Pipe Dream Zoom-chatted with Laura A. Jacobs, a transgender and genderqueer psychotherapist, activist, public speaker and author who focuses on issues of gender and sexuality. Since 2016, Jacobs has been chair of the Board of Directors for the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, which provides health care to New York’s LGBTQ community, regardless of economic constraints. Jacobs founded the Gender Dysphoria Affirmative Working Group, a group of professionals and allies who support transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. Jacobs co-authored “’You’re In The Wrong Bathroom!’ And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions about Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People.” In 2019, Jacobs received the Professional Standard of Excellence Award from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pipe Dream: How do you view gender?
Laura A. Jacobs: A lot of people think of gender as being binary and a lot of people understand [being transgender] as sort of this “born in the wrong body” concept. And for some people, that’s authentic and that’s wonderful, but I also think that’s a narrative of being broken and of victimization, that something is wrong and needs to be fixed in order for the person to live fully as themselves. I think gender can be a creative, conscious exploration of how we want to live this part of our lives. I think through that exploration we can be examining all these questions and learning what it means to be human. I don’t think of it that way as “born in the wrong body” at all, I think of it as more of a philosophical exploration of life through which we ultimately maybe end up at a place where we arrive at a gender that we want to continue to be. But it’s more like a series of endless individual steps. I think ultimately gender is about being happy and self-aware.
PD: Can you explain what people “Fear of GenderQueer Planet,” the topic of your TEDx Talk?
LJ: I think what they fear is the breakdown of norms that people have grown accustomed to. Norms that are artificial, anyway. If we did do a historical analysis of gender, we’d see that gender is understood so differently in different points in different places in our history, that the way we here in the West and in the [United States] think of gender is just a construct of all the things that have influenced us to this point. I think people are afraid of what that means. A lot of people have tried to control things like sexuality and gender and other forms of expression, the arts and whatnot, as a means of control, as a means of trying to maintain some sort of false sense of stability that doesn’t really exist. In some cases, I think it’s just purely about power. In some cases, I think it’s about fear of having to examine the questions within themselves, about gender and sexuality and about what life would look like if there was this sort of explosion of possibility.
PD: What do you want students to get out of your talk?
LJ: Hope. A new curiosity about their lives and about their existence as human beings. In this case, focused on the body and gender and all the things that go along with that, but to be able to really think about life from a curiosity lens and a lens of investigating what all this means to you. I have no idea what any of this means to you, but I would be hoping that you would be maybe throwing yourself into experiences, having experiences, seeing what they mean to you, seeing what they feel like to you, questioning your assumptions and even thinking about what it means to be human as you’re having all these experiences … I think part of life is, as the Dalai Lama says, “the pursuit of happiness,” and I think part of it is also the pursuit of enlightenment, wisdom and self-awareness, and that together with happiness is what life is about. I would hope that the audience would come away with that sort of perspective, with thinking of this as not just, “OK, so my body is something that I have, my body is not just a shell that I inhabit while I’m here and it’s just gonna go through its changes and maybe I can make some changes to it, but it’s not just a thing.” It can also be a tool, it’s part of us, it’s as much part of us as anything else and these are, again, ways we can investigate what it means to be human.
PD: What change would you like to see in the world in regards to gender?
LJ: I would certainly love to see social change where our society is able and willingly, and not just sort of begrudgingly, but is eager to encompass, respect and welcome a huge multiplicity of gender possibilities. I think gender is ultimately infinite, but our society certainly doesn’t think that way. I think a lot of people are trying to push society to be much more open to those, what I think are infinite possibilities of gender, and as society moves in that direction, I think it will be easier for people. We already know that that is true, there is plenty of research that shows the same thing: that the negative outcomes we sometimes see in trans-identified people—depression, anxiety, smoking, substance use, obesity, self-harm, even suicide—studies show that around 41 to 42 percent of trans people have attempted suicide at some point in their lifespan, that should scare the shit out of everybody. All those negative outcomes are not due to being trans, are not inherent to the trans experience. They’re due to being trans in a hostile environment. When you take trans-identified kids or adults, and you put them in environments where they’re affirmed, supported, have rights and they’re not being bullied and whatnot, their outcomes are just the same as everybody else. Trans kids who grow up in those kinds of environments, schools and families and whatnot, show no higher rates of anxiety, depression, etc., as their cisgender peers. So, it really makes clear that it’s the environment. Not that being trans doesn’t have some stress associated with it, but so, so much of that is the environment.