Transgender: Confronting the Issues

“Have you ever thought to yourself this body that I’ve got is wrong?”

“I’ve always felt that I was a girl. It was just a very strange existence, because I didn’t look like one, and no one wanted me to be in the girls group, and no one thought of me as a girl, and no one gave me a girls name…nothing. It was just weird, how could you live like that?”

Dr Rachel Richardson, a Sub Dean of Teaching and Learning from Charles Sturt University, spoke to us frankly about her transition from male to female later in her life, and the various issues that come hand in hand with knowing that your body does not reflect your gender identity.

Dr Rachel Richardson

Dr Rachel Richardson

Transgender people, and the issue of transitioning is currently in the forefront of everyone’s mind, due to the very public, very brave transition of Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn Jenner, who publicly announced that she’d undergone her transition on the front cover of Vanity Fair, with Call Me Caitlyn scrawled across the cover, spoke of her concerns of her transition. Her concerns, mainly, focused around her worry about whether she was going to do everything right, say the right thing, and project the right image. Being as she’s currently one of the most high profile transgender people in the world right now, this concern, and her lack of sleeping from worrying about it, seems completely justified.

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Caitlyn Jenner is using her profile to highlight the plight of various Transpeople, including the high rate of murder of trans people

For some people, the concept of one being transgender is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. People have enough issues with their body and their self-esteem that once you bring your gender into it, it just seems overwhelming. Richardson says, “I can understand a cisgender person struggling to sympathise with the idea.”

As Rachel so eloquently put towards us over email,

“it is a mistake to assume that because we don’t experience something ourselves, it is not real.”

Rachel brought up five experiences with us that transgender people face regularly—the “four M’s” and birth certificates.

The First M: Misgendering

Misgendering is essentially calling someone by the wrong gender pronoun—he/his/him instead of she/her and vice versa. For a lot of us, its embarrassing when you meet a baby, who can’t respond to you and call you out on it, and refer to them by the wrong gender—so imagine how much worse it is for both parties when referring to a person by an incorrect gender.

Rachel suggested that mostly someone’s gender is blindingly obvious, but when it’s not, it’s OK to politely to ask which gender pronoun a person prefers. Some people are intentionally ambiguous about their gender, some identify as gender queer, and some people may prefer to have “they” used as a pronoun.

She went on to say she’s seen people using the incorrect pronoun in an attempt to disparage trans people.

“If you met me, I look like a middle aged woman, I’m in my 50’s, I present my name as female, I demand, really, to be addressed as a woman. I would be annoyed if someone [used male pronouns]…I’m sending out enough signals, surely aren’t I?” said Rachel.

The issue of education, in terms of using correct pronouns but other issues as well, is one that she finds important. She says a little bit of education can help so people actually understand the effects of misgendering transgender people.

“The chances that someone in high school knows someone who is transitioning is very high…with a greater degree of acceptance, it’s safer for people to come out.

The Second M: Mum & Dad

‘Late transitioners,’ as Rachel calls them, are often people who have cis-normative and heteronormative lives before taking the road to transition. So there are Transmen who have given birth to children, and Transwomen who fathered children…it’s very common, Rachel assures us.

Amongst older transitioners is the question of what their children should call them post transition—and questions from their children such as ‘How do we celebrate Mothers Day, now that mum is a man?’

Rachel says amongst her friends, many of their children still call them by their original titles, and many of them prefer it. The thought and reasoning behind it is mainly due to their children, as they know their children feel strongly about those titles and they call them by that name not to misgender them or hurt them but out of love.

She says she personally would feel very uncomfortable if they called her ‘Mum,’ but admits that being called ‘Dad’ out in public does have its interesting moments.

The Third M: Media

As future journalists ourselves, we attempted to be as careful and respectful as possible whilst writing this article. When questioning Rachel on what she’d observed in the media on reporting about Trans people, she singled out Rupert Murdoch’s media for its scurrilous reporting. She says a lot of it is very disrespectful. It is as if “we’re only really interesting if we’ve been murdered.”

She says the media is also still very sexist towards women, whether Transwomen or cisgender women, and that it’s a blatant fault of the media.

The Fourth M: Money & Medicare

The current status of Medicare is not very Trans friendly whatsoever. As a lot of surgery for transgender people is considered “cosmetic” surgery, it’s seen as the same as if someone gets a nose job because they don’t like the way their nose looks. Nothing is covered by health insurance, according to Rachel, and everything comes out of your own pocket.

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Medicare does not cover gender reassignment surgery or other transitioning surgeries

In her personal experience of transitioning to a woman, she has had facial surgeries, hormone therapy, complete sex reassignment surgery and thousands of dollars worth of hair removal.

The total comes up to a whopping $75,000, with not one cent claimable under Medicare. Private health insurance also racks up the bills in Australia, with the only thing given under it being the cost of the hospital stay itself and the cost of the theatre. For the surgeon and anaesthetists, and any additional time spent in hospital would not be covered by insurance. Rachel, like many other Transwomen, elected to go overseas where the whole procedure was much less expensive and performed at a much higher standard than available in Australia.

“Money definitely discourages people from undergoing the surgery.”

Birth Certificates

The issue of birth certification is a serious one for Transpeople. Under NSW state law, only trans people who are recognised by the relevant NSW Act are protected. To be recognised, you must have an amended birth certificate that aligns with your gender identity.

To change your birth certificate in NSW, the birth had to be originally registered in NSW, you must be over 18, have had sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery and be unmarried.

The fact that as we mentioned before, that gender reassignment surgery is paid out of ones own pocket, means a lot of people have not had the surgery, and therefore are not allowed to have an amended birth certificate.

This means many trans people in NSW are not protected under Anti-Discrimination laws, and they’re discriminated against by state based/registered agencies, institutions, government bodies and healthcare systems—the same one which denies the freedom for gender reassignment surgery to be covered under their insurance, and stop the out of pocket payment.

As one source said “there are similar archaic state laws in other states in Australia.”

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“All over the world across all time as we know it, there are and have always been people who do not feel their bodies represent the gender they feel they are. For those people, having access to therapies and treatments and law that allows them to live happy and fulfilled lives as themselves, is a profoundly important thing. And it’s so important for those people to know that other people around them can love and respect them and think of them as human beings.”

Popular television show Glee, featured a critically praised transgender storyline

These are only some of the numerous issues that plague transgender people. The fact that numerous high profile people are coming out as transgender, and that television shows such as Glee and Orange is the New Black are challenging heteronormativity, and challenging assumptions about transgender people, hopefully will allow for a more open and honest conversation to occur. People need to challenge their own cisgender privilege and assumptions, broaden their minds beyond what is ‘normal’ to them. Most importantly though, changes need to be made to discriminative and archaic practices and laws, to help create lasting positive change for the transgender community.

India Jermyn & Kate Evans