After six years of working in the bridge-building space, I believe that no issue has been more contentious and nerve wracking than that on sexual and gender identity. Discussing transgender issues has become popular, especially among younger generations, who are more likely to know and interact with transgender people. Conversations about gender are difficult for all parties involved and have spanned sports, education, criminal justice, advertising, and healthcare. It’s one of the only topics that allows individuals from many walks of life a direct entry point to the conversation and when these discussions go awry, the implications are some of the most hostile interactions and unmendable relationships we’ve seen, even amongst those closest to us.
Roughly 1.6% of all American adults now identify as transgender or nonbinary, including 5% of American adults under age 29, according to a 2022 survey by Pew Research Center (Center). As more individuals identify as nonbinary or transgender, conversations that include members of different sexual and/or gender identity associations are becoming more prominent, and it is imperative that we find a way to have these conversations that is respectful to all involved without compromising our beliefs and identities.
Here are four common challenges that often come up in conversations about transgender issues and how to navigate them.
Challenges When Discussing Transgender Issues
1. Working with pronouns
In 2019, Pew Research Center found that roughly 52% of Americans felt somewhat or very comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they, them or theirs.” Conversely, 48% said they felt somewhat or very uncomfortable using the same pronouns. This split varied widely between different age groups, with 61% of young adults between 18-29 expressing more comfort than Millennials (52%), Gen-Xers (48%) and Baby Boomers (47%).
Misgendering someone can cause discomfort for all parties, and can cause individuals who are transgender or non-binary to feel awkward, unwelcome and/or embarrassed in the space. Some individuals may feel comfortable offering a gentle correction, but others may not speak up out of worry for their job security, grade, or physical safety, and some may exit the conversation entirely. Misgendering can shut down a conversation by signaling to the person being misgendered that they may not be recognized and respected in the conversation.
Some people may accidentally misgender someone else due to lack of familiarity with pronouns while others intentionally misgender others because they see using someone's preferred pronouns as endorsing trans and non-binary identities with which they disagree.
Try this: Use first names instead of pronouns. In workshopping the best way to navigate the use of pronouns in a conversation with my coworkers, we found that one of the best practices was just to refer to others by their first name. This can help trans and non-binary folks feel respected in the conversation without making anyone compromise their values or feel they are “endorsing” something they disagree with.
2. Fear of misunderstandings and social repercussions
People on every side of this conversation share a fear of repercussions for being misunderstood. Depending on the environment they are in and what their views are they might be perceived as uneducated, bigoted, woke, or any number of other pejoratives. For some, the consequences of a misunderstanding in this conversation could be the loss of a job, feelings of not belonging or being disrespected, social cancelation or ostracization or loss of a relationship with a loved one.
Try this: Give people a chance. Instead of jumping to conclusions about the person you’re talking to, give them space to air their fears, difficulties and hopes for the conversation. Listen to the experiences that led to their views. What may feel like an attack could be an opportunity for both parties to listen to the pains and concerns of the perspective they don’t yet understand.
3. Citing statistics and experiences that are mutually exclusive to one side
“Studies show that 78% of transgender adults are happier after transitioning.” “But studies also show the suicide rates of those who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery rose to 20 times that of comparable peers.” “Trans-individuals should be able to participate in sports that align with their gender identity.” “But biological women are being replaced in sports.”
Within debates about transgender issues, both sides have used statistics and experiences to their own advantage, often negating what the other is saying in the process. We never get the full look at the discussion if we are sticking to our talking points and fail to see all the pieces of information as part of a whole in a broader search for truth. One’s experience doesn’t have to trump another's, and statistics can be used to tell different stories. What does that mean for the broader conversation?
Try this: Understand that multiple things can be true at once, and statistics and experiences are stronger together. In a conversation about affirmative action in the workplace, I can’t tell you all the statistics of women in the workplace off the top of my head, but I can tell you what it’s like to be chosen for a job solely because I am a female. And that story might create more empathy between us than the percentages ever would. At the same time, my experience is one of many, and there are others who may have different perspectives.
