We love to think that society has moved significantly forward in terms of gender diversity and inclusion, but there is still so much to work on for us and future generations. From “gender reveals” to gendered clothing to the historically unfortunate way the English language uses pronouns, a lot of aspects of contemporary culture are still rooted in binary assumptions. In response to popular demand, Whitney Lauritsen and Jason Wrobel finally discuss these issues on the podcast with a guest who is uniquely qualified to talk about them. Dr. Melissa MacDonald is a chiropractor for sports professionals. Dr. Mac is also a speaker for issues like transgender athlete health and equal participation in sports. Her experience and advocacy uniquely positions her as a resource for this episode’s conversation. Listen in and open your eyes (and vocabulary) to the wider world of gender.
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Gender Pronouns, Etc.: The Fight Against Binary Assumptions And Language In A Nonbinary World With Dr. Melissa MacDonald
In mid-December 2020, Jason and I received an email from one of our audience that was wonderful. It was asking us about the topic of gender identity. This person was requesting if we could discuss more than the two genders, male and female, man and woman, he and she, and including more non-binary, they, them, theirs pronouns when talking about society and people, in general because not everybody identifies with he or she, male or female. I was grateful for this email because it gave me an opportunity to reflect on how I speak. I feel like 2020 was an eye-opening year for me. We started to explore race in a different way on this show. We started to work our way towards being more inclusive for Jason and me being white.
Each of us is straight or cisgender. We feel like it’s time for us to expand beyond our personal experiences and make it feel like everyone is welcome here because that’s our role with this show. Emails like this gave me that opportunity to recognize that maybe not everybody feels included when they read this. That’s become something I’m passionate about. Melissa, our guest, this was part of how we found you for the show. I put out a call asking for guests that could speak about this more openly and incorporate it into our discussion.
I’m excited to talk with you. I wanted to start off giving some backstory but also share that I feel a little bit ignorant on the subject matter. I’m still learning to feel comfortable with using binary terms because I’m not used to them. It’s not that I have a reason not to use them. It’s just I haven’t been in the practice of it. One thing that I am trying to work towards and I want to better understand is when in social media profiles or biographies, people now are putting in parentheses what their pronouns are. For me, it would be she and her. I’m not in the practice of doing that.
One of my first questions for both of you because, Jason, we haven’t discussed this much even off the show. I’m trying to understand how that benefits other people. This is where my ignorance is. For me, I assume that people know that I’m a she/her, but now I’m recognizing that we can’t make those assumptions about anybody. That’s why it’s important to clarify. The fact that I was assuming that other people were assuming this about me is part of the problem. I’m curious how you feel about this, Melissa.
That’s exactly the issue. It’s all about assumptions. We’re looking at external presentations and making an assumption about someone’s gender, someone’s gender identity, and someone’s sex. Those can’t be utilized because there are individuals who present one day in a more masculine light, and then the next day present in a more feminine light, or they live in a completely androgynous non-binary state. We can’t make those assumptions. We want to make sure that we’re letting people identify themselves as they want to be seen and presented.
This is something that I have in all my emails. My pronouns are she, her. I am also a cisgendered straight individual but I work with a large population of LGBTQ athletes and patients in my practice as a chiropractor. I graduated in 2015. Going through school, this was not taught. There was no discussion of gender, sex, what the differences of those are, pronoun identification, the differences between a chosen name and a dead name, and how to utilize that. It gets nuanced, especially with insurances and what’s the legal sex of the individual versus how they’re presenting to the world and what their pronouns are. It becomes quite a mess. The whole point of this movement is to remove assumptions and let individuals be themselves.
The interesting thing that comes up for me, Melissa, and I’m a curious student of human psychology, Whitney as well. One of the things that we love to explore here in general is trying to get to some of the subconscious or maybe conscious decisions or motivations that people are making. The thing that I sit with a lot is how it seems that most of life, we are conditioned to accept 1 of 2 choices. You’re either straight or gay. You’re male or female. You’re a Democrat or Republican. You’re pro-life or pro-choice. It seems that life in many ways from birth, most human beings are conditioned to make one choice or the other.
It’s a black and white, binary system in our society that we keep reinforcing. My curiosity that I sit with a lot is why some people feel threatened, they feel radically uncomfortable to the point of violence or leveraging physical harm on people that don’t fall into one category or the other. Rather than focusing on advocating for rights, beyond that, I also try and think about what is threatening to a human being to meet another person that doesn’t fit into those categories. What is scary about that? I’m curious, the psychology behind why something that is outside of the binary norm is threatening to people. Why is it scary for some people to accept?We're looking at external presentations and making an assumption about gender. We can't make those assumptions. Click To Tweet
I’m not a psychologist and that is not my specialty but I do have a theory on why this can be hard for individuals to accept. It goes back to when we were Neanderthals, when we were out in nature, hunter-gatherers, we needed to determine, is it going to kill me or not kill me? We had to make that split-second decision, death or no death, eat or no eat. Is it safe or is it not safe? We had to make those binary decisions. That was hardwired into our nature. It’s why we have a fight or flight. Can I fight what’s going on or do I need to run away?
Now we live in a society where we’re safe. We have everything provided for us. We don’t necessarily have the risk of not having food and shelter. 2020 has made that questionable for a number of individuals and it’s a horrifying situation all around. Generally speaking, we’re able to expand what we are capable of doing. This has allowed individuals to explore who they are. That’s where gender is no longer black or white. It’s a grayscale. There are multiple ins to the spectrum. Even the most masculine males, I would consider my husband a fairly masculine, straightly cisgendered male. He is a huge musical fan. He loves his guilty pleasures, RuPaul’s Drag Race. He loves that show.
Those are not traditionally strong cisgender male things but it’s what he likes. There is always a spectrum of how individuals present no matter what. It comes down to we have the fundamental nature that was ingrown to us to keep us safe, to keep us alive, from when we were in a hunter-gatherer society crawling across the African plains to now, we sit in our cushy heated homes. We’re starting to venture beyond that. Some people can’t psychologically handle it, which is why they can have such a visceral reaction to something that’s different.
