On April 7th, Refuge and MAAC hosted a panel of trans and non-binary individuals from the Bryson Institute for Social Justice week. The Bryson Institute is a branch of The Attic Youth Center that “supports individuals, communities, and organizations in effecting personal and organizational changes to build inclusive environments that recognize and promote the value of diversity.” They provide free support services to LGBTQIA youth including, but not limited to, therapy/counseling, youth programs, education, health care services, and workplace preparation. Located on 16th Street in Philadelphia, they are in close cooperation with multiple faith-based organizations and LGBTQIA community resources in the city. The presentation allowed each individual involved in the panel to share their personal experiences, and then opened up the floor to questions. Around 50 students and faculty were in attendance.
The main speaker, Evan Thornburg, provided a general introduction to what people often mean when they say they are “trans” or “gender-non-conforming.” She described three distinctions to help illustrate different manifestations of gender. First, Thornburg explained,“assigned sex,” which is “the gender you are given by the doctor when you’re born,” often based on one’s genitalia. “Assigned sex” is particularly problematized by the reality of intersex people. She also explained the phrase “gender identity,” which is someone’s “intrinsic feeling of who they are.” Lastly, she described “gender expression,” which is how someone presents themselves externally. None of these determines the other, according to Thornburg. For example, one’s assigned sex doesn’t determine one’s gender identity, and one’s gender identity does not determine their gender expression. The two panelists, Monica (a transwoman) and Hector (a genderqueer person), then told their stories. Monica and Hector declined to provide their last names.
Monica had never felt like “boy” or “male” described her well, yet whenever she would wear what she wanted to school—dresses, heels, makeup, etc.—she would be reprimanded by teachers. At one point, she was suspended from school for not conforming to societal gender norms. Upon returning from suspension, her peers—in protest of her suspension and in support of her right to identify and express her gender how she pleased—all wore heels to school that day. Though she had support from many of her peers, she still experienced ongoing discrimination for her gender identity, even in things as simple as filling out a form at the doctor’s office. She, like 41% of the trans/gender-non-conforming population according to the LA Times, has attempted suicide at least once. However, she has found a community that supports her at The Attic.
Hector, a genderqueer person who uses feminine pronouns, was in the process of transitioning “from female to male” when the hormones she was taking started having adverse effects on her skin. She was born with neither female nor male anatomy. Instead, she was coercively assigned female at birth (CAFAB). She was born with ambiguous genitalia which her parents and doctor decided to “correct.” This did not change the fact that she also has other non-binary characteristics about herself. There are over 80 different ways a person can be classified as intersex and, statistically, 1 out of every 1,000 to 1,500 people is intersex. Like many in the community, Hector has had a mixture of experiences and interactions when people learn that she is gender non-conforming.
Towards the end of the presentation, Thornburg said that the best way to react if someone “comes out” to you, whether it is in regards to sexuality or gender identity, is to ask, “Is there anything I can help you with?” It is simultaneously welcoming, yet non-invasive.
Feedback from attendees of the panel was largely positive. Refuge anticipates hosting many more events like this next year, including another with the Bryson Institute. If you are interested in more information or stories from LGBTQIA people, keep on the look out for these events or go to Refuge’s weekly Tuesday meetings at 7:30PM in HHC 106.