretchy material, you might not achieve the same level of compression, depending on your cup size. As a larger-chested queer, I definitely wouldn’t wear this binder if I needed complete and total compression, but I can assure you, smaller-chested folks need not worry about this.

With a little bit of layering, this can totally work as an everyday binder for larger-chested cuties; with a smaller chest, layering isn’t necessary at all.

I love this binder, and I wear it when I’m exercising or when my body needs to recover from a couple days of more intense binding. I now consider it an essential in my closet.

It’s important that we take care of our bodies as we bind; binding definitely takes a toll. I’d recommend that everyone who’s interested in binding give this one a shot, especially if comfort is your primary concern.

GC2b Half Binder from GC2b Transition Apparel

weddingphoto

Before the wedding ceremony! Featuring: The GC2b!

Compression: 5/5

Comfort: 4-4.5/5* (depending on size)

Mobility: 5/5

Price: $33 + shipping

Let this photo from my wedding speak for itself.

There’s Ray on the left (my spouse, whoa) and me, wearing the GC2b, on the right. This binder not only made my chest look terrific, but I was able to dance at my reception and party the night away, comfortably and happily. I forgot I was even wearing a binder.

Seriously, I forgot. It was amazing.

And, y’all, you would have never guessed that I have a large chest, right? It’s magic.

I’d first heard about this binder through a rave review at Autostraddle, and from there I kept seeing gushing reviews popping up all over the net. I was skeptical, but as it turns out, I didn’t need to be – this binder is fabulous.

The design is quite brilliant and one of the reasons why folks are so excited about it. There is a panel on the front that flattens, but the material on the back is more of a stretchy mesh – which means the binder can expand and contract as you breathe, but the front will still compress just the same. It also means it’s more flexible than your typical binder, making it easier to get on and off.

This thing is comfortable as all get out, which, if you didn’t know, binding is seldom a comfortable affair. I was amazed that this was nearly as comfortable as the binding bra I mentioned previously, but was much more effective at compressing.

There are some downsides – the cut won’t work for everyone, especially us chunkier babes who may find there’s some arm spillage or a little more pressure around our ribs depending on sizing. I’m actually in-between sizes, so I own both a large and extra large (the large for when I want extra compression, the extra large when I want more comfort).

It’s a lower cut, which I recognize can be a good AND bad thing. Good so that you can rock that v-neck with no problem, but bad if you’re dysphoric and the last thing you want to see is cleavage when you bend over or take your shirt off.

That being said, this is now my favorite binder and the one I rely on for near-daily use. Usually you have to sacrifice some compression for comfort or vice versa, but I find that it binds exceptionally well without sacrificing your comfort or safety.

This binder gets my absolute highest recommendation. I’ve heard mixed reviews here and there, but I’m in love with this binder and I think it lives up to the hype.

* * *

But, hey, wait. Before you run to grab your debit card, here’s some shit I want you to know:

First of all, binding isn’t a walk in the park. It can leave you feeling a bit sore, constrained, and uncomfortable. But that being said, if binding is causing you a noticeable amount of pain, you, my friend, need a different size or a different binder altogether.

Do not settle for pain or think that pain is a necessary part of binding. Binding shouldn’t hurt and it shouldn’t make it difficult to breathe.

Too many people – particularly trans folks – are somehow convinced that hurting themselves is just part of the process when, in fact, it shouldn’t be.

It’s also worth knowing that a binder could be recommended a thousand times over, but it just might not be a good fit for your body. The tri-top comes with some serious praise, but no matter how I contorted my body and what size I tried, it just didn’t work for me.

In other words: It’s silly to think that there is one binder that’s ideal for every single person. It’s just a series of trials and errors before you get something that works for you.

Lastly, I recognize that 30-35 dollars isn’t “cheapish” for everyone (and honestly, it’s a stretch even for me these days). So I want you to check out Micah’s list of binder resources over at Neutrois Nonsense (and just familiarize yourself with Micah’s work because it’s fantastic), which includes some binder exchange programs.