It’s interesting you brought up your husband because one of the things that we’ve discussed here on the show is something that throughout the course of my life, and Whitney, you asked a previous question about how I handled gender pronouns and my approach. It’s a much larger conversation. The point, Melissa, you brought up about your husband, his guilty pleasures in RuPaul’s Drag Race and being a huge music fan. For me, I remember being a young teenager, first of all, being a young man and feeling sensitive. Feeling like my capacity, even now to feel emotion is deep and broad. I feel things deeply.
I remember as a young man feeling confused about this because people would automatically assume that I was homosexual. They were like, “He must be gay.” I was called in high school a lot of homophobic slurs. It was always confusing to me because I’m like, “Are they seeing something I’m not seeing? What’s going on here?” It’s been an interesting exploration for me to examine my sexuality, my identity. What I’ve arrived at is liking what I like. I can like muscle cars, motorcycles and shooting guns and also love Broadway shows, love drag queens. Twenty-five percent of my wardrobe now is women’s clothing. It comes down to the older that I’ve gotten, I like what I like, I love what I love. Sometimes I’m not quite sure how to describe it to people. My therapist and I were working a few years ago. I came up with a term called energetically androgynous because I do identify as he/him. Inside, I like what I like. I like wearing women’s clothes sometimes. I feel good in them. I don’t know what that says about me and I’m okay with that.
Let’s go over gendered clothing, which is the stupidest concept ever. It’s stupid because who cares what we clothe our body in to present ourselves to the world. It does not matter. If we look through history, high-heeled shoes were initially created for butchers to keep blood off their shoes. Traditionally, they were made for men. Back in the early 1900s, pink was traditionally a masculine color and light blue was traditionally a feminine color and then it switched.
When do we look at the history of what is masculine, what is feminine? It changes, it flip-flops with the times and how things are felt. I hate the fact that clothing is gendered other than there are certain times that if I were to purchase a more masculine-fitted suit, it would not accommodate the fact that I have breasts. I need the darting to make sure that the suit fits appropriately to my body. There are individuals that have large chests that don’t identify as female. There is no need for us to gender our clothing, gender colors, gender unnecessary items because we’re all humans. We all have to go out into the world and we should be able to like what we want to like.
This reminds me of something else I’ve been noticing and part of my own awakening to the subject matter because it’s something I’ve had the privilege of not focusing that much on up until now. I feel like it’s part of being supportive or an ally to others who need us to speak up on these things. That’s one of the reasons I want to start clarifying my pronouns. It’s giving not permission but it’s helping other people feel more comfortable and included by using those.
Something else that I’ve noticed especially on social media is how there’s a big trend of gender reveal videos. People have these special parties and they do all of these things to reveal their child’s gender before the child is even born. Somebody pointed out how bizarre that is. It’s traditional and it sounds fun. If you step back and examine it in the context of this conversation, you realize we’re picking somebody like we’re having this child. We’re picking a name for it. We’re in a lot of ways assigning a gender or projecting a gender onto this child before they even know for themselves.
Here’s what I wish. You have to delineate the difference between sex and gender. Sex is what you are born with and what your external sex organs present as. This could be male. This could be female. This could be intersex because there are individuals that are born with both testes and ovaries, and have ambiguous genitalia and are intersex. That is your sex. I wish they would call them sex reveal parties but then, we in America cannot handle the conversation of sex and genitalia, the horrors of the penis and the vagina. They have sex reveal parties. Gender is how you see yourself. This is something that you express as you age.
My poor mother had to deal with me as a tomboy. She tried to get me a baby doll. She tried to get me Barbies and I did the same thing every single time. I’d cut their hair. I’d perform surgery. I usually blew them up, which I know not the healthiest expression of childhood but I didn’t want to play with Barbies. I wanted to go to rocket camp. I wanted to play and make model rockets. I wanted to go to photography and I wanted to do art. I wanted to express myself creatively that way. I wanted to climb trees and run in the mud. I didn’t want to look cute, pretty, do makeup and do my hair. That wasn’t me. My mom, first of all, was completely convinced that I was going to not be straight and most likely be a lesbian. It’s like, “No, I am a tomboy. I’m rough and tumble but I’m straight. I like men and that is me.” That’s okay. We don’t know what our gender is growing up. There’s going to be many times we like different things and that has to be okay.
It’s interesting to think about childhood. I go back to that, Melissa. I love that you described these assumptions that our parents might make about our gender, our preferences, who we’re attracted to. It reminds me of looking at the children of friends that I have right now. Looking at their approach to parenting and how some friends of mine particularly come to mind of looking at their adolescent boys picking up Barbie dolls or playing with the princesses from Frozen. Instead of reacting in this way that is shaming or negative or potentially confusing to them going like, “If you want to play with Barbies and the princesses from Frozen, go for it.” Deeply encouraging their magnetism toward whatever they feel drawn to.
I’m encouraged by looking at our generations and how some friends and acquaintances are raising their children in that way of like “Wear whatever color you want. Play with whatever toys you want,” and encouraging this free exploration without restriction or limitation or shaming. I hope that becomes more of the norm. I don’t want to speak for Whitney either but it sounds like, Melissa, you and I had some interesting similarities. I remember some of the male figures in my family being a little bit confused as to why I’m not engaged in more prototypical, aggressive, violent adolescent male behavior, “Why aren’t you more aggressive and violent? You’re a man.” It was like, “I don’t want to be aggressive and violent.”
It’s interesting how society has decided what’s masculine, what’s feminine, what’s okay for a masculine child to enjoy, what’s okay for a feminine child to enjoy, which is where we have such a mental health crisis with our youth. When they are forced to not do things they love. When they’re forced to not do things that they want to enjoy because little kids, 5, 6-year-olds, they have no idea. They see a toy that they want to play with. Maybe they have an older sibling. Maybe they have a sister and it’s their little brother. They see their sister playing with Barbie dolls. They look up to their older sister and they go, “My sister plays with these. I want to play with them too.”
