When you’re a cisgender woman, there are so many things you don’t have to think about.
You don’t think about whether you’re welcome in the women’s restroom. You don’t have to think twice about checking “FEMALE” on a form. You don’t have to worry about anyone challenging your femininity.
But those are privileges that our transgender sisters can’t always assume.
In this week’s YBTV interview, we speak with Dr. Bethany Grace Howe about the things transgender women can’t take for granted.
Like being treated as a distinct group with distinct rights…
Getting routine medical care…
Or feeling welcome in their workplace.
Dr. Howe discusses her work with the Caitlyn Jenner Foundation, her reaction to the Supreme Court decision on transgender rights, and why JK Rowling was wrong to imply that cis women should be afraid to share a public restroom with trans women.
She also shares her story of coming out as a transgender woman while studying for her Ph.D., and how organizations can support their trans students and employees.
As she reminds us, it’s not necessary to understand the finer points of what it means to be transgender to have this conversation.
“What I tell people is, you don’t have to understand; you just have to believe,” Dr. Howe says.
“If you can believe that what I’m telling you is true, then your mind is open to understanding me, other people, [and] the truth of our lives.”
What You’ll Learn
When I asked Dr. Howe how it made her feel when the Supreme Court made its historic ruling protecting transgender individuals from discrimination, she said simply, “That was a great day.”
It’s crazy that, until recently, transgender people could be fired just for being who they are.
Not only fired, but denied access to healthcare, banned from military service, and prohibited from using a gender-appropriate bathroom.
Dr. Howe is hopeful that this ruling will have spin-off effects. But for now, she’s riding on the high of feeling seen and acknowledged by the highest court in the land.
“It is the first time that the Supreme Court has codified transgender people as an a discernible and distinct identity,” she says.
The ruling sent the message that “this is a distinct group of people that have rights, just like any other distinct group of people.”
“And to have both of those when so many of us were expecting that things were going to go the other direction, it wasn’t just a shock to the system,” she adds.
“It was—I have to be honest—one of those things I didn’t dare imagine.”
Every transgender person’s story is different.”
Dr. Howe’s coming-out story is not the standard transgender narrative.
She didn’t feel trapped in the wrong body from a young age. “I just grew up feeling different,” she says.
Then, one day, she saw Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. It was like the floodgates opened.
“All of a sudden I went from, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of transgender people,’ to, in the space of about five months, discovering, deciding, realizing, whatever you want to say, that I was a transgender woman.”
She came out as a Ph.D. student at the University of Oregon.
At the time, she wasn’t sure if she was ever going to come out. But the university made it easier for her, by demonstrating in small ways that it was a safe environment for all students.
Students were asked for their preferred pronouns. There were gender-neutral bathrooms.
“Having said all that, when I came out, I was still scared out of my mind,” she says. “And I realize now I should not have been.”
After she came out, one of her professors told her, “Congratulations! You’re the transgender poster child for the school of journalism.”
With her newfound visibility, Dr. Howe realized that she was a role model, whether she wanted to be or not.
She met with the dean and suggested actions the university could take to make the university environment safer and more welcoming for transgender students. “Everything I asked, [the university] did,” she says.
A lot of people … stand up and say, ‘We support this,’ but then, when you ask them to put that support into tangible actionable items, they’ll give you a litany of reasons why they can’t.”
Dr. Howe went on to do a research project on how companies and organizations can create a culture of equity, inclusion, and respect for transgender employees.
In a fascinating twist of fate, part of her research was funded by the Caitlyn Jenner Foundation.
It’s not something a lot of people know about Caitlyn, Dr. Howe says. “Her foundation has sponsored quite a bit of both philanthropic and educational opportunities.”
Challenging Transgender Stereotypes
Even with these positive steps forward, transgender people still face discriminatory stereotypes.
For example, this idea that cis women should be afraid if they have to share public bathrooms with trans women.
It’s a stereotype that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling famously promoted on a post on her website, despite the fact that there’s no evidence that transgender women use their access to public bathrooms to prey on other women.
“It’s fear used to justify hate,” Dr. Howe says.
Transgender people also face harmful stereotypes in the health care system.
One is known as “Trans Broken Arm Syndrome.”
It’s when transgender people go to the doctor for straightforward health care, like setting a broken arm, and are told that their health condition is caused or complicated by being trans.
Many medical professionals don’t consider themselves qualified to provide even routine care to transgender patients. They don’t feel they have the knowledge or understanding.
That’s where Dr. Howe’s latest project comes in.
The TransHealth Data Collective is a database of transgender health-related knowledge that can help health care providers serve their transgender patients using the latest and most accurate research.
Jump to Topics of Interest
2:20 Historic Supreme Court ruling
4:46 Coming out
7:37 What the University of Oregon got right
10:45 Caitlyn Jenner Foundation
13:40 Explaining to kids
17:45 Challenging harmful stereotypes
20:37 Transgender health care
24:21 You don’t have to understand, just believe
Dr. Bethany Grace Howe
Dr. Howe is the CEO and founder of the TransHealth Data Collective, a non-profit dedicated to improving healthcare for transgender individuals. She’s a freelance journalist with 20 years of experience in journalism and teaching, as well as a doctorate in mass communication and media studies. In her spare time, she moonlights as a stand-up comedienne Find out more about Dr. Howe’s activism, research, and projects.