CoastLine: Is Gender Identity Cultural, Biological, or a Personal Decision?
North Carolina’s state legislature passed HB2 earlier this year, otherwise known as the “Bathroom Bill”, and unwittingly launched a broader, national conversation about how public policy impacts minorities – specifically people who are transgender. Performers canceled concerts, companies shelved plans to move to or expand in North Carolina, and revenue from tourism dropped.
There are several components of this law generating debate, but the part that has triggered the most outrage requires people to use the restroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate in public buildings.
Despite broad media coverage, there are plenty of well-meaning people who don’t fully understand what all the uproar is about and why a small percentage of the population is driving such a large national conversation.
So today, while we acknowledge that HB2 served as the catalyst for the conversation, we’re side-stepping the politics to learn more about the transgender community. This is not a discussion parsing the nuances, potential impacts, or even constitutionality of HB2. It's an opportunity for the majority to step into someone else’s world for a moment.
Paula Kohut practices law in Wilmington at Kohut, PLLC and is a Member of Equality NC’s Board of Directors. Equality NC is an advocacy group working to secure equal rights and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) North Carolinians. Paula Kohut is also a transgender woman.
Tavi Hancock is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the Triangle region and counsels children, teens, and adults on issues related to gender identity.
Abigail Garner is Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate at Delta Behavioral Health in Wilmington. She works with adolescents on gender identity issues.
RLH: Paula Kohut, you have spoken to groups before about your journey as a transgender woman, but you haven’t appeared in the media before—on radio or in television—to talk about your own journey. It’s a deeply personal topic. Why are you willing to talk with this broader audience today?
Paula Kohut: Well, Rachel, I guess the way I’d reframe that question would be: Why did I wait so long? I transitioned from male to female in 2011. What I wanted to make sure of was that I was known as a lawyer who happens to be transgender and not a transgender woman who happens to be a lawyer. I was told by one transgender woman, a surgeon who had transitioned and was very public about her transition, that those media clips followed her and she could never get away from that. So, I’ve been a little slow, but I try to meet with groups privately and explain my experience to help them understand. But with the uproar over House Bill 2, I felt it was important for me to step up and to help people understand what it is like to be a transgender person.
RLH: Looking at your own personal journey, how old were you when you realized there was some sort of divergence between the gender that people identified you as and the way you felt?
Paula Kohut: Really, it’s some of my earliest memories as a child. I had three brothers and no sisters, and I felt a greater connection to my cousins who were girls and a little bit of envy that they were girls and that I was not. Probably the most telling story—I was at a dinner about a year ago, and a woman said that she admired my courage for transitioning. She said if she were my age—she was in her early seventies—or if times were different when she was my age, she might have transitioned from female to male. She told me when she was a little girl and would go to bed, she would put all the girl clothes and girl toys in the closet and hope and pray that night that when she woke up, it would be boy toys and boy clothes. And when I finished saying my prayers and my mother closed the door, I would try to shrink myself, and I was hopeful that if I shrunk myself just small enough, that I might be able to wake up as a girl one morning. So her story really resonated with me. So, I’ve known that my whole life. But yet, I also knew that I could not talk to anyone about that. Even though my parents were very loving, it wasn’t a safe topic to talk about.
RLH: How did you know that? Times have certainly changed and are changing now. And later in the show, we’re going to meet two therapists who counsel transgender kids and adolescents. People like this probably weren’t around when you were a kid. What would have happened if you’d said to your parents, “Hey, this is how I feel.”?
Paula Kohut: I don’t know what would have happened early on. To tell my age, I was born in 1958, so that would have been in the 1960s, and I don’t think there was a great understanding of what a transgender person was, there just wasn’t a great understanding in the medical community and a lot of misunderstandings. I don’t think the medical profession would have given me the sign off to transition in the 1960s because at that time, you needed to prove yourself to be a real woman, and to be a real woman, you needed to be intimate with a man, and my sexual orientation is towards women. And it has remained the same. I did not transition to date men. I transitioned to have my gender identity match who I am.
RLH: That’s an important distinction in this whole discussion. You prefer the term “transgender.”
Paula Kohut: That’s correct.
RLH: Does anybody use the term “transsexual” anymore? And why is it important to use “transgender”?
Paula Kohut: No one person fits any given mold, whether you’re straight, gay, lesbian, or transgender, but for me, transsexual always had the connotation that it had to do with sex. For me, my gender identity has never been about sex, it’s been about gender. I felt more aligned with the female gender than I did the male gender. Yet I have friends, one friend in particular, she prefers the term transsexual because for her, she identifies with the female sex. She just likes the term better. But for me, “gender” was just more affirming as to who I was.
RLH: You waited until you were in your early 50s to make the transition. If you knew that you felt more female than male your whole life, why did you wait so long?
Paula Kohut: Well, when you’re a young adult, as you grow up, you hear people mock minorities—gays, lesbians, and transgender people. I knew what people said in front of me, thinking that I was straight, and I knew I’d be faced with discrimination. I had planned on transitioning when I got out of high school, but then, I wanted to go through college. When I got through college, I wanted to go through law school. I kept hoping that maybe this wasn’t true, that these feelings weren’t true, and that somehow I could fit in. And I got married when I got out of law school.
RLH: To a woman?
Paula Kohut: To a woman. And after we got divorced, I thought about transitioning, but again, with the financial barriers and everything I would lose— You know, as a transgender person, I spent my entire life knowing that someday, if I did transition, I’d lose all my family and I’d lose all my friends. The amazing thing is, when I transitioned in 2011, almost none of that happened.
RLH: What has changed about your life since you transitioned?
Paula Kohut: The way I like to explain it is, as a lawyer, I’m very thoughtful about planning things, making changes in my life. I asked a lawyer who I knew who had transitioned, before I made the step to do that myself, and I asked her if she was happy. She said, “Well, I was always thirsty, and I’m not thirsty anymore.” And that made so much sense to me because, throughout my life, I had always thought about gender at some point in a day or week and that it didn’t quite match who I was, and now I don’t think about that anymore.
RLH: What was the process like? How long did this take? You made the decision to make this transition, and then you have to undergo a lot of things—counseling and all kinds of physical changes occur before you actually go and have gender reassignment surgery.
Paula Kohut: Well, in 2006, after carrying around the telephone number of a therapist in my wallet secretly for a few years, I finally got the courage to call. I I met with this therapist, and then I would drop by and have an appointment once a month. I was still very unsure and uncertain about how I wanted to deal with this. Finally, in 2011 is when I started living as a woman, and it was on July 1, 2011. I moved down to Wilmington. I moved down here for health reasons. I have MS, and so I wanted to slow down my practice and have a solo practice where I could control the pace of my work. So I moved down here, and when I arrived, I started presenting as Paula instead of Paul. I had taken cross-hormone therapy for about six months before I transitioned.
RLH: And when you say transition, are you talking about the actual gender reassignment surgery or are you talking about something else?
Paula Kohut: There’s a lot of confusion regarding that. Transition surgery is not a requirement, nor is it the sine qua non of a transition. Laverne Cox said it correctly in the interviews with Katie Couric— And you and I have talked, and I’m willing to talk about the surgeries, but not in the context of, in an interview where, Laverne Cox had noted that that’s really a private matter. But just to help people understand, so, some people will just use cross-gender hormones, so they will take estrogen and the body changes: your skin gets softer and there’s some breast development. Male to female, your voice is unaffected by hormones.
RLH: That’s the signal we’re going to break, so we will come back and finish your story.
RLH: Paula Kohut, right before we went to break, you were sort of explaining what it means to make the transition and the steps that you go through, so if we could just pick that up because you have this very specific date that you say, “That’s the day I made my transition.”
