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Being Transgender in a Binary World

By:  Loree Cook?Daniels – Director, FORGE Transgender Aging Network, USA

Abstract: This essay discusses ways in which people attempt to reconcile or resolve their own cognitive dissonance engendered by transgender people in a society in which gender is perceived as both binary (male OR female) and immutable (an unalterable state or condition).  The author suggests these cognitive dissonance reduction methods may be utilized in other situations where an adult is exposed to information that “doesn’t fit” what they already know.  Much, if not most, of the time we seek to teach someone something new, they already have the cognitive scaffolding for it. It’s possible to teach someone a new recipe because they’ve followed recipes before; this is a simple add?on, a logical expansion, to what they already know. Or take a new software program: if someone has already used a computer keyboard and function keys or pull?down menus, it isn’t too hard to learn additional ways those can be used.  What’s much harder to do is teach someone something that seems to contradict what they already know. When your organization is courting an age discrimination suit because one of your managers is certain that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” how do you budge that certainty to make room for other possibilities?

It’s in the latter arena that all of my work takes place. For the past 15 years, I’ve communicated with literally thousands of transgender people. “Transgender” is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of gender identities and expressions, including:

1. People assigned female at birth who are now living as men (FTMs).
2. People assigned male at birth who are now living as women (MTFs).
3. People who view themselves as neither women nor men.
4. People who view themselves as both women and men.
5. People who sometimes present as the other sex, such as cross?dressers and drag queens.
6. People born intersex and thus hard to categorize. (Intersex people may be born with “ambiguous” genitalia, too small for a penis, too large for a clitoris; or a mixture of genitalia. Other types of intersex people have “normal”? looking genitalia at birth, but turn out to have “opposite sex” internal reproductive organs, an inability to process a key hormone, or an unusual chromosomal pattern.  Hermaphrodite is an old, out? of? favor term for some intersex patterns); and
7. Just about anyone else who doesn’t fit the social rules about what men and women are supposed to look like, identify as, or do.

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