Research Blog: Moving Toward a More Gender Inclusive World: Progress! (And a few setbacks…)

by Laura Hooberman

Here’s some cool news in the world of gender diversity: A 2017 Harris Poll survey conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found that among Americans between the ages of 18 and 34, 12% describe their gender identity in terms other than cisgender.[1] This is in pretty stark contrast to older generations: only 6% of American adults between the ages of 35 and 51 identify as non-cis, and among adults 52 years of age or older, that number goes down to 3%. GLAAD theorizes that the increase in gender nonconforming identities among millenials is linked to increased cultural acceptance and media visibility of LGBTQ people, which is helping our society develop a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of gender. In other words, the more we learn and talk about gender, the better we’re able to appreciate the limitations of the gender binary. And the more accepting we are of people defining their gender in the terms they see fit, the more comfortable people feel exploring and expressing diverse gender identities.

So if culturally we’re getting better in our understanding and acceptance of gender diversity, that means the country’s becoming a safer place for transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) people, right? In some ways, yes. But lest we forget (even for a single, blissful second), we are denizens of Donald Trump’s America; and that means the rights of any individual who isn’t cis, straight, white, rich and male are, in one way or another, under attack. This fact was made particularly clear for TGNC folk when, in October 2018, a leaked memo from the US Department of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration indicated the department’s interest in establishing a definition of gender as binary (i.e., limited to either “male” or “female”) and determined by one’s genitalia at birth.[2] In other words, the Trump administration declared its belief that the experiences of more than 1.4 million adults identifying as trans in the United States[3] were invalid.

Let’s put aside, for a second, the fact that there’s absolutely no scientific basis for defining gender as binary. Let’s also, for the time being, put aside how devastating a blow adopting this legal definition of gender would be for the civil liberties and basic human rights of trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) people. These are deeply important, necessary considerations. But what I’d like to focus on is the fact that espousing a definition of gender as static, binary and biological, is implicitly stigmatizing – and here, it’s important to note that TGNC people already face disproportionately high levels of stigma and discrimination compared to cis people.[4] Further, were the federal government to adopt this restrictive definition of gender, I would argue it’s likely that TGNC people would feel discouraged from disclosing their gender identities, pushed to engage in a practice known as identity concealment, for fear of having their identities rejected or invalidated. But is identity concealment really that big of a deal?

Researcher Brian Rood and colleagues conducted a study to find out.[5] They interviewed thirty racially diverse and gender diverse TGNC identified people between the ages of 25 and 40 living in the United States to understand if and how they experienced identity concealment. They asked them questions like, “Are there times when you have to hide or conceal your gender identity?” and “Do you think about how others see or perceive your gender?” All participants in the study reported having told friends or family about their affirmed gender, so these interview questions were designed to help get a better sense of when and why participants typically avoided discussing or disclosing their identities.

All the individuals with whom the authors spoke said that they did have to conceal their identities from other people sometimes. And it often was a big deal. Participants commonly reported taking significant efforts to conceal their identities, particularly in contexts in which they felt unsafe or feared that others would respond negatively to them. Feelings of fear (not surprisingly) were often really stressful for people. One participant, for instance, said she felt constantly on-edge when concealing her identity, asking herself questions like, “What’s gonna happen if I tell them? How are they gonna react? Is this gonna cause an actual danger to my physical person?” Moreover, experiencing fear and distress around one’s identity reportedly encouraged feelings of inauthenticity, self-loathing, and mental and physical exhaustion.

In sum? Feeling safe is a big determinant of identity disclosure for TGNC individuals, and not feeling safe has really negative consequences. So, let’s return for a moment to the Trump administration’s proposed definition of gender – a declaration from the federal government that the way you understand your own gender is wrong. This is probably not going to help TGNC people feel safe or accepted. But I’ll end this on a (somewhat) hopeful note: we might say that the Trump administration’s proposed definition of gender is discriminatory, stigmatizing, and cruel, and we’d be absolutely right. But we could also describe it as woefully out of touch, behind the times, and backwards, and we’d be right, too. How we as a culture understand gender is evolving, becoming more expansive, liberated, and nuanced, and that’s an incredible thing. The work (as always, it seems!) then becomes resisting a regressive political agenda which restricts the rights of individuals to make meaning of their own experiences and exercise fundamental liberties. And hopefully that resistance serves as the foundation for constructing a more gender inclusive world.

[1] Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. (2017). Accelerating Acceptance 2017.

Retrieved from: www.glaad.org/files/aa/2017_GLAAD_Accelerating_Acceptance.pdf

[2] Green, E.L., Benner, K., & Pear, R. (2018, October 21). ‘Transgender’ could be defined out of existence under Trump administration. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/21/us/politics/transgender-trump-administration-sex-definition.html

[3] Flores, A., Herman, J.L., Gates, G.J. & Brown, T.N. (2016). How many adults identify as transgender in the United States? The Williams Institute, retrieved from https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/How-Many-Adults-Identify-as-Transgender-in-the-United-States.pdf

[4] Bradford, J., Reisner, S.L., Honnold, J.A., & Xavier, J. (2013). Experiences of transgender-related discrimination and implications for health: Results from the Virginia Transgender Health Initiative Study. American Journal of Public Health, 103, 1820-1829

[5] 5 Rood, B.A., Maroney, M.R., Puckett, J.A., Berman, A.K., Reisner, S.L., & Pantalone, D.W. (2017). Identity concealment in transgender adults: A qualitative assessment of minority stress and gender affirmation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 87, 704-713.

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