Paula Kohut: That’s partly due to the fact that I’m an estate planner. So, I’m a planner, and I had it planned down to the minute, but July 1st was the day. I had been taking cross-gender hormones for a while. The following week I underwent some surgery, facial feminization surgery to soften my features. Testosterone makes your features more male. That was actually broken up into three different surgeries because I have MS, so I could not be under general anesthesia for as long as someone without MS, but then in August of 2012, I underwent gender confirming surgery, so the process took a long time, and I also, since I had a beard, facial hair, I’ve undergone electrolysis and laser hair removal. That’s been a long process, that’s been a few years, and I still occasionally see an electrologist.
RLH: We’ll get into the therapeutic details around some of these issues and we’ll talk about gender dysphoria in a moment, but Tavi Hancock, licensed clinical social worker, you counsel people who struggle with gender identity issues, and you use the pronouns they, them, and theirs. Tell us what that means and why that’s an important distinction.
Tavi Hancock: Those pronouns are ones that are commonly used now, in the United States anyways, by gender nonconforming people, folks who identify as non-binary trans people, gender queer folks. For me, they were pronouns that were gender neutral. I don’t identify in a binary gender, as male or female, so those are the pronouns that fit the best for me.
RLH: Let’s talk for a moment about the meaning of gender because Paula Kohut earlier was talking about feeling more female and identifying with her female cousins as opposed to her male brothers. What does gender even mean if it’s not related to biology?
Abigail Garner: The way I usually explain this is that gender is all of the meaning that we attach to what is originally that biology. Basically, it’s made up. It’s what you do. It has nothing to do with your physical body. Even though I am a cisgender woman, the only thing that makes me a woman is the fact that I identify as such.
RLH: And tell people what cisgender means.
Abigail Garner: Cisgender means that I identify with the gender that I was defined at birth, or essentially, I’m not transgender.
RLH: Are we seeing more kids who struggle with issues of gender identity these days than we did even twenty years ago?
Tavi Hancock: I would say we’re seeing a lot of kids who are not necessarily struggling with their gender. They understand their gender in different ways than their parents do or their family members or their schools. So, I’m seeing a lot of kids trying to tell people what their gender is and express that, and it’s usually the adults in their lives who are trying to catch up or understand.
RLH: We have a question from a listener. He writes, “When an anorexic says, ‘I’m fat,’ when they’re really skinny, we consider that to be a delusion. When a person says, ‘I’m a woman,’ when they’re really a man, we do not consider that to be a delusion. So is this transgender condition a delusion?“
Abigail Garner: I think that foundationally, gender is not your biology. It can’t be a delusion. It’s your identity. You can’t be wrong about your own identity.
Tavi Hancock: Transgender people have been part of our population on this earth for thousands of years. A lot of cultures very much accepted trans people, honored trans people and also have held understandings of multiple genders. So it’s not a new thing. It’s not something that is a trend. Trans people have always been here.
Paula Kohut: The idea that somehow it’s a choice is a myth that needs to be debunked. And I tell people when they suggest that being gay, lesbian, or transgender is a choice, I say, “Well, when did you decide to be straight? Because that must have been a monumental day in your life.” And I say that just to challenge them. I think when you mention “struggle,” or people “struggling,” that’s another myth. I think the transgender people are very strong. It takes a lot to deal with the potential prejudice and loss that they have. It may be better that they’re meeting the challenge, and the people that are really struggling are the parents and people that don’t understand.
RLH: What is it like for a child who says, “Hm, people are identifying me as a boy, but I don’t feel that way. There’s some sort of dissonance between the way I feel and the way the world seems to see me.” How does a child even arrive in your office? What’s the route there?
Abigail Garner: Especially for kids nowadays because we have the internet, they find a word, they’ll see an Instagram account, they’ll find a Tumblr, where they’re like, “That’s how I feel!” Because they don’t know that they’re not alone until there’s language for it. So, a lot of times I get parents who are just trying to do right by their kids. Sometimes there’s not even am associated psychological condition with it, the kids are totally fine with who they are, but the parents are like, “What’s happening? What’s happening? We have to get this checked out.”
RLH: So let’s talk about gender dysphoria. What does that mean?
