The Gender Revolution - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Gender Revolution

The Gender Revolution

By Isabelle Lee

Today's Sunday Magazine examines the debates over gender taking place today, their roots in history and the state of trans rights in America.


Because this is one of the key cultural questions of our times.

By Isabelle Lee

Clad in a suit and tie, an emotional Brandon Boulware sat before the Missouri House of Representatives this month and made a confession: His daughter thought he was at work. Instead, the attorney was advocating on her behalf, asking the legislature to reject a bill that would block trans kids from playing girls’ sports — meaning his daughter would have to quit the volleyball and tennis teams. “I need you to understand that this language, if it becomes law, will have real effects on real people,” he said. Boulware’s testimony is part of the growing backlash against the record number of anti-trans-rights bills advancing across the country. How did we get here? Join us as we examine the debates over gender taking place today, their roots in history and the state of trans rights in the country. 

Women couple holding hands

big questions

Is This Just a White Issue? It can sometimes seem like the pronoun conversation is dominated by upper-middle-class white people. But Black trans activists, especially trans women, are more visible in the racial and social justice movement than ever — from Laverne Cox to Jasmine Davis. And Black institutions are responding. In 2009, Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU, enacted a policy banning students from wearing women’s clothes, makeup or heels. Finally, in 2020, the school began to admit trans men, in what the college president called an important step forward into “one of the new frontiers of social justice — gender identity.” In all, nonwhite people are slightly more likely to identify as transgender or nonbinary: 0.8% of Black Americans, 0.8% of Latinos and 0.6% who identify as a different race identify as transgender or nonbinary, compared to 0.5% of white Americans. 

Time for a New Handshake? “Hi, my name is Izzy Lee, and my preferred pronouns are she/her.” In a 2019 poll, 1 in 5 Americans said they knew someone who trusted them to share that they go by a gender-neutral pronoun — a number that rose to 32 percent for young adults (aged 18-29). Some 25 percent of LGBTQ youth use a gender-neutral pronoun. About half of Americans feel comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun to address someone. Introducing yourself using your pronoun, or including it in your email signature, is a simple way, advocates say, to make people more comfortable. Many kids today, in a mark of respect, ask new acquaintances: “What pronouns do you use?” Perhaps adults will follow suit, offering names, titles and pronouns in everyday exchanges.

What Should Businesses Do? A workplace that feels hostile to trans people carries a cost: People leave, and businesses must spend billions on recruiting and training replacements. Recommendations from researchers writing in Harvard Business Review include instituting gender-neutral bathrooms and dress codes, paying close attention to pronoun usage from the top down and offering diversity training specifically about trans people. Plus there are legal obligations, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that civil rights law applies to trans workers.

Should Trans Girls Play Girls’ Sports? Only about 2 percent of American high schoolers identify as trans, but this year, legislators have introduced bills in 25 states across the country — from Idaho to Florida — that would prevent them from playing on sports teams that don’t correspond with their biological sex, up from two bills in 2019. Idaho passed a first-in-the-nation law last year that’s been tied up in court as it might violate federal civil rights law, and Mississippi’s governor signed a similar law this month. At the heart of the movement is the argument that trans girls have physiological advantages that would allow them to outcompete cisgender girls. While there is evidence that adult women retain an advantage after a year of hormone therapy, researchers say that doesn’t apply to younger athletes.

What’s the Real Feminism? Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling claimed that trans women aren’t women because they used to be men — as such, they experienced male privilege and will fundamentally always be something other than a woman. Prominent Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote Americana, defended Rowling’s stance. Critics of both — including Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe — argue that public figures do not have the power to determine whether or not someone’s identity is legitimate (a trans woman identifying as a woman) and point out how perilous it is to be a trans woman. But trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are becoming a key subgroup within the feminist cause while raising the question of what it means to advocate for feminism if gender distinctions are melting away.

What About Single-Gender Education? Schools that separate boys and girls have long been a feature of American private and parochial education, and now more public schools are getting in on the act — even though researchers are divided on whether these arrangements improve learning. Either way, trans and nonbinary students can feel oppressed in environments that are built on the gender binary. And as single-gender schools start opening up to trans students, questions about how to navigate real differences between the biological sexes are only growing.

Are Lesbians Going Extinct? The rise of nonbinary or genderqueer identities may have made a lesbian identity less fashionable. Lesbian writer Katie Herzog points out that there’s no good polling on the issue, but she presents a flood of anecdotal evidence and concern that lesbianism is being marginalized. “Not long ago, it would have been the Christian right stigmatizing homosexual women. Today, it’s also from people who call themselves queer,” she writes. The concern from lesbians sounds entitled to Canadian trans activist Morgane Oger. The idea “that they should have access to women’s bodies and they should have a say about whether someone opts out reminds me of what patriarchy allows men to do,” Oger tells OZY. 

Mom with beautiful newborn baby

what we’re talking about

Terminology. Your anatomy at birth determines your sex. Gender is how you identify on the spectrum, either as cisgender (how you identify matches your sex at birth), transgender (your gender does not match what’s on your birth certificate), or genderqueer/gender fluid/nonbinary (you don’t identify within the binary of male or female). Gender expression is how you choose to manifest your gender, from your name to how you dress or style your hair. Your pronouns are how you prefer to be addressed; options include she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/their, or alternatives like ve, xe or ze.