There are certain topics that require us to use many tools in our “discussion toolbox”, and those tools include both facts and experiences. We can’t begin to understand someone else until we really listen and empathize with them, on both sides. But this includes us also being willing to take into account the different information being shared. One’s personal experience can be more informative than statistics in certain situations, and statistics can be more useful to create a more encompassing look at a problem in other situations. It’s okay to recognize the information that both sides offer, and use that to help us better understand the topic.
4. Cultural and religious factors
Views on transgender issues vary between religions and cultures, and sometimes even within these religions and cultures. Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Muslim and Judaism have often adhered to traditional gender roles in their teachings, while Buddhism and Hinduism have recognized a more fluid take on gender. Culturally, the roles of men and women have also been viewed differently. In Western, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures, men and women have historically held more distinct roles in society. Conversely, Indigenous and African cultures have more diverse concepts of gender. In fact, many indigenous communities recognize genders outside of male and female, and have historically included individuals called “Two-Spirited”, people who embody both masculine and feminine qualities.
This is a general, rudimentary overview of the different outlooks different religions and cultures have on gender, and perceptions can vary within these groups. In my opinion, none of these approaches are wholly right or wrong, they just explain the ways in which different people have fit into their society or their communities for centuries. Much of our values derive from our religions and/or cultures, and this is where we hit fundamental disagreements in conversations.
Try this: Ask where they derive their views about gender from. Understand that fundamental disagreements exist, and it’s not our job to change others’ minds. Bridge-building doesn’t require us to agree on everything. Matter of fact, that’s impossible. However, it does require us to extend a hand to those around us, understand where and why we disagree, and find ways to co-exist despite these differences, that is the nature of living in a pluralistic society.
This isn’t to say we should overlook blatant hate toward others. In fact, that is counterintuitive to our democratic experiment. But we should understand that there are reasons behind each of our different perspectives, and that it can be more productive to address these than sweep them under the rug.
Advice for Discussing Transgender Issues
When discussing transgender issues it’s important to remember that all parties should be able to participate equally and that the challenge of navigating this difficult discussion be shared. Before you dive into a conversation, here are three quick things to remember:
1. Everyone is going to be uncomfortable.
The hardest pill to swallow when it comes to having conversations about gender and sexual identity is that all parties are going to be uncomfortable. Some people believe that trans youth are at risk of suicide if they do not receive proper acceptance and healthcare. Others argue children are being misled and mutilated. The stakes are high. If this conversation were easier, we wouldn’t be needing guides for how to navigate it. We have to give each other space to have a conversation, even if that means making mistakes, not understanding each other and/or having a sense of discomfort. Creating a democracy that houses multiple different groups was never going to be easy, but having these tough conversations exercises our democratic muscles and enables a stronger union.
2. You have to want the conversation to be constructive.
Hopefully you’re reading this because you want to have better discussions about transgender issues with those around you. If that’s the case, then you’ve already got this part down. In order for conversations about transgender issues to be constructive, all parties involved have to want that shared outcome. The conversation also demands all parties involved to be respectful to one another, and because it is new for so many people, a little grace doesn’t hurt either.
3. Have humility.
Like I said at the beginning, there is a lot at stake in our country right now. Political division threatens to tear down our institutions, tear apart our communities and upend all the work we’ve done in the last 250 years. We can’t let this issue become the final straw, and preventing that requires us to have humility. When we are discussing different issues, whether that be climate change, equality, gender, education, immigration, etc., the conversation requires us to think about more than just ourselves.
Each of us has an important role to play in finding solutions to sustain this democratic experiment. We all have different experiences, beliefs and strengths that are necessary for paving the future of this country, and we have to have those discussions with everyone in mind.
Asking us to agree on transgender issues today is, in my mind, equivalent to asking Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great to sit down for a peaceful lunch. So, I’m not doing that. However, I am asking us to be willing to continue conversations about other aspects of our country while simultaneously learning to navigate this very difficult topic.
BridgeUSA is the largest and fastest multi-partisan student movement fighting polarization in colleges and high schools across the nation. Through their college and high school chapters, BridgeUSA students are standing up for a politics that rewards empathy and dialogue over division and anger. Learn more about BridgeUSA.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Assistant at AllSides (Center bias).