Beyond the Binary--Being Trans in 2016

Dec 6, 2016

This show originally aired May 12, 2016

With the lawsuits between North Carolina and the Department of Justice and widespread boycotts of establishments like Target for their inclusive bathroom policies, transgender rights have been dominating the news cycle. In the middle of the politics and punditry, it's easy to lose sight of what being transgender actually means. Jay Irwin, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says language is a good place to start.

"There's a lot of outdated terminology, so updating people on where we are right now. Using the term 'transgender' or just simply 'trans' as a catch all category for referring to folks who don't feel they are the same gender that they were assigned at birth. So sometimes that means they transitioned, sometimes it means that they live in between genders. And just kind of embracing the fact that from a sociological perspective, that gender can be fluid. We don't have to have constrictive ideas about gender."

Understanding transgender people and ensuring they get the care they need comes down to leaving room for nuance. Dr. Katie Imborek, family practice doctor and co-director of the LBGTQ health clinic at the University of Iowa, says she stays away from terms like 'male-to-female' or 'female-to-male' as they reinforce a rigid binary, with no room for identities in between.

Irwin says when he transitioned years ago, the process left little room for expression. "I transitioned in a time period when there was more codified rules of what transition needed to look like. We had less flexibility for trans folks to actually express who they were truly. So sometimes people would feel the need to essentially say a story, not that was completely incorrect, but that was a certain kind of narrative that the medical community wanted to hear."

That process has loosened up, allowing for far more variability in gender expression.

"Now it's become much more flexible, the organizations that write the protocol for the medical community acknowledge that transition can look a lot of different ways and that trans folks can have different types of identities. It's not a one-size-fits-all model. So there's a lot of flexibility now in terms of how transition looks that wasn't possible ten or fifteen years ago."

In this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer speaks with Imborek and Irwin about the facts and fiction of being transgender. Dr. Joshua Safer, Associate Professor of Medicine and Molecular Medicine and Director for the endocrinology fellowship training program at Boston University School of Medicine, and Gus Pollack, a trans man living in Storm Lake, also share their perspectives.