Why Is This an Issue Now? Last year was the deadliest year yet for American transgender and genderqueer individuals. President Joe Biden quickly moved to protect the rights of trans people after taking office: He rolled back the transgender military ban, signed an executive order that expands protections for transgender students, threatened countries that repress trans rights with sanctions and nominated Rachel Levine for assistant health secretary — the first openly trans person tapped for a Senate-confirmed post. Meanwhile, conservatives pushed the girls sports bills across the country, setting up a culture war that’s more favorable ground to fight on politically than Biden’s popular stimulus legislation.

The Age Question. There’s a growing political debate around the proper age to begin hormonal treatment or a surgical gender transition. Many proponents of such treatments, trans people and family members agree that children should always be allowed to be themselves — and these treatments support that. But these are life-altering health decisions, and there is a small — but very real — number of people who “detransition” and return to their birth sex later. In cases of gender dysphoria (distress in individuals whose sex at birth doesn’t correspond with the gender they identify as), the Endocrine Society recommends the use of puberty blockers for adolescents, with hormone therapy starting no earlier than age 16 and surgery no earlier than 18. The question is whether or when youth can make medical decisions: Canada has tended to side with trans kids, while the U.K. has not.

Christine Jorgensen

Christine Jorgensen

What’s the history? 

Ancient Empires. Gender identity is by no means a new craze or phenomenon. Roman emperors often feminized their appearances in portraits, signifying power and to advance their political agendas. Hijras, or members of India’s third gender, trace their origins back through ancient Hinduism and express themselves as women. In Mexico’s Oaxaca region, muxe — born men but present and express themselves as women — are a centuries-old tradition. Read more on OZY. 

A 19th Century Romance. Joseph Lobdell was born Lucy Ann Lobdell, a master trapper, hunter and self-taught marksman who left home in men’s clothes to escape a troubled marriage in his 20s. His legacy as a trans trendsetter in the late 1800s has been celebrated in the queer community, and it’s worth reflecting on his love story with the devoted Marie Louise Perry. Read more on OZY.

The First Modern Trans Celebrity. On Dec. 1, 1952, the New York Daily News blared: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.” Her name was Christine Jorgensen, a World War II Army veteran. And she was the first American to declare in public that she’d had gender reassignment surgery. Jorgensen went on to perform at nightclubs and publish her memoir, and Hollywood made a film, The Christine Jorgensen Story, based on her story. But she especially loved speaking on college campuses, where she found the acceptance “marvelous.” 

Visible and Vulnerable. Trans people are feeling the roller-coaster-like effects of the past decade. It’s been an era of increased visibility in the media, led by Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 announcement that the former Olympian was transitioning. But that’s triggered increasing political pushback — from “bathroom bills” to more than 80 new anti-trans state bills this year — and disturbing violence that often goes unpunished. In the U.S. from 2014-2019, only 42 percent of murder cases involving a trans woman resulted in an arrest, compared to 61 percent for the broader population.

trans rights in 2021

Equality Act. Democrats have moved to expand the Civil Rights Act to include protections for people based on gender identity and sexual orientation. During the debate on the House floor, openly gay New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney asked why Republicans were hiding “behind the ridiculous, embarrassing, easily debunked arguments, falsehoods, fear-mongering about locker rooms and women’s sports?” The bill bans discrimination in the private and public sphere and rolls back parts of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which makes it more difficult to enact laws that might hinder religious beliefs and has been used to justify anti-LGBT policies. While the bill passed in the House, it stands almost no chance in the Senate thanks to an expected Republican filibuster, but that didn’t stop 16-year-old Stella Keating from testifying about how the bill would protect her.

Mexico’s New Hope. Brazil is the most dangerous country in the world to be trans, but Mexico is a close second. Kenya Cuevas, who transitioned while working on the streets as a teen, has become one of Latin America’s foremost trans activists. Emerging from a life of drug addiction and incarceration, she opened Mexico’s only shelter exclusively for trans women and distributes condoms to sex workers and meals to the needy. Now she’s dedicating herself to getting Mexico’s government to recognize trans femicide as a hate crime. 

Judgment in India. Swati Bidhan Baruah has made history as the third transgender judge in India, and the first in her state of Assam. And she’s using her position to take on India’s Supreme Court over the controversial National Register of Citizens list, which requires citizens to prove that their families were living in India before 1971. The list is especially damaging to transgender people who have been ostracized or shunned by their families, making it impossible for them to obtain proof of their family’s citizenship. Read more on OZY. 

When Doctors Get it Wrong. Between 1 and 2 of every 1,000 people have a surgery to “normalize” their sex organs, often happening shortly after birth for babies whose genitals don’t completely align with a biological male or female — known as intersex. But now there’s a growing movement to allow intersex people to make that choice, rather than having parents and doctors make it for them before they know what’s going on. Read more on OZY.

The Language Debate. Should you make a language less gendered? While the rise of the singular “they” poses a problem to English grammarians, the problem is much more complex in languages that rely on gendered nouns. German often defers to the “generic masculine” when using general descriptors like “citizen” or “customer.” One controversial solution is to add a “gender star” or asterisk between the word and the added feminine ending. In Spain, the new government wants to revise the constitution to be gender-neutral, while the conservative Royal Spanish Academy wants it to stay gendered. Meanwhile in France, there’s a push to adopt more gender-inclusive language, as many jobs only have a masculine form. But the Académie Française is calling gender-neutral alternatives an ”aberration.” Perhaps we can all learn from the gender-neutral pronoun used by some young people in Baltimore: “yo.”

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