Beyond the biinary universe: Transgender students experience Acalanes’ culture 

Gender pervades society, impacting everything from sports teams to bathrooms

Girl close up in multi colored lights

Mara Korzeniowska

Students are exploring the different dimensions and intricacies beyond the binary universe.

Just as how people’s grasp of the universe grew and changed over the years, so has mankind’s understanding of gender in Western society. Instead of being confined to male and female, the concept of gender is perpetually expanding and changing. At Acalanes, more and more students begin to question and deconstruct the gender binary following a change of culture on campus and in society as a whole.

   Gender pervades society, impacting everything from sports teams to bathrooms to clothing color. Transgender students’ experiences as minorities give them a different perspective of Acalanes, and the world as a whole, through the lens of sex and gender.

   Sex is a biological classification composed of various factors, including hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia. Gender is separate from sex, and it represents how a person identifies. The most commonly accepted definition of transgender is when one’s biological sex does not align with their gender. Cisgender, or colloquially, ‘cis’, is when a person’s gender aligns with their biological sex.

   Gender is traditionally split into binary categories of man and woman, and sex is split into the corresponding binary categories of male and female. For the past few hundred years, binary conceptions of sex and gender were the leading narratives. In recent years, the definition of gender expanded to include identities that either break the binary or are outside of it entirely.

   “Binary is this concept that gender is divided into biological sex … and that it’s primarily only male and female. [It’s] aligned with the concept that sex determines gender… When you consider binary, I feel like that’s a limited definition of biological sex, male, female that people confuse with gender,” Acalanes Human and Social Development teacher Liz Cusick said.

   Students agree that gender is difficult to comprehensively define because of complex societal factors that include differing ways of expression and outside influences, such as social or parental pressure.

   “I have defined gender multiple times as ‘a weird soup of personal expression’ and I stand by that completely. It’s about doing what makes you feel comfortable in your own skin,” Acalanes junior Skylar Thomas said. 

   Another student mentions that although gender may not have an active impact on some individuals’ daily lives, it is still a construct that affects societal expectations.

   “Gender is a construct, kind of made up for our society. But … even though it is technically a construct, it still affects you, so that’s why gender is still in existence. That’s why trans people exist, [since] gender is still there even though it’s not really real …It’s been pushed on society and it’s become a part of who people are,” Acalanes freshman Jesse Friedman said. 

   While gender refers to a person’s identity, gender expression refers to the way a person presents their gender to the world, whether that is through clothing, make-up, tone of voice, body language, or any other means. Despite the prevalent misunderstanding that gender and gender expression influence one another, the two concepts are separate and independent.

   A common misconception is that sex solely refers to male or female. In reality, neither sex nor gender conform to this binary. One’s gender identity can be non-binary, and one’s sex could be as well. Conditions that differ from expected sex (ex: vagina and higher amount of estrogen in those assigned female at birth) are what people consider intersex conditions. One of the most common intersex conditions is when someone with XY chromosomes develops traditionally female traits during and prior to puberty, or vice versa.

   Society typically sorts expression into several limited categories, using adjectives such as masculine, feminine, and androgynous, which is neither masculine or feminine. 

   “I don’t like those stereotypes [that non-binary people have to be androgynous]. Identity doesn’t matter, [and it] doesn’t correlate with expression,” one Acalanes student said.

   Binary transgender people are people who transition from one binary gender to another, such as someone who was assigned male at birth who later transitioned to female. Non-binary gender identities are genders that do not fit into either of these two boxes; specific labels may vary, but some of the most common ones are gender-fluid, agender, or simply non-binary. These and all other non-binary identities fall under the transgender umbrella, including unlabeled identities.

   “I don’t love to have a label for such a dynamic and personal identity,” co-president of the Acalanes Queer Student Alliance (QSA) and Acalanes senior Autumn Long said regarding their non-binary identity.

   Another misconception regarding gender and gender expression is that people choose to be transgender. 

   “I am trans because I am extremely uncomfortable with being my gender that I was assigned at birth, and it didn’t come out of any choice … I didn’t choose to hate my chest and how I speak and how I walk and how I am perceived by most people,” Long said.

   Incorrect perceptions of a transgender person’s gender identity frequently lead to misgendering. Misgendering is when people reference someone, typically a transgender person, using honorifics or other gendered terms in a way that does not align with the person’s identity. This could mean using the wrong pronouns or referring to them with an incorrect gendered term.

   “I had an experience in the equity council when we were stating our name and pronouns. I stated my name and pronouns, and then right after I said that one of the members of the diversity board misgendered me,” said an Acalanes student who wished to remain anonymous.

   Respecting transgender students’ identities and pronouns can help mitigate the effects of bigotry and allow them to feel more comfortable with their identity.

   “I’ve actually felt a lot better since I’ve gotten my identity validated. I feel like I experienced a lot of issues and misgendering at home for quite a bit. But as time went on, and as I met more people who are respectful of my identity, I began to feel a lot better,” said another Acalanes student who wished to remain anonymous.


Dysphoria and mental illness

   Issues that transgender students face, such as misgendering or discomfort in their bodies, can contribute to gender dysphoria.

   According to the American Psychiatric Association, gender dysphoria is designated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as “clinically significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, which may include a desire to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics.”

