Remarks as prepared for Social Justice Calgary 2015:
Hi, I’m Zinnia Jones. I’ve been publishing my work on YouTube and on Freethought Blogs for several years now, covering secular and LGBT topics. I’m very honored that the University of Calgary Freethinkers have invited me here.
Most recently my focus has been on transgender issues. I’ve been transitioning for a couple years, and I’ve covered this topic like I would pretty much any other aspect of my life — telling the internet everything I think about it. I’ve also done a lot of research on it, because it seemed like no one else could really tell me all the things I wanted to know about going through this. So that’s a gap I’ve felt I should try to fill by sharing what I’ve learned with a wider audience.
My talk today is essentially about that. It’s about basic awareness of trans-related things, and specifically the positive or negative effects this can have on trans people’s self-understanding and self-realization: the process of coming to know that they’re trans. It’s my belief that by studying and targeting the factors involved in this, we can help facilitate trans people’s personal development on both an individual and societal scale — or, to put it simply, spawn more trans.
The only one?
When reading through trans people’s descriptions of their early sense of their gender, there’s a very common theme: they often think that they are the only person in the world who feels this way.
One woman stated, as she began high school: “At that time, I still thought that I was alone in the world.” Another person said: “I guess back then I felt a freak because there was no-one I knew who was like me.”
And it keeps going like that:
“When I was much younger I felt like the only one in the world.” (Bolin, 1988)
“Until I found out there were others, I knew I was alone.” (Bolin, 1988)
“I thought I was the only one in the world that was going through this. I didn’t know about hormones yet. I didn’t know what SRS was — sex reassignment surgery. I didn’t know what the procedure was.” (Kuklin, 2014)
Some of these quotes are from people who grew up in the ‘60s or ‘70s; some are from later. That last one is from a teenager who was interviewed last year. This is an ongoing issue.
Now, are they the only ones in the world? Far from it. Estimates of prevalence from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have stated that trans women are 1 in 30,000 and trans men are 1 in 100,000, which would imply there are only about several thousand of us in the United States.
But more recent research has shown that this is off by a couple orders of magnitude: a study in 2011 estimated that there are about 700,000 trans adults in the US. That’s about the same size as the population of Winnipeg or Seattle. Extrapolating this figure to the global population, there are about 16 million of us — almost half the size of Canada.
Finding the words
So what’s going on here? When there are 16 million trans people around the world, what’s making people think that they’re the only one who feels this way? In large part, there’s just not enough cultural awareness that being trans is a thing. People haven’t learned that their experiences are not an isolated anomaly, but rather an instance of a very widespread phenomenon.
Trans people have often said that they didn’t know there were even words for this. They’ve said:
“I didn’t know of ‘trans’ as a word or definition.”
“I didn’t know that I was transgendered or transsexual at an early age because I had never come across those terms.”
When people don’t know of any conceptual structure to fit their experiences into, their feelings can often just seem vague and confusing until they find a way to make sense of this. And the gap in time here between becoming aware of these feelings and putting a name to them has actually been measured. A survey of trans people in 2010 found that they became aware of their own gender variance in some sense at an average of 8 years old. However, it took until they were 15 years old before they actually learned words like “transgender” or “transsexual”. Another study of trans youth aged 15 to 21 reported that they knew they had some kind of gender discordance at an average of 10 years old, but it took them until age 14 to realize that the term “transgender” applied to them.
Historical challenges to self-recognition
This is a gap of years between knowing there’s something different about their gender, and knowing that there’s a word for it. It takes people time to stumble upon this and realize it fits them. So what are some of the moments that spark this realization? Some trans people have cited media coverage of Christine Jorgensen in the ‘50s or Renée Richards in the ‘70s. Others were first exposed to the concept via literature from trans organizations or images of trans people in adult magazines.
What’s interesting is that the age at which trans people learn of the idea has been decreasing. People who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s heard these terms at an average age of about 20, but this later decreased to an average of 14 years old.
So what influenced this? Decades ago, access to transitioning through the medical system was extremely restricted. At one point, hospitals turned away thousands of people who applied for surgery, and accepted only a handful (Meyerowitz, 2002). Doctors would often treat only those trans women who looked the most conventionally feminine — and since those women hadn’t yet been allowed to access these treatments, this made it something of a catch-22. They were expected to be heterosexual and to have a lifelong history of exaggeratedly feminine behaviors, to the point of being almost offensively stereotypical.
Those who were allowed to transition were told to keep their history a secret for the rest of their lives. They often had to quit their jobs and move to a place where nobody knew them (Bolin, 1988), and they were taught to come up with false pasts to serve as substitute life stories (Kessler & McKenna, 1978). So for decades, there were fewer of us who were able to transition, and fewer of us who could be open about it. It’s taken the medical community a disappointingly long time to realize that not all of us take on stereotypical gender expressions and gender roles, and many of us aren’t okay with just giving up the lives we’ve made for ourselves.
Modern-day possibilities for discovery
Another factor that started to open things up for us was increasingly widespread internet access. This gave people the opportunity to set up their own online resources and connect with others who have similar interests. For us, this held a lot of advantages over older forms of media and private in-person support groups. There may be millions of us out there, but we’ll still pretty sparsely scattered, and there might be only a handful of us in some smaller towns.
