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“I’ve often found myself asking this question and recently Troye Sivan tweeted about it so I felt like I should ask you guys: If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean? If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it (as an imaginary thing), then how can this coexist with transgenderism?”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Liam Lowery Says:

First, a disclosure: I have thought about your question every spare moment I have had for over a month. It is a good question, one that people (particularly people who have been aware/accepting of trans identities for a while) ask me pretty often, so I want to answer it as thoroughly as possible.

If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean?

Gender is a social construct. This is a phrase that anyone who’s taken a gender studies class (or looked at the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme) in recent years could parrot back to you. At the same time, trans and gender-nonconforming people have recently become visible in ways we were not before, pushing for equal or sometimes trans-specific rights and resources. When considered together, this presents an obvious question: If gender is constructed, then how can trans be a “real” identity?

Well, there’s a catch. This question assumes that social constructs can’t have deep-reaching effects on the ones who, within the construct, are perceived as “less than” or “other.” Social constructs, more than anything else, govern the way that systems cause violence to marginalized groups. Calling something a social construct doesn’t eliminate its power, or meaningfully address the harms people in the out-group experience.

I don’t feel like gender is only a social construct when I am treated differently because of my gender identity, like when a supervisor advises me to talk less about trans issues to benefit my career, or when a colleague asks me to “explain” Caitlyn Jenner (statements made by well-meaning people who are, for all intents and purposes, allies). Gender itself may be a social construct, but the gender binary has very real consequences—for trans individuals and for cis-women, too. In the patriarchal world we live in, male assigned and identified people experience privilege that female-identified people do not. Transgender people, though, typically experience being outside of and unrecognizable to this gender system—even when we are read as cisgender, we are still subject to harms based on our trans status at any point when we come out or are outed.

But being trans also means digging deep inside yourself and discovering riches beyond telling. It means that, while people may have told you that you were crazy, that this would alienate you from your family, or that you would get yourself killed, you knew yourself, and chose to live as yourself. Being trans means moments of clarity, spiritual awakening, joy, and self-discovery, all in the face of deeply ingrained opposition. It means you led your own uprising, and are now the sovereign of your own nation-state. Being trans is the truest kind of victory, the kind that is won with a great deal of expense. It is indescribable, and these words are clumsy in trying to capture it. My point is, it definitely means something—something very deep, personal, and impossible to explain.

If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it, then how can this coexist with transgenderism?

Transgender identities are complicated and not uniform. They include all kinds of people with all kinds of goals for how gender should evolve and change. So this question I can only answer for myself.

Gender is a multi-faceted word, but I think what you mean here is that one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism [the valuing of cisgender identities through framing gender discussions around cis identities and making trans identities “other”] is working to end the gender binary. In my experience, transgender identities (and learning to respect them) serve to undermine the gender binary!

While the gender binary is a system of oppression that subjugates women and disenfranchises trans people, gender identity is flexible and highly individualized. Ending the gender binary does not mean eradicating gender identities—far from it. It means making space for more of them. Being able to claim your own gender identity is a valuable part of the human experience, and everyone ought to be able to do so without the fear of violence.

There are some who would say we do not need to end the gender binary, but just complicate it more and create space for non-binary identities to be recognized. While personally I believe we can and deserve to go further, complicating the gender binary is certainly the first step towards creating space for all people to live authentic lives—not in spite of their gender identities but because of them.

Until we agree to listen to each other and allow all people to be the experts on their gender identities, the gender binary will persist. So put your gender pronouns in your email signature, teach trans 101 workshops at your school, and most of all, assume less and listen more.

We also need to address access to gender-affirming healthcare and protect against employment discrimination, not to mention protecting trans people’s rights to use the restroom of their choice.

I eagerly prepare for the day when all of us take ownership of our bodies and cast off the yoke of a binary gender system that harms every person—a  day when we are all trans, determining our identities as we see fit, and moving about a spectrum of gender identities rather than clinging to a socially constructed, harmful binary. I should say, though, that while this might be the endgame, being trans has never been about an endgame for me. My trans identity is the exact place where the personal intersects with the political. This is just who I am, and this work is done in the hopes that you, and only you, can get to be just who you are, too.

