Jackson Bird: How Can We Demystify Trans Identity?

Jun 15, 2018

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Person You Become.

About Jackson Bird's TED Talk

Jackson Bird was born female, but identified as male and transitioned in his twenties. He says compassion can help us become more comfortable talking about issues that affect transgender people.

About Jackson Bird

After publicly coming out as transgender in 2015, Jackson Bird has been committed to amplifying the voices of transgender people and breaking down the stigma attached to their experiences.

He shares the stories of fellow transgender people on his podcast, "Transmission," and his YouTube series, "Queerstory."

Bird is currently a Craig Newmark Organizer-In-Residence at Civic Hall and runs the monthly LGBTQIA+ Creators Group at YouTube Space NY.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, The Person You Become - ideas about how our identities can change, can evolve and can be redefined.

JACKSON BIRD: I think there are some parts of identity that could be very innate, but almost every identity really is fluid.

RAZ: This is Jackson Bird, and Jackson grew up in Dallas.

BIRD: Very Southern Baptist, evangelical area. You know, very white bread, kind of WASPy.

RAZ: And from a pretty young age, Jackson felt out of place.

BIRD: You know, there were a lot of identities that I felt like I was supposed to have that I knew I didn't.

RAZ: And there was one in particular that Jackson felt he really didn't fit into.

BIRD: The gender I was assigned at birth was female. And that's how I was socialized and raised through adolescence, but - and I do remember, you know, from my very earliest memories just wanting to have a short haircut, wanting to dress like the boys, and just not understanding really why I couldn't and why I was different. I tried to be a girl. You know, just dressing a little girly-er (ph) and, like, doing things with my hair, whatever. And that kind of worked for a little bit until puberty hit. For me, what I remember was, like, my hips growing wider and not fitting in the jeans from the boys' section anymore and just getting really, really distressed by that. I used to go home from school every day and, like, write about what my life would've been like if I were a boy, and in January of 2015 made the decision that I was definitely going to start hormones and come out and everything that year. And I came out as a guy essentially when I was 25.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BIRD: Hi. I'm Jack, and I'm transgender.

RAZ: Jackson Bird picks up his story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BIRD: Let me take a guess at some of the thoughts that might be running through your head right now. Transgender. Wait. Does that mean that they're actually a man, or actually a woman? Huh, I wonder if he's had the surgery yet. Now I'm looking at his crotch. Look to the right. That's a safe place to look. Yes. I knew it. No real man has hips like those. My friend's daughter is transgender. I wonder if they know each other? Oh, my gosh. He is so brave. I would totally support his right to use the men's bathroom. Wait - but how does he use the bathroom? How does he have sex? Being trans is awkward, and not just because the gender I was assigned at birth mismatches the one I really am. Being trans is awkward because everyone else gets awkward when they're around me. People who support me and all other trans people wholeheartedly are often so scared to say the wrong thing, so embarrassed to not know what they think they should, that they never ask.

RAZ: How did your family react?

BIRD: My family was mostly cool with it. My mom I had told many years before when I was just questioning things. So she kind of had a while to sort of be there with me figuring it all out.

RAZ: Yeah.

BIRD: My dad reacted way better than I thought. He had kind of had some inklings. And the one thing was that he didn't want me to physically transition, but I think he maybe misunderstood. I think he still sort of thought, like, there's just one surgery and the results are never great. I specifically remember he was worried that I wouldn't get work, which is very true for a lot of trans people. Most states don't have employment non-discrimination protections for trans people. But at the time, I had been presenting as a very masculine woman for many years. And masculine-presenting women tend to be treated pretty poorly in society and often in workplaces, and shortly after I came out, I stopped getting propositioned for dates when I would be at networking events and started getting job offers.

RAZ: So there are obviously things you used to identify with growing up that you don't identify with now because so much of our identity when we're young is shaped by our parents and our communities. But then as you get older, you have more of a choice to define those things yourself, right? So how do you define yourself today?

BIRD: I mean, I think what I usually say - because in the LGBTQ-plus community, we often are asked to state our identities, and I'll usually say that I'm a queer, bisexual, transgender man. Although, I will say that the word man doesn't quite resonate with me. If I'm filling out a form, I check male. That's all true. But there's something about it. Maybe it's even just, like, toxic masculinity or just not a thing I want to be associated with.

RAZ: Yeah.

BIRD: So words like guy is totally fine. I absolutely identify as a guy, as a dude, but not always really as a man.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, for most of modern history, right, humans have tended to see things in a pretty binary way, right? And that's starting to change. There's no question about it. But, I mean, some people listening to this conversation might say, you know, look, there's no such thing as something beyond man or woman. And you may have heard that in your life, as well.

BIRD: Absolutely.

RAZ: What do you say?

BIRD: Well, you know, I think across many cultures all across history, there have been genders beyond just man and woman. I definitely see male and female as constructed. That's not to say that they aren't real in various ways of expressions and roles. This is a point of tension often for trans people, is, you know, if gender is a social construct then, like, why do you need to transition? Why do you feel this so deeply? And it's because even if they are social constructs, that doesn't mean that they don't exist. Right?

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah.

BIRD: There are so many examples of gender and sex being more of a spectrum, that once you really dig into those, it does start to almost sound a little funny to think that there can only be two boxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BIRD: Now, because our transitions are slower and steadier than historic misconceptions can lead people to believe, there can be some confusion about when to call someone by their new name and pronouns. There's no distinct points in physical transition at which a trans person becomes their true gender. As soon as they tell you their new name and pronouns, that's when you start using that name and pronouns.

And I know it can be difficult to make the change. You might slip up here and there. I've slipped up myself with other trans people. But, you know, I always think to myself, if we can change from calling Puff Daddy to P. Diddy, I mean, I think we can make the same effort for the real humans in our lives.

RAZ: Do you think that we will, in the distant future, maybe not so distant future, that the notion of male, female, binary identities will be gone, that even in legal documents and government documents and - there will be multiple ways to identify?

BIRD: I mean, we're definitely seeing legal documents and governments around the world add in a nongendered or nonbinary or gender neutral type of option. But, you know, I think there's the right to exist. And then there is the hope that there is actual acceptance and inclusivity. So I guess, for me, it's like, yes, we need to have these rights but it needs to go further than that. We need sort of the education and the representation happening in society so that there is more acceptance and compassion for people from marginalized communities of any kind of identity.

RAZ: Jackson Bird - he hosts the podcast "Transmission" and the YouTube series "Queer Story." You can see his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.