They have no idea that they’ve now ruined the old gender stereotypes in their parents’ minds and caused utter chaos. It’s silly. The things that we as adults will apply pressurized to children and then they may feel fearful at expressing themselves or admitting who they are, which is why within the LGBTQ especially the transgendered individuals. There is an extraordinarily high rate of suicide or attempted suicide, severe anxiety and severe depression. It is astronomical how horrible it can be when they don’t have a little acceptance.
What are some ways that you have seen being useful in supporting transgendered individuals with their mental health? Are there national organizations? Are there structured support programs? What are some things you’ve observed being beneficial? As Whitney said, we’re new to having our eyes and our hearts open to this entire conversation. Mental health is one of the things that we talk a lot about here. I’m glad you brought that up, Melissa. First of all, what are some resources or programs or organizations and then what are ways as allies we can help?There is no need for us to gender clothing, colors, and other unnecessary items because we're all just humans. Click To Tweet
I’m getting the resources right now because I don’t have them off the top of my head but here’s what I’m going to tell you. There is not enough in any stretch of the imagination that is accessible. Some of the biggest issues that I’ve dealt with is trying to find an LGBTQ accepting mental health provider. I have to actively search for those that are accepting of that population. There are frankly some counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists that will not see the LGBTQ community, which horrifies me. Many times, we need to up the resources and accessibility to them and allow them to have care.
My question though is why? I had a visceral reaction to you saying that therapists, psychologists, mental health professionals will refuse to see these individuals. I don’t understand why.
Because their lifestyle goes against their religious beliefs. It breaks down to being that simple.
Another question that I have, is it possible that there wasn’t enough training up until now, and that maybe they feel too ignorant and underprepared? It’s something that I can relate to because I feel ignorant about this. It’s hard to talk about things when you don’t feel qualified. What I learned in 2020 was it’s important to speak up anyway and say that you want to learn. I’m a big believer in replacing “I don’t know” with “Let’s find out” like you’re doing right now in live time, Melissa. I love that you have that “let’s find out” mentality and you’re willing to acknowledge your ignorance. I wonder if some of the professionals in the medical community might either not have that mentality or maybe they’re not even allowed to approach certain things based on the rules and regulations. Maybe they can’t talk about something that they’re not fully trained in. They weren’t trained in it because it’s a relatively new thing being integrated.
It is a complicated situation. There are going to be times that individuals will refuse to see someone because they don’t have the training. Right now, to get training, it’s hard because there are limited resources for training, for chiropractic, in particular. I know now within the program, there is training in gender affirmation, communication with patients but it’s because I do it at our school. I also work, travel and teach continuing education to other chiropractors to make sure that they have access to this if they want it.
That’s the pickle. There are some people I’ve applied to speak at conferences and they’ve been like, “That’s a little too forward for what we’re looking for right now.” I’m going, “What? Are we a patient-centered providership? Are we?” The other thing is time. It takes time. If you have counseling, a therapy service that is already full of patients, I hate to say it but why take the time to learn something for such a small group? That makes me swim out.
Some things that are available, there is the Trans Health Consulting. This is a clinical support mental health provider resource. This helps educate providers. It is through the Gender Education Network. There is the Trans-Affirming Therapists Academy that helps train them. They’ve been around since 2015. This has only been for a few years. Transgendered individuals have been around for hundreds of years. It gets complicated and messy when you’re trying to help these individuals, and get them the care they need because there are few available.
I’m curious, Melissa, about your practice and the reason I asked this question is I’m a huge sports fan. We can probably get into that as we do tangentially here. I’m interested and I always click on articles about not just the mental health of athletes, but the reticence for athletes to come out and talk about their sexuality, talk about their gender, and this slow conversation and slow acceptance of pro-athletes talking about all of these topics. In that light, I’m curious about your work, if you have athletes and clients that confide in you or in lieu of having access to proper mental healthcare, that you are this bastion for them to talk about these kinds of things. Is that something that comes up in your practice? If so, how do you handle that when it comes up?
I’m fairly blessed with my patients and the athletes that I work with. I specifically am the team chiropractor for three different sports teams. One is Drum Corps International Marching Band, which is completely gendered inclusive and co-ed. The other is Minnesota Roller Derby, which is completely gender identity inclusive. If you identify as female, you can compete in that sport. I work with a professional women’s football team. If you identify as a female gender and meet the requirements of the league to identify as a female gender, which I believe they use the IOC requirements for a transgender female athlete to compete, you can compete in that sport.
My job is to assess my athlete, make sure they are fit and ready to play. Depending upon which sport they’re in, make sure I know the rules and regulations, and they have met the requirements for them to compete in that sport. This gets complicated because of the number of people who have this opinion, that it is unfair for a transgender female to compete as a female athlete. This makes me angrier than a hornet’s nest because when someone decides to affirm their gender identity, they have decided to transition and affirm who they are as a person.
They aren’t doing it to go out and play football. They’re doing it because it’s better than them living in the fake shell of a human that they are and committing suicide because they hate themselves so much. It has nothing to do with the sport. The sport is the bonus that they get to do, enjoy and love as the gender that they identify. That is an incredible experience to get to watch and see an athlete compete at that level. There have been instances that people say, “This is unfair.”
Having this transgender athlete is completely and totally illogically unfair to the cisgendered athletes competing. I’m sorry, here are some facts. If you’re competing as a female athlete, you’re already going to be judged and critiqued to make sure you’re female enough to compete. Most people who don’t get into high athletics know this but up until the early 2000s, athletes had to confirm their gender identity via visual inspection. Meaning they had to have enough breast tissue and they had to have the external genitalia of a female plus undergo blood work to confirm their hormone level to prove they were female enough to compete.
