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In today’s episode, we are talking about gender. One of my goals, when I started this podcast, was not just to talk about stuff I enjoy, but also to discuss topics that I think are important and things that might actually help make us all into better people.
And this is one of those episodes. Gender is something that so many of us rarely have to think about. Most of us think of gender as being binary — or having two options: male or female, boy or girl, man or woman, masculine or feminine. If you fall into this camp don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Basically, everything you have ever seen, heard, or been taught by the world around you has probably formed this binary view of gender.
An interesting thing happened a little over a year ago: one of our closest friends, Scottie, came out to us as transgender. This was someone who we had known for almost 15 years as a straight man. I’d be lying if I said that the revelation wasn’t shocking. It was not something I saw coming at all, the thought had never crossed my mind once in the fifteen years I had known them, but the process that we’ve gotten to be a part of over the past 16 months has been nothing short of amazing, enlightening, emotional….and as I have reflected back on all of it putting together this episode I just can’t imagine life, or Scottie, any other way.
When someone you know comes out, it becomes your responsibility to learn more and do better. And friends, the past year has just opened my mind up so much to what gender really is and the role it plays in our lives. And I’m willing to bet that if you sit back and think about what it means to you, how it has impacted your life, you’ll eventually come to realize that the fear and stigma that we place on people for how they present their gender out in the world is incredibly unjust.
Just like all big topics, this can be a be a bit of a mind-bender. I don’t expect that you’ll listen to this episode and suddenly be completely woke about gender…but I do hope you’ll lend us your most thoughtful and empathetic attention during this episode. The gender binary is so ingrained in us from the time we are born, that undoing this way of thinking does take some effort on our part. You might pick up some thoughts and ideas in this episode and need to think about them for months before things start to click.
But the reality is that this lack of understanding is making life incredibly difficult for people who don’t fit into the binary or have gender identities that differ from the assigned gender they were given at birth. And not just difficult, but also dangerous. It is estimated that 40% of trans people will attempt suicide at least once in their lifetime. They face bullying, discrimination, and violence. And although we’ve come a long way in recent years, transgender rights are constantly under attack, and new legislation being proposed as we speak threatens their livelihood.
I was aware of transgender issues previous to Scottie coming out. But I can’t stress this enough: when you witness someone you truly love and care about come out — when you hear in their own words what the experience of the past 33 years of their life was like. And you get to bear witness to the physical, emotional, and heck — even spiritual change that takes place when they are finally able to live in their truth….it just shakes everything you thought you knew or believed in the very best way.
I can still remember the first time I saw this before-and-after comparison and it took my breath away. There’s no doubt in my mind that Scottie is transgender and that being able to express their gender identity has had a profound impact on their health and happiness.
And so, in today’s episode I am being joined by my husband, Josh, and our friend Scottie. Scottie has been incredibly generous with helping to educate people — way more generous than they need to be. When Scottie came out publicly online a couple of months ago they gave me permission to share their coming out video on my Instagram Story and I absolutely LOVED seeing so many of you embrace them and send words of encouragement. In fact, I screenshot every amazing message that was sent to me, put them all in a DropBox folder, and sent it to Scottie. It was just incredible. We also tossed up a Q+A, and not surprisingly, we got a lot of really great questions. So, the three of us are sitting down just to reflect a bit on the journey so far, and then Scottie is opening up and answering all of your questions.
Before we dive in I wanted to provide a quick rundown of some of the basic terms and concepts to help you navigate today’s episode.
The first word is sex. And it refers to our reproductive organs. If you were born with a penis you were assigned male at birth. If you were born with a vulva you were assigned female. It’s worth noting here that people can also be born with both male and female genitalia, or genitalia that doesn’t necessarily present as one or the other. This is known as intersex, and it’s actually quite common. One in every 100 babies will be born intersex. So, although we’ve been made to believe that every baby comes out with either a penis or a vagina, and assigned a boy or a girl, this is not the case.
Gender is defined as a state of being a man or a woman, and is commonly differentiated by social and cultural roles or behaviors. So these are the things that society has deemed to be “male” or “female”. A few common (and cliche) examples are Playing Football – male. Wearing makeup – female. Facial hair – male. Soft, smooth skin – female.
So if SEX is the way our body looks, we could say that GENDER is more about how we present and identify ourselves to the world, how other people interpret us.
