The Devil’s Advocate is a new column that I’ll intersperse occasionally with my Exotic Adventures in Smalltown, USA column. In Q&A format, I’ll be asking people who feel passionately about an issue the most obnoxious—and yet, hopefully, occasionally difficult—trolling IRL questions I can come up with. This week, it’s Theodore “Teddy” Ulsh, a 20-year-old artist, designer and activist who identifies as a nonbinary transgender person. Though assigned female gender at birth, Teddy is currently transitioning to a more masculine body. However, Teddy doesn’t even really believe in gender.
Cisgendered, cis-het, non-binary? How many new words do you people expect us to learn?
Teddy: Ummm… it’s really less about knowing words and it’s more about asking questions if you don’t know. “Cisgender” is important. That’s someone who is happy with the gender they were assigned at birth. And you could know a little bit about hormones. And “non-binary” is a good thing to know, because that covers anyone in between. Know that “transgender” is not a gender, in itself—it’s describing someone who is a different gender than what they were assigned at birth. Gender is a social construct and it’s on a spectrum. There’s male and then there’s female and then there’s all these little teeny things in between [DA note: during editing, Teddy let me know that this pun was intentional]. I don’t think anybody expects everybody to know them all. Just know that “oh, that probably means something in between. And I respect your gender.”
So now I have to ask everybody I meet what their gender is before I talk to them?
Teddy: It’s really good to not assume someone’s gender. I make it a habit to ask someone their pronouns. Someone could look like a “classic” female and identify as something else.
So if I meet some dude-bro frat-guy I’m supposed to ask this person what its gender is?
Teddy: Yeah. That’s the future of it. Because you can’t know someone’s gender just by looking at them. Would you just walk up to someone and call them “Bob”? No, you can’t magically know their name, you’d ask their name. It’s a lot to ask, especially in this society. But It’s a good habit to start creating early.
Are you one of those people who think we should be calling children “it” until they decide what to call themselves?
Teddy: There are gender neutral pronouns to call people until they tell you their gender. They/Them is one we use all the time. If you don’t know someone’s gender, calling them by they/them pronouns is a great way to not assign them a gender.
Why is it that, for you liberal activists, when a man gets breast implants to become a woman it’s like “go girl, express yourself,” but when a blond woman get’s them it’s looked down on as a “sad expression of the patriarchy.” Why are you people such hypocrites?
Teddy: Actually, a lot of activists I know say “Hey, it’s their body. It has nothing to do with me.” If someone is a woman and was assigned female at birth and wants to get breast implants then, they’re like, “hey, go her.”
Transgender rights activists have had a lot of success recently. Isn’t that because millennials such as yourself grew up on the internet with “avatars” and “profiles” and you think you can just be whatever you say you are, instead of what you really are?
Teddy: Well, actually… that not true. Trans people have been around since God knows when.
But it’s blown up recently, in the internet age.
Teddy: That’s just because there’s been awareness. Not because of anything else. You can go on the internet and you have these unexplained feelings that you’re not a man or you’re not a woman and see “oh, wow, there’s this thing called transgender.” This has been around since the Renaissance era. People have been feeling this way forever. In different cultures there are different genders. There are sculptures of people with breasts and penises. It has less to do with the current culture of “you can be anything you want; you can go online and be a dog” and more to do with access to the information necessary to explain those feelings that you thought were wrong.
But—to take your example—isn’t it kinda like being a dog? There are communities on Reddit where people are “Dragon-Kin” and seriously want people to respect their identities as Dragons? [DA note: This is real. Look it up. It’s fascinating.] When does it crossover to being a delusion?
Teddy: The thing is: gender is a social construct. Gender is not real. You are not your genitals. No matter how much society wants to tell you you’re your genitals, you’re not your genitals. But you aren’t a bird. There are species.
But if people want to identify as a bird is it your right to tell them they’re not?
Teddy: [long pause] No, it’s not.
So you would refer to someone as a bird and address them as a bird if they asked?
Teddy: I would respect that because it’s their right.
Would you chirp with them?
Teddy: Personally, I can’t associate with it so I’d be like “alright, you wanna be a bird? Then… I’ll respect that. But… uh… I don’t look at you and see a bird because you don’t have a beak and feathers and wings.
But wouldn’t that Bird not be their face? If you’re not your genitals aren’t you also not your fleshy pink lips?
Teddy: But we’re still human.
Isn’t that offensive to bird-kin or dragon-kin?
