By Mike McMahan, LPC
Transgender folks have been in the news quite a bit lately--from Bruce Jenner’s transition to the deplorable “bathroom laws” which have been condemned by any number of companies and organizations. But this blog is about the landscape of pop culture (which, to me, includes Facebook and similar), and I was pleased to see that dating app Tinder is tackling this problem head-on. The internet and its impact on all aspects of culture is here to stay. And while Tinder may not have the same gravitas as, say, the “bathroom laws,” the wider acceptance and openness of transgender folks will have effects everywhere—including online.
Facebook has already acknowledged this wider reality by allowing users to choose from a mind-blowing 50 gender options. I can understand that some people might be confused by the terms on this list—and that’s fine. To me this move is less about labelling people and more about the right to self-identify. I know that in my clinical work, I simply go with whatever anyone tells me about their gender, race, or sexual identity, regardless of whether it fits the so-called “textbook definition.” For example, I would technically be a cisgender male, but I have no need to self-identify in this fashion. I identify as male (or perhaps, humorously, as a “dude”) and that’s good enough for me. But if I did choose to identify as cisgender, perhaps in a show of support for my transgender brothers and sisters, the option is there for me to exercise.
Turning to the subject of dating, this poses a whole host of other questions and complications. My personal belief is that if you are in a long-term romantic relationship with someone, you have an ethical obligation to be honest about most matters—including if you have undergone a gender transition. Others may feel differently, and I understand and accept that as well. But I’m not so sure that level of honesty applies to casual dating or online “hookups”—the bread and butter of sites like Tinder. Some people certainly don’t care, though I’m equally certain that others feel very strongly. I don’t have an answer for how to conduct oneself in this situation. I suppose we all have ethical codes that we adhere to and we must let these codes guide us in the way we treat anyone from acquaintances to friends to romantic partners.
Twitter CEO Sean Rad began to address these sorts of concern at a recent conference, noting “No matter who you are, no matter what you’re looking for, you should get quality matches through the Tinder experience. There’s an important transgender (and gender-nonconforming) community on Tinder who haven’t had that experience… yet. We haven’t delivered for them, so we’re working with LGBTQ advisors, including transgender activist Andrea James and GLAAD to help us address this important demographic. This is not only the right thing to do for our users, it’s the right thing to do, period.”
These sites have embraced self-identification and I suspect that we, as a society, will continue to move in that direction as well. Until then, perhaps keep in mind that many LGBTQ people struggle with a host of issues related to lack of understanding, lack of education, or outright discrimination. Consider this: some studies have shown that transgender people face a risk of suicide up to ten times higher than the rate of gender conforming people. That is alarming and saddening, and I hope that, as their situation becomes more well-known and people react with compassion, that this rate will go down. Tinder is certainly doing their part to make the world a more understanding and welcoming place. Kudos to them.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture