A local coalition opened a conversation about gender identity, inclusion and empathy for transgender people in Columbus during a Transgender 101 session.

The Inclusive Community Coalition presented the session to about 60 people Tuesday at the Columbus North High School cafeteria. Licensed therapist Becky Waletich of Greenwood made the session a two-way conversation about how transgender individuals are marginalized by intolerance and lack of acceptance and also focused on how community residents can better serve as allies to people who identify themselves as transgender.

Throughout her presentation, Waletich — who specializes in gender variance and is a member of the World Professional Alliance for Transgender Health — asked people in attendance to ask what they wanted to know, even if they were unsure they were phrasing their question correctly or if it might offend someone who is transgender in the room.

Among those who attended were representatives from Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., Turning Point Domestic Violence Services, other professionals who work in social services, plus teachers and parents.

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“We will be talking about hard things,” Waletich said, and asked listeners to respect others’ thoughts, feelings and opinions and to give each other the benefit of the doubt. She also asked them to remember that some of the topics during the presentation could be triggers for uncomfortable personal experiences and to be mindful of that.

Waletich opened her presentation with a photo of a child in period dress, with long wavy hair and patent leather shoes, asking the audience to identify who this individual was.

The photo, which appeared to be a girl, was revealed to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a child, dressed in the fashion norms of the day when a little boy’s hair wasn’t cut and small children wore gowns that resembled dresses.

Waletich said the definition of gender isn’t about the way an individual dresses, or the biological sex you are assigned or an individual’s hormones.

“It’s more complicated than that,” she said.

Terms, misconceptions

Showing a long spectrum of where an individual might identify themselves regarding gender, Waletich talked about the overall umbrella term of transgender and the various terms and misconceptions that fall under it.A National Center for Transgender Equality handout defines transgender as a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Gender dysphoria is defined as the distress a person experiences as a result of the sex and gender they were assigned at birth.

People who are transgender are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed and have a high risk of substance abuse, HIV, incarceration, homelessness and stress-related conditions, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders, Waletich said. They are also more at risk for suicide and violence from sexual abuse, murder and sexual assault.

Waletich told the group that natal females are more likely to be accepted with male gender expression — they are called tomboys — until puberty hits and physical characteristics change that perception.

Natal males with female expression are not accepted, she said, “and people shut that door often in very cruel ways.”

There are many myths and misconceptions about transgender individuals that Waletich revealed, including children who begin identifying as another gender are “going through a phase,” and that “they are too young to know or decide” as a child.

Research has shown that gender is set at the age of 4, and perhaps even before that, in a child’s mind, she said.

What to say, what not to say

When parents come to Waletich asking if their poor parenting is resulting in the child questioning their gender identity, she said she tells them her job is to help the child tell her what their gender is.“Identity is different than imagination,” Waletich said, referring to children who might want to portray a superhero of a different gender, but still identify as their biological sex.

When parents say Waletich’s job is to cure the child and make sure the child understands that they are their birth gender, Waletich said she tells the parents she learns the child’s gender by asking them what it is.

“Your child is exploring where they are in this gender equation,” she said of these conversations. Waletich advises parents to create a safe environment for the child to figure it out.

Waletich also went through a series of statements that someone might offer up as support to a transgender person, which actually are insensitive to an individual’s experience.

The statement, “I would have never known you were transgender, you look so pretty,” has several implications, including an assumption you were ugly before, or implying you have to pass as a completely different standard to appear “cisgender,” which is a person whose gender identity, expression or behavior matches with their assigned sex at birth.

Another was “You’d look so much better if you wore less makeup and a better wig,” which brought several responses from attendees that perhaps it’s best to stop commenting about someone’s physical looks as part of conversations.

“Only give feedback when specifically asked,” Waletich said.

Program reaction

Martha Richards of Columbus, who attended the session with her two young-adult children, said she was grateful for the opportunity to have Waletich provide the common-sense advice about the experience of transgender individuals in a correct manner.“I would have loved to have seen the place full,” she said of the community gathering.

Sondra Bolte, a member of the Inclusive Community Coalition, said she was pleased with the turnout, particularly that it was so diverse, particularly generationally.

“We had a lot of young people here,” she said, noting they did not hesitate to speak up about their experiences and how they wished to be treated with respect.

Coalition member Cara Bywater, who introduced Waletich, said she was particularly pleased that people who are transgender who attended felt comfortable during the session, and felt safe to comment during the conversations.

“There needs to be more of this,” Randi Pearson of Seymour said of the opportunity for the community to learn about transgender individuals. “This needs to be in service clubs and in churches.”

Gender identity terminology

Gender identity: A person’s internal sense of being masculine, feminine or other gendered, which may or may not be visible to others.

Gender expression: How a person represents or expresses one’s gender identity to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, etc.

Gender Binary: The idea that there are only two genders — male/female or man/woman and that a person must be strictly gendered as either/or.

Transgender: An individual whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. The term “trans” is often used as shorthand. The terms “transgenders” or “transsexuals” are often viewed as disrespectful.

Gender non-conforming: A person whose gender expression is different from societal expectations related to gender.

Cisgender: A person whose gender identity, expression or behavior matches those associated with their assigned sex at birth.

Transition: When a person begins to live as the gender with which they identify rather than the gender they were assigned at birth. Transition often includes changing one’s first name and dressing and grooming differently. Depending on an individual’s preferance as well as availability and ease of access, transition may include medical and legal steps, such as hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery and changing identification papers.

— Source: Licensed therapist Becky Waletich of Greenwood

Tips for being a better ally to a transgender individual

  • You can’t tell if someone is transgender by looking at them. And don’t assume their sexual orientation based on whether they are transgender. If you don’t know what pronoun to use when speaking to an individual, listen to the conversation and use the pronoun they ask to be addressed as — if you still don’t know, introduce yourself using the pronouns you prefer and ask what they prefer.
  • If you use the wrong pronoun when talking with a transgender individual, apologize sincerely and move on, don’t make an issue of it.
  • Be careful of confidentiality and outing — don’t assume everyone knows an individual’s plans to transition.
  • Challenge anti-transgender remarks or jokes in public spaces — call it out.
  • At meetings or group settings, think about tendencies to group people by gender, males on this side, females on the other. Is it really necessary to divide groups by gender? Choose another way to divide up into groups.
  • Look at the paperwork your organization uses and determine whether its requirements would cause a transgender person to be uncomfortable. Do you limit gender selections as male or female? Do you ask individuals the name they go by, rather than addressing them as the legal name on the paperwork?
  • Avoid terminology that dehumanizes a person. Transgender individuals often forgive mistaken assumptions when being treated with respect by a person who is simply misinformed.

Source: Licensed therapist Becky Waletich of Greenwood

Resources

Here is a list of websites which cover topics of gender identity.

Indiana Transgender Network: indianatransgendernetwork.com/

TransIndy: transindy.org/

Indiana Youth Group: indinaayouthgroup.org/

GLSEN: glsen.org

Human Rights Campaign, Resources for Trans Employees: hrc.org/resources

Lambda Legal Trans Toolkits: lambdalegal.org/publications/trans-toolkit

The Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline: thetrevorproject.org/

Eskenazi Health — Transgender Health and Wellness Program: eskenazihealth.edu

Riley Gender Health Clinic: rileychildrens.org

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.