Disrupting False Narratives About the Trans Community

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed Jun 06, 2024

Learn more: gender inclusivity, voices for change

a blurry photo of a person walking in the rain

The dense fog blanketed the ground on this humid September morning. Anything outside of five feet from my car was practically invisible to the naked eye. I had quickly gained a sense of familiarity with the fog since my move to Houston a few weeks prior. Driving through it felt akin to flying, an unexpected journey through clouds on my commute to work, a newly accepted teaching position as an elementary music specialist.

Taking a sip of my coffee, I grimaced. Caffeine had always been my drug of choice, and it was essential for navigating the energy level of so many tiny human beings, but despite my affinity for caffeine, I detested the taste of coffee.  I turned on the radio, hoping that the aural blast would overpower the despondence my taste buds were feeling. Static. The radio was still set to my home stations in Dallas. I quickly turned the dial to my favorite local morning talk show, feeling unlucky yet again as I realized it was a commercial for men’s vitality supplements. I laughed to myself. As a transgender woman, I knew that those were the last things I needed. I tuned it out and gazed once more at the fog.

I came to a stop at the stoplight around the corner from the school, trying to figure out what my back-up idea was for my kindergarten class just in case my lesson didn’t go to plan. Freeze Dance. Everyone loves Freeze Dance. I smiled, and then the next commercial came on.

“Houston’s Proposition 1 Bathroom Ordinance. What does it mean to you? Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom, simply by claiming to be a woman that day. No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom. And if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined. Protect women’s privacy, prevent danger. Vote No on the Proposition 1 Bathroom Ordinance. It goes too far.”

All of a sudden, Taylor Swift came blaring out of the speakers. I snapped back to my body, my knuckles white from clenching the steering wheel so hard. I shut off the radio, shaking with rage and hurt and sadness. I had heard about this bathroom ordinance, designed to protect trans individuals who just wanted to use the correct bathroom, the one aligned with their gender identity. How could this kind of ad, that is so blatantly obnoxious and wrong, be allowed on the air? How could people spout such lies about trans people? What would this mean for me, a trans woman who had yet to disclose her identity to any coworkers out of fear of retribution?

A car horn honked, and I jumped. The stoplight had turned green. I hurriedly stepped on the gas, and as the car lurched into motion, I felt a tear roll down my face. Bracing myself for the quizzical looks of my students, I tried to picture the joy that came from Freeze Dance and drove once more into the fog...

A dense gray fog covers a winding road

Two months passed. In that time, Proposition One had failed, much to the delight of its opponents. The disinformation campaign had worked–there would be no bathroom protections for transgender people. Today was my birthday. I arrived at school and taught my first class of students, my head adorned with an extraordinarily tacky cupcake headband gifted to me by a friend. The principal of the school caught me in the hall. He wished me a happy birthday and began complimenting me on the program I had put on a couple of days prior. He told me he had been at the administrative building, singing my praises, when the executive superintendent of human resources for the district had asked if she could meet me. He told me she would be coming to my classroom after school let out.

3:30 PM couldn’t come fast enough. I had spent the entire school day graciously accepting birthday recognition and small gifts of appreciation from my students, but surreptitiously filled with anxiety. What could I have done that would merit the human resources superintendent to come see me? The only thing I had done that could have had any negative blowback was disclosing my transgender identity to a couple of the teachers on staff at a happy hour a week prior. One of those teachers had mentioned how proud she was of her gay son, so I felt safe to finally tell these coworkers about me. Surely, that didn’t cause any problems. Right?

The students had emptied from my classroom, so I sat down at the piano and began playing and singing to relieve some stress. Halfway through the chorus, my classroom door opened. The human resources superintendent and my principal walked in. I abruptly stopped my musicking. “Oh, please keep going,” the HR Superintendent stated. I awkwardly finished the chorus and nervously smiled at their applause. My principal left the room, leaving us alone.

To keep things “more informal,” she asked if we could sit somewhere besides my desk. Our only options were two elementary-sized chairs in the middle of the room. We sat down in the ridiculously small chairs and began the discussion. She informed me of her role and welcomed me to the district. I noticed her begin to choose her words more carefully. The tension was palpable.

