Last month, speaker, author, yoga teacher, and transgender youth activist Janna Barkin joined LendUp to discuss her book (which was named #1 on Amazon in its category!). Janna shared why she’s passionate about educating people on gender and how we can open our minds to be more inclusive. Check out the summary below!
Why did you decide to write this book? What do you want people to leave with?
First off I just want to let everyone know that my son, Amaya -- who is now 20 years old -- gave his permission for me to write about him and his story. I chose to write this book and choose to speak to people about it because I learned so much from my own journey of having a transgender child, and I want to share my knowledge with everyone else. While my goal is to educate everyone, right now my focus is on trans youth because that’s where my experience is.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 26% of LGBT youth say that their biggest problems are not feeling accepted by family, trouble at school/bullying, and a fear of being out/open. I’m also here because the suicide rate attempts for the transgender / gender non-conforming community is 41%, compared to the general public, which is 4.6%. It’s important to talk about this because even though society is opening up more, some people might not always show fully who they are because they don’t feel safe. Thankfully we do have more and more welcoming and accepting spaces for people to express who they feel like on the inside, but it really takes people being brave enough to spread the word and share their knowledge. My main purpose is that I would like to have everyone accepted and seen for who they are.
When did Amaya first express to you that he was a boy?
Amaya has always been a “tomboy” from age three and on. To read an excerpt from my book: “One particular time, when he was about three, I watched unnoticed as Amaya played with “Rocco” (his imaginary friend) in our living room. He had a bunch of his toys scattered around, among them some baby dolls, a few GI Joes, a selection of trucks, and several stuffed animals. And in the midst of it all, he was singing to himself, ‘I wish to be a grampa, a grampa, I wish to be a grampa.' I thought to myself, Did I hear that right? I listened as his singing continued ‘I wish to be a grampa.’ I didn’t understand. He was three. Didn’t he know by now that girls grew up to be grammas? Perhaps he doesn’t know that yet, I thought, so I decided to talk to him about it. I interrupted his play after a few moments of observation and said something like ‘Did you know that girls grow up to be grammas and boys grow up to be grampas?’ He said, ‘I’m a boy.’” He was three. Looking back I feel like this was a time when I had ignorance and I discounted him. This was his first outward affirmation of his inner knowing and I sort of just shrugged it off.
Can you explain the 3 dimensions of gender?
Bodies: This is the name we give our sex when we’re born based on genitalia -- a label. While most people are born with either part, not everyone fits into this binary model; parts can be ambiguous, let’s call this intersex.
Identity: Bodies do not exist as a binary. Because of this there could be confusion if we don’t identify with the sex we were assigned at birth. This is generally labeled transgender, however not everyone wants to be or fits under this label. Typically transgender is used to identify someone whose identity is the opposite of the sex assigned at birth, but some people don’t feel completely the opposite; they really feel neither male nor female, so use the term non-binary or NB. Some people prefer gender fluid or bigender as well. Most importantly, don’t call someone a name that they don’t give to themselves.
Expression: Gender expression is how someone presents themselves to the world with regard to gender. Gender expression and who we are on the inside are sometimes aligned, sometimes not. America historically has had a very binary and male dominated culture in many ways. For instance, for most people if we see someone with long hair we assume they’re female, or if a female is bald people assume she’s sick or something is wrong with her. Or if a man wears earrings it means a certain thing. And what happens if a guy comes in wearing a dress? Cultural norms have so much to do with what expression is acceptable and some of these norms can be very challenging based on our expectations of what their gender might be. There are definitely different layers in different cultures with how gender can be expressed, while some cultures are more open-minded than others. Transgender people all over the world have challenges and there’s a push in our culture right now for a change.
What are some of the most common gender identities?
For so long, we have only acknowledged gender as binary, male or female. We also assume if someone is transgender they must feel the opposite of the sex they were assigned at birth. But now we are realizing there are people who define themselves in many many ways, and the words only mean something in context. Gender exists as a spectrum, there is no one way to express gender. A lot of us accept this on a heart level, but then we will assume things when we see certain people expressing themselves, e.g. if two men hold hands in America we assume they’re gay. Some of the most common gender identities currently are transgender, cisgender, gender fluid, non-binary, questioning, queer, agender, etc. There will probably be more and some will go out of style just like anything, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a fad to express gender in these non typical ways. It’s a new trend that is now showing outwardly what many people have experienced inwardly and have not been able to share it or give name to it for a long time.
What is the Gender Abacus?
The Gender Abacus is an app that was created by Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, a gender specialist, and it’s a tool to help individuals define their gender experience in a more complete manner than within the existing limited binary of female and male. If you think of an actual abacus, the top three rungs can be Bodies, Identity, and Expression, and the two bottom rungs are related to sexuality. Gender and sexuality are somewhat related, but different things. Gender can be said as who you like to go to bed as, and sexuality would be who you like to go to bed with. Just another side note that I am saying these things as an adult to adults. I recommend everyone download this app and play around with it, see if you learn something about yourself.
What is Gender Dysphoria?
Gender Dysphoria is the profound distress caused when something about someone is not aligning with their inner identity. It can manifest as anxiety, depression, withdrawal, and suicidality. It might be the way they are perceived, it might be their name, it might be their pronoun, it might be less of an exact sense. Often transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary people who cannot be seen as they truly feel on the inside will have a time where they feel dysphoria, disconnection, extreme depression, anxiety, or the like. Transgender people used to be labeled as ill and having Gender Identity Disorder and while Gender Dysphoria doesn’t happen for everyone, the term was named so people can get services and stopped being labeled as ill.
How did this affect Amaya?
Growing up he was a happy kid, but there were definitely pieces of the puzzle that didn’t fit. Puberty is when Amaya went from being a happy kid to in bed constantly. He would go to school, he would have friends and do well at school, but he wouldn’t go out. He would come home and immediately get into bed. While he was going through puberty, his breasts grew and that is truly when he got this dysphoria and did not want to go out in public, he didn’t want people seeing him this way. He would check his look in the mirror all the time and try to flatten his chest. It was really sad to watch and I couldn’t solve this disconnect of what was happening. This is when I really knew something wasn’t right and Amaya made it very clear that his issues needed to be resolved. We talked to counselors and doctors and the doctors didn’t know what to do. Finally we found an amazing counselor that helped Amaya through what he was experiencing and helped him through his transition. Before Amaya even wanted to change pronouns, he wanted to get his breasts removed. After his surgery was complete, I watched him get his bandages off which was such an unreal experience; I didn’t expect the emotion, it was like the rebirth of my child. You could tell Amaya was so proud and happy. Amaya also used hormones as medical intervention and his transition is complete for now.
What can we do?
For the most part I think this is a pretty open minded group of people in the room, but what we can do is start to think about ways to not exclude people based on their gender identities. For example, are bathrooms gender neutral? How do you make it so non-binary people feel more comfortable? Many people in their hearts would love to be very accepting of the guy who wears a dress to work or wears the glitter, so it’s really just being aware and educating others. By sharing our stories, we can give voices to the voiceless. As parents, we should learn to trust our children early on as by age four most children have a stable sense of their gender identity, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. It’s also important to note that when we talk about someone who is transgender, transgender is the adjective that describes them, and the process of changing (the verb) is transition. I encourage everyone to checkout genderspectrum.org to learn more.