Michael Abrahams | Spare a thought for transgender people
Last week I came across an interesting post on Facebook. It depicted a couple, Danna Sultana and Esteban Landrau, expecting a baby. But this couple was different from those we are used to seeing. The feminine-looking mummy (Danna) was born with male genitalia and impregnated the bearded daddy (Esteban), who was born with female genitalia but retained them, and was now pregnant with a prominent baby bump.
I posted the photograph, along with others of the couple and the child after he was born, with the accompanying explanation, and commented, “I need a drink. Make that several drinks”, indicating my need to process what is a truly unusual situation, one I had never seen before. Transgender people are nothing new to me, but never before had I seen a picture of a woman with a man she impregnated. However, some folks took offense to my comment, seeing it as mockery, which it was not, and chided me.
I have wanted to write about the transgender phenomenon for some time now, but the deluge of comments, positive and negative, in the thread under my post has served as a catalyst.
My introduction to the transgender community came several years ago, when I attended a function at which a transgender man (born with female genitalia) gave a talk on his life as a transgender person living in Jamaica. Subsequently, he became a patient of mine, as did another trans man, and our conversations not only enabled me to learn about the phenomenon, but to also empathise with members of their community. Being transgender is not an easy road. I recall one of my patients telling me one day that he wished he could go to the beach and wear normal swimwear. It was something I never thought of, but as he said it, I realised it would be a challenge. Whether he wears swim trunks or a bathing suit, the combination of a male, bearded face and female breasts seen in either outfit would create a stir and attract unwanted attention, and probably harassment or even violence.
I remember conversations with them about the insistence of some that transgender folk use bathrooms that correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth. When asked what their thoughts were, they both said using a female bathroom would create discomfort for them, as well as women using the room. It makes sense. On another occasion, I was present when someone noticed tattoos on one of them and asked about their significance. He told them that every time he felt suicidal he got one. When asked how many tattoos he had, his reply was “20”. As the saying goes, ‘the struggle is real’. Trans people often encounter stigmatisation, oppression and discrimination, and are deserving of empathy and not judgement.
The other side to this issue is that persons outside the trans community are also deserving of empathy. Human sexuality is very complex. Many of us have been socialised to accept certain sexual norms as gospel, because that is what we were taught and are accustomed to. So, when a woman who has experienced menstrual cycles, PMS, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and menopause hears someone with a penis say, “You are a woman and so am I”, and disagrees with the person, rather than berating or ‘cancelling’ her, the opportunity should be taken to have a conversation about the definitions of sex and gender, and why trans women consider themselves to be women. When people express concerns about trans women competing in certain sporting events against cis women, those concerns are rational and ought not to be dismissed. When cis women express discomfort about people with male genitalia being able to follow them into an empty ladies’ room, their concerns should not be rubbished.
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Recently, a lesbian friend of mine told me of a conversation she was engaged in, where she declared she would not date a transgender woman, and was told she was transphobic. She is not. She, like all of us, has her preferences, and is entitled to them. And if someone ‘needs a drink’ to process something that is very unusual to them, and is being honest in the expression of their bewilderment, they ought not to be judged or criticised.
As information is disseminated and the populace educated about transgender people, many of us will evolve. Some will not. But for those of us who do, we will evolve at different rates. I recall that 30 years ago, if you were to have asked me to share my thoughts on same-sex marriage, I would have responded that it is rubbish. Fast- forward to last week, the same day I saw the photos of the transgender couple, when I had a conversation with a gay male friend of mine about issues he was having with his husband in their marriage, and did not find his situation to be even slightly strange. Today, I see no difference between heterosexual and same-sex marriages, and support legalisation of the latter.
In my opinion, more empathy is needed on both sides, and more conversations, where folks on each side actually listen to what those on the other side are saying. Dismissing members of the transgender community only creates more pain, and going after those whose views on sexuality are different from evolving norms only makes them double down and become more resistant to change.
So, do I still need a drink to process Danna and Esteban? No. I already had my drink, processed their situation, and researched and learnt more about them. In fact, I am now among the hundreds of thousands of people who follow them on Instagram.
(Permission was granted by my patients to share their stories.)
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human-rights advocate. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @mikeyabrahams.