“So, Ms. Stapleton, I’m here because you...told some teachers something about you, and, uh, well... some parents found out.”

My heart dropped.

“I got a couple of calls, so I decided to come to meet you. There really aren’t any problems, except I do have to ask you one question...what bathrooms are you using? You’re not...using the student bathrooms, are you?”

If the situation wasn’t so dire, I would have laughed. At around 6 feet tall, there wasn’t a chance I could use the child-sized toilet, let alone sit on it. When I informed her that no, I was not using the student restrooms, her demeanor shifted. She smiled. “Oh, okay, great. I just had to clear that up and make sure. Now I can just get to know you a little bit better.”

The rest of the conversation continued without any more awkward moments. She shook my hand and left the room. I gathered the gift bags and cards from my desk, stealing a glance at the handwritten well-wishes of my students covering my dry erase board. I walked to my car, put the gifts in the trunk, and clambered into the driver’s seat. The door shut and I finally felt safe enough to cry. Why was everybody so damn obsessed with where I went to the bathroom? Did the HR Superintendent really believe I was some kind of child predator? How could such blatant misinformation about people like me affect somebody clearly as intelligent as her? I resigned myself to be more careful about who I disclosed my identity to. The world was clearly dangerous to people like me.

A close up photo of a person's closed eye wearing pink, blue and white eyeshadow with a tall floor lamp glowing in the distance

Ever since I came out as transgender in high school 17 years ago, I have been advocating for the trans community. I’ve grown accustomed to being the first trans person somebody ever meets “in real life” and subsequently felt the responsibility of perpetually representing my community. I believed that if I could just make people see my humanity and understand that I really wasn’t so different from them, they would be more likely to accept me, and others like me. I was thrust into the world of LGBTQ+ activism in my undergrad and now continue to examine topics of gender identity, diversity, and social change within music education in my research and scholarship as a PhD student.

When I first began writing for Chorus Connection, I began with a series of articles about working with transgender singers, covering topics like understanding the difficult vocabulary that relates to gender and gender identity, how to navigate when a choir member comes out as trans, tips for uniforms, voicing, vocal pedagogy, singing strategies for trans singers, advice on rooming for trans singers on choir trips, and concluded with a discussion of how Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can affect the singers who go through it. I still believe those articles are timely, relevant, and necessary, and I encourage you to go read (or reread) them.

Right now, the trans community is undergoing constant, daily trauma. In 2023, 589 pieces of anti-trans legislation were introduced in the United States, and as of May 31, 2024, 580 anti-trans bills are currently being tracked. This legislation has prompted a noticeable uptick in misinformation and disinformation about the trans community, with false narratives confusing a large swath of people. Below, I wanted to share a few common tropes that are inaccurate and dangerous to the trans community, so you can continue to create a safe, well-informed environment for your trans, non-binary, and gender expansive singers.

False Narrative #1: Transwomen are actually predatory men trying to access the women’s restroom to harm women or girls.

This is perhaps the most widespread narrative that I have seen pushed by those who rally against the trans community, despite little to no evidence supporting the assertion. Many professional health organizations, including the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) stress the benefit of gender-affirming care (including transitioning) for trans people. These organizations agree that just because somebody’s gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth, it does not invalidate said identity. Trans women are women, trans men are men. Period.

As for the second portion of the false narrative, suggesting that transwomen are predators, it’s simply not backed up by data. While yes, there are criminals and predators in the world, research suggests that trans people are actually 4x more likely than cis people to be a victim of a violent crime, and that they deserve access to bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, particularly because so-called “safety claims” are not supported.

False Narrative #2: Being transgender is a mental disorder.

Just as homosexuality was once classified as a mental disorder in the early editions of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), eventually being removed in 1974, the 3rd edition of the DSM introduced the classification of “gender identity disorder” for transgender individuals. However, the current edition (5th) removed this language and no longer classifies transgender people as having a disorder. Currently, the diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” is given to trans people, in reference to the clinically significant distress that comes from the incongruence between trans people’s gender identity and assigned sex at birth. It’s important to note that not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, but many do. Regardless, being trans does not mean that one has a mental disorder.