I also hope folks will weigh in via comment if they know of any great initiatives that help increase access to binders or have any thoughts about binding more generally.

That’s it for now! I’m off to enjoy my “honeymoon” now (ie Netflix, eating leftover wedding cake, and cuddling with my sweetie, because what else could a queer need?).

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The “Self-Help” Genre Has a Big Problem with Depression

selfhelp

Self-help articles are great. In this day and age, the internet is one of the largest sources of self-help content — and as someone who loves to uplift others and be uplifted, this is a genre that I have a strong affinity for.

But I’ve noticed this really unfortunate trend as of late – namely, articles that suggest that in order to be happier, we need to avoid the habits of “chronically unhappy people,” or remove “negative people” from our lives altogether.

Is someone bringing you down? Just get rid of them! Don’t want to be a downer? Fix yourself!

This all seems to be code for, “depressed people are shitty, and here’s how to avoid them and avoid being like them.”

This is basically saying that folks who are suffering from depression – because that’s what it means, right, let’s call a spade a spade – are not worthy of our patience, love, and support.

Further, we should aspire to be the exact opposite of them, as there is nothing redeeming about them. Let’s observe their struggles, and from that extract all the “what not to do’s.” I think that’s a really problematic response to have to someone who has depression.

When we treat people with depression as though they’re a burden or plague, it perpetuates the stigma that comes with depression, and encourages people to ostracize those who suffer from depression.

Further, mainstream self-help articles push this dichotomy of happy versus unhappy people, oversimplifying the complexities of real people. Moods, and even mood disorders, do not define the entirety of a person.

If it were just one article, I wouldn’t be as concerned. But there are many articles that continually make these vague, and sometimes not so vague, references to people who very well may suffer from depression – treating them as undesirable, broken, and negative forces that need to be eliminated from our lives. They are dehumanized and reduced to their illness, rather than seen as whole, worthwhile, complete people.

If someone in your life is depressed or going through a difficult time, it can be tempting to run for the hills. And of course, I’ll never undermine the importance of self-care. We are responsible to our friends, but never for our friends. But there’s a consistent problem in our society with ignoring depression when we see it, or worse yet, expecting folks with this struggle to fix it themselves, and not “burden” others with what they’re going through.

This creates a culture that is particularly hostile to those with mental illnesses. Criticizing them for feeling victimized, for being unhappy, and for not meeting your criteria for “trying hard enough” or “problem-solving,” all uphold awful stereotypes about the disorder and about people who suffer from it.

Personally, I’d like to create a culture in which folks who are unhappy can find support — and that we don’t ignore or opt out the moment we realize they might not be all sunshine and rainbows.

There’s also this terrible habit in self-help to look down on this idea of “victimhood,” without being critical of where those perspectives come from. If someone is conditioned to expect that their life will be difficult, perhaps it’s not an issue with attitude, and maybe, just maybe, a problem with the culture and society at large. If someone expects that their life will be difficult, maybe that isn’t an attitude problem and instead, their lived reality.

I suspect that if you’re looking down on folks who see life as primarily a struggle, you might be some combination of white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, middle or upper class, and more generally not feeling the full gravity of systematic oppression. When we write these articles, we need to ensure we are being intersectional, and being mindful of our privilege. Invalidating victims is not self-help — it’s oppressive.

The self-help genre could benefit from taking into account that diverse life experiences condition us to form different expectations and attitudes – ones that you may not have experienced before. Instead of placing the blame on the victim, maybe we should be pointing at the system that victimizes us every day.

The reality is, depression is hard. Mental illness is hard. And it’s not something that can be fixed over night with an attitude change. We’ve been saying this for decades – this isn’t our fault, and if we could make it better, don’t you think we would’ve already done that?

