We sat down with New York-based therapist Jesse Kahn to confront five pervasive myths about gender and trans identities.
For therapy to work, it’s essential for patients to find a provider who makes them feel safe, seen, understood, and validated. For members of the LGBTQ+ community, that means working with a therapist who has a comprehensive understanding of sexual orientation, gender identities, and the expansiveness and fluidity of both.
We sat down with Jesse Kahn, a gender nonconforming clinical social worker and therapist, to discuss how providers of all backgrounds can equip themselves to serve patients of every identity and orientation. Kahn, who has been working with issues relating to gender and sexuality for over 13 years, believes that a lack of basic education surrounding gender fluidity often gives way to microaggressions and other non-affirming behavior in therapists, ultimately leading to the perpetuation of harmful gender myths. Many providers may be generally friendly and receptive to progressive ideas about gender, but even small, inaccurate beliefs can ultimately hurt a patient and reinforce cisnormative or heteronormative ideas.
“One reason there is a gap in trans-competence is because we live in this world that upholds cis- and hetero-normative ideals,” says Kahn. “It’s a social-cultural problem that shapes our perspectives and infiltrates every aspect of our lives.”
Kahn firmly believes that every member of our society — trans, cis, or otherwise — possesses deeply held cisnormative and heteronormative beliefs. These assumptions are conditioned and inform toxic narratives that society imposes upon all people.
Let’s take a look at five harmful and pervasive gender myths that providers often adhere to.
Gender Myth #1: Sex dictates gender
Let’s start with the basics. From birth, it’s assumed that one’s sex and gender are the same. However, a person’s gender can be different from the sex assigned at birth. Cisgender means that you identify with your gender assigned at birth. To identify as trans, gender nonconforming, genderfluid, or genderqueer, means that you identify with a gender other than the one assigned at birth. While many parents still uphold attitudes showcasing that sex dictates gender, anticipating that a child’s gender could be different than their sex would help release attachments to traditional gender roles in childhood.
Gender Myth #2: Trans people’s identities uphold the gender binary
Cis people tend to be more comfortable with gender-conforming trans people (think: Caitlyn Jenner). Trans women who wear makeup and heels, are on hormones, and undergo gender confirmation surgeries that uphold normative and binary expressions of gender are in many ways easier for cisgender people to understand and relate to. Cis and heteronormativity doesn’t leave room for the transfeminine person who doesn’t want any medical interventions, but still wants their gender to be affirmed. This gender myth is perpetuated by a demand for trans people to choose a desired gender. Trans people do not need to be “either or;” they can exist in between and beyond the binary of “man” and “woman.”
Gender Myth #3: Trans people were “born in the wrong body”
The idea of transgender people being “born in the wrong body” reduces trans people to their bodies and doesn’t allow for a variety of trans experiences with their bodies. It also oversimplifies trans people’s experiences, relatable to cis people in a simple sound bite. Sometimes it’s used interchangeably with being “trapped in the wrong body.” Both (but “trapped” more than “born”) suggest being a victim of one’s body, which not all trans people feel. This gender myth is particularly harmful and can cause many concerns if a trans person chooses to transition; many years of this reinforced myth can cause the exact mindset concerns which could lead a therapist to recommend postponing transition.
Gender Myth #4: Trans people want medical interventions
An individual does not have to undergo medical interventions to change their physical appearance in order to align with their gender. “There’s this idea among trans patients of ‘Am I trans enough for you,'” says Kahn, “as if there’s one right way to be trans — some societally imposed notion of what being trans involves.” The truth is, there’s no right or wrong way to be trans — and trans experiences cannot be judged against a restrictive binary or a rigid series of progressive, linear steps.
Myth #5: Trans people must forever uphold any new identity they claim
Like sexual orientation, trans identities can shift and change. Kahn notes that we now allow for sexuality to be more fluid — you can be a queer cis man and experience desire for a variety of genders without endangering the fundamentals of your identity. Or you can identify first as bisexual, then gay and queer, and we can accept that progression. This gender myth implies that there is a clear path to finding your identity, which is false and short-sighted in the case of both trans and cisgendered people. To parents who are concerned about their trans children “switching back” later in life, Kahn asks, “so what?” “Gender identity can evolve,” says Kahn. “That’s a concept that can be challenging for many people — providers included — to understand.”
How Therapists Can Become Gender Competent
“Providers who aren’t educated, affirming, and knowledgeable when it comes to gender can inadvertently cause harm,” says Kahn. “They might sensationalize, ask intrusive questions, use words like ‘regular’ or ‘normal’ as synonymous for cisgender, suggest a trans or GNC person’s pronouns are ‘preferred’ (i.e ‘what are your preferred pronouns?’), misgender someone, not know how to use gender-neutral pronouns, pathologize gender diversity, or ask leading questions or use unnecessary gendered language like ‘do you have a boyfriend,’ rather than ‘do you have a significant other,’ which alienates non-conforming people.” Some clients even have to educate their own providers, which turn the patient into an educator of basic knowledge, can interrupt treatment, and can make the patient feel unseen in a space where they should feel empowered.
To address these gaps, Kahn has established the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective, a group of psychotherapists committed to offering safe, competent, and empowering spaces for marginalized individuals and communities.
Kahn believes that trans and gender nonconforming people and cis people challenging the binary and normativity are helping to expand notions of gender and debunk harmful gender myths, and Kahn ultimately expects a brighter future. “Part of hope and change is believing in a world that is radically different than the one we live in and putting in the work to educate ourselves and others.
If you are a trans person looking to speak with a doctor or therapist who understands your unique needs, take a look at Lighthouse’s healthcare provider search engine.