Your question about fighting cis-sexism through ending the gender binary is an evolving one. Just as the butch community who nursed our community through the AIDS crisis could never have predicted the current prevalence of trans identities at the time, we can’t assume what the future will hold, or how our conceptions of gender and identity will evolve over time. Gender is a product of place, culture, and the economy—consider, for instance, how third-gender people in the Philippines are more and more claiming binary trans identities because of globalization. I’m sure my answer, my identity, and my point of view will seem outdated even a decade from now.

But today at least, to fight the gender binary, we must keep our heads down and work, and allow ourselves to be surprised by what the future holds. I bet the next crop of rainbow children will have brilliant ideas and move our world forward in ways we never could have imagined.

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"Hi, I recently went to a Rainbow Youth Night in my local area and saw someone I knew from school. The thing is, they introduced themselves to my friend with a different name than the one they are know by at school(with pronouns they,them). I would love to approach this person and ask which name they'd prefer me using because I'd hate to be calling them something they're not comfortable with, I just don't know what exactly to say. Also I've been working up the courage to ask this person out so.."

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Kristin Says:

Oh this is great, this is just GREAT.

You see, because you have two lovely, totally awesome questions to ask! Here’s how it’s gonna go:

YOU: Hi, I have two important questions to ask you.

THEM: Cool, I love questions.

YOU: What name do you prefer I use for you?

THEM: Oh! Thanks for asking. I would love it if you called me Todd.

YOU: Awesome. So, Todd, would you like to go on a date with me?

THEM: Did Kristin of Everyone Is Gay tell you how to ask me out, because this is SO ROMANTIC. Yes, yes I would. *heart eyes*

BOTH OF YOU: *in love forever*

~ end scene ~


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“So I’m a nonbinary trans man and I’m starting college next year. At college I want to start going by my preferred name and pronouns, maybe presenting a bit more masculine, etc. BUT. I’m confused on one thing… Should I tell people I’m trans when I meet them? Like, I don’t want to like, have to explain what being trans is or stuff right when I meet people, especially since I have trouble with social anxiety already. But I’m worried they might assume I’m a girl if I don’t explain.”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Liam Lowery Says:

Hi there, Anonymous. As a non-binary trans man who started going by my preferred name and pronouns in college, I’m glad you reached out with this question. The fact that you’re reaching out at all indicates you have your stuff far more together than I did as an incoming freshman, but I will tell you the top three things I wish I had known when I started undergrad.

The first and most important thing I can tell you is to let people pleasantly surprise you.

When I rolled into my all-girls dorm and met my lady roommate, I stutteringly told her I was trans Actually, I may have said, “I’m a dude, kind of like inside?” I braced for impact, assuming she would ask to change rooms. Instead, she said “cool” and asked me if I wanted to order pizza. Don’t discount that you can get lucky.

What’s more, all the women in my dorm who I feared would shun me were friendly and generally disinterested in my gender identity. That’s because from the first week on, we had papers to write, philosophy texts to read, passages in Russian to translate (maybe that was just me). On top of that, people were hooking up, fighting, and going to Taco Night at the cafeteria. Which is to say that once you are in school and dealing with the day-to-day, it will likely not be as challenging as it seems in the abstract.

My advice is to practice your script for when you meet people initially. Maybe you want to say you’re non-binary, maybe you just want to say your name and preferred pronouns. It will probably change, but the important thing is that you set boundaries for your everyday interactions and introductions that are comfortable for you. Once you do this a few times, you will get used to it and feel out how much you want to say and when.

Now, to the second big thing I wish I’d realized sooner. There is a major pitfall to be wary of, especially as a trans person: you will feel pressure to do the unpaid work of educating people when there are others who are tasked with that responsibility. Try not to fall into this role.

Early in my time in undergrad, when I did happen upon some poor unfortunate soul who had no clue what gender identity was and had never heard the word trans before, I would talk with them at length about gender identity and why it mattered. I had at least thirty of these conversations in my first month of school, I kid you not. It left me feeling burnt out and unsatisfied.