Yet, at times, self-help as a genre has been completely out of touch with the lived experiences of those with mental illness, as well as other marginalized groups, like folks of color and those in poverty.

There are certainly unhealthy habits that we could all afford to kick, but placing this in the framework of chronic unhappiness and depression is the wrong way to go. It does a huge disservice to people who are genuinely doing their best to cope with these illnesses. It creates bigger obstacles for people whose lives are devastated by depression.

There are better ways to offer advice and perspective in ways that aren’t ableist, and don’t kick folks while they’re down. Regardless of our good intentions, we must consider the impact of our work when it reaches a broader audience of people.

Perhaps most importantly, people with depression do not exist to teach you life lessons. And if you have someone in your life who is “chronically unhappy,” instead of taking notes for your next article like you’re on some mentally ill safari, maybe reaching out to them and checking in is the more appropriate response.

Self-help is a genre with a lot of potential to do good in the world. But if it only seeks to empower some while upholding the struggles of others, it is doing more harm than good. There needs to be accountability to our audiences, starting with those who are struggling the most.

Creating a greater stigma around depression, rather than dismantling that stigma, is the exact opposite of what self-help should be doing.

This genre could really benefit from a reality check. And maybe, just maybe, it could start by realizing that there are better ways to approach the “chronically unhappy” and depressed – starting with a little compassion.

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I Am Transgender, and I Am “Trans Enough.”

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No matter what I look like, I’m still trans.

I know, I know, it’s Friday! Whoa, Sam, what is this about? Yes, I don’t usually blog on Fridays, as you may know. But something came up, and I wanted to address it.

After yesterday’s entry discussing my experiences as a transgender university student, I received a number of tweets, emails, and comments that called into question whether I was “truly” transgender. This was certainly not the first time, but it was the most intense by far.

A number of people felt it was acceptable to interrogate the legitimacy of my identity as a trans person, and implied that I am only transgender if I present a certain way, take hormones, and get certain surgeries. As if there’s only one way to be transgender, and I failed to pass their test.

No matter what the intention behind these comments were, the impact is that a transgender person, who has struggled for years with their identity and their body, was attacked on a public platform for not conforming to gender stereotypes about masculinity and what it means to be trans.

And I think that really, really sucks.

Perhaps what was most upsetting about these comments is that they primarily came from transgender people who should know better than to impose their idea of what gender is onto another person.

Being transgender simply means that you do not identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. In other words, what makes someone transgender is their sense of self. There is no rule book that says you must transition medically to be considered trans. There is no law that says your body must look a specific way or conform to a certain stereotype to be a valid, trans body.

Hormone levels do not make someone transgender. Haircuts do not make someone transgender. Surgeries do not make someone transgender.

“Transgender” is a label of self-identification, and there is no right or wrong way to be trans.

Secondly, this needs to be said: What someone chooses to do with their body and their genitals is not your business, just as you wouldn’t ask a stranger on the street to describe their junk to you in detail. And transgender people are more than their bodies, and their struggles run so much deeper than just the bodies they inhabit.

I have chosen not to share (yet) how I intend to transition, because I do not think it is relevant to the work that I do here, nor is it anyone’s business. Whether or not I opt for certain medical interventions is my personal journey. I may share these things in the future, but that will happen on my own terms, when I decide that it’s right to do so.

That information is not relevant, for example, when I’m talking about the way transgender students are treated on college campuses.

And whatever I do with my body and how it changes overtime does not make me more or less transgender than I was yesterday.

So who is exactly is transgender, then? And where on that spectrum do I fall?

Well, for one thing, who is and isn’t transgender isn’t for you to decide.

“Transgender” has become an umbrella term that describes quite a large spectrum of identities. The common thread is that these folks do not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth, but ultimately it means something different to each and every person.

In fact, I’d say there are as many genders as there are people.

Some folks identify as binary trans men or trans women, which means that they were assigned female at birth but identify as men, or were assigned male at birth but identify as women.