   People usually suffer from two types of gender dysphoria, social and body. How transgender people feel others perceive and refer to them defines social dysphoria, and genitalia and bodily characteristics contribute to body dysphoria. Many transgender people may experience a combination of the two.

   “I do experience gender dysphoria. A lot of it is physical body dysphoria. But, I would say, I guess, even more so social dysphoria.” said a third Acalanes student who wished to remain anonymous.

   Even with a definition, transgender people often have a hard time pinning the feeling down.

   Dysphoria is “not always identifiable, even as something that’s connected to gender. You just are like, I can’t, no one can see me right now. It was feeling like garbage. Like I don’t want to be perceived because people won’t view me the way I do myself. And I can’t handle that kind of distress,” Acalanes alumnus Eli Hamalian said.

   Transgender youth do not always have the option to isolate themselves while experiencing dysphoria, which can have a negative effect on their mental health. Dysphoria affects transgender students’ mental health at varying levels, and students’ reactions to dysphoria can differ as well.

   “For me, it normally comes in the form of mental breakdowns or sometimes a shutdown. That rarely happens, however, some things can definitely trigger it,” said an Acalanes student who wished to remain anonymous. 

   Those who suffer from gender dysphoria often feel stuck, especially if they are transitioning medically or socially.

   “I don’t necessarily know how it is for other people, but for me, it’s something that’s keeping you in this place where you think you’re not worthy of something better or you’re never gonna be able to change, this is making you into something that you despise … it makes you feel like you’re being broken apart,” Friedman said.

   Although many transgender people share this experience, not all feel discomfort with their bodies. Nevertheless, transgender people need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in order to undergo any medical transition.

   “Traditionally there is the need to have a letter from a therapist that endorses that a person experiences gender dysphoria and needs medical intervention. Some clinics are moving in the direction of having a model of informed consent and self-determination,” one gender therapist said. “That said, it’s still the role of the mental health therapist to diagnose gender dysphoria, so that’s a requirement, that a young person displays gender dysphoria in a clinical way, in a diagnostic way, so that means meeting certain diagnostic criteria.”

  The therapist further explains that some patients might choose the route of informed consent to get medical transition by communicating with their doctor and parents so they can make an informed decision together.

   For many, some form of medical transition can alleviate dysphoria. Medical transition could mean surgeries, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), or puberty blockers if they are younger. HRT typically consists of injections or pills of testosterone for those seeking to masculinize their appearance, or of estrogen for those who wish to feminize their appearance. Some non-binary people choose to go on low-dose HRT so changes happen slower. Today, gender therapists hold the power of determining if a transgender person deserves these treatments.

   Some cisgender people who have lived in comfort with their gender their whole life may not understand the importance of transitioning and alleviating dysphoria for transgender people. 

Transgender people have a high rate of attempting suicide. According to the Trevor Project, a non-profit that focuses on suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth, 52 percent of transgender and non-binary youth have considered suicide, and 20 percent have attempted it. A study from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, reveals that 42 percent of non-binary youth have attempted suicide. 

   When asked if they deal with suicidal ideation or self-harm, an Acalanes student who wished to remain anonymous responded, “Every day”.

   Discrimination has a major impact on transgender people as well. The Williams Institute School of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that 98 percent of transgender people who experienced four or more instances of discrimination considered suicide, and 51 percent of them attempted suicide. 

   According to multiple studies, the easiest way to reduce transgender suicide rates is acceptance. The Trevor Project reported that when families accept their transgender child and respect their pronouns, that child’s rate of suicide reduces by 50 percent. The UCLA study found that 11 percent of people with unaccepting families attempted suicide, while five percent with accepting families attempted. Deadnaming is when someone refers to a transgender person with their old, pre-transition name. 

   “I can definitely see how constant misgendering and constant deadnaming affect suicide rates, especially parents, [because they] can be really unsupportive. Get kicked out… it can’t not be affecting suicide rates,” an Acalanes student who wished to remain anonymous said. 

   Both acceptance of social transitions and the ability to medically transition decrease transgender mental illness rates. According to a study that the medical journal Pediatrics published, transgender youth that fully transitioned to their identified gender have similar rates of depression to the general population.

   “If you feel stuck in the place that you’re in now, know that there will be more available to you as you get older… It’s good for you to advocate for what you need,” the gender therapist said.

Transcending pink Or blue

   Transgender students face many challenges at Acalanes and beyond. At the same time, there have been many victories for transgender people in the past few decades. At Acalanes, better communication with counselors, the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms, and education efforts that the Diversity Board and Queer-Straight Alliance spearheaded work to improve campus culture. More broadly, increased visibility in media, the creation of gender clinics, and anti-discrimination laws represent that progress has moved forward at an unprecedented rate. Despite these gains, the fight for transgender rights is not over.

   “There’s still work to do, there are still a lot of more subtle forms and systemic ways that we marginalize gender diversity, unfortunately, but things are so dramatically different than they used to be,” said Reuben Zellman, a Bay Area resident and the first openly transgender rabbi. “I feel like this is a great demonstration of the fact that … we can improve ourselves, we can expand what we understand to be how things are, we can access, we can learn new things and incorporate that and do things differently. We have to, and we do. And so, that’s what makes me excited about the time we’re in now.”

This is a segment of Acalanes Blueprint’s cover story in Issue 3 of 2021.