Does someone wake up one morning and haphazardly decide that they no longer want to be the sex they were born as?
Not really, psychologists say. A number of factors play pivotal roles in the decision to change one's gender. In fact, research has shown that it is quite often than not, biological.
This is also the view of local psychologist Dr Keith Lequay who told the T&T Guardian sexuality and gender have a lot to do with genetics and hormones. Lequay said someone can be male but their gender female. He explained someone's physical package may appear to be one thing but that doesn't chime with the person's psyche and mentality.
"Therefore, when you hear someone say they always felt they were in the wrong body, this is what you should understand. It is not that they are experimenting or trying to be what they are not. It is them actually trying to be their authentic selves.
Vanity Fair's July edition–headlined Call Me Caitlyn–featured former Olympic decathlon champion and reality television dad, Bruce Jenner, with long chestnut hair and wearing a silky pearl white basque that revealed 36D breast implants. This cover set social media buzzing with some followers on the transgender Caitlyn Jenner's Twitter account either tweeting love and support or their shock and displeasure at the Kardashian clan stepfather's transition.
Locally, almost every radio talk show host made it a hot topic and invited listeners to call in and comment. Once again, there were offerings of support and outright expressions of disgust.
Jenner's public transition or change of gender is not the first for a celebrity and probably won't be the last.
In 1975, American tennis player Richard Raskind made the transition to become Renee Richards. Lately, French supermodel Ines Rau, American actress Laverne Cox, writer and transgender activist Janet Mock and Chaz Bono, son of pop singer Cher are among the notable examples of people who made the gender transition. Jowelle de Souza will run as an independent candidate for San Fernando West in the upcoming election is this country's most high-profile transgender person.
The T&T Guardian approached de Souza and other local transgender people to share their stories, but was unsuccessful.
Jenner has said she always felt she was born in the wrong body and had these feelings as early as age five. The 1976 Olympic champion also said she hid her "true self."
"This is quite possible and real," Lequay said. "And because this has not yet been socially accepted and many people still believe it to be some sick twisted work of a demented mind, there have been many tragedies among this community.
"Many have committed suicide because they could not deal with the pressure of society and suppressing their authentic selves for much longer," said Lequay.
He said it may take some time, but education is needed. Such education, Lequay said, must be frank and open, so that people are more sensitised and aware and can become more accepting or tolerant of transgender people.
Transgender and law in T&T
When it comes to legislation on the rights of transgender people, T&T and other Commonwealth Caribbean states are sorely lagging behind. Colin Robinson, executive director of the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (Caiso), told the T&T Guardian there is little legal literacy about these issues, and past court decisions demonstrate how little understanding of human sex and gender diversity there is among those on the bench.
Robinson added, Caiso's interventions with those in leading public hospitals and in Government policymaking reveal similar misunderstandings or ignorance about transgenderism and intersexuality that would make it difficult for policy leadership and advocacy for appropriate legal reform to emerge from those sectors.
"Some cultures recognise only two sexes. Some cultures, like our own indigenous ones, recognise a third or "two-spirit" category. But in our contemporary society, like most western ones that colonised us, gender is seen as a binary. Legal systems reflect this binary notion of gender, and with people assigned to one sex immediately at birth, sex shapes a lot of what is possible for them in the law," said Robinson.
He continued: "Educational institutions, in Caiso's experience have been particularly intransigent with transgender students, consistent with their historical colonial mission of imposing rules. There is no framework in the law that requires forms of ID issued by non-state entities to accommodate gender-conforming appearance.
"We are not aware of any formal policy on this matter, even for government-issued documents, eg health cards; their issuance may be subject to the whim of a supervisor."
Sex on identity documents
Robinson also pointed out the complications faced by this community when it comes to legal documents.
He said in our legal systems, there is no mechanism for changing sex for any public health or human rights reason.
"Though our habit of enforcing our personal morality in delivery of public goods and services sometimes makes this process complicated, there are no laws to prevent a man or a woman whose birth is registered as one sex from legally changing his/her name to a name that is seen as femaleor male respectively," Robinson said.
