People fear what they do not understand. They fear difference because of its ambiguity. It is not always possible to know how it feels to be someone else, and there is something inherently unsettling about not knowing.
As a society, we have lost our ability to wonder and have that be okay.
Instead, we categorize, and pigeonhole ourselves into static compartments of gender and sex, drawing lines in the sand that inevitably keep people in and leave people out. That invisible line, whether we know it or not, is our fear threshold.
Fear varies by degree. One can sit in the anxiety of not knowing the gender of a baby dressed in yellow and not feel dread and agitation. However, there is a considerable amount of apprehension toward an androgynous person in a public restroom.
Fear causes us to blame the person, the androgyny. What we need to look at is how we are contributing to a culture of fear.
Why is there so much fear around sex and gender?
The simplest explanation is heuristics. Ambiguity around sex and gender challenges the way many people perceive the world. Since before we were born, the concepts of man/woman and feminine/masculine informed our everyday interactions, and defined our movement through the world. In order for our brains to process information quickly and efficiently, we rely on shortcuts, or heuristics, to make everyday decisions.
However, when something challenges or disrupts our tidy belief systems, we can have an emotionally agitated response. Interruptions to our heuristics make us inherently biased against what challenges our thinking.
How are gender and sexual minorities impacted by fear?
Discrimination against gender and sexual minorities (GSM), people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc., happens at an alarming rate.
According to the FBI, gender and sexual minorities are more likely than any other minority to be targets of hate crimes. Only 21 states have passed discrimination laws to protect gender and sexual minorities from job termination for their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fear affects the personal safety and security of gender and sexual minorities.
Fear begets fear.
The fear that gender and sexual minorities experience everyday results in fear of the world around them. The shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando reveals why gender and sexual minorities have the need to be fearful. However, fear comes with a price.
A 2015 survey determined that almost a quarter of transgender-identified people did not seek medical care because of fear of being harassed or discriminated against for being transgender.
Healthcare and education are just a few of our institutions that need reform in order to integrate gender-neutral language, preferred names, and third-gender options into their practices. However, these are not the only places where gender and sexual minorities feel unsafe.
Public restrooms are places of fear and anxiety for gender and sexual minorities.
In a survey of people who identified as transgender, 59% admitted that they feared public restrooms due to the likelihood of being harassed. In fact, 32% said they tried to limit their liquid intake in order to avoid them altogether. As a result, 8% suffered from kidney issues due to their reluctance to use public restrooms.
How do we live in fear?
Unfortunately, for gender and sexual minorities, living in fear is a part of life in the periphery. Presently, the tenor of the country is distressing, and there are people who will inflict harm on others who are different.
This does not mean, however, that gender and sexual minorities should go back in the closet. To be out and proud is more important than ever. Heterosexual, cisgender people (one whose gender identity and expression directly correlates to one’s sex assigned at birth) have the privilege of not having to live out loud, to ask for space, because they inherently have it.
To stand up for your right to exist, to be yourself, is a different kind of privilege, and one that needs to be conducted with abandon.
Be careful. It is vitally important to take care and be aware of your surroundings. Living as a gender and sexual minority means that you will face discrimination, hate and fear, which may materialize into hate crimes against you. There are organizations you can reach out to for help:
The Trevor Project is a nonprofit organization for LGBT youth with a 24/7 hotline available for people in crisis or just needing a judgement-free space to talk.
The Trans Lifeline is a national trans-led organization with a 24/7 hotline.
What we can do?
We can extinguish fear if we take away one of its necessary components: ignorance. Educating people about gender and sexual minorities is a step towards mitigating fear around difference. Education can come in many forms:
informally talking to friends, and family;
participating in a professional panel or discussion;
recommending articles, documentaries, books and other tools that may help educate others.
Use your voice
Speaking out against discrimination and hate helps to unite one another in a shared cause. One voice becomes many, and many voices can become a movement. Gender and sexual minorities cannot do it alone, and need allies who are also willing to stand up for others and help incite change in our communities. By challenging hateful or discriminatory speech, we challenge fearful attitudes and policy.
The power of story should not be underestimated. Stories help connect us to one another. They help us communicate our truth and allow us to empathize with others. Recently in September 2018, the Chilean government passed a bill for transgender rights.
The bill allowed transgender people to change their names and gender legally, without surgical intervention. It was not until after the film, “A Fantastic Woman,” received an Oscar that the bill received deserved attention.
The importance of stories is that they represent a myriad of experiences. Representation allows us to capture the essence of many voices, so that we do not marginalize others externally, and to keep us from marginalizing from within.
The opposite of fear is curiosity; the more you are curious about something, the less you fear it. In the book, Brain Storm: The Flaws in Science of Sex Differences Rebecca Jordan-Young concludes that there is a lot we do not know and understand about gender and sexual preference, but that there is something profound in that.
Scientific research can help us categorize bodies biologically to a certain extent, but there are always exceptions. Accepting that these categories are constructed invites the idea of wonder into scientific discovery. Other cultures have already done this; some recognize third genders, or two-spirit people.