This week I had one of those productive conversations on transgender issues with a manager as I discussed why I am trying to work with the corporate Diversity and Inclusion office on benefits for transgender employees. There were faux pas I ignored and education to be had, but in the end I had convinced her to help me make my case with D&I. She confessed that she had deliberately steered away from reading about these issues in the past, though not from squeamishness but because "both sides just seem so angry all the time."
My first instinct was to protest, but I had to check myself. I wanted to say, "We're not angry. It's the other side that's angry." However, I know that when I feel defensive, it usually means that someone is challenging a belief that needs to be reexamined, and my own spouse had said exactly the same thing several years earlier.
Sure, every day, LGBT people are bombarded with wave after wave of vitriol and accusations of the most heinous atrocities against humanity by mouthpieces of the right-wing American Family Association, Family Research Council and Liberty Counsel. Many religious leaders use us as a dog whistle to appeal to their deep-red flocks and their even deeper pocketbooks.
Transgender people get the same, only with less support from the public, where anti-trans bathroom bills have become a favorite of social conservatives. Some radical feminists gleefully side with the same social conservatives. There are prominent psychiatrists still working hard to stigmatize us with the label of "fetishist." The media pile on with gross stereotypes and sometimes even calls for us to be forcibly institutionalized. Even our own allies sometimes have to work past their own transphobia.
The trans community has its own deep internal divisions, with some individuals working hard to marginalize anyone who doesn't express their "transness" in a way they approve of.
In short, we feel beset on all sides. Our instincts are to lash out, to rail at those who wish us harm. We want to mock and insult people and organizations who demonize us. It is natural. It is human.
And that is the wrong thing to do, in both a strategic and a tactical sense.
A friend who is a leader in the trans community recently summed up her feelings about expressing anger in relation to her evolution from an activist to a leader:
I'd much rather be out kicking them in the shins, myself, but I grudgingly admit there is a time for everything. I just have to confess that I often long for the days when I was just a bitch on the Net. It is much easier to be angry than it is to be assertive but not aggressive and fight for rights through the process than tearing down the existing before building the new.
There are many barn burners. There are several bridge builders. There are not enough barn builders.
Another told me that when she first started working in a leadership position, she wanted to get the truth out there to all the really angry people, to help them calm down and see reason. After a year of fruitless effort, she came to an important realization: The angry ones, on both sides, aren't the people who matter. It is people like my manager whom we need to be making our case to. But when we look and sound angry, that is a huge turn-off for the people who might otherwise be convinced.
The current tensions with North Korea are a good example of this concept. Pyongyang threatens, rails and generally acts like a 3-year-old (with nuclear weapons) who has been told "no." Our diplomatic response has essentially been an eye-roll and, "Yeah, OK, whatever. Let us know when you're done rolling around on the floor and screaming. Then we'll talk." As long as we stay calm, we are the ones regarded as the grownups in the room by the international community.
This extends to other civil rights battles as well. Once you get past making the public aware of an issue, the people with the calm, clear messages of tolerance, equality and compassion win out over time. Certainly there were angry people within different civil rights movements; many such voices were a driving force in their early days. However, history tends have the highest regard for the effectiveness of those whose messages were the most unifying. Those leaders realized that the key wasn't merely appeals to their base but winning over those who are winnable.
Being loud, angry and scary, using hyperbole, calling names and fudging the facts only keeps your base on board. It doesn't win many converts. And it is not a winning strategy in the long run.
None of this is to say that we shouldn't point out when homophobic and transphobic individuals and groups resort to outlandish scare tactics. It is entirely possible to point out when they are saying ridiculous and foolish things without appearing angry or vitriolic ourselves. People will figure out who the grownup in the room is on their own. However, when we go tit for tat with hateful people, it reminds me of old adage by George Bernard Shaw: "I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it."
It is still sound advice a hundred years later. It behooves us to always be mindful of how we make our cases while rebutting the hysterics of those who regard us with what Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to as "naked animus."