Teddy: Who knows? I’m not in the furry community. I’m sure a lot of furries would find that offensive. It’s just a separate issue than the trans issue. Gender is a different issue than species, and the struggles the furry community faces cannot be equated to those of the trans community.
So it’s more like blackface then, right? Do you also feel like you could dye your skin and be black because you love hip hop? Couldn’t you separate out race identity from physical race then? Just the way you could gender from biological sex? And say, “I was born white but I represent black. And I want to be called black.”
Teddy: Being black has to do with the culture. It has to do with how people view you. Transracial people can’t just dye their skin and be something else because it’s often a fetishization, whereas… race is something that you can see. It is something that is a part of someone because of their skin and how they were born. Gender is something in your brain. Also, race and gender are completely different topics; it’s much more intricate than simply comparing the two; it’s a false equivalency.
OKAY, so being trans is more like being anorexic then, right? Or like the condition called “xenomelia,” where people feel very strongly that one of their limbs is not ‘theirs;” the limb feels alien. And they have a compulsion to remove these limbs and in many cases they have. They’ve had perfectly healthy and functioning limbs removed. What’s the difference between that and being trans? Aren’t they both rare delusions where you want to mutilate your own body and not accept it as it is because you’ve got some sort of weird mental thing happening?
Teddy: Well that’s the thing: up until recently transgender has been classified as a mental illness. Which it’s not. The term for [distress due to one’s socially expected gender] is “dysphoria.” But not all trans people hate their bodies. A lot of them love their bodies. A lot have no intention of ever changing their bodies. Some do. So it’s not a requirement to have dysphoria to be trans. I think that’s what separates it from having an alien limb or something. It’s not a delusion because gender is a social construct. So you can be whatever gender you fucking want, that’s part of destroying the concept that gender equals genitalia.
Should we be supporting people who have “alien limbs” to to cut off their limbs just because they feel like it? Or should we be supporting them to accept themselves the way they are?
Teddy: For those people who are experiencing that I would say, as long as it’s not unhealthy or detrimental to them then, yeah, if they need their leg cut off, cut off their leg. For a trans man who is experiencing dysphoria about his breasts, it’s unhealthy mentally to have those breasts. Dysphoria can cause people to want to commit suicide. So it’s more healthy to not have breasts. What’s better, giving them the surgery and having them be happy with their body or having them want to commit suicide—or actually committing suicide like Leelah Alcorn—because they are stuck in a body they hate?
Should taxpayers and insurers pay for reassignment surgery?
Teddy: Yeah, they pay for other surgeries. Taxpayer money will pay for therapy so… This is not an aesthetic thing. It is about someone’s mental well-being.
But what about breast implants for a woman who feels “dysphoria” with not having giant luscious breasts? Should taxpayers be paying for women to get DDs?
Teddy: I think that’s a thin line. A lot of body enhancement surgeries for people who are cisgender stem from this unhealthy image of perfection that the media creates. Society tells us: “You as a woman need to have big titties and a skinny little waist and a big butt.” But that’s not the case with trans people. With trans people it’s not society telling them “You have to be this,” it’s them saying “No, this is what I want, genuinely. This is inside me.”
Should trans-men be able to go to all women’s schools if they start as women? [DA note: this is something that is currently happening.]
Teddy: Does that trans-man identify as a man? Maybe they’re non-binary. See, there’s this really toxic idea that being a woman has to do with your period and your vagina and your uterus and blah blah blah. And that’s incredibly toxic.
But that’s what most people would intuitively feel. That’s what most women would, I think, at least partly associate with what makes them a woman.
Teddy: Well, it’s part of it but, at the same time…The huge thing is the period. A lot of TERFs [DA note: TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. These feminists, who are increasingly marginalized, believe that trans-women aren’t really “women,” and exclude them from women-only gatherings, etc. The term is considered a slur.] focus on “Oh, trans women don’t have periods. But you know who else doesn’t have periods? Women under 13. Menopausal women. Are they not women anymore? Don’t equate periods to womanhood. Equate it to people with periods. A lot of trans-men have periods. They are men and they get periods. They are men and they can get pregnant. It’s just something that should not be equated with gender.
That would… strike most people as counterintuitive. Having a vagina seems like it has at least something to do with being a woman? Are you saying that having a vagina has nothing to do with being a woman?
Teddy: It really doesn’t. If you want to associate your vagina with what makes you a woman, that’s fine. But you’ve got to realize that other people don’t identify that way.
Thanks for putting up with that.