Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Youth Gender Identity, Race and Class in the New York Times and In the New Year

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | December 31, 2009 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: FTM, gender identity, Hetrick-Martin, LGBT youth, New York Times, transmasculine

The New York Times published an interview on Monday with Vidari DeGuzman, a youth worker at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a service organization for LGBT youth in New York City.

Although relatively short, I found the interview revealing about issues of race and class that often get obscured in discussions of gender identity. Is "gender identity" a singular experience that every person has, or is it a series of individual experiences differentiated by race and class and other factors? Is there such a thing as "men's experiences" and "women's experiences" that transcend time and space that we can generalize about? Or is that just a convenient story that we invent?

I transitioned on New Year's Day of 1998. New Year's Day is like a second birthday. When the New Year approaches, I always think of how my gender has changed over the years. Has yours?

Said DeGuzman: "As a youth, I went there when I had nowhere else to go to. It was a place where they accepted me for who I was." A lot of the clients are low-income youth who are homeless, having been kicked out of their parents' homes. DeGuzman, who identifies as a transmasculine individual, and a transman, was a client of the Institute when he was younger. "It was a place where they accepted me for who I was..." Some years later, he decided that he wanted to medically transition. Coming from a Filipino family full of nurses, he felt resistance to going into the nursing field, though his long-term goal is now to become a nurse.

Growing up in a white upper middle class family in the 60s and 70s in a New Jersey suburb, I never knew nor heard of anyone who was kicked out of their homes for being gay. Such a idea was foreign to my family and my neighborhood. I am sure that there were some people in town who did have those experiences, but I never heard about it. In fact, I had never heard of anyone being kicked out of their homes for any reason at all. Of course, I'd never heard the word "transsexual" at that time, and even "gay" was a foreign concept. But my point is that my gender identity might have formed very differently if my relationship with my family was such that my identity might get me kicked out of the house onto the streets at a young age.

Another facet of this regards my career goals. College was mandatory, as was my parents paying for it. When I graduated, I wanted to become a teacher, but my parents were aghast at the idea. If I had suggested being a nurse or a secretary, I think they would have been equally outraged. They wanted me to become a medical doctor, but since I had flunked organic chemistry, that was impossible. They insisted that I get a law degree. I didn't want a law degree. But the idea that I would "settle" for being a teacher was enraging to my parents. Their friends in the neighborhood and the family all agreed with them. They gave me a choice. I could go to grad school for teaching, and pay for it myself, or go to law school, and they would pay.

I went to law school. There I learned to argue people into submission, and other tender arts. I came out an arrogant loudmouth, ready to ignore other people's truths and make them bend to my will, as befits a young upwardly mobile middle class man. It gave me a pretty nice income, as I was good in an interview situation, and potential employers were ready to bank on my asserted ability to claw the eyes out of opponents. I met a young lady of a higher class and fell in love. My in-laws thought I was the cat's meow. They were very, very disappointed when I transitioned.

I don't mean to make this a personal story. Rather, I'm pointing out that when I began to address my internal gender identity, it was partly because the person I had become was so alien to my internal values and perceptions of myself as a person. My search for my gender identity came in reaction to this super-imposed masculinity of the 1960s white American upper middle-class. DeGuzman's masculinity, by contrast, appears to be against the backdrop of a quite different upbringing and cultural values. Did DeGuzman become the me that I left behind? Far from it, as much as I can tell, and thank goodness for that. Did I become the DeGuzman-that-was? Doesn't sound like it either.

When I compare my experiences with those of both transgender and non-transgender friends and how they dealt with gender expectations, it sounds like males of similar class and race had experiences more similar to mine than anything I've heard from people of other classes and races. Race and class changed the experience of gender. I wonder if gender is this unitary phenomenon that we all talk about, or if it really is different and we just pretend it's the same.

This all reminds me of the research done by my friend Dr. David Valentine, who wrote a wonderful book based on his dissertation, Imagining Transgender. In it, he talks about how we imagine that "transgender" and "transsexual" are these unitary categories, but his research shows that race and class and other factors makes them different. It also reminds me that I am now involved in helping to plan an international conference on transgender rights, and the experiences of so many of the other people involved are so radically different from my own. I have to keep reminding myself that my experience is not the yardstick against which to judge their needs and expectations. In fact, in many other areas of the world, people who we would consider "transgender" simply consider themselves "gay." In fact, it might be an overweening exercise of privilege to tell them that they are "transgender."

I wonder whether you all think that your gender is affected by race and class and other social factors? Perhaps we should all take stock of our gender of the past year on New Year's Day, and think of our hopes for our gender for the new year. Does your gender have resolutions? If your gender had resolutions, what would they be?


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If the world is as interdependent as I claim it is, then my gender is affected by all the things you mention - and a few more to boot. How could it not be?

Resolutions? Hmmm... for my gender to be empty of independent identity.

There is much food for thought in this article.
Back in 1998 I was a volunteer at a high school for LGBT youth in Los Angeles. I met several youth who had been kicked out of their home because of their being gay or trans. At the local GLBT Center in the city where I live, there is a youth group, Rainbow Alley, where 30% of the youth are homeless. This is a serious issue with many young people. I've heard statistics about young transpersons living in New York, and they are staggering.
Many transpersons are mistakenly identified as being gay, but being trans is about identity, and being gay is about sexual orientation. They are not the same.
I absolutely agree that there needs to be an international conference on transgender rights. If one takes a look at the site for the Transgender Day of Remembrance (www.transgenderdor.org), one can see what is approaching a genocide of transpersons. The violence needs to end.
Thank you for your work.

I was also forced into a college tract also with my family threatening to cut me off financial support for college when I suggested a year off after 12th grade to travel and get my head together. Had I been able to take this year no telling where my gender expression/sexual orientation have went.

In addition to the race and class factors you mentioned as influencing gender expression let me add one more. I strongly believe that almost random factors that are highly individualized make a huge difference. For example, at age 26 I was visiting Omaha, Nebraska I got picked up in a gay nightclub by a male college professor and had what arguably was the most romantic date of my entire life. I never had such a nice experience with a man again. Had dates like this been more frequent I'd have probably never transitioned MTF and instead come out as gay.

So, I'm "really" gay, correct? Wrong. I also fantasized for decades about finding a woman accepting enough of my cross-dressing that we could use this side of myself to enhance rather than harm our relationship. While many women I dated and the woman I married knew about my feminine side none of them really accepted it. Had I found such a woman I probably would have been a typical Tri-ess sort of cross-dresser. Many of whom you may know mess around with men now and again as do many other so-called "straight" men.

My experience strongly suggests that the divisions between gay men, bisexual men presenting as straight, CDs and TSs are largely artificial with our lifetime experiences rather than deep internal differences altering how we present to the world.

Having said that this is like saying two very similar people may respectively become a doctor and an attorney. Once they make the call as to which profession to get into at that point their life paths split substantially.

Gays, bisexuals, CDs and TSs by analogy are not so much born as made by our choices which in turn are heavily influenced by our life experiences. Complicating this assessment is our life experiences are heavily influenced by our desires. So which came first - the life experiences or the desires?

Has my gender changed? No. I was always female.

My gender role hasn't changed a great deal eother. It's just that what is looked upon as "individualistic" and "mildly eccentric", the kind of unusual psychology that most bright people have, looks perfectly usual and even stereotyped when the person switches from looking male to looking female.

My sex changed though, in both a legal sense and a medical one.

In 1985 I'd been diagnosed as a mildly intersexed male. In 2005, after some unprecedented metabolic changes, this was switched to a diagnosis of severely intersexed female. Shortly thereafter, I was issued a new UK passport with a corrected sex on it based on that evidence, and had my "cardinal documentation", my immigration records, changed too. It took a 20 month legal fight though to get my Australian passport changed according to the rules they should have followed.

My UK Birth Certificate still says "boy", as that was what I most looked like at birth, and as I'm technically Intersexed rather than normally Transsexual, I'm not covered by the UK Gender Recognition Act. Meh.

About the only thing that didn't change was my gender.

I think the film, Still Black, and the article below (2nd link) might also interest you. both center on intersections between race and transition experience via personal accounts.

http://stillblackfilm.org/

http://www.colorlines.com/article.php?ID=265

I'd say, absolutely, race and class impact one's attitudes and assumptions about gender, the type and extent of gender privilege, possibly even how you experience gender.

Wolfgang E. B. Wolfgang E. B. | December 31, 2009 2:32 PM

I'm not sure my race or class played a role in my experience of gender. I think it's more a matter of individual specifics, some of which may be loosely tied to race or class, but aren't necessarily dependent on those factors.

I'm an transsexual man. I grew up in the '70's and '80's in a family where traditional gender roles were continuously challenged. For example, my father had no interest in sports, and that influenced my beliefs about masculinity and it's relation to sports--namely, that there is nothing distinctly masculine about them.

Another example is that my mother, and most other female relatives, always wore their hair short. So, I never really associated hair length with gender (and always liked long hair on men). My mother also never wore makeup, and plenty of guys in those '80's rock bands did, so I also never learned to associate makeup with gender either.

It's individual factors like these that have most profoundly affected my experience of gender. I wouldn't say it has changed over time, though the further I go in transition, (3 yrs on HRT now, and post-mastectomy, finally) the more I'm willing to embrace my non-traditional queer masculinity.

Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

The only one that has a bunch of answers about T's is Mona Rae Mason from the transgendered project she was involved in in NYC. It is the only study that continued with interviews and tests with a lot of us T's, I personally have some experience with the "House Organizations" Of Newark, NJ & NYC. They view us as "Rich and out of touch with their reality" as was said to me by quite a few house members!
I volunteered to film the House of Latex's Ball and did so! They really opened up and became very protective and positive! Then they wanted to know about my "Life" I took a few to Philly and to the Renaissance Meeting. Their take was that we were very spoiled! Nice place, great dresses, Everyone had enough money to pay dues, the presenter was a doctor that they have heard about but never would have had access to! There was even food left after the meeting and the group gave it to them! I then on the way home told them about getting the DEVIL beat out of me @ age 4 to 5 for putting lipstick on and of course telling my parents that I was a girl! At about 8-10 I was the smallest in my Cub Scout troop and so I was selected as the Bride. I had to act up and throw a tantrum of course because I wanted to be a horse LOL I was a great little actress LOL!!!! I was The best day of my Young LIFE! I could not tell anyone that for over 30 years! Sorry for getting lost, being Transgendered is way different if your Middle-class or above compared to the poor! WE really have it very good!

Isn't it amazing the changes that life brings regularly to all of us? Just when we think we've boxed ourselves in neatly, along comes a curve ball and starts the game all over again with different players and different positions.