Think about high-level athletes. Think about CrossFit athletes. I’m sorry, do they have the traditional secondary sexual characteristics of curves and breasts? No, because their body fat level is low. There are times that athletes compete and their sport forces them to change how they appear identity-wise, and then they have to lessen what they’re doing to be able to compete. This has started to change except for one athlete. This is a South African track runner called Caster Semenya. She is female. She was born female but she has a condition where she produces excessive testosterone. Her body internally produces testosterone. She builds more muscle because that’s what testosterone does in every human on the planet. This has allowed her to compete at a high level and generally win at the 800 and 400-meter lengths in the track.
It’s gotten to the point where people have said, “That’s not fair.” It’s not fair that her body does that. Now she has to take medication or they’re trying to force her to compete in the men’s division. If Caster was a man like Michael Phelps who had a genetic condition that allowed him to not produce as much lactic acid so his muscles didn’t fatigue, she would be praised for her performance instead of punished. The only reason why female trans athletes are seen as a threat is because we can’t have women excelling at sports in any way, shape or form that has them even be close to competitive as a men’s sport.
That was enlightening and mind-blowing for many reasons so do not apologize. There’s no need to do that. It blows my mind, Melissa, for many reasons. To go back on one point, that was one of the many holy shit moments already in this show, you said that athletes used to have visually inspected. Does that mean that before they were to be signed to a team on a contract, that a team doctor would have to look at their naked body and verify them? I’ve never heard this before ever.
Gender verification assessment started back in the 1940s and ‘50s after there was assumed cheating in the 1930s by Germany and Russia. It was during World War I, World War II era. I always get my years confused. I’m not a history buff and the Olympics represented the fight in the war but in an athletic sense. There was the assumption that some of the female athletes competing weren’t females. To ensure fairness, they started doing gender verification, which started off as having to have a team doctor assess you.Let the kids identify who they want to identify as. It's going to make such a difference in having healthier humans across the board. Click To Tweet
When you went to the Olympics, you had to go through what they nicknamed the Underwear Olympics where a group of doctors had to visually assess you for your secondary sexual characteristics. It means if you are in top peak performance and had low body fat, and hadn’t developed breasts or didn’t have curves, you could be denied for not being female enough. They then went to bar body testing, which was to take blood samples and test for XX chromosome or XY chromosome. This became an issue with a Spanish pole vaulter. She tested XY because she had a condition where she had internal testes but her body did not accept testosterone.
We all start off as female in the womb. The hormones are released and the receptors in our body transform our body into the sex that we will present as. Her body did not utilize testosterone. She’s physically and externally female but she was XY. She had the medal stripped and a whole lawsuit ensued and was overturned. Medals were reinstated. It’s a nightmare. They went back to a more visual inspection and blood work testing to make sure hormone levels weren’t too high.
That’s where Caster Semenya’s testosterone is not at a male testosterone level but it is above a normal female level. She now has to take medication to lower her hormones so that she can compete. That doesn’t even go into the absolute ridiculousness of the IOC regulations, which is the International Olympic Committee regulations on female athlete competition and the level of testosterone that they are allowed to have to be competitive.
They have to have legally transitioned to female four years prior to competition, meaning they have to be living as a female. They then need to be on hormones and hormone blockers to block testosterone for at least a year prior to competition and have monthly blood draws showing that their testosterone level is less than 10 micromoles per deciliter of blood. The average female athlete is 80. They’re having to go way below the norm to get that level.
It makes them sick. They just want to do something they love and they are forcing their bodies into these horrific situations. God forbid when they win, they are eviscerated in the media for competing and being successful. A good example of this was Laurel Hubbard. She is a powerlifter out of New Zealand. She won the women’s powerlifting in 2017. Everybody accused her of cheating because she was a transgender female. It pissed off a cisgender woman who came back and beat her the following year.
When competition is raised, people step up to the level. If we keep belittling female athletes and not allowing them to achieve the highest levels, female sports will always be considered boring compared to men’s sports. That’s what people say, “I don’t like women’s basketball. It’s boring compared to the men’s because it’s not as competitive.” Are you not seeing why? You’re not allowing people to compete at the highest level against the highest competition possible. I know I’m harping over transgender female athletes and that’s because transgender male athletes aren’t seen as a threat so no one cares. They have completely no regulations, take your hormones, compete at what you want, you’re not a threat. We don’t care.
I laugh because it’s like the level of frustration as you go down this rabbit hole. Melissa, you are well-versed on this entire subject, the history and the examples of athletes being subjugated to this. My mind goes to, as someone who is an athlete specifically, who’s standing up for the rights of this entire movement. Say someone who is actively campaigning to increase the rights and the visibility and equal treatment of people in the LGBTQ+ community. You see all of these, not just hoops but things that they are requiring for you to physically change your body in order to compete in the sport you love. It begs the question to me of as an activist, does it serve one as an athlete in this position to say, “I’m going to say fuck this. I’m not going to jump through all the hoops. I’m not going to play the game” or as a stance of an activist to say, “I will jump through the hoops, even though I know if I win and I do well, you’re going to eviscerate me in the media?” It’s like you can’t win it. They set it up in a way that’s like a lose-lose.
My best friend in the whole wide world is a transgender female who plays football. I adore her. Something we talk about all the time is that if she’s successful, she’s punished, accused of cheating. If she sucks at it, no one cares and no one makes a scene. She also says this, her existence is such a visceral threat to some people that the fact that she can even walk on the field is all that matters. She is happy to play. She is happy to have access to the field, to do the sport that she loves, that she never had an opportunity to play before.
When it comes to what they care about, it comes down to what are the benefits of sport? Why do people sport? Why do people go and run every day? Mental health, the endorphin runs of getting out and being active. That is the point of the sport. That is the point of jumping through the hoops, to have that release, to have that activity of pure joy and love. That’s why I’m excited to be located in Minnesota, where we have an inclusive sport policy across the board.
