Outside the Binary
Waukee student Orion Rahjes shared his story on transgender issues
May 24, 2017
With many organizations and individuals arguing that gender is defined by genitalia, those who do not identify with the gender binary feel out of place and largely unaccepted today. Waukee sophomore Orion Rahjes is one of those people, identifying as a transgender male.
As Rahjes defined, “Being transgender means your gender identity doesn’t align with what everyone else tries to tell you you are.”
Rahjes struggled with his identity before he figured out how he really felt, just as most transgender people do. “I remember thinking ‘what if I was trans?’ way back in the third grade, but I immediately shot it down because I thought you couldn’t be trans and gay at the same time. ‘Too many minorities,’” Orion described.
“I was really proud of the fact that I had so many guy friends growing up, and the girls in my classes didn’t really understand why I would hang out with them. I also dressed exclusively in guys clothes in all of fourth grade, until I started getting bullied for it. I got the nickname ‘shemale’ for years on my bus, and that played a huge part in denying my identity for years,” he continued.
Bullying and fear of ridicule from classmates is one major reason students choose not to come out about their sexual or gender identities. According to a study published with the CDC, LGBTQ adolescents in grades 7-12 are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual and cisgendered (cisgendered being people who identify as the gender they were born with) students.
Rahjes’ friends questioning their identities prompted Rahjes to examine and evaluate his own identity. “I started to wonder how they knew. And so I sat down and said the sentence ‘I am a girl’ and ‘I am a boy’ to myself for hours. I realized it made me super uncomfortable to hear the word girl in reference to myself and I didn’t like it. I tried saying ‘I am non binary’ and it didn’t feel right either. More like a false statement compared to the actual discomfort the other phrase gave me. I said ‘I’m a boy,’ and it was anticlimactic as no feeling of ‘Yes! That’s it! Ding ding ding!’ came over me. It settled and didn’t feel like anything besides a neutral sort of belonging,” Rahjes reflected.
“I still wasn’t sure of it and it took me several months to figure out why it felt like that. I finally accepted myself after I asked other trans people what it felt like to be trans, and found a lot of my feelings matched theirs. Basically when I looked in the mirror and thought I saw a girl, I could never connect it to the person I felt like I was. There was, and still is, this huge disconnect between my face and the rest of my body. It isn’t so bad now, because I know where these feelings come from and I have ways to lessen the discomfort of dysphoria. I only wear binders when I go to school, and I’m four and a half months on testosterone,” Rahjes disclosed.
Dysphoria is the feeling of disconnect between how you look and how you feel. Most trans people experience dysphoria partially because of how gender is portrayed and treated. They feel as if they have to fit into how a typical female or male is supposed to look in order to truly be that gender. A common argument against the gender spectrum is that there are only two scientific genders because there are only two genitalia. This belief can be harmful to those who are not cis-gendered. As Rahjes explained, “Gender is literally a construct … science has proven we’re born as blank slates and our hormones don’t have any say in what we identify as, so I’m surprised [transgenderism is] not more common.”
Although more people are accepting the idea that gender is more of a spectrum of identity than an either-or decision, much of today’s media is still based around the idea of a gender binary. More transgender characters are starting to be represented in the media, but are often mocked or portrayed in a bad light. GLAAD, standing for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, published a summary of a watch they keep on transgender representation.
“Since 2002, GLAAD catalogued 102 episodes and non-recurring storylines of scripted television that contained transgender characters, and found that 54% of those were categorized as containing negative representations at the time of their airing. An additional 35% were categorized at ranging from ‘problematic’ to ‘good,’ while only 12% were considered groundbreaking, fair and accurate enough to earn a GLAAD Media Award nomination.”
These kinds of harmful stereotypes in the media tell people that transgender people are wrong or bad, and that you can only safely be male or female.
“Cis[-gendered] people have grown so obsessed with the gender binary that it has extremely limited our understanding of the psychology of gender and the freedom of an entire half of our species. … Trans people have a tremendously hard time in this world due to this black and white thinking. Cis people get to define what it means to be a certain gender, and if trans people fail to meet these requirements it’s cause for ridicule, harassment, and abuse. … Gender is not a switch that you can flip back and forth, just like personality traits aren’t one or the other either,” Rahjes stated.
Trans people face many difficulties in life because how they identify labels them as targets for discrimination. They face a lower life expectancy rate due to exposure to hate, discrimination, misgendering, and conversion therapy. According to a study published by the Williams Institute, the suicide rate among trans men is 46% and among trans women is 42%. These percentages go as high as 70% when exposed to discrimination and assault by classmates or family members.
Numbers like this make trans people and their family members fear for their safety. Rahjes spoke from his own experience, “My mom wasn’t as accepting as I thought she would’ve been when I first came out. Mostly she was scared for me because she knew how transphobic the world can be, and she wanted me just to be a girl so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I explained to her I had spent my entire life trying to do that, and it caused me nothing but pain. Once that finally clicked into place for her, she began to accept me more and more.”
He continued, “Before I came out I didn’t really have to worry about things like bathrooms and stuff, but after, me and my mom sat down and had a long talk, I realized there were a lot of things I couldn’t do. She was scared for me, and we talked about whole countries I wouldn’t be able to go to because I was trans, and even in the U.S. I can’t go to certain states without being violently harassed, or even murdered. … The average trans person’s life expectancy is 35. If you aren’t white, or if you don’t ‘pass,’ or if you’re a trans woman, that number is lower. Without the explicit protection of my rights, I feel extremely vulnerable and scared of my future. Now, everywhere I go I need to determine if using the bathroom is worth harassment and abuse.”
Along with actual discrimination and abuse, transgender people also face stereotypes and assumptions. It is typical, almost expected, that when a transgendered person is interviewed on television, they are always asked about “the surgery.”
As Rahjes stated, “The number one thing cis people have trouble with is ‘the surgery.’ Cis people have grown up with the thought that genitalia is what your gender is, and that if you’re trans you have to change your body, otherwise you aren’t really that gender. … They think like this so that they can keep thinking gender equals genitalia and not have to question it at all.”
Gender reassignment surgery is one option for transgender people, but not every person is comfortable with, or has the money for, that kind of surgery. “Trans people have many options for surgeries and, depending on their own personal preferences and dysphoric issues, their choice of surgeries can vary. When cis people talk about ‘the surgery,’ they are talking about gender reassignment surgery, which is also ill fittingly named because it implies [that] as the surgeon changes the genitalia, they change the gender,” Rahjes summarized.
Although outdated gender roles are still strongly enforced during everyday life, Rahjes hopes for a more accepting future. He illustrated, “The perfect world for trans people and everyone on the gender spectrum would be to stop assigning gender roles at birth, to get rid of gender roles, to educate people about the gender spectrum, and let people chose who they want to be.”