Neither man nor woman?

Transgender Pride Flag
Transgender Pride Flag | Photo (detail): torbakhopper, CC BY-ND 2.0

What moves people who don’t feel like a man or a woman? jádu writer, Janna Degener, spoke to two trans people and learned how hard it is to access the subject of transgender in spite of all outspokenness.

Of course I’ve occasionally seen people that looked pretty masculine, but had on a lot of makeup, wore dresses or had some kind of feminine presence. I’ve heard of both men and women who were “born in the wrong body.” And I’ve heard of gender reassignment and hormone therapy. Nevertheless, all of that is still very foreign to me and so I’ve decided to examine the subject a bit more carefully.

Admittedly, it isn’t so easy. Groups and associations of intersex and trans people either don’t respond to my interview requests at all or send back very dismissive responses in the vein of, “We don’t reveal our friends here.” Only after months, when I’m at a meeting of gay students in Dresden for another reason, do I get J.’s personal contact data, who then puts me in touch with Ul_i. Both of them are willing to answer some of my questions on the phone.

Sand traps lurking in word choice

Beforehand, they give me a few pieces of advice to note. J. sends me a sheet of info for journalists, in which the abbreviation trans is used with a gender-neutral * at the end. J. informs me that she_he identifies as a non-binary trans*, and that questions about operations, genitals, as well as hormones are tabu, that I can’t publish a picture of him_her and that she_he would only like to be referred to using a pseudonym. Ul_i asks not to be addressed with gender-specific words like “Mr.” or “Ms.” Instead, I’m supposed to say “Ul_i” or “person.” And I should mind the underscore in Ul_i. After I ask, Ul_i explains that this keeps the decision for male and female versions of the name open (Ulrich/Uli vs. Ulrike/Ulli).
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On the one hand, I’m very grateful for the clear instructions, since I value these trans peoples’ trust and don’t want to fall into and traps. On the other hand, to be honest, it makes me feel a bit insecure for my natural word usage to be challenged. I think of exactly how to phrase my questions to prevent insulting the person sitting across from me. And later in the conversation, there actually are moments of irritation. They both give me very concise answers and frequently use terms like “transitioning” and “masculinities,” that I’m not familiar with. So I see myself having to follow up a lot. I have to concentrate very hard to keep my wording as gender-neutral as possible, avoiding pronouns like “he” and “she,” for example.

I find out that neither J. nor Ul_i identify as a man or a woman, without wanting to say why. They say that they often feel discriminated against in their everyday lives because of their gender identity. Even in a city like Berlin, which is considered tolerant, trans people get shouted at, put down, insulted or even spit on for wearing skirts, tights, high heels, blouses, long hair or makeup on a daily basis.

A new chance to ask open questions?

I’m interested in whether Ul_i and J. already were confused about their gender identities when they were young. J. doesn’t want to respond. Ul_i criticized me for posing the question, because it questions the legitimacy of the “condition” in medicine, which in turn is a prerequisite for medical intervention. Furthermore, the answer is irrelevant for him_her.

That being said, the conversations go pretty harmoniously overall. Ul_i even writes me an email after, saying that the conversation was respectful. I’m grateful to have gotten a glimpse into their thoughts. I also understand why these two trans people value gender-neutral linguistic conventions, although I do feel better when I can speak as openly as I care to.

At the same time, I realize that I haven’t gotten rid of the foreign feeling through our conversations. I wish I had met both of them in person, so I could ask them about their friends and family, about their childhood and ask any of the other questions going through my head. This time they weren’t prepared to do so. But maybe they’ll give me another chance some day?