Meow Wolf is pleased to share this piece from guest contributor Adrien Lawyer, the Director of Education and a co-founder of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico.
The Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico (TGRCNM) is the only organization that exists solely to serve the transgender and non-binary communities in our state, including our families and loved ones. TGRCNM has been in existence since 2008, and today we assist people statewide through a robust combination of direct services, advocacy, and education.
Let’s begin with some terms and definitions! Our Transgender Cultural Fluency training is a two-hour session that attempts to cover what I can only touch upon in the space of a blog post.
Transgender – A person whose gender and sex do not align completely.
Cisgender – A person whose gender and sex do align completely, i.e. not transgender. This word is important as it replaces the word “normal” in our conversations. Think of cisgender as analogous to the word “right-handed.” It’s not here to be politically correct. It’s here to provide a value neutral name for the majority group.
Sex – This means the physiology in question. Biological sex is a complex combination of external genital, internal reproductive organs, gamete production, chromosomes, and hormones. The sex we are designated at birth is simply the appearance of our external genitals.
Gender – This means each person’s own, deeply felt, internal sense of being a man, woman, or non-binary person. It is not visible, but it is often a core component of how we conceive of ourselves. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that most children, transgender and cisgender alike, know their gender between the ages of 3-5 (For me, as a transgender man, I vividly recall knowing that I was a boy around the age of 3, and even trying to communicate this to my parents!).
Gender Expression – This is the external part of the equation: clothing, hairstyle, makeup, jewelry, facial hair, speech, gait, mannerisms, even our name and pronouns are part of our gender expression! This is completely contingent on our culture and the era in which we live. For example, a skirt in the United States can be a kilt in Scotland; women in the 1960s in the US rarely worked as surgeons, architects, engineers, or professional athletes, but today they do.
Sexual Orientation – This means one’s attraction, or lack thereof, to other people. The words we use for orientation are typically terms like lesbian, straight, gay, queer, pansexual, and asexual, to name just some.
One of the most important distinctions we make in our training is that all four of these attributes (sex, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation) are separate and do not cause or create each other. For me, my designated sex at birth was female, but as I mentioned, I knew I was a boy as young as 3 years old. While my gender expression is pretty stereotypically masculine for my culture and my time, I know other transgender men for whom that is not the case. There are also cisgender people whose gender and gender expression do not always align, for instance: drag performers. And — if that’s not confusing enough — sex, gender, and gender expression do not tie to a person’s sexual orientation! A transgender person can be gay, straight, bisexual, or any other orientation.
While we are coming to understand being transgender and non-binary as normal human variations — I think of them as minority traits like left-handedness or red hair — trans folks are still facing incredibly disproportionate discrimination and violence. The New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, a survey conducted in many public high schools throughout the state every other year, reports that of the students surveyed, roughly 3% self-identified as transgender, genderqueer, or genderfluid. That 3.2% was located in every county of our state, and they self-reported a 35.1% rate of unstable housing, compared to 2.7% for cisgender students.
Transgender and non-binary students also reported a 27.9% rate of experiencing sexual violence — just within the 12 months prior to taking the survey. In that same year, they reported a 32.5% rate of suicide attempts. For the cisgender students, it was 10% and 8.3%, respectively. These are New Mexican kids between the ages of 15-18. Combine that with a political landscape where trans youth are being targeted by state legislatures throughout the United States and you begin to get a sense of how hard it must be to be a trans or non-binary young person right now.
It's critical to note that the discrimination and violence faced by trans youth and adults is not evenly distributed. The worst outcomes are often experienced by those who carry more marginalized traits. Transgender people of color, disabled trans folks, those who have immigrated to the United States, and neurodiverse people report vastly more discrimination than those who do not live at those intersections. In fact, 4 out of 5 transgender people killed in the United States every year are Black transgender women.
So, as daunting as all of this information is, what can we do to help? I know it may seem like a small act, but learning to be comfortable and proficient with names and pronouns is a profound step. We now have research showing that using the proper name and pronouns for trans folks, especially trans adolescents, can reduce suicidal ideation by as much as 56%. It's also important to recognize that even though most of us have grown up assuming people’s internal gender based on their gender expression, we really have to try to disrupt that process. Once you meet more and more non-binary people, you will realize there is no way to “look non-binary.” I know non-binary people who express themselves in stereotypically masculine and feminine ways. That has made me realize that my pronouns can’t be “obvious,” and that it’s important for me to list my pronouns in my zoom caption, email signature, on my business cards, and as part of my verbal introductions. This will make things so much safer for my friends and colleagues who might use pronouns that don’t clearly align with their expression.
Additionally, we can seek out and support the organizations on the front lines of helping and defending trans and non-binary people. Of course, TGRCNM is already incredibly grateful for our ongoing partnership with Meow Wolf and their community’s past generosity, but if you want to support our mission further, you can:
If you want to help on the advocacy side, the easiest way to do that in New Mexico is to sign up for our mailing list. We will always let you know when it is time to call your legislator. TGRCNM is also bringing more transgender education to Meow Wolf very soon, so keep your eyes open for fun and engaging training sessions. Finally, you can look for opportunities to educate yourself about humans that are different from you. That’s how we build more awareness around our differences and build stronger relationships with each other.