Tavi Hancock: Well, gender dysphoria is now the diagnosis that’s used in the DSM 5, the newest edition of the diagnostic manual, and it was debated about whether or not it would stay as a diagnosis in the mental health manual. I think most people now say that it’s either a dissonance that you feel about your gender or its actually experiencing society’s discomfort with your gender and that that’s where the dysphoria comes from.
RLH: And is it considered a mental illness?
Abigail Garner: Technically, it’s in the DSM. I never code for it. I always put what’s actually going on, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or eating disorder. I don’t think it needs to be there. I would never consider it a mental illness.
RLH: So let’s say a child comes into your office, Tavi or Abigail, aside from dealing with the child’s parents, what are some of the issues that that child will face in school and out in the world that you can give them tools for?
Abigail Garner: In schools, it’s mostly learning how to advocate for yourself because when you’re in middle school and you have to go through this and you have to learn how to ask the adults and the other people in your life to use your name and pronouns, that’s terrifying. That’s a very hard and adult thing to have to learn how to do. A lot of times, kids just don’t know how to do that because they haven’t had to yet. So it’s telling kids, “Why don’t you email them?” You know, “What do you want from your school? What aren’t they doing for you? You have that right, you can do that.”
RLH: And you actually spoke with our producer, Isabelle Shepherd, earlier and explained that you’ve gotten questions from teachers about, you know, “I hear fellow students calling this student by a different name, implying perhaps a different gender. Is it appropriate for me to talk to that student about it? What do I do? How do I handle that?” That, on its face, sounds like a very supportive environment and a very accepting environment. Is there still bullying that kids have to deal with around that? You’re nodding your heads vigorously.
Tavi Hancock: That’s one of the things that I work with kids on is how to respond to bullying in school because they are experiencing it— Or just out in public, a lot of my kids are asked, “Are you a boy or a girl? Why do you look like that?” And they’ll say, “I don’t know what to say when somebody does that,” or, “I was really sad today when these kids at school said this to me.” So we work on responses, how you want to handle those questions, what you want to say when somebody says something like this to you, and that tends to give them a stronger sense of being able to explain who they are and not apologize for it and stand up for themselves.
RLH: What are some of the things that a kid or a teen can say if he or she or they are asked, “Why do you look like that?”
Tavi Hancock: I tend to work with them on being sassy a little bit about it. I liked what you said earlier, Paula, when you said, “Well, when did you know that you were straight?” or “How did you know you were cisgender?” So we’ll work on responses if somebody says, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Just, “Yes,” you know, and nod, “Yes, I am.” So, trying to come up with responses that might surprise people a little bit or cause people to think about, “What exactly am I asking and why am I asking that?” And also just answer however you want to. You know, do you want to say, “I’m a boy”? Then say that, it’s okay. So, it kind of depends on that particular kid and what they’re comfortable with.
RLH: We’re talking today about the “T” in LGBT since there’s so much misunderstanding surrounding the people who count themselves as part of the transgender community. We have to address the tragedy at the gay nightclub in Orlando. This happened over the weekend, early Sunday morning. A mass shooter went in and killed, I think the death toll sits at 50 people now, that could have risen at this point, I’m not sure. This is clearly not a cataclysmic effect for the LGBT community alone, this is something that has caused heartbreak for human beings around the world, but let’s talk about how you process this as part of the transgender community. How does this change or broaden the conversation that we all need to have about it?
Paula Kohut: I think that, I could never even try to begin to understand what was going through that shooter’s mind, how he could take that many lives. But when we don’t understand a minority group, that’s what leads to people reacting that way. Throughout my transition, there have been people who have stared at me as if that’s going to scare me, you know, in public. Fortunately for me, that’s been relatively rare, but I know that that’s just from a lack of understanding. So I think the more we understand each other, the less likely things like that will happen. It happened in Sandy Hook. It’s an endemic problem. It’s real unfortunate that that even happened. It’s just shocking.
Tavi Hancock: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Historically, gay clubs have been targets of violence, so it’s not new. I think legislation like HB2 fosters an atmosphere of violence and gives people permission to act with violence, especially towards the trans community and LGBTQ people of color, specifically. So, I don’t think there’s any coincidence that that happened at this moment in time. I think it’s even more imperative that we take a look at things like that that are happening in especially Southern states and really take some serious action about it.