Something that has helped me separate sex and gender, and to start thinking in a less binary way, is to think about ultrasounds. An ultrasound can tell you the SEX of the baby, it does not, in any way, tell you what GENDER your baby will be. If you have a gender reveal party and share the sex of your baby, what you’re telling the world is “My Baby has a Penis” or “My Baby has a Vagina”. That’s it. Knowing the Sex of a baby does not tell you which parent they are going to look like, what their interests are going to be, what their personality will be like, or what career they might have in the future. It literally tells you which reproductive organs they have, and that’s it. However, announcing the sex of your baby does give everyone around you, before this child is even born, permission to start treating them within the binary. They’re going to buy certain colors or styles of clothes. Certain types of toys. They’ll make assumptions about their future interest, hobbies, and career choices. And it kind of makes you think: what paths or choices might each one of us have made, had we not been separated onto one of only two teams right at birth? What hobbies might you have enjoyed? What careers might you have considered? I am fascinated by this and I truly believe that breaking down the binary is really central to achieving gender equality. So if you have kids, or you plan to have kids, I hope this idea resonates with you and might be something you keep in mind as you navigate parenthood and the ways you allow your child to explore their own gender identity.
Some of us have, perhaps, found that we align perfectly with our sex and how we feel or present ourselves, and that leads us directly to our next term, cisgender.
Cisgender is a person whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. So, if on the day you were born the doctor exclaimed, “it’s a boy!” and then you went on to live your entire life as a boy and a man. You felt comfortable in that role, you felt like society’s expectations of how you should perform, and contribute, and look as a man aligned, you would be cisgender. This commonly gets abbreviated to CIS (C-I-S), and if you identify as cisgender and are also straight — that is often referred to as cis-hetero.
Transgender is when your gender identity, or how you feel, doesn’t match the genitals you were born with. So you might feel like a woman but have a penis. Or feel like a man, but have a vulva.
OR you might find that you aren’t at either end of this, and again, this leads us right into our next term. Nonbinary.
Nonbinary refers to a person who may fluctuate between genders or express multiple genders at the same time. So, these people kind of fall in between, and perhaps don’t identify as femme or masculine or perhaps a really fun combination of the two, or not any specific gender at all. This is where our friend Scottie identifies, and I’ll let them tell you more about that. There are 100s or perhaps even thousands of variations and combinations that can fall within the nonbinary.
A few concepts that I’d like you to keep in mind throughout today’s episode:
Being transgender is not rare. It is estimated that roughly 1 in 200 people are transgender. That means that there are likely multiple people in your social circle or family who are transgender. And it’s believed that this number will continue to increase as society becomes more open and accepting.
Being transgender is not a mental illness. There is a wonderful podcast episode of a show called Science Vs that goes really in-depth about the fact that what makes us feel like a man, or a woman, or something in between does not live within our penis or our vagina. Or even in our genes. Or in the way we are raised. Research is showing that the gender we identify with comes from the way our brains are wired, which has nothing to do with the sexual genitalia we have between our legs. We aren’t going to dive super deep into the science in this episode, but I really recommend hopping over to the show notes and listening to this episode of Science Vs if this interests you. It’s really fascinating.
Being transgender is not a trend and it is not new. If we look back through history there is plenty of evidence that many civilizations and cultures not only had transgender people but had unique roles for them within their society, along with extended vocabularies that helped describe multiple genders. Whereas English has very binary terms — He/him, She/her, other languages have dozens of words for describing different genders.
Within the past year I also had a family member come out as transgender, and what we need to realize is that we are seeing more transgender people, simply because visibility is greater now than in the past, and because their community is becoming more understood. More children are able to recognize that they themselves are transgender, simply because they are able to see adults who they identify with. Not every generation has had that. So keep that in mind: this is not a trend. It’s simply about people feeling safe enough to come out, and also having the words and research to explain themselves.
So, while this is not an exhaustive list of terms or concepts by any means, it should be a good basis for helping you understand the topics we discuss in today’s episode. You can find all of this over in today’s show notes if you’d like to read through it again.
As I’ve already said I know that this is a big topic, and I know that at some point in this episode you might find yourself thinking “This seems like a lot of work.” I’m not asking you to become an expert or an activist. All trans people are asking of us is to be respectful and respect their right to exist. And that is not asking very much at all.
And, with that, I think we’re ready to hop into today’s episode, so go ahead and hit play on the player above, or find the Plan Podcast on Spotify, Google Music, or Apple Podcasts to hear our entire conversation about gender with Scottie Povolny.
Video Recommendation: Scottie’s coming out video
Recommended reading: Scottie’s FAQ
Recommended follow: Scottie on Instagram
Recommended listening: The Science of Being Transgender by Science VS
Recommended listening: Gender Reveal is an entire podcast series about gender. Highly recommend!
Recommended listening: What’s Your Experience with the Binary? by Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness and Alok
Recommended article: The Null HypotheCis
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