January 14, 2019

Applying Verstehen: Understanding the Transgender Experience

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

It is very easy to fear what we don’t understand, and it is also easy to fear people who seem to be different from us. Our language enables this: the previous sentence contains the words “we” and “us,” suggesting that “they” and “them” are another group. As Peter Kaufman wrote two years ago, there is a danger in “othering” people that can mask our similarities.

People who identify as transgender get placed into the “other” category often, largely because many people don’t understand what it means to identify as any gender other than the one assigned at birth. When I came of age in the late twentieth century, I knew of no one who openly expressed gender identity issues—of course, that doesn’t mean no one I knew had these issues, just that they were hidden.

The concept of identifying as transgender was new to me, just as it was for many people. As sociologists, we strive to better understand people from their perspective. Sociologist Max Weber’s concept verstehen calls upon us to use research for the purpose of understanding people we study. This has led me to begin to read the growing body of sociological research on how people who identify as transgender come to this realization.

Sociologist Arlene Stein interviewed FTM (female to male) patients who were undergoing “top surgery” for her book Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity. We learn about the young adults she met arrived at the decision to have surgery, as well as their journeys with gender identity during their lives. Most do not fit the narrative of feeling trapped in the wrong body their whole lives, but instead arrive upon their transgender identity gradually, sometimes after years of trying to figure out where they fit on the gender and sexuality spectrum.

She also interviews family and friends for many of her main informants; the journey is theirs as well, as parents and partners come to terms with the identity shift of a loved one. Ben, one of Stein’s central interviewees, had the support of his parents during the top surgery, and they traveled from Maine to Florida and helped care for him in recovery. Both of Ben’s parents spoke to Stein, and detailed the struggle they each went through to accept Ben’s decision to transition from female to male, his father coming along more slowly than his mother at first.

Stein’s book teaches us that the transition is not just physical but social, and that the people in the trans person’s life also go through a transition, often dealing with a sense of loss and confusion. Ben’s younger brother, Chris, had a hard time grappling with the identity shift. He told Stein he felt the loss of a sister he felt close to and wondered if he really knew her at all if she wasn’t who he thought she was.

We learn from follow-up interviews after the top surgery that for some of the respondents, their notions of gender remain fluid afterwards, and in some cases they don’t feel entirely male or female. These experiences teach us about the fluidity of meanings of gender that cannot be resolved by one’s outward appearance alone.

Transgender men can also be useful informants about gender and work. One of Stein’s informants, Parker, talks about how one male co-worker seemed to become especially competitive with him after his transition. Sociologist Kristin Schilt studied gender inequality on the job, interviewing trans gender men for her book Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Inequality. Whether to be out as transgender or “stealth”—not revealing one’s transgender status—is an issue transgender people face in a number of social settings. While in some workplace settings being out is widely accepted; Stein’s interviewee Ben worked as an activist for LGBT issues and was in a safe space to reveal such information. Other situations might not be as amenable for self-disclosure.

Although transgender issues occasionally make the news, they are often presented through the lens of fear rather than understanding. This is especially the case with concerns about public restrooms. We learn from Stein’s interviewees that bathrooms are an especially scary place for them, and they fear victimization in the men’s room or dirty looks in the women’s bathroom. As the cliché goes, “they” are more afraid of “us” than “we” are of “them.”

Perhaps as more people meet someone who is out as transgender, the “othering” will subside, as it has in many contexts for people who are lesbian or gay. Perhaps parents of a transgender child will have a roadmap for guiding their kids through the process, as someone I know is grappling with now with her teenage child.

In the meantime, we can apply Weber’s concept of verstehen to better understand those among us. Here are a couple of many videos to begin the process:

https://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_bird_how_to_talk_and_listen_to_transgender_people?language=en

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/growing-up-trans/

Comments

I feel transgender people or misunderstood. I have a couple of friends that I have met through the years that are transgender. Given of course I did not know that at the time when I was told I treated them the same as I did. These two females are actually my closet and trustworthy friends> I trust them more than my friends you are not.

Claire

Transgender people are definitely misunderstood due to fear and this being out of the norm. We often look at them as what they have changed into and often ask insensitive questions without ever getting to know them and how they feel. I think that also the environment they come from plays a huge part in the experience. Like whether or not they have support from family, friends, and co workers. Because physically changing is hard but its harder to have to change mentally, emotionally, and also spiritually because everything you might have felt as a woman will be different once you transition to a man.

Too many transgender people are wrongly misunderstood. No one is perfect and transgender folks are no different. This article helped me see how openness is a good thing. People have problems with transgenders but they're just being their open self. Not many people stick up for transgenders so it rarely makes the news.

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