At the high school level, if you identify as female, you competed as a female. It does not matter whether you have been given access to hormones, to surgery, to anything. If you identify as female, you can compete as a female with no restrictions placed on you at all. Having that style of inclusivity at the high school level is important to the mental health of growing youth, who cares is the state’s champ for that year. Here’s the thing, when you look back in high school unless your school was the state champ, do you know who the state champ was? No, no one cares. Let the kids compete, let them identify who they want to identify as, and let them be themselves. It’s going to make such a difference in having healthier humans across the board.
I’m glad that you said that because who cares mentality applies to much of our lives. One thing I’m curious because I’m not that into sports or I don’t watch athletes. I’ll occasionally watch the Olympics but it’s not something I’m super interested in, but Jason is interested in basketball. I watched baseball from time to time like the world series. I find it interesting but it’s a rare thing. I’m curious for you, Jason, as a viewer, you’re very accepting. Is there ever a moment where you have seen somebody of a different gender or identity that has impacted the way that you view sports? Dennis Rodman comes to mind for me. I remember seeing him when I was younger and being fascinated by him.
First of all, that’s my hometown. I grew up watching the Pistons. I was a huge Detroit Pistons fan, the bad boy days. Rodman, when he first got into the league, was not this flamboyant, boisterous, unique personality or at least he didn’t show it. It’s in him. I remember into the mid-‘90s, he left the Pistons and played for the Spurs and then the Bulls. He came into this embodied personality of dying his hair. From what I remember, he was one of the first NBA players to even have tattoos and have piercings. He’d be doing things that people would label as controversial or he was a misfit or whatever.
I loved Dennis Rodman because he was a person in sports that his personality, self-expression, tattoos, piercings, flamboyance, sexuality, there were things that I, as an artist and a young man, identified more than the typical alpha agro behavior of a lot of athletes. Rodman, for me, was super inspirational. I remember at that time, I was playing basketball in high school and still is my favorite sport. He stood out because he was radically himself in a sea of sameness. Rodman gets vilified a lot but for me, if I look at him in the pantheon of pro sports, he was one of the first guys that I was like, “This dude is letting his ‘freak flag fly’ and he doesn’t give a shit.” I loved that about him.
What’s interesting as you’re talking about this, Jason, I can’t immediately think of anybody else. Part of this is because I’m not that into sports but who else stands out for you in sports? Is it only him or are there other examples? The one that also comes to mind I remember in the ‘90s was a center that played for the New Jersey Nets. It was Jason Collins. He was the first professional basketball player that came out as homosexual. He was the first openly gay athlete in North America’s four major sports teams. I remember hearing that about Jason Collins and being like, “I respect this man for his courage.” I remember reading around that time when he came out of certain athletes who played for other teams saying, “There would be no way I’d share a locker room with a gay teammate.” All of the resistance, vilification and hatred he got when he came out as the first openly gay player in the major national sports teams here in North America. Jason Collins is the other one that I remember when he came out, I was like, “This guy has got much courage to do this.” He’s the other person that comes to mind.
Isn’t it interesting that you can only think of two examples? It’s not like you know every athlete out there but I’m fascinated by the fact that we can only come up with two people on the spot between you and me combined. Melissa, I imagine you know many more but that is a big curiosity for me. It’s like, “Why isn’t this more common?” Maybe it is but I feel like common is often relative to how many people even know somebody who is not cisgender or identify or however they’re showing up in their lives at that point. We don’t have that many examples. That’s part of what’s starting to shift but perhaps like what leads to ignorance in someone like myself.
When looking at professional athletes, we have a major issue in the fact that you automatically lean towards traditional male sports, agro male, football, basketball, baseball, versus when you look at female sports, there’s a large LBGTQ population within that community. I don’t know if that’s a contributing factor but they’re much more inclusive. There are many more gay female athletes that are out and publicly out than there are in the agro male because of as you said, Jason, the discomfort of being outed, the locker room, the perceived notion of what is societally acceptable.Changing a person’s pronouns can be all that they can do to affirm who they are as a person, and that’s okay. Click To Tweet
We’re talking about athletics. I think about my athletic career that didn’t go beyond college for various reasons. I remember in high school there was, I don’t know if this is apropos of anything. It’s a memory that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. One of my best friends, Mary, who lived around the block for me in Detroit, was an extraordinary basketball player. Regardless of the boys’ team, girls, she was an amazing basketball player. Since she was close and we were friends, I remember we started in high school to play one-on-one. We’d play one-on-one pickup games between us. I remember some of the other guys that I would hang out with make these offhand comments like, “You’re playing one-on-one against Mary.”
I’m like, “Have you played one-on-one against her because she can play ball?” There was this bizarre judgment of like, “You’re playing against a girl.” I’m like, “Yeah, because we have fun and it both makes us better.” I don’t care that she identifies as a woman. I care about the fact that she’s my friend and that she’s an incredible basketball player. It’s not that I don’t see her gender or what she’s chosen. I remember this thing about my guy friends giving me all this shit. I’m like, “You don’t understand. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that I love her. She’s a friend. We’re both pushing each other to be better players. Her level of skill could have easily fit on the boys’ basketball team. She was that good. Being in the ‘90s, in Detroit and the paradigm we were in, that would have probably never happened. She was that outstanding of an athlete that I wanted to play against someone who was incredible. I remember all the bullshit that I got for that and thinking how odd it was.
This gets into societal norms though. This gets into the glass ceiling, the glass cliff, the thought that, “This company has its first female CEO. This individual is the first female vice-president.” It starts going into the aspects of you can have a male do something successfully and they’re labeled the first person on the moon, the first person to do this. If a female does it, they’re the first female. Even if they are the first person to do it, they still get the moniker of the female. We are never ever separated from our gender. We’re always seen by that. This is where when someone is non-binary and they fluctuate. It can make people uncomfortable and it can make individuals struggle with how do they fit into the box that makes me happy. That’s where we as allies have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because ultimately, what they’re doing on their journey to help them survive in this world has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with what is best for them and how they need to survive.