False Narrative #3: Being transgender is always “just a phase.”

As I started to come to terms with my transgender identity and express it more publicly, I was constantly met with a wave of people telling me that it was “just a phase” and that I would inevitably end up identifying as a man. This was just not the case. While there are a lot of aspects about myself that I still am discovering, one of the most consistently true things about me that I know is that I’m a woman. I may not dress extremely feminine sometimes (I’m a sucker for jeans and sweatpants) but transitioning and taking estrogen and progesterone made me finally start feeling more like myself. There are still many days where my gender dysphoria gets the best of me because I don’t look like the women on magazine covers or look like some of my female friends. Ultimately my gender identity persists.

I can’t definitively state that one’s gender identity is always permanent, nor can I state that there aren’t those who believe themselves to be trans and realize later that it is not who they are. But what I can say is this: Even if it is a phase for somebody…so what? Especially in adolescence, as our prefrontal cortex is still developing, there are times we experiment to discover who we truly are. When I was a middle school choir teacher, I had students who asked me to use different pronouns or names. Some of those students realized that being trans was not part of their identity and continued to live as cisgender. Other students are happily living authentically as trans adults. For each of these students, what really mattered to them was simply that I supported them as they navigated their own identities until they determined which elements of that identity “stuck.”  

The narrative that being transgender is always “just a phase” is harmful, misleading, false, and altogether lacks nuance. When somebody tells you who they are, believe them and support them. It’s really that easy.

False Narrative #4: HRT and surgery is the instantly recommended option for trans youth.

One of the primary goals of the current anti-trans legislation tidal wave is to restrict access to gender-affirming care for trans youth, and oftentimes all trans people. Many argue that doctors are forcing permanent medical changes and quickly performing gender-affirming surgeries on minors, and that’s simply not true.

The current World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care has an extensive list of recommendations made for physicians regarding the requirements for the gender-affirming medical and surgical treatment of adolescents, all of which must be met. These recommendations include that the adolescent’s gender diversity/incongruence is “marked and sustained over time,” and that all mental health concerns have been addressed. Adolescents must reach Tanner stage 2 of puberty (around 11-12 years old) before they are given puberty blockers/suppressors. And before any gender-affirming surgical procedures are performed, there needs to be a minimum of one year of HRT.

To put it more simply, trans kids younger than 12 will not meet the threshold for hormones or surgeries. Trans adolescents have to meet myriad mental and physical requirements before pubertal blockers, HRT, or surgeries are even considered. It takes an immense amount of time, many appointments with health care professionals, and a personally tailored treatment plan with said professionals before any physical interventions occur. Treatment decisions should be private and remain between patients and their health care providers, not used as political fodder.

Trans people are currently living in a time where their very survival is constantly in jeopardy. 320 trans people were murdered in 2023. 94% were transwomen/transfeminine and 80% were Black or people of color. False narratives, misinformation, and disinformation fuel the legislation and people that continue to target us.

These are only 4 false narratives that exist out of hundreds, but they are some of the most dangerous. I implore you not only to challenge the harmful narratives against trans people but to begin to educate others in your community as well. Please don’t allow false information based on hatred, bigotry, or ignorance to shape your view of people in the trans community. 

I hope by sharing my personal story and firsthand experiences, that more people will start seeing us for the humans we are—authentic, vulnerable, and worthy of living—because too many of us are dying.

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Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed

Melanie Stapleton (she/her) is a music educator, researcher, author, and choral director located in Chicago. She is currently a PhD student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, pursuing a PhD in Music Studies with a specialization in Music Education and an interdisciplinary certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the founder of Blurring the Binary, and holds a Masters of Music Education from the University of North Texas as well as a Bachelors of Music Education from Louisiana State University. She is a strong believer that the choral ensemble should be a musical family and a safe place offering unconditional love for all. When not teaching, she can be found hanging with her Golden Retriever, Queso, playing video games, or jamming to the latest choral hits.

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed