This past week a writer in the UK, Suzanne Moore, made a crack about "Brazilian transsexuals." Transgender twitterers responded immediately, and occasionally irately. Following an increasingly nasty exchange between Ms. Moore and her Twitter followers, a friend of Ms. Moore published an intentionally offensive-as-possible rebuttal. In the end the second article was retracted, Moore left Twitter (then returned), battle lines were drawn and everyone was left angry and out of breath. The sad irony of it all was that Suzanne Moore has written supportive things about the transgender community in the past. After the vitriolic exchanges by both sides, that probably won't be happening again anytime soon. An opportunity to educate became a debacle.
This incident sums up one of the great catch-22s that the transgender community faces. In order to make any headway on transgender issues, first we have to convince others on the need, feasibility and rightness of our cause. Unfortunately, we exist in a culture that demonizes transgender people to the point where many trans women often inspire visceral reactions of disgust, and where many trans men all too often feel safer just staying invisible. This situation leaves our community disinclined to talk about our experiences. It isn't comfortable feeling like a lab rat or a sideshow attraction. Given the barrage of negative stereotypes in America about trans people, the subject can be very raw.
As a result, the trans community is often distant, even to potential allies. John Aravosis at Americablog summed up how he feels:
One of my pet peeves of working on civil rights issues is that it's awfully hard to learn about other communities, because if you ask questions, and they're not phrased the right way, boy, get ready to get an earful. And as far as I'm concerned, if someone's heart is in the right place, and they want to learn, they can ask me whatever they want about gay issues, and I'm happy to be their guide.
When LGB and straight people inquire about our experiences as transgender people, they often feel like they are stepping into a mine field: What words should I use? What questions are off-limits? What in the past is ok to ask about? So they pull back and don't engage, and as a result, they walk away hanging on to whatever preconceived notions they had before.
Frequently, though, telling our stories just plain hurts. It exposes us to ridicule and gawping and risks opening old wounds. However, the thing that is killing us, sometimes literally, is the lack of exposure to and education on transgender issues among our would-be allies, and the resultant lack of acceptance of us as people. We are left with our own no-win scenario.
Don't ask us, and we won't be offended.
Don't tell them, and we won't get hurt.
Don't ask and don't tell, and nothing changes for the better.
When I began coming out at work, it was the most mortifying thing I had ever done. I had no idea what stereotypes these people had, what they were going to do or how it would change how they saw me. I had zero control, and if they chose to use what I told them to hurt or humiliate me, I had little recourse. As I told more and more of my supervisors, my HR manager observed that I seemed more comfortable telling people.
"It's never comfortable," I replied, "but it is necessary."
Just as telling my co-workers that I am transgender was necessary to making progress in my transition, opening better dialogue with would-be allies is necessary to making progress on transgender issues. Bridging the gap requires both sides to adjust how they do things.
Non-trans people, please do a quick Google search on transgender etiquette. Take cues about willingness to talk. Keep questions above the belt. Don't ask about bedroom stuff. Really, it's gauche. Don't be defensive if someone politely corrects you on a word or phrase. Remember that at the end of the day, all that transgender people want is basic human dignity.
Members of the trans community, if you think you can, please open up. Politely let people know when they make a mistake or accidentally commit a faux pas. Try to understand that for most people, crossing gender boundaries in almost unimaginable. It is the seemingly exceptional things we do with our lives that are also the most interesting to others.
And everyone, please remember that forgiveness is divine. Mistakes will be made. How missteps should be dealt with reminds me of a quotation I had to learn as a plebe: "[He or she] should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtfulness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid blunder." An unfunny joke that bombs would fall under "error," whereas an article that uses every transgender slur possible can only be seen as malice.
An LGB colleague at OutServe Magazine recently sent me an email that summed up the real value of taking the time to have thoughtful dialogue, even when working with someone who doesn't agree with you at the start:
I will say that because of you, your community earned an advocate in me. I was very much not in favor of tackling trans equality back when we launched our first trans article, but in working with you, I learned so much. It is exactly as they say: once you take the veil off the unknown, it all looks pretty normal.
Along the way, both of us stepped in it a couple of times, but we treated these as teachable moments. As a result, both of us gained a mutual respect that made us mutual allies. We realized that we are all just people trying to live our lives and do right by our families, striving to love and be loved, taking out the trash and picking up the dry cleaning.