U of U Panel Addresses Trans, Intersex Health and Identity

A seven-member panel held a dialogue at the University of Utah about gender identity, intersex status and several other aspects about the T in the LGBT acronym, as part of Transgender Awareness Month, a series of several events celebrating and providing education about transgender, genderqueer and gender-variant people.

Titled “A Dialogue with Transgender Community Leaders and Allies,” the Nov. 15 panel included representatives from a number of transgender and transgender-friendly organizations, including: Aaron “Korynne” Sparks and Jesse Henninger (“Jessica Christie”) from charitable drag group, the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire; Jesse Fluetsch, president of TransAction, the Utah Pride Center’s youth-lead transgender advocacy group; Adrian Harris, a University of Utah student majoring in biology and gender studies; Deborah Dean, founder of transgender group Engendered Species; Kip Rishton, a student of the school’s college of social work who has researched Utah’s transgender population; and Dr. Mark Malan, the founder and director of the Intersex Society of Utah. The panel was moderated by Sai Samineni, Safe Zone coordinator at the school’s LGBT Resource Center, which sponsored the panel.

One of Samineni’s first questions to the diverse group was to speak to the difference between gender identity and gender presentation. They defined these terms respectively as the gender with which one identifies and the gender that one presents as, which can both be different. Often, said Henninger, it is not possible to tell either just by looking at an individual, as individuals have different ideas about what presenting as “masculine” or “feminine” mean. For example, Henninger said that he “can be really butch when I’m working on a car or femme when I’m watching a chick flick.”

“In some cultures they have 50 different words to describe the differences in gender that they have,” said Dean. “Society and advertisers say this is male and this is female, but as humans we’re going to be in the middle somewhere.”

The panel then went on to address intersex identity, a subject that receives little attention even in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Intersex people, Malan said, are those who are born with chromosomes that are not XX (female) or XY (male), or with genitals that are a mixture of female and male.

“Intersex is sort of an umbrella term for a lot of conditions,” said Malan. One of those conditions, he said, is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where the bodies of people with XY chromosomes can’t process the male hormone androgen, which results in that individual’s body “looking like that of an XX woman.”

“And most people [with AIS] wouldn’t see themselves as being anything but female” until they learn the reason behind why they’re infertile, Malan said.

However, Malan noted that doctors and parents often have difficulty deciding how to gender intersex individuals with male and female genitals, such as one testicle and one ovary. In the past, he said, doctors would often pick a sex for an intersex child and alter the child’s genitals accordingly. Intersex groups now largely condemn this practice, and encourage doctors  not to perform genital surgery unless refraining from doing so would harm the child’s physical health.

“The problem with that [a physician choosing an intersex child’s gender] … the [intersex] person may reach adulthood and really have a different view of how they want to live their life, and they’ve already been gender-assigned,” he said. “It’s problematic. We like to advise parents today to wait and [let the child] decide who they are. Children can be raised and told they are wonderful, beautiful intersex people and they can have a good life.”

When the conversation turned toward scientific research into transgenderism, Rishton noted that the transgender Utahns he interviewed as part of his undergraduate research all reported becoming aware “as early as ages 3 and 4 that there was something wrong, that mom was dressing them in the wrong clothes, because they knew internally on some level what gender they identified with clear back then.”

“I think a lot needs to be done in this area,” said Rishton, who added that observing the struggles of homeless transgender people when he managed The Road Home made him want to learn how to help them. “There’s very little studies done. It’s like a whole population of people that nobody talks about.”

One thing related to transgender identity that has received more coverage than other issues, however, is the inclusion of gender identity disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the clinicians’ handbook on mental illnesses published by the American Psychiatric Association. In order to receive hormonal treatments or sex reassignment surgery, transgender individuals must be diagnosed with GID by a psychiatrist.

While Fluetsch said that many transgender people he knew saw the disorder as “a way to access care,” he noted that several of his friends have also been denied health insurance because they have taken hormones.

“There’s this other view that [being transgender] isn’t a disorder but an orderly part of nature to have this diversity that exists,” said Malan. “We need to be able to define in a way, in the DSM,  a practical way to bring help to [transgender] individuals seeking that help and seeking funding for that help” such as hormones or sex reassignment surgery.

“You want to have that supportive side, but not have it be looked on by the general public or our society that those conditions are a defect,” he said.

The panel also talked about the relationship of drag to transgender identity.

“For me it’s a character. It’s the feminine side of my personality,” said Henninger. “It’s a continuum, like being transgender.”

Sparks noted that “intersex queens” — drag performers who identify as male to female transgender women, but who don’t have sex reassignment surgery — often hold an honored place in the hierarchy of drag performers.

“I know plenty of these girls. They are the highest paid entertainers in our industry,” he said, noting that drag queens in this category who go ahead with sex reassignment surgery frequently leave the industry.

“Even within the LGBTQ community drag and transgender [identity] is the final frontier,” said Henninger. “Transgender people and drag queens are on the low end of the social acceptance spectrum.”

Touching upon that remark, Fluetsch said that members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual community can help transgender people by recognizing that they exist among their ranks.

“And I think they can also recognize that transgender people and lesbian, gay and bisexual and queer people can work together to achieve common goals of acceptance,” he said. “I think lesbian, gay and bisexual people are often harassed and discriminated against because of their gender, not because of their sexual orientation. I think when someone’s harassed because they’re “faggoty,” that’s because of their gender and how they’re expressing themselves,” he explained, referring to how U.S. society at large often looks down upon “feminine-acting” gay men.

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