Transgender rights are gaining visibility in Canadian cities and provinces of late. The Vancouver District School Board recently allowed students to use the gender pronoun and bathroom of their choice, and Alberta issued a new birth certificate to a transgender Edmonton boy. But roadblocks at the federal level remain; a move in Parliament to give transgender people additional protection under the cyberbullying bill was quashed last month.
Even well-meaning parents, teachers and health-care providers struggle to keep up with the rapidly evolving landscape of gender identity. Enter Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a new book edited by New York University Medical Center psychiatrist Laura Erickson-Schroth that aims to serve as a road map. Echoing Our Bodies, Ourselves, a groundbreaking women's health book published more than four decades ago, the tome – 649 pages and encyclopedic in scope – collects anecdotes, advice and expertise from scores of transgender contributors on topics ranging from surgical transition to sexuality to employment. We chatted with Erickson-Schroth about the book and challenges facing trans people today.
What inspired you to take on this project?
When I was young, I didn't really understand why there were certain rules for one group of people versus another group of people. When I graduated from college, there were a couple of my friends who came out as transgender, and I also met a number of patients during medical school who are transgender. And I could tell that there was really this disconnect between them and health-care providers. It seemed as if the health-care providers were uneducated about issues that affected transgender people.
That really bears true when you look at the amount of education around these issues. Stanford did a study that looked at the number of hours of curriculum in medical schools devoted to LGBT health, and I believe it was either four or five hours on average in an entire four years when they talked about anything to do with LGBT health. So not only is there really very little education, trans people see health-care providers as gatekeepers, because they are the people tasked with deciding who is going to get hormones and surgery and some things that people desire.
It seemed like a very similar situation to what was happening in the late 1960s, early '70s when the women from Our Bodies, Ourselves put their book together. That was a time when 90 per cent of physicians were men, and women looking for health-care information realized they had to get it from each other. Similarly, I think trans people were looking for a place to share information with each other – and also to create tools to educate their health-care providers.
School boards in various parts of Canada, including Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton, are implementing policies aimed at accommodating transgender students. Do you think we are becoming a more inclusive society?
I certainly agree that there's been a rise in the visibility of trans people in the media, and I think there are a lot of positive changes coming out of that. I would say we still have a lot of work to do. There are still a lot of things that people are not focusing on, such as issues that have to do with trans people of colour or poor people who are LGBT. I think a lot of the focus is on marriage equality. But I think we're missing some of the really important issues that have to do with livelihood and safety, for example, the safety of trans prisoners in jails.
The Vancouver School Board's transgender policy faced strong opposition from some families and school trustees. What do you think this opposition stems from?
I think it comes down to fear of the unknown.
What can be done to combat this fear?
When people meet trans people, or people who are different
from them in any way, they start to build connections with them and understand where they
come from and they become less afraid. It's really powerful to connect people, in some way, with trans people and with the
broader LGBT community. One of the things I've seen work really well is hosting panels at schools, where a number of people with different experiences talk to students. That may be the first time that the students meet people from the LGBT community. I think that would be a powerful thing to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Affirmed gender: The gender to which someone has transitioned.
Assigned gender: The gender that is given to an infant based on the infant's external genitals. This may or may not match the person's gender identity in adulthood.
Cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the gender assigned at birth.
Gender binary: The concept that there are only two genders, male and female, and that everyone has to be either one or the other.
Gender dysphoria: A mental health diagnosis that is defined as a "marked incongruence between one's experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender."
Gender expression: Refers to an individual's physical characteristics, behaviours and presentation. This can include one's appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions that are linked, traditionally, to masculinity or femininity.
Gender non-conforming: An umbrella term that describes those who do not fit into traditional gender expectations.
Intersex: A general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male.
Transgender: An umbrella term that may be used to describe people whose gender expression does not conform to cultural norms and/or whose gender identity is different from the sex assigned at birth. Transgender is a self-identity, and some gender non-conforming people do not identify with this term.
Transition: The process one goes through to discover and/or affirm one's gender identity. This can, but does not always, include taking hormones, having surgeries, or going through therapy.
Transphobia: Fear, hatred or discrimination toward transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Compiled from Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth