What Transgenders can Teach us about Time.

I recently watched a fascinating TED talk from endocrinologist Norman Spack.  In the talk, he speaks about the terrifying journey taken by transgender individuals as they move through puberty - growing into a body that they can't relate to and simply aren't comfortable in.  And it really stuck with me.

Now, transgenders are a group of people that I knew absolutely nothing about, having never had any personal experiences with one or done any research on them whatsoever - so the concepts in the talk were completely new to me - something that opened my eyes wider once more.  However, that being said - in listening to Spack describe their troubling plight, I saw a great number of parallels and consistencies amongst other minorities and the concept of decision-making itself.

Now please, as a disclaimer, I am working off very limited research here - so there is a good chance that I may not be interpreting the actual science perfectly - but the underlying social morals and judgments are what I'm trying to emphasize. 


The easiest way to start to describe the struggle that faces a transgender person, is by explaining the difference between one's 'sex' and one's 'gender'.  These terms are often interchanged, but this is an incorrect application of their meaning.

Your 'sex' is determined by the genitals you are born with - they are either male or female.  This distinction is known from the moment you are born, or even beforehand nowadays with the drastic improvements in ultrasound technology.

Whereas, your 'gender' is who you are, regardless of the body you inhabit.  Are you a girl or are you a boy?

Naturally, your 'sex' and your 'gender' are most often the same - and for most of us that is the last we ever think of it.  However, in rare cases - someone is born into the wrong body, so to speak.  For example, someone who is born a male, is in fact - emotionally, mentally and psychologically - a girl.  That's where the difficulty comes in.

Your 'gender' is not something you can determine from birth - it is something you grow into and learn about yourself as you experience the world and become more aware of who you are as a person.  Another example of this kind of self-discovery is the journey towards finding your sexual orientation.  It's something you discover as you grow older.

Therefore, your gender becomes a bit of a grey area in this respect (just like your sexual orientation) - and as it is such a personal thing, most people can't understand or relate to transgenders.  For example, I simply can't relate to what a transgender must feel like - being trapped in a body that they are not comfortable with and suffering the societal pressure that follows that.  It must create tremendous confusion and self-doubt,  and thus, it becomes increasingly difficult for me (or you) to be empathetic towards them and accept them as who they are - it is much easier to try and change them into something I (or you) can understand.  To try and push them into line with the body they inhabit.

That has been how transgenders have typically been treated.  For a long time, the act of being transgender has been treated as a disease.  (sound similar to the 'gay' disease?)  Doctors would use hormonal replacement therapy to pump either testosterone or eostrogen to try and 'correct' this psychological disease.  But while this might have corrected the physical 'side-effects' (so to speak), inducing rapid facial hair growth or breasts,  a lower voice etc.  it did nothing for the psychological reality that inside - they still were not comfortable.  Shockingly, changing the physical appearance was not enough to cure them.  Unfortunately this moral and medical oversight on the part of the medical staff involved, drove hundreds of transgenders to suicide over the extreme discomfort they felt in their own bodies as well as the discrimination faced in their own communities.


Now fast forward a bit and slowly, but surely, our society is starting to open up to being more tolerant of various minorities, following the success of racial and gay rights activism.  Transgenders are following suit.

Norman Spack, as mentioned above, is pioneering a new way of treating transgenders - by not telling them who they should be or who they shouldn't - but rather giving them the time to figure out who they are for themselves.  Traditionally, going through puberty (girls from around 10 years and boys from about 12 years old) would be an incredibly traumatizing experience for a transgender individual because before puberty, both genders were rather homogeneous and the bodies of boys and girls were very similar - so there wasn't an issue for them.  However, through puberty - the bodies drastically changed to resemble their adult equivalents, completely separate form one another - in essence making permanent the incorrect body that they were born into.

This change was what drove most of the suffering.

So instead of telling them who to be and using hormone therapy to drive that point home, Spack and his team are using hormone replacement therapy to halt the effects of puberty for transgender teens - to give them time to figure out who they are and whether they want to go in for surgery to change their sex.  This extra time (be it months or years) gives them the extra time they need to mature a little bit and begin to fully understand the implications of such a surgery before going through with it.  And more importantly - it gives them more time to find who they are, as a mature young adult.

Life changing.   Simply life changing. 

That story really stuck with me, it's something that epitomizes the tremendous social benefits that  can occur with our modern medical marvels - unlocking a whole new avenue of human potential by simply giving Transgenders the most valuable thing in this world...  Time. 

Worth a thought.


I know that this post won't be for everyone, but I hope that it at least made you think and pushed you out of your mental comfort zone that we all sit in so often.