RLH: How do we need to broaden our conversation around this?
Abigail Garner: I think what I’m not seeing enough of in the mainstream media is a conversation about how this event is rooted in all of the hateful conversations and language that we’ve been subjected to over the past couple months, if not years, decades, centuries. I think people are trying to make this more about an anti-Islam sentiment than, well, you’re the same people who are saying all these terrible things last week about transgender people and how they’re such a threat to public safety, and your daughter isn’t safe in a bathroom anymore, but really, it’s a transgender person who is way more likely to face violence.
RLH: Tell us about that for a second. Are transgender people more likely to commit crimes in bathrooms? Do they attack people in bathrooms? What are the statistics on that?
Paula Kohut: There’s really no documented cases. The typical response is that, is where someone, as a matter of protest to affirmative action in schools that allow people to use the bathrooms that conform to their gender identity, someone will urge their child or grandchild to go into the wrong restroom as a matter of protest. The danger arises from pedophiles in all places. You know, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was in a La-Z-Boy watching young men take showers. He is the danger. That is the type of person who is a danger to our children, not transgender people. House Bill 2 and the conversation around it conflates being transgender with being a pedophile. That’s not me. I graduated the top of my class in law school. I was on the Dean’s List at the University of California, Irvine. I’m a well-known lawyer. That is just not who I am, and it’s not who most transgender people are. We’re a broad segment of the community.
RLH: Is this reminiscent of the conversation that used to happen around homosexuality, conflating homosexuality with pedophilia?
Paula Kohut: Exactly. Teachers could not come out because if they did, they’d be fired because they were “going to take advantage of young children.” That’s not the case. We now have studies that show that gay and lesbian parents do just as well as straight parents, and it’s about family and it’s about love. So, I agree, it’s all this talk of hate that emboldens someone like this shooter down in Orlando.
RLH: Paula, was using a certain restroom a source of concern for you?
Paula Kohut: Absolutely. On July 1st, when I started living as Paula, I still had masculine features. I had a large Adam’s apple, and I was obviously transgender. Using the bathroom was a fearful experience, and I made sure I went to the safest bathrooms I could, and at 53 years old, as an outstanding member of the community, I should not have had to do that.
Linda (caller): I was wondering about the panel’s thoughts on how anger feeds into the violence that we’re seeing. I’m referring to anger of all types and origins against many, many subjects, topics, and violence in a lot of different areas against many different people, and how the rhetoric of the politicians today is feeding into that anger and even some of the people who maybe weren’t that angry before are now voicing more anger than ever.
RLH: Linda, that’s a good question. So much for side stepping the politics, but it’s legitimate, so let’s talk about it.
Paula Kohut: When politicians use fear and anger, it’s a very effective technique, but it does tend to focus on minority groups, whether it’s immigrants, whether it’s LGBT people. And I would agree with the caller that true leadership would be bringing out country together, not dividing it apart.
Tavi Hancock: I think anger is an effective tool that people who belong to the dominant culture can use as a strategy to oppress people who are part of marginalized groups. And also anger comes out of fear, so when you have those two things together, it can be dangerous.
RLH: Governor Pat McCrory, as we know, signed HB2 into law earlier this year, and he found himself on the defensive. He appeared on the Meet the Press. He faced a grilling there by Chuck Todd. After that, he joined John Boy & Billy, a talk show that originates from Charlotte, North Carolina, but it’s syndicated in almost half of the fifty states. And they had a discussion on this talk show that led to more criticism by the mainstream media, and in this clip that we’re about to hear of Governor McCrory talking with John Boy and Billy about HB2 and the furor that arose over that, we’ll hear his description of the Charlotte ordinance that launched state legislator’s desire to pass this law:
Governor McCrory: All private businesses and nonprofits would have to have an ordinance for their bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers which would allow people to determine their own gender identity.
Interviewer: It doesn’t matter what your real gender is.
Governor McCrory: No, it’s what you think it is that hour or that day or that year.
Interviewer: Now, that’s not how the law was written, but that’s basically—
Governor McCrory: No, that’s how the law’s written. I mean, it’s what you consider your gender identity.
Interviewer: If you’re a boy, and you want to be a girl, you can use the girl’s bathroom.
Governor McCrory: There’s also gender expression. There’s not just gender identity, but there’s also gender expression. I don’t know what that means, but apparently if you have gender expression where you may be a male, but you act like a female, you can also choose the restroom or locker room or shower of your choice.
Interviewer: So it just throws throws everything wide open.
Governor McCrory: Well, plus, you know, I’m not interested in government being the bathroom police for the private sector. It’s not my business.
RLH: That was Governor Pat McCrory talking with commercial radio hosts John Boy and Billy after widespread criticism over the passage of HB2. So many issues raised in this 55 second clip. Before we get to the confusion here around gender identity, gender expression, gender fluidity, let’s talk first about your emotional reaction to this clip. Abigail Garner, how does this feel when you listen to it?
Abigail Garner: I mean, obviously, it makes me really angry. It makes me sad and scared that someone with that much power and influence has clearly never known a transgender person, has never even tried. He says, “Oh, well, I don’t know what that means,” and then moves into confidently talking about it incorrectly.
Tavi Hancock: It’s really frustrating because he says, “I don’t know what that means,” and he clearly hasn’t bothered to learn, and as a governor, he appoints so many different positions throughout our state and has so much influence over the things that can and can’t happen here, and to just blatantly say, “I don’t understand this, and I don’t care. However, I’m going to act in these ways that influence and affect so many people in my state’s lives, directly,” it’s really frustrating. There’s so much misunderstanding that happens in the short amount of time.
RLH: Well, is it possible, Tavi, for somebody to wake up one day and say, “I feel like a boy,” and then wake up the next day and say, “I feel like a girl”? What is that?
Tavi Hancock: That actually is possible, and I think what is frustrating and sad to me is that some people don’t want to accept that that is something that exists.
RLH: And what is that called?
Tavi Hancock: You might call it gender fluidity. You might call it a lot of things depending on how you identify and what that means to you. One thing that I think our young people understand right now in the United States are that there are multiple genders and multiple ways to express your gender. The adults in our society are really going to have to be open to learning if they want to be able to understand what’s happening at all five to ten years from now.
RLH: One of those hosts, I’m not sure if it’s John Boy or Billy, said, “It just throws it wide open.” We hear that a lot, I think. You know, here, they were talking to their audience, people who feel that way, but I think this is worth dissecting because I think there are other people who perhaps would be more sensitive in mixed company, but inside really don’t understand this and really don’t know what that means. So what kind of fear are we hearing expressed when we hear, “It just throws it wide open”?
Paula Kohut: I think that whole comment has a false premise to it, and the false premise is that someone is choosing their gender identity or gender expression to commit a sexually illegal act, to be a predator or to be a pedophile, and that’s not the case. There’s just no documentation. There are over two hundred cities and municipalities that have ordinances to provide equality for gender identity and there’s not an onslaught of problems. And John Boy or Billy, I can’t remember which, said “real gender.” You know, my gender identity has been female my entire life. I can understand gender fluidity, someone changing that, but they’re not doing that to commit some act, and that’s the false premise to this whole argument. Being transgender is not a mental health issue, it’s a medical issue.
Tavi Hancock: I also think there’s a fear of not being able to categorize in your mind what someone is, and that people really, really cling to needing to be able to look at someone and automatically, in a split second label that person to make things feel easier for themselves, and I think people to make things feel easier for themselves, and so I think we should all maybe step back and ask ourselves, Why do we need to do that so much? Why can’t we tolerate some moments of uncertainty? Why can’t was expand our understanding around gender? What is it about this particular thing that makes us want to cling to, I need to have two categories, and I need to very quickly and easily be able to put someone into one of them.
Richard (caller): So much of the media attention and the debate in our country with this issue has focused on individuals versus the tragedy that’s occurring with discrimination against individuals. There hasn’t been much attention on what our society as a whole is losing when we discriminate against anybody due to race, sex, age, lack of a formal education. Are we not telling those individuals that, to some extent, something that’s profound about them, something that they’re made up of, we don’t need you? With all the problems that we have in the world, it seems to me that we need everybody and we need everybody’s full contribution to make society better. I guess my question is, are people that are discriminated against, especially by our elected leaders, does it keep you from your full potential to contribute everything that you can to our society?
RLH: That’s a good question, Richard.
Paula Kohut: My response to that would be, studies are now showing that—and that’s the reason why Fortune 500 companies are leaving North Carolina or are not choosing North Carolina—it’s bad business not to be inclusive. Diversity is good business. Diverse companies perform better. Diverse companies are more profitable. It makes business sense to be diverse for the reason the caller just said. You’re going to have groupthink if everyone’s alike at the board room, but if you have a diverse boardroom and a diverse staff in the area of employment and even in your social life. I try to challenge myself and get out and meet people that I’m not familiar with because it just improves the quality of my life.
Tavi Hancock: I’m glad that the caller brought this up because if you think about what it’s like for people to experience discrimination and oppression on a daily basis, the trauma that that can create and the impact on somebody’s mental health versus someone’s who is not experiencing those things on a daily basis, it absolutely can affect what you can contribute.
TLH: I imagine you’d spend a lot of energy focusing on defending yourself and making yourself safe in your environment instead of the contribution that could be made without all that energy diverted to something else.
Tavi Hancock: Yes.
RLH: Let’s talk a little bit more about terms. I think there are so many terms that often get thrown around—sometimes incorrectly—and I think there are a lot of terms floating around out there that people don’t understand. So, let’s talk about the word “transvestite.” Is that a term that we would use today? What are the connotations there, and when would it be appropriate, if ever?
Paula Kohut: I don’t think it would ever be appropriate. It’s very derogatory. When I was trying to figure out what was going on with me in the 1970s, that’s what the old medical text would refer to because it was a mental health problem, just like being gay or lesbian, and that’s all been debunked. That’s just part of who a person is. So, it’d be very derogatory. It’d be like using the N-word.
RLH: What is gender nonconforming? What does that mean? And is it different from gender non-binary?
Tavi Hancock: It can be different and it also may not be. Really, these terms are dependent on what the person using them means when they say them. So, gender nonconforming can mean, “I don’t conform to the idea that there are two genders but rather that there are a lot of genders.” It may mean that, “I identify as a binary gender, but I don’t express my gender in traditional ways.”
RLH: “I identify as male or female, but I don’t—“
Tavi Hancock: “But my expression could be very different than what people typically might associate with that.” And then non-binary gender is somebody who identifies outside of the binary and that can be a whole host of other identities included in that. And some people who are non-binary identify as transgender and some people don’t.
RLH: What is gender queer?
Abigail Garner: That’s a beautiful umbrella term for—The way I use it and the way I’ve seen is used is anybody who is gender nonconforming, anybody who doesn’t identify as either male or female. This can be fluid, it could just be someone who is androgynous. It’s used pretty widely.
RLH: Paula Kohut, if you could time travel, go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you tell her about her future?
Paula Kohut: I think today there’s a lot more hope because of people like Tavi and Abigail who are helping young people chart their own course. I often wonder— I knew, for example, as a lawyer, we think worst case scenario, and so I knew that children were not an option for me because they could potentially be taken away if it became known that I was transgender, and yet, looking back and reflecting, I’m now 58, I think I would have been a very good parent.
RLH: There’s still time.
Paula Kohut: My life would be very different. Instead of having those secret thoughts about transitioning, I could have led the life in the gender identity that I identified with.
RLH: Tavi Hancock, if you could dispel one misconception out there, what would you want to leave people with?
Tavi Hancock: I think I would want to say that there’s not just one transgender experience, there’s not just one way to be transgender, and also that even if you think you don’t know someone who’s trans, you do. They just may not be out to you.