Others identify as transmasculine (like myself) or transfeminine, meaning they do not necessarily identify as men or women, but rather, if you placed us on a spectrum, we tend towards masculinity or femininity.

Some folks are genderqueer (also a term that I use), meaning they do not identify as men or women, but rather, possess elements of masculinity and femininity, or simply do not identify with the construction of gender at all (also known as agender).

There are also gender fluid people, bigender, neutrois, and a whole bucket of awesome labels that folks use to describe their sense of self. These, too, can fall under the umbrella of transgender.

As you can see, there is immense diversity within the transgender community, and wherever we fall on that spectrum, we are not “more trans” or “less trans” than the person next to us.

No matter what labels we choose, there is no telling how someone will self-actualize this identity — in other words, even if I did identify as a man, it doesn’t necessarily mean I will start taking testosterone, now or ever.

We need to stop assuming that all transgender people transition in the same exact way, and moreover, stop assuming that we are entitled to that knowledge just because someone is trans.

I am a transmasculine queer. Or to use less jargon, I tend towards a masculine presentation, and do not identify as a woman or man. What this looks like for me, and how I plan on altering my body, is personal. I am under no obligation to share, and it isn’t appropriate to ask.

Curious minds have asked how I knew I was transgender. This answer is different for each and every person, and our answers do not decide whether or not we are “enough.” We are all enough.

The story is long, but I will keep my answer brief:

Realizing I was transgender, for me, came step by step. It was many realizations that happened over the course of years.

I knew I was transgender when I realized that being feminine felt like a performance instead of who I was, a role that I was failing at and should never have been cast for.

I knew I was transgender when I wore a chest binder for the first time, and felt more at home than I ever had, like something about that silhouette made more sense in my head.

I knew I was transgender when every “ma’am” felt like a knife in my side that I couldn’t pull out.

I knew I was transgender when I was doing shots of vodka in the dead of a Michigan winter, trying to numb the agonizing realization that I couldn’t stand the sight of my body.

I knew I was transgender when my partner found me on the floor, drunkenly throwing punches at my reflection in the mirror, and told me, “You can’t live like this anymore.”

I don’t tell you this because I feel like I need to prove something. I tell you this because I want you to know that when you call me an imposter, this is the kind of pain that you resurrect.

When I finally declared my trans identity, it was the most alive I had ever felt. It was like coming home. It was like filling my shoes for the first time. It was right. When I found the words to express the dysphoria, the pain, the confusion – I finally had just a little peace of mind. It helped me move forward, and to begin to live my life without shame.

And since I came out, I have never looked back.

This is not everyone’s story. This is just mine. There is no “trans narrative” or singular story that encompasses every experience of being trans. “Transgender” is a word, and it’s the people that claim this word, not a dictionary or an academic, that give it meaning.

There have been moments, throughout my life, that have affirmed this identity for me – and whether or not I or anyone else shares those moments with you does not determine whether or not we are trans.

In the end, my identity, my story, and my body belong to me.

I am transgender because I know who I am. It is up to you to respect that.

No one gets to decide, based on their antiquated ideas of what gender is and isn’t, what I am and what I am not.

And for transgender folks especially, who have suffered endlessly due to gendered assumptions being shoved down their throats: To impose that violence on me is unthinkable, outrageous, offensive… and worse yet, hypocritical.

To expect others to validate your identity, but to refuse to do that for your transgender siblings, is a betrayal and a shame that you bring onto your community and onto yourself. You need to dig deep and reflect on the ways you are upholding the oppression of other people in your community – and you need to change.

If we are going to create a society where everyone is free to explore their identity, and live their most authentic lives, it starts with validating others when they self-identify. Instead of pushing your idea of what gender should and should not be, you must trust that others are the experts on their own lives.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with asking how exactly I identify, what my pronouns are, and what my journey has been like. I am grateful to all the readers who take such an active interest in the triumphs and struggles of transgender people. Asking questions, in itself, is not inherently bad, and many of the questions I’ve received have been sensitive and wonderful, and I appreciate that.

