THE BLOG
09/09/2016 04:11 pm ET

Learned Helplessness in Trans World Today

I was wandering the San Francisco Airport when I came across a wonderful museum-style exhibit on the Bauhaus-educated potter, Marguerite Widenhaim of Pond Farm. One of the explanation boards declared, with a quote from Ms. Widenhaim:

Pond Farm is not a "school;" it is actually a way of life, and I believe that the attraction of the session is not only that the students really learn their craft, but more than that, they also learn to concentrate and find themselves.

After completing the exhibit, charging my devices and surfing a bit, I came across the Advocate's transgender page. It's been in existence for a while, but I remember the time when the Advocate barely knew trans persons existed. That there is a section devoted to trans persons and issues is a great advance.

But as I scrolled through the stories, I noticed a disturbing trend - the themes were overwhelmingly negative, emphasizing problems within the community and generally promoting the attitude that trans persons are in pretty bad shape, both as a community and individually. This fit in too well with a recent rollout from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), to which I will return later.

I've written before about learned helplessness, the impact that one's feelings of helplessness can be reinforced like any other type of learning. People who are depressed, or have lost faith in the future, have a tendency to see everything with a negative spin. The reinforcement of the sense of helplessness drives a mind even further down, making recovery more difficult and the creation of a positive attitude less likely. It's hard to maintain hope under such conditions.

Two weeks ago I wrote about being on the negative phase of the dialectical spiral, relating a number of legal events that had temporarily halted the drive for trans equality. "Temporarily" being the operative word, which seems lost on many. Given the recent events, it wasn't surprising that the Advocate would be full of negativity, but it was striking nevertheless. Here's a list:

The trans-focused medical profession is talking about this, and has recognized its existence for years. However, the mismatch of supply and demand only recently occurred with the advent of greater insurance coverage, and it takes many years to train surgeons with such subspecialty training. I may never have thought I'd live to see this situation, but it's a good problem to have.

A Primer on Hollywood Transploitation

Matt Bomer's Transface

I've discussed this before - I'd like to see trans persons play cis ones, not trans ones. Maybe the actor who got the role is simply a better actor? And maybe we shouldn't be rushing to play the role of trans sex workers? Why are they the primary representatives of the trans community?

The Justice Department had good intentions in linking Title IX with transgender equality, but our recent judicial setback proves we need laws that unequivocally address our rights.

That was not a "judicial setback," just the normal give-and-take of the adversarial system. And, more importantly, the Obama administration didn't take a huge gamble. It had been taking this position for years, though not with any fanfare. North Carolina Governor McCrory decided to nationalize the issue, and the Administration stepped up. To have failed to do so would have been a setback; this was a huge victory.

And while it would be nice to have explicit protections, we won't be seeing them anytime soon, so we shouldn't be constantly complaining about it.

Or are we a people who make determined -- if painstakingly slow and unsteady -- progress toward realizing the high ideal of equality upon which our county was founded? What does this legal assault on vulnerable children tell us about the direction we're going?
Rebecca Robertson, Texas ACLU

The ACLU is a great ally, with leadership coming from the top in the person of James Esseks. However, it is not fair to say the progress is "painstakingly slow and unsteady," except maybe by the standards of those who are accustomed to obtaining everything they want when they want it. There is a process which has moved remarkably quickly over the past decade, which we should be praising and celebrating, because we are moving overwhelmingly in the right direction.

Again, we live in an adversarial system, and our opponents are using the same tools we are. They may be bigots, but they're not necessarily stupid bigots. They've always been there, have fought us for decades, and this is nothing new. Except that we're winning.

Not every comment about a trans person is transphobic. This certainly didn't sound like it was. We need to be less sensitive and overreactive; there are larger problems in America, such as the mainstreaming of fascism, which threatens all of us.

And to show that this isn't limited to the Advocate, there's this from out.com:

All the girls are freaking out. The doctors and pharmacists swear up and down that [pills and patches] are the exact same thing with the exact results. But everyone knows that if you go from pills to injections, that's when you really start noticing changes. Everyone more or less prefers the injectables.

Health care workers have an obligation to explain the truth and persuade their patients. This is not a crisis. And 40 mg is a huge dose, the largest there is.

And to show it's not just the media, but they're taking their approach from the national advocacy organizations, there's this from NBC Out:

I've discussed Hopkins many times. While the school administration should be clear and convincing in its dissociation from Mayer and McHugh, neither of whom works for Hopkins, it is not the authors who are claiming the association. It is the conservative fundamentalist community that is making the claim, and it is up to the LGBT media to undermine that false narrative. It is unfair for HRC to state,

There is no question that the public narrative is that this is a Hopkins study.

The Hopkins trans team today has provided quality care to hundreds of regional trans persons over the past fifteen years, care to which I can personally testify. Why not ask them to comment on the Mayer-McHugh piece?

Each one of these reports, even when based on clear facts, spins off into a world where trans persons are always the victims, are always suffering, and deserve pity, rather than liberty. Individually each is bad enough, but taken together they're enough to drive one either to despair or back into the closet.

Most disappointing to me is the new tack HRC has taken, buying into the learned hopelessness or "Woe is me; the sky is always falling" narrative. After decades of ignoring the trans community, HRC is now ignoring the remarkable progress that has been made to bring us to the point of the more inclusive definition of sex by the federal courts and federal government, as well as the full-throated support by the Department of Justice for the trans community. Even more stunning has been the awakening of the majority of Americans and major players in the business community to have sided with us since Governor McCrory signed HB2 in April.

The reality I just described cannot be sighted in the following from the HRC press secretary:

McBride noted that in contrast to what is popularly viewed as a year of tremendous acceptance and progress for transgender Americans, the stark reality is that trans people and their allies nationwide are on the defensive. "This year, in particular, trans people have experienced pretty significant and harmful political and legislative attacks."

It's popularly viewed as a year of tremendous acceptance and progress because it has been.

If you are a young trans person, or the parent of one, which interpretation would you rather hear? Which should you be hearing to help develop a sense of self confidence and self-worth?

It's still not easy being trans, and it still takes a major effort, more for some than others. But there has never been a better time in American history to be out as trans (or even closeted as trans). The popular support is amazing, and its remarkable unexpectedness should have the trans population dancing in the streets. Instead we're fed dose after dose of pessimism.

Finally, you really can't have it both ways. The public narrative that this has been a great year for trans persons is deemed to be wrong, but the public narrative that the Mayer-McHugh essay is a product of Hopkins is correct? The "public" is right about the trans community at large, and it is not the "public" that associates McHugh with Hopkins, but the right wing media and legal advocates who feel they have something to gain by lying about it.

Let's continue to welcome the public's growing support, and challenge the lies the right wing spins about us. It's not hard; the Advocate has already published Dr. Dean Hamer's rebuttal, and there will be others.

And a community allowed to "concentrate and find itself" with optimism and hope, as was taught at Pond Farm, will fare better and attain its freedom and equality sooner than one mired in despair.

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