It’s this practice you mentioned being radically uncomfortable. The name of our show begets that. We want to have these kinds of conversations that break us open in different ways and open our minds and our hearts to things we’ve never considered before. A thing that I sit with too is, as someone who identifies as male, I think about the elements of the patriarchy, about the levels of oppression, suppression and subjugation that men continue to leverage in this world out of control and fear in those things. I’ve tried to look into the heart of darkness of, why are men afraid to give up control? Why are they afraid to give up power? Why are they afraid to grant basic respect, equal rights, equal pay, and let people be as they are? I’m trying to examine the deep-rooted mentality and ethos behind all this. I don’t know that I have any answers. I’m putting this out as maybe a deeper, more macro-level question of, why the fuck are men terrified of giving up their control, their power and their influence?
When we’re able to answer that question, a lot of the nuances, issues, suppression and repression that we have going on in society will be resolved. When we have the answer to that question, a lot of the crap that happens with individuals is horrifying and harmful. If you were going to pick a population and go, “You have the highest risk of being murdered,” that would be a transgender black woman. A transgender black woman has the highest risk of being murdered simply for existing. Her existence is such a threat to this society as a whole, that she has an extraordinarily high risk of being killed for living her life. Your question, when we as a society can answer it, a lot of shit’s going to get fixed. I don’t have an answer for what the issue is. It will slowly phase-out out of time when we have individuals in government that were born in the 1940s. I don’t necessarily know how they can even relate to what the rest of society is dealing with right now.
It’s almost like in a certain way, not to sound macabre or morose but waiting for many of the individuals who are of that generation that are in places of power, whether that’s corporate or governmental, to die off and let maybe a more progressive, open-minded, liberal accepting individuals be into these places of power. It brings up also the question of generational conditioning of, we’re talking about people that might be Baby Boomers in these positions of power, versus how prejudice, ignorance, and hatred are passed down through generations. I’ve thought about this too, Melissa, you bring this up of letting them die off, the close-minded prejudice, ignorant ones, the hateful ones. Let them die off. What about the principals that say their kids or their grandchildren may have patterned after them? I’m not saying it’s an absolute corollary but my curiosity is, are we going to see progress when those individuals die off and new people assume those roles of power in our society versus how do we address hatred and prejudice being passed down as a learned behavior through generations?
Jason, I don’t know. It’s not necessarily the Baby Boomers. I know some phenomenal individuals that have learned, grown, accepting, and are part of the community. I know some twenty-somethings that if I could smack them with my shoe over the nose when they say bigoted comments, I would. It’s one of those pieces that we as a society need to step back and it is a survival thing. If we’re going to survive, we’re going to have to look beyond us as an individual and look at the macrocosm of human society and go, “What do we need to do as a collective to make this world work? How do we make sure everyone has food and shelter, everyone has access to healthcare?
How do we allow people to have the access to basic human needs to survive? When we allow that type of access to everyone, that’s when we’re going to excel and succeed as a society. That can be threatening to people in power because when you empower the impoverished, big things change, revolutions happen. It’s incredible. In particular, for the LGBTQ and the transgender population, we need to protect them, be accommodating, and allow them to live their lives in the gender that they identify as. Big things that I have found that we as allies can have some microaggressions towards them. Microaggressions are simply where we say something inadvertently that causes them mental harm. It’s not something we even realize we’re doing. One of them is preferred, saying that they’re using their preferred name or their preferred pronouns. They are not preferred.
Preferences are, do you like iced coffee or hot coffee? Do you like tea or coffee? That’s a preference. This is their gender. This is their identity. That’s not a willy-nilly concept. That is who they are. We need to start using these are their genders, this is their name, and being careful not to inadvertently deadname them. Deadname being the name that they were born with that does not fit the identity that they present with. Deadnaming can be one of the most harmful things. This can be incredibly challenging when you knew them prior to their transition to their authentic self.
Everything they do to affirm themselves is their decision. Meaning simply changing their name and changing their pronouns can be all that they have to do to affirm who they are as a person. That’s okay. It could be going as far as hormones, surgery, and completely restructuring who they are. That could be what is required for them to affirm their identity. That’s okay. We as a society need to support them in having access to whatever they need to achieve that level of self-affirmness and self-identity. It’s okay if we don’t understand, we just need to support them and do the best we can to make sure that in their transition as they get there, we use what makes them happy.
I know at the beginning, Whitney, you mentioned being uncomfortable with the use of the singular they. It’s funny when you look at the history of when was the first singular they that was utilized within the English language, it goes all the way back to middle English like the 1300s. It has always been a part of our language. When we think about it, it’s when it becomes uncomfortable because we use it subconsciously throughout our day. It could be as simple as, “The postman delivered my mail. They left a package.” We don’t know if it’s a postman or postwoman or a post person.
The fact that we even used words like the postman is part of the language.
Mail carrier is a nice neutral gender.
As long as it’s not confused with a male. I know what you mean but it’s funny how these words that we become accustomed to using, we have to step back and examine them.
The short and sweet of it is it’s a mess, the English language or any language that is gendered in some way, shape or form becomes uncomfortable. It is a learning curve. Working with a female football team and working with my linemen, my line people. I usually call them the line people because it’s easier. Other terms there isn’t like quarterback, tailback, running back, linebacker. All of those are fairly neutral but the linemen, they are my line people. On top of it, on my women’s football team, I have non-binary individuals. This was a language switch for me. I never walk up to my team and go, “Ladies, let’s circle up.” I have individuals that aren’t ladies on that team.