Openly considering transition comes with considerable social risks, as does being out, and this can keep us apart from one another. But online, we can reach out to people around the world, without the dangers of having to reveal our names, identities, or locations. We can search for information and explore various topics without having to commit ourselves to a certain label or identity.
Crucially, we don’t have to wait for it to come to us. We’re no longer waiting for news coverage of maybe one or two trans media stars a decade, or looking around libraries for obscure and inaccessible trans literature. Now it’s available in our homes whenever we happen to get curious about it. If you were in the middle of nowhere 40 years ago, you might not have any idea of where to go for help with this. Now you can post questions on a certain section of Reddit and get answers from other trans people in a matter of hours. That’s how far we’ve come.
From sensational to personal
The few trans people who were able to go public in previous decades typically represented a narrow cross-section of transness: they were the ones who were able to meet the restrictive standards of the time and successfully navigate that system. So, in turn, that was the only concept of transness that was widely represented.
The perpetuation of these standards in the public consciousness could be a significant barrier to trans people’s self-recognition. Sure, more people were aware that transitioning was possible — but after they learned the words for it, they could be misled into thinking this didn’t apply to them. Suppose they weren’t straight or extremely feminine from a young age, or maybe they didn’t feel that the “trapped in the wrong body” cliché applied to them. Those experiences weren’t reflected by the predominant media image, so they might end up unnecessarily doubting their own transness and putting off transitioning.
So what can address this issue? What raises awareness of being trans, without presenting only very limited ways of being trans? It’s not a hard problem, it just wasn’t possible before. Nowadays, more and more trans people are able to be out and open about their very different experiences — trans people who are queer, androgynous, or nonbinary. Our representation isn’t limited to homogeneous, distant celebrities who may or may not relatable. Now everyone can see that trans people are just everyday people like anyone else, and they’re all around us.
Rapid transgender population growth
In recent years, there’s also been an interesting demographic shift in the population of trans people: it appears to be growing more rapidly than you’d expect. Over the past four years, the number of trans youth referred for treatment in the UK has increased fivefold. And a 2011 report found that the number of trans people in the UK seeking treatment is on track to double every six and a half years.
So does this mean that the proportion of the population that’s trans is actually growing? Has something suddenly caused the prevalence of transness to spike drastically in recent years? That’s not actually necessary in order to explain these statistics. Keep in mind that they’re only counting the trans people who can be counted. So the actual number of trans people doesn’t need to be going up — just the number of trans people who are aware that they’re trans. We know that people can be trans and not know it until something activates that awareness; nowadays, people have more of an opportunity to learn about this than ever.
A 2002 study shows the effect of the internet on trans people’s self-awareness: out of 19 trans men, 15 of them said the internet helped them come out to themselves or others, and it was tied in first place with books, ahead of TV, movies, or newspapers. 14 said online groups and mailing lists facilitated their identification as trans.
And a 2009 report from the UK suggests that there is a “large reservoir” of trans people from which relatively few have emerged to seek treatment. They state that some of the reasons this number is growing are “the dissemination of information via the internet”, a “buddy effect”, and online discussion groups that help trans people connect with each other.
At the edge of realization
I’ve experienced this firsthand from both sides of the process. When I was a teenager, I didn’t really think about why I was uncomfortable with growing body hair or my voice dropping — I just thought it was something I had to deal with. But once I grew up, I found some trans IRC channels that I spent a lot of time in, and knowing dozens of trans people made the idea of it a completely normal thing to me. When I started thinking about transitioning, there were people I could ask about the protocols for therapy and the effects of hormones. All of this made it so much easier to reach a point where I could know who I was and what I needed to do.
And after I went public about transitioning, I eventually realized that this was actually having an impact on others. I had a decently sized platform when I began, in terms of my presence on YouTube and other networks, and this meant everything I posted about being trans was reaching thousands of people. And some of those people were trans and didn’t know it yet — until they watched my videos. I know this because they told me this. I’ve gotten dozens of messages from people who’ve told me that what I said helped them come to that realization.
On my blog, the most-read post I’ve ever written is about the somewhat less obvious signs of gender dysphoria — certain kinds of discomfort that don’t always seem related to gender but may improve when you start transitioning. I still get search traffic every day from people who are looking for symptoms of gender dysphoria, or how to know if they’re trans. I’m not special here — in an absolute sense, I’m pretty much nobody. The thousands of people who find my work are just a very small fraction; imagine how many more must be out there searching for an answer.
Every day, I’m looking into that gap in time as people move from feeling to knowing. And if this process can be inhibited, then it can be accelerated. We can do that — I’ve seen it happening. When we talk about our own experiences with gender, we can help some people get closer to being able to do the same. We aren’t limited to a few potential role models or rare opportunities for realization anymore. We’re a sprawling network that’s paying it forward every day, in a world where any of us can be the beacon that finally guides someone home.
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- Bolin, A. (1988). In search of Eve: Transsexual rites of passage. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- City of Seattle, Department of Planning and Development. (2015, February). About Seattle – Population.
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- Kuklin, S. (2014). Beyond magenta: Transgender teens speak out. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
- Meyerowitz, J. J. (2002). How sex changed: A history of transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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