But to suggest that transgender people must all go about transitioning the same way, or else we are imposters – that is a dangerous myth that oppresses so many transgender people every day.

The idea that transgender people must all “present” a certain way is simply taking one oppressive idea of gender and replacing it with an equally oppressive and sexist one.

No matter what my body looks like or what form it takes, I am still transgender. No matter how I move through this world and what choices I make, I am still transgender. And no matter how many times you call this into question, my identity is not for you to decide.

I am transgender. And I am “trans enough.”

If you want more information on how to be a great ally to trans people, please check out GLAAD’s guide for allies by clicking here!

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Don’t Believe the Hype: Admitting Transgender Students is Not Enough

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photo: unsplash.com

I knew I was in trouble when my first letter from my dream school addressed me by the wrong name.

Frantic, I called the college, explaining that I was transgender, and informing them of my chosen name and pronouns. The person on the phone apologized profusely, said they would update their records, promised to fix the mistake.

However, from my experience as an undergraduate, I knew that what I was told was too good to be true. Seldom is anything “fixed.” I remembered how my face flushed when the wrong name was called out at graduation just months before, outing me in front of my entire graduating class; I remembered the dread I felt, being misgendered at the beginning of every semester. Mistakes like these aren’t fixed with a phone call, no matter how many times you call.

The best you can hope for is an apology, and in the end, that’s all I got.

If there’s anything I’ve learned during my college years, it’s this: When you’re a transgender university student, it is a constant battle to be recognized as your authentic self — even at the most progressive schools in the country.

I am a transmasculine graduate student at a women’s college. Despite not being a woman, I believed that I would feel at home. My college holds a legacy of social justice activism, and a firm commitment to diversity; I had high hopes, sharing this idea that women’s colleges are on the cutting-edge of trans* inclusion. However, upon arriving, I learned firsthand the distance that we still have to go.

In recent months, a number of women’s colleges, mine among them, have received high praise for establishing an official admissions policy that admits transgender students. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Whether or not the official admissions policy states it, there will always be gender diversity at women’s colleges — acknowledgement of this is important. And as safe spaces for people of marginalized gender, women’s colleges are uniquely situated to meet the needs of transgender students.

However, most trans* students will tell you that things are not always as they might seem. Universities across the country, women’s colleges included, are doing a whole lot of recruiting — but what does this mean for admitted students? Many trans* students, including myself, do not always feel safe or respected once they arrive. Numerous universities have made serious efforts to bring greater numbers of LGBTQ students to their campuses, but upon admission, these students find that the institutions are ill-equipped to meet their needs.

In my opinion, bringing transgender or queer students to a campus that is not safe is nothing short of irresponsible.

From day one, it was a struggle for me to even be seen. The battle began with my school ID, which staff members insisted could not have my actual name on it, but rather, would have my birth name. Even after coming out as trans* and explaining my situation, a staff member turned to a coworker and said, “She wants her ID to have a nickname.” She? Her? Nickname?

It was a slap in the face. Why wouldn’t they recognize my identity on a card that wasn’t even a legal form of identification? Why didn’t staff members know how to handle the situation? I eventually got my ID with the name Sam on it, but it took leaping through flaming hoops and tap-dancing on my hands before they would let me do it (metaphorically speaking, of course).

I was outraged to find out later that there were other trans* students who were not so lucky, and did not win this battle.

And it wasn’t just one incident. It was a systemic issue at the college, a constant that I came to expect. It was followed by numerous letters and emails where my birth name was consistently used, despite having “Sam” in the preferred name registry. Even after contacting numerous staff members to clarify my name and pronouns, it was as if I were invisible.

A staff member even said, quite flippantly, that the problem would be solved if I would “just legally change my name.” As if there aren’t complex reasons for why transgender people delay or do not legally change their names at all.

I applied to this college as Sam, live my life as Sam, am known and move through this world as Sam. My transition and naming of myself were powerful steps in living my fullest, most authentic life. Many folks wonder why the name and pronouns matter so much. It’s an issue of recognition and validation — as I’ve mentioned before, when we neglect to validate someone’s identity, it can make them feel unsafe, disrespected, and excluded.

Every financial aid consultation, every scheduling phone call, every interaction with staff became triggering and stressful — after one too many birth names and one too many “ma’ams,” I began to wonder if this commitment to transgender students was really just a front.

Why was it so difficult to get my name right?

By connecting with other transgender students, I discovered that I was not alone in my struggles. A fellow grad student told me that as a trans guy, he was placed in an all-women’s dorm his first year on campus, and faced resistance from administrators who told him he could not be moved; similarly, his diploma and alumni records defaulted to his birth name, a name he never once used at the college.

To be clear: Students should always be referred to by their chosen name, in every form of communication, which sends the clear message that the college respects and validates their identity. Further, the diploma they receive should follow suit – a diploma earned by Joe Smith should be awarded to Joe Smith. This should be simple, and it is not an issue of technicality or legality, but instead, an issue of dignity.

There were other major issues that I had to see to believe. I, too, struggled with housing. My college offered me no assistance in finding safe off-campus housing, asking me, in all seriousness, if I’d ever heard of Craigslist. I had moved across the country to an unfamiliar city, and had no idea where a transgender person could find somewhere safe to live. I was stuck.

Horrifyingly, I also found out that SAFE training simply did not exist for staff members — there was no telling if they even knew what I meant when I said I was trans*.

Without proper training, there is no way a college can consider themselves qualified to handle the increasing number of transgender students on their campus.

I am proud of these colleges for changing their admissions policies, and excited for the next wave of trans* students who enter these colleges. But I am also afraid for them. While admitting transgender students into women’s colleges is an important milestone, the fact still remains that many trans* students still struggle to have their identities recognized once they step foot on campus, and still struggle to find safe housing and safe spaces, both of which are essential.

Transgender students shouldn’t have to face an uphill battle when they enter these universities, especially those that advertise themselves as being inclusive. Yet in my experience, it is transgender students that shoulder the burden, rather than the institutions themselves that insisted on admitting more of us in the first place.

Transgender students need validation, respect, and safety. Admitting us is simply not enough.

My experiences, both as an undergrad and graduate student, point to a larger need for institutions of higher education to examine their policies – or lack thereof – and address the ways in which they are including or excluding transgender students, not merely from accessing an education, but also from feeling safe and validated when they’ve made the decision to attend that university.

This includes trans-specific training for staff, campus police, counselors, and health providers; competent counseling and health resources; designated safe spaces for queer students; preferred name registries that apply across the board (mail, email, class rosters, diplomas, alumni relations); gender neutral bathrooms; safe and appropriate housing; and designated advocates on campus who are easily reached, well-versed, and can address and respond to the complex needs of all queer and trans* students, including those of color.

And most importantly, transgender students should be made aware of these resources at their orientation. Resources are not helpful if they aren’t known or accessible.

I believe that women’s colleges are unique and powerful spaces, standing in direct opposition to gender-based oppression and, instead, creating an environment where marginalized communities can thrive. I also believe that transgender students know intimately the weight of that oppression, and, no doubt, have something at stake here. Their presence at women’s colleges is important, so long as they, specifically trans men, are mindful of the spaces that they occupy.

Furthermore, I am proud to attend a college with such a strong commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and social justice.

But those commitments can’t just be buzz words used in the recruitment process, promises made to prospective students to woo them. These commitments need to result in action. These commitments require ongoing work, and that work does not stop at admissions – rather, it begins there.

You’ve talked the talk. Now let’s see you walk the walk.

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UPDATE (11/14/14): A response article has been written.

 

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