That reminds me too of I’m trying to get out of the habit of saying, “Hey, guys.” I’ve been saying that for much of my life. Every once in a while, somebody points that out to me and I’m like, “Yeah.” I could benefit from switching up my habits, which is what it is like saying, “Hey, ladies.”When you have the privilege of existing without fear, you need to use that to help those who can't. Click To Tweet
It’s taking those small language shifts. My football team, I go, “Hey pride, hey purple, let’s circle up players, athletes.” All of those are great nongendered terms that allow me to get them where I need them to go while making everyone feel included in the activity. That’s something simple we can do as allies are being cognizant. It’s a big one I heard with is giving a speech. Instead of saying, “Ladies and gentlemen,” say, “Distinguished guests, thank you for joining me this evening.”
That sounds much better but it requires much training. As you’ve been sharing this, Melissa, it’s enlightening and it’s such a great reminder. I’m also recognizing how much work I have to do. I hope that the readers are feeling that way too if they’re not already there. We can get defensive or we can feel like, “It’s too much work. I’m never going to change. I’m never going to be able to switch my language around. I’m always going to make mistakes.” We can get into this either defensive or defeatist mentality because it feels a little overwhelming. We also are in a time of cancel culture where it feels like if you say the wrong thing, somebody is going to call you out and bully you, cancel you, shame you publicly, which makes me nervous.
What I learned in 2020, especially when it came to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, I decided I would rather make mistakes, admit my ignorance, and acknowledge my racism that I didn’t even notice I had. I’m sure I still have it within me. It’s so much to unravel. It might even take the rest of my life just like this subject matter and noticing all of my language habits and my assumptions that I make and growing that awareness. The one thing that Jason and I keep coming back to on this show. It comes down to awareness.
You have to own when you mess up. When you own what happened, you apologize for it, you don’t try to hide behind a defense, it’s going to be much more accepting. There are going to be times you screw up. I have put my foot in my mouth many times in my process of learning. In my first experience with a transgender patient in the clinic, I had never dealt with someone who is transgender prior to that experience. They had to teach me how to care for them and understand what medications they had to be on. That’s wrong. I should not have to have my patient teach me how to care for them because I’m ignorant of what they need. As with most things, when I don’t know something, I dive down the rabbit hole and I go deep, far, fast because I don’t want to be left in a state of ignorance. I want to take the time to understand what people need and how I can care for them. I want to make sure that I’m bringing up my profession and people with me so that we have a fleet of people that can help, and not have to be trained by the patients that they’re trying to care for.
The thing that comes up for me is this idea of personhood in the sense that from a perspective of legalities, our legal system, the constitution or we go down this rabbit hole of how our government and society has been set up. The foundations of how things run, and looking at the roadblocks and the ways that institutions and systems that we have in place are still set up to benefit a narrow specific aspect of people in our society. This idea of personhood, thinking about after the slaves were freed and it wasn’t totally freed because their personhood wasn’t being acknowledged. Talking about the LGBTQ+ community and how their personhood isn’t fully recognized or acknowledged. I know I keep going back to more of these may be esoteric or deeper questions but these are the things I ruminate on. When are we collectively going to look at a human being and say, “You’re worthy of protection. You’re worthy of basic rights. You’re worthy of all of the access and support?”
As you said, Melissa, the basic needs of food, shelter, care, health, wellness, I get fired up about it. I get fired up about thinking about how systematically oppressed many people are. As someone who’s like Whitney who endeavors to be more of an activist and more of an ally, keep learning, keep being uncomfortable, keep fucking up, and keep apologizing, sometimes the totality of the oppression and the totality of like, “Things are bad.” I struggle to be optimistic sometimes. I’m curious for both of you, maybe it’s me. I tend to look at the glass may be half-empty a little too much, but I sometimes feel overwhelmed by having a lot of work to do. There are much oppression, hatred and systematic enslavement. Sometimes it’s like, “Where do we start?”
I am a glass half-full or at least the glass is full of piss type of person or something like that. It’s one of those things where I don’t know if in our lifetime, we will fully see the realization of humans being seen as worthy, no matter race, ethnicity, gender, sex orientation. We’re getting closer. We’re getting better. Things are going in the right direction. There are times where, depending upon what the government is doing, their rights are stripped. Things are taken away and they’re dehumanized. I wish I could say, “Fifteen years, we’re going to have this down. We’re going to be fine.” Humans suck that. We suck.
The idea is then how do we suck less? I sit with that all the time. Where are my blind spots? Where’s my ignorance? Where’s my prejudice? Where are my assumptions as Whitney was brilliantly detailing? If a person is at least willing to look at their bullshit, their ignorance and their blind spots and say, “I have a ton of work to do,” it’s not easy. If people were to say, “If I want to grow as a being and be a steward of equanimity and actual unconditional love, balance and peace on this planet, it does require hard work.”
It’s not like we snap our fingers. It’s like I’ve released all of my attachments, ignorance and prejudice. It’s hard work to want to be a global citizen who is truly contributing to the betterment of society, not just giving it lip service. One of the biggest things that Whitney and I were mindful of and continue to be mindful of is performative activism. That’s a big thing that came up in 2020. It’s still being talked about now. It’s this idea of a brand or a corporation or an individual or a social media influencer putting out content or messages or advertising that’s like, “We’re with you, people.” Whatever the thing was, #BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQ+.
Sometimes I wonder and I don’t know about wonder because I can feel into my body like they don’t mean it. They’re doing it to save face or present something to the world of like, “We care.” A lot of the messages I’ll receive and something in my gut is like, “I don’t think you mean it.” I’m curious for you, Melissa, this aspect of “performative activism,” how it hits you and what you have observed around that whole concept.
It comes down to grassroots. It’s not going to be a big building. It’s not going to be a big company. It’s not going to be a huge government overhaul. It’s going to be small grassroots movements that allow access, that provide human rights access, and give them what they need and then have that slowly spread. It is going to be individual to individual because that’s the only way we’re going to have influence. As we look at our elected officials, they have to be elected by the people. If they don’t represent the ideals that we want, they don’t get elected theoretically. That’s where we’ve got to start small. We need to start small changing local city governments, local state governments, and then that will influence up. If we try to go big down, it’s going to get corrupted.