Here is the thing, Anonymous: you are at school to learn, just like everyone else. And hopefully, have a blast and make a lot of friends. But you are not there to be anyone’s personal gender identity educator, even if you happen to be an expert in the subject area.

Looking back, I realize that those people who had burning questions about what gender pronouns are should have just googled it. I mean, give me a break here—gender pronouns are what they sound like!

Asking me those simplistic questions just because they knew I was trans was disrespectful of my time. If nobody is paying you to do that educational work and there are a lot of great resources available to people who want to be allies, you do not need to be that resource. Stepping into that role instills an expectation that trans people exist to educate cis people. If you want to get involved on your campus, advocate for your school to include a transgender 101 training at orientation so that all students will get some info on trans identities—that would reach more people than a one-on-one chat with you.

The other important pitfall to side-step is one I never realized until I was done with school, and it might be even more important than the whole “you are not everyone’s gender professor” thing.

My RA didn’t really get it when I told her it was important that she take the sign with my given name off the door. Instead of complaining to the building manager, I ripped it off and put up on that said Liam in big, honking block letters. I did that, more or less, all through college: I would email professors at the beginning of the semester and ask them to change my name on their class rosters. Usually they would, sometimes they wouldn’t. I would get called by my given name in class, be embarrassed, and stop participating. Or if I felt brave that day, I would clear my throat and say, “Actually, I’m Liam.”

Those moments were far from personal triumphs. What I should have realized is that there were salaried staff members at my university tasked with helping students—including me—deal with administrative issues. By making my problems and myself invisible, I was giving them a free pass not to engage with the issues transgender students often face at colleges.

Look for opportunities to lessen your load so you can take full advantage of being a college student. For instance, contact a dean at your school and ask them to inform professors about your preferred name. Let people do their jobs for you, and by extension you will show them how to do it for other trans students.

There you go, Anonymous—those are the things I wish I knew when I started school that have remained relevant (at times, too relevant) since graduating. Good luck at college, and remember: you’re there to learn and occasionally have fun!

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“hi, how do you handle being intersex when you go to the doctor? my primary care doctor knows that I’m intersex, but I never know if I should talk about it if I have to go to the school nurse, the ER, or see a specialist. do I have to tell them? does it matter if I don’t? thx”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Claudia Astorino Says:

Awww, booooo, Anonymous—having to go to the doctor’s is never fun, but having additional needs on top of your medical needs isn’t always intuitive to navigate. When I’ve chosen to disclose aspects of my body that aren’t normative for women—or even to say that I’m intersex—I’ve had results that range from really positive to really awful (like, eat the whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s awful #chubbyhubbyforevs). Based on these various experiences, I’ve created a few rules for myself that tend to end up making my visits a bit more pleasant.

1) I only disclose information about my body that is (I think is likely to be) medically necessary. So like, if I have a sore throat and go to the doctor’s, it’s probbbbbbably highly unlikely that my XY chromosomes are the reason I’m hacking up a lung. If the reason I’m getting medical care CLEARLY has nothing to do with my being intersex, I don’t mention it.

Now, I’ve put “I think is likely to be” in this rule as a reminder that if I think that my being intersex might be relevant to my medical care, then it may be worth bringing up to my doctor.  For instance, if my doctor may say something to the effect of, “Well, [health concern] is highly uncommon in women,” I may say, “Well, that may still be worth exploring since I’m not a biologically typical female. I’m an intersex person, and my form of intersex is complete androgen insensitivity. Is [health concern] likely to impact me?”

2) If doctors ask questions about my body that are medically relevant, I answer them (although I don’t have to give them all the details). I had an appendicitis scare, and the doctors performed an MRI of my lower abdomen to see if my appendix was inflamed. After doing this, one of the ER nurses said that she’d observed that I didn’t have a uterus, and asked me why.  I said, “I was born without a uterus.” In similar instances, I might follow up with, “I didn’t have a hysterectomy or other procedure you might want to be aware of.” These medical professionals are likely making sure that they’re ruling out any possible reasons why I may be having a set of symptoms, and answering these questions helps them to do that. However, I’m not obligated to provide further details. Read on, intrepid Anonymous!