"Similarly, a man with a feminine appearance or a woman with a masculine appearance is not legally barred from being photographed as such for a national identity document. So people can change their national identity documents to show a new name and appearance that reflect their gender.
"But the person's sex assigned at birth remains unchanged, and this can often present problems when stopped by the police or inspected by immigration, when suspicions as to false identity and criminal intent may arise," Robinson explained.
He highlighted the case of a transgender Belizean national entering T&T for a conference who disclosed she was transgender was subjected to secondary inspection due her gender being male on her passport. During the process, immigration officers made her a spectacle by spreading word among their ranks and several ventured to the area she was asked to wait to get a better look.
"Gender-non-conforming identity documents can also present problems when exercising the right to franchise, or in everyday situations like banking transactions where verification of identity is necessary for security reasons.
"In other countries, the recommendation of a health/human service professional is all that is necessary to change sex on an identity document. The rationale of this approach is that gender-non-conforming documents endanger a person's security when travelling abroad, especially to places less accepting of gender diversity or where it may be read as evidence of homosexuality, which is criminalised and a source of violence."
He said other areas of importance to be considered when considering legislation include health and sex-segregated institutions and public facilities. Robinson said a few years ago one woman dropped out of Costaat when she discreetly disclosed her identity to school authorities, asked to use such a facility, but was told after a review that she would have to use the male students' toilet.
She eventually filed a case with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC), which threw it out as not being covered under the Equal Opportunity Act, which includes in its protected statuses sex, but neither gender identity or expression. Subsequently, she successfully sought asylum in Europe, based on persecution here due to her transgender status.
"That EOC precedent augurs badly for transgenders' access to future protection by the sex discrimination provision of the EOA, despite the commission's subsequent recommendation of statutory inclusion of sexual orientation in the act," Robinson said. "
A strict reading of sexual orientation might not apply to most transgender people, who in their new gender are usually heterosexual."
Robinson also spoke about Jowell de Souza, who he said has been a victim of constant ridicule because of her appearance. He was critical of stories that appeared after she announced her intention to fight the election.
Although she received support from some politicians, one daily newspaper encouraged conservative clergymen to debate her right to run for legislative office. They suggested her transgender status might disqualify her because she would have "an agenda."
"In other words people made illegitimate by the law ought not to have a right to change it," Robinson said.
He said religious groups in the region are fighting hard to maintain this, making advances in rights for gay and lesbian people much more likely than for transgender and intersex people who are more misunderstood and mistreated.
"If we were to look at it this way, small minorities of people in natural human diversity are left-handed. There is natural diversity in sex and gender, too. While the majority of humans are capable of a range of erotic arousal, only small minorities develop primary and enduring erotic attraction to people of the same sex," Robinson said.
"For even smaller numbers of people, one of two things happens; they have or develop a bodily appearance that has sex characteristics not clearly identifiable as male or female or has characteristics identifiable as both or they have a bodily appearance readily identifiable as one sex but they have or develop a rooted personal identity related to the gender of the other sex. In third-gender cultures, they would be third gender.
"Binary gender systems and their legal frameworks often need to adapt when countries in which they live wish to protect and ensure the health and welfare of people with such experiences, which include intersex and transgender people. The needs of both groups often overlap," the Caiso head said.
Human sexuality vs gender
Human sexuality refers to one's sexual interest and attraction for others, and their capacity to have erotic experiences and responses. A person's sexual orientation is their emotional and sexual attraction to a particular sex (male or female), and often shapes their sexuality.
Gender is a term that refers to social or cultural distinctions associated with being male or female, and is generally considered to be a socially constructed concept.
According to Wikipedia, a transgender is the state of one's gender identity or gender expression not matching one's assigned sex. Transgender is independent of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, etc; some may consider conventional sexual orientation labels inadequate or inapplicable to them. The definition of transgender includes:
�2 Of, relating to, or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these.
�2 People who were assigned a sex, usually at birth and based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves.
�2 Non-identification with, or non-presentation as, the sex (and assumed gender) one was assigned at birth.
�2 It should be noted a transgender should never be mistaken for a transvestite. They are two completely different things. A transvestite is a person, typically a man, who derives pleasure from dressing in clothes appropriate to the opposite sex.