Each individual person taking on that proactive allyship to the communities and to the individuals that need it. When you have the privilege of existing without fear, you will need to use that to help those who can’t. One of the most powerful things I ever saw was this speaker was talking to a group of women and it was a discussion about racism and systemic racism. All the people in the audience were like, “That doesn’t exist. We’re allies. We know what’s going on.” She looked at them and went, “I want you to change who you are as a person so that you are treated by society how the black population is treated. I want you to exist in society like how the LGBTQ+ is treated in society. Stand up if you are willing to make that change so that you are treated that way.” No one left their seat.
She went, “You’re telling me systemic racism, systemic bigotry doesn’t exist. Why aren’t you willing to switch places with them and live in society how they are treated? If you’re not comfortable entering society and existing in society as a black woman, as a black man, as a transgendered individual, as an LGBTQ+ community member, then you’re a part of the problem and we need to start shifting it. When we start looking at it that way, that’s going to force people to make shifts because it’s uncomfortable.”
I felt into that of the reticence people have to stand in someone else’s shoes given the choice. That was such a profound statement, Melissa. I would love it if you can find that video and send it to us. I would love to see that. You mentioned doing this in a grassroots, underground, one-on-one individuals working with other individuals to grow this movement and have equal rights. What’s something, an immediate takeaway in that vein of this grassroots movement working together, that if the reader wanted to say, “I feel passionate about this. My mind is opened. My heart is more open. What can I immediately do on a local level?” What would you recommend for that person or even us because I’m more inspired than I was before this show as well? What can we do on a micro, local level to start to step up and make some headway here?
I’m going to give a couple of things. One, when possible, introduce yourself to a new person, state your name, state your pronouns. Give them the allyship of understanding. You don’t care who they are. Whether you are 99.9% sure you know who their gender is, don’t make the assumption. Introduce who you are and state your pronouns. The other thing you can do is be comfortable with people in society. I know one of the biggest fears my best friend has is simply going to the restroom, walking into a women’s restroom to use the restroom. She’s terrified of being attacked.
Being accepting of individuals and being protective, if you see someone being attacked, being belittled, being harmed for who they are, step in and defend them. Even if you have no idea who they are, be the actual ally, be their straight shield so that you take that damage. They live that day in and day out. You can walk around and do your own thing. When you see someone truly being verbally abused, step in and be like, “This isn’t necessary. They’re living their life.” There are times you see it going on in malls. You see the passive aggressiveness and that’s a little thing that may be simply by providing that person, public shame, peer pressure, you shamed them for their behavior. It might make them change. It might make them second guess what they’re doing. You’ve provided protection and true allyship to the person that was being attacked.
It’s powerful takeaways, Melissa. This whole episode has been full of empowering, enlightening perspectives. I know that I feel a deeper sense of expansion and awareness. I want to thank you for coming on here with us and dropping many knowledge bombs. That’s violent, I will say flower vases full of knowledge, that’s better than bombs. I’m trying to fix my language too. It’s like I say shit. I’m like, “Don’t talk about bombs, talk about violent things.” I’m giving another example of how much work I need to do on my conscious languaging. We want to thank you.
For you, dear reader, if you want to dig into more of what Melissa is sharing with this world, she’s got a wonderful podcast, the MAC Performance Podcast. We encourage you to subscribe to the show for incredible deep enlightening, heartfelt episodes like this one we wrapped with Melissa. Melissa, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you here for many reasons. Thank you for going deep with us, for sharing your work in the world and ways that we can start to show up in more powerful and supportive ways.
Thank you for having me and allowing me to have this platform to share something I have a passion for. I appreciate you letting me get on my soapbox a little bit.
We love soapboxes here. This is such a blessing for us because like Jason said, we’ve learned so much, personally. It’s an honor to be able to share that with others and do that through us learning. That was the thing that I was reflecting a lot upon as I was listening to you, Melissa, is simply the act of listening to somebody and allowing yourself to grow, absorb information and raise your awareness. That to me is one of the best things that we can do, is to step back when we don’t understand something and educate ourselves on it.
That’s what I felt like I was doing in this episode and hearing your passion, evokes passion within me. I feel inspired as Jason said. We would love to hear from the audience on the subject matter and encourage you, the reader, to share this episode. We’re grateful when you share any episode of ours but this one in particular, I encourage you to spread around. As Melissa was talking, I was reflecting on how far we have to go and shedding our ignorance here. A lot of that is simply spreading the word in a kind and compassionate way. It’s educating our friends and our family members. It’s speaking up when we see behavior that is done in ignorance, judgment or cruelty, and letting others know that we don’t stand for that.
Simply acknowledging your pronouns whether that’s in person or online, on social media, in your bios. After this episode, I want to start doing an overhaul and go and add that to my platforms as long as that might take me. I think that’s an ongoing process. It’s learning these things, making the changes, growing our awareness, and being humble about what we know, what our past has been, and how we want to show up in the present and in the future. Thanks, Melissa. If you haven’t been to our website before, it’s Wellevatr.com. We would love to hear from you as well. There’s a comment section there. You can reach us on social media. All of that will be there for you!
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About Melissa MacDonald
Dr. Melissa MacDonald (Dr. Mac) is a graduate of Northwestern Health Sciences University where she earned her Doctor of Chiropractic. She then spent two years of specialty training in the Human Performance Center where she focused her research and clinical skills on specific testing and treatment protocols. Additionally, Dr. Mac served as the team Clinician for the Minnesota Vixen, a professional women’s football team that won the conference championship in 2018. She recently traveled to the World Championship of Rowing to provide care for the athletes in Sarasota, FL. Dr. Mac is the Chief Medical Officer for River City Rhythms a Drum Corp International Marching Band, the Team Chiropractor for MN Roller Derby, and the MN Pride. She is a speaker on sports chiropractic issues, including transgender athlete health and participation in sports, in the United States as well as abroad.
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