3) If doctors ask questions about my body that are NOT medically relevant, I’m not obligated to answer. So. The thing is, doctors are people. And we people are living at a time in history where intersex people aren’t highly visible or well-understood. Many people don’t know what it means to be an intersex person, and sometimes these people wear white coats and stethoscopes and hold medical degrees. Sometimes, it is clear that medical professionals are asking questions about your body that aren’t medically relevant, and you might feel really uncomfortable with this. Well, Anonymous, I’m here to say it loud and clear: YOU DON’T HAVE TO ANSWER THOSE QUESTIONS, AT ALL, EVER

Let’s go back to that appendicitis scare I had. After I stated that I was born without a uterus the attending nurse asked me, “Um, why is that?” Hopefully, this nurse was trying to ask me if there was other medically relevant information she should know about. In response to situations like this, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “That isn’t medically relevant in this case,” and state that I haven’t had a hysterectomy or other procedure they might want to know about, as suggested above. Another way to respond to questions like this is by asking another question: “Is that medically relevant?” or “Can you tell me how that’s medically relevant?” and wait for a response.

What doctors need to know is information that is medically relevant. That I’m intersex and my form of intersex is complete androgen insensitivity and I have XY chromosomes and I was born with testes and blah blah blurgh blah is usually not medically relevant information. Under those circumstances, I don’t need to report this info. If I feel comfortable providing this information, I can choose to do so, but I’m not required to.

Occasionally, you may have an encounter that makes it clear that doctors are asking questions about your body out of curiosity, and that’s not appropriate or okay. You are visiting them to stop hacking up your lungs or prevent appendageddon—not to teach them about intersex people.

Let me tell you a story.  Several years ago, after I moved to NYC, I went to try and find a doctor to serve as my primary care physician. During my first appointment with a physician we shall refer to only as Dr. Doodoopoobutt, I was asked why I took a daily estrogen pill. Since Dr. DDPB was going to be my GP, I came out to them as intersex, and told them my form of intersex. Dr. DDPB responded by asking a series of inappropriate questions, including, “So, um, do you have a penis? Oh. *pause* So you have a vagina, then? Uh, what do you and don’t you have?” Later, when I was lying on the exam table, I was terrified that Dr. DDPB was going to try to insist I should pull down my pants so they could inspect my genitals.

Today, if this situation had happened, I would have the confidence to say, “Those questions aren’t medically relevant. Can we move on?” or perhaps to say, “Those questions are medically irrelevant and they’re insensitive. I’m going to leave now,” and walk out the door and buy a hot chocolate and sit on a bench in Central Park and watch the squirrels stealing soft pretzels right out of the garbage cans, because eff that noise you know? But at the time, I didn’t know these options were open to me. Dear Anonymous, know that if any medical professional acts in a manner that’s inappropriate or disrespectful, you don’t have to sit in that plastic patient’s chair and try to deal. You are fully within your right to let them know it’s not okay, to leave, to go get that hot chocolate.

4) If doctors ask questions about my body that are NOT medically relevant, I reserve the right to lie about it.

Yep, you read that correctly, Anonymous. Real talk:  I may choose not to be truthful in answering questions about my body related to my intersex if I know it’s not medically relevant—and especially if I don’t feel comfortable with a particular healthcare provider. I have mixed feelings about this—I want to be clear about the fact that, in general, I don’t advocate lying to health care providers, and that coming out to medical professionals can be a positive experience. That being said, you are not required to come out. It can be painful when clinicians are less-than-sensitive about my body after coming out to them as intersex. I’ve dealt with a lot of damaging words and procedures from various doctors at multiple medical facilities during my childhood and adolescence—I value myself and my emotional health too much to put myself in a similar position again as an adult.

In what situations might one lie? There are often standard questions you’re asked to fill out on medical forms or asked by clinicians that you can’t answer truthfully without coming out and having a conversation about it afterward. For example, I’ve never gotten my period, but I’ve never had a medical appointment where I didn’t have to report when my last period was.  Although I tell doctors now, “I don’t get my period,” or “I have amenorrhea,” and go from there, I used to simply lie about it when I was younger because I didn’t know that, “I don’t get my period,” was actually an acceptable answer. My go-to was, “The first of the month,” and then sit there white-knuckling it because I was nervous they knew somehow I wasn’t fessing up.

Finally, I am fortunate that I have never felt truly unsafe when visiting medical facilities as an LGBTQIA individual. However, this is not always the case for LGBTQIA patients. If I felt that my safety was at issue by disclosing my intersex, I would not hesitate to lie to protect myself, and leave the facility if I was able to. Remember, you can always find a new doctor. Keeping yourself safe—even if you have to lie—is okay. #safetyfirst #always

Well, Anonymous, I hope that this helps you out! Before appointments, I’d recommend spending a few minutes thinking about what information you’re comfortable disclosing and how much—it will make you feel more comfortable during the appointment and feel empowered that you’re taking control of the conversation about your body (which is not what most of us have experienced being medicalized as kids).

Fingers and toes crossed that your next appointment goes great! <3


Claudia Astorino is an intersex activist living in NYC.  Claudia serves as Associate Director of Organization Intersex International’s USA chapter (OII-USA), coordinates the Annual Intersex Awareness Day (IAD) events in NYC, and writes for Full-Frontal Activism: Intersex and Awesome (her personal blog) and Autostraddle. Help support our contributors here on Patreon!


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"I Do Not Need Gender"

An essay by Tyler Ford

As a child, there were two things I wished for every night before falling asleep: braces (I was strangely obsessed with orthodontia) and different genitals. I didn’t have much of an understanding of gender, but I knew the word “girl” fit as uncomfortably as the skirts I refused to wear. From the age of three, I was insisting that my body was not my own and not what I wanted. What was “down there” felt wrong to me in ways that I could not articulate, but I knew that there were people out there with different genitals from the ones I had, and I thought I might want those. Everyone called me a tomboy; I settled only because “boy” made up half of the word.

Yet as I grew older, I longed to experience girlhood. I wanted to fit in, I wanted to have a normal teenage life like I saw in movies, and I wanted to be seen and to be validated by my peers. Most of all, I wanted to grow up to be a woman because I loved the women in my life, and I wanted to identify with them. My desire to exist as a boy and my inability to feel like a girl pulled me in one direction, and my desire to ground myself in what others called “reality” – seemingly the only path to normalcy, pulled me in the opposite direction. At times, I felt like saltwater taffy – a really shitty flavor of the sort – being stretched until I could no longer recognize myself.

Most of my life has been spent swinging back and forth on a pendulum, trying to figure out which side – boy or girl – I would inevitably make my home. I spent years desperate to feel any sense of stability, to feel any sort of permanent allegiance to one of those two genders, to feel like I belonged anywhere at all. I’d spend one year in bras and miniskirts and the next injecting myself with 200mg of testosterone weekly. I could alter my body, wear different clothes, change my mannerisms and my speech, and none of it could change my confused heart, which would vibrate out of control every time I tried to hold my gender still and teach it to behave. Throughout my life (and constantly now), people have read me as in-between male and female. I am not in-between anything but the confines of the Western gender binary.

For the most part, I like to completely ignore the fact that my body exists at all. I am a walking brain; I am a galaxy of stars; I am unable to be contained in and defined by something so limiting. My pronouns (they/them) are both a rallying cry against being gendered without my consent, and a way in which I embrace both everything I am and everything I am not. I do not need to fit into or belong to an identity to exist, to survive, to make other people comfortable. I need space and I need freedom; I need compassion and I need kindness; I need openness and I need understanding; I need my own love. I do not need gender.

Crowned one of the best social media stars of 2015 by MTV, Tyler Ford is a 25-year-old NYC-based agender writer, speaker, consultant, and personality. They are a contributor for Rookie and MTV, where they often write about their experiences as a queer transgender person. Their work can also be found in the GuardianPoetry Magazine, and V Magazine