I’m not angry with Gabourey Sidibe. I’m grateful to her.
For those who may have missed the story, the actress was criticized by many (myself included) for her use of the word “tranny” and, more importantly, for making jokes about the treatment of people who are transgender and the violence they face.
After the story was published, Ms. Sidibe quickly took the time to express her remorse for the poor word choice, as well as willingness to acknowledge the impact of that choice. She then quickly clarified that she didn’t intend to make light of a terrible situation. And for all of this, I applaud her.
As the Director of Equality & Diversity Partnerships at PFLAG National -- the organization whose very DNA dictates that becoming a supportive ally is a learning process, not an overnight transformation -- I know that this is precisely how authentic change happens. Ms. Sidibe doesn’t appear to be transphobic; she’s someone who simply didn’t realize the hurt that came with the way she was telling a story. I would argue that her response makes her quite the ally, and I believe she will continue to educate herself on the issues.
So why am I grateful to Ms. Sidibe? Because in highlighting her language in the press, a spotlight was focused on the lack of inclusion that still exists within the LGBT community, lighting up the dark and dirty nooks and crannies that still need sweeping out. And I’m angry and disappointed to know how much work there still is to be done within our own ranks.
As I read through the feedback on the HuffPo article this weekend, as well as the comments on the PFLAG National Facebook page, I saw hundreds of self-identified LGB people who were shockingly fast to post a steady stream of: “Get over it, this is just a word,” “I have tranny friends and they’re fine with it,” “We use that word at gay bars all the time,” and “Don’t we have more important things to take on than this?” comments. (And those are just the themes I’m comfortable repeating.)
Now, most of us know that when someone uses the word “faggot” or “dyke” or “queer -- even if that is how we self-identify -- there are people who will immediately speak up and say that language is unacceptable when uninvited. In fact, when someone does use those words (or worse), our social media feeds will light up like Christmas trees, calling it out, defending us. It happens in our day-to-day lives, it happens in the media (Alec Baldwin and his use of the word, “c*cksucker,” anyone?). It happens here in our country, it happens all over the world, which is why more and more people have become educated on the issue. Words matter.
So how is it any different with the word "tranny"? Because our friends at gay bars use it? That doesn’t mean they should. Because we have transgender friends who self-identify that way? Then they can use that word. They’ve earned the right to reclaim it in their self-identification process, as many of us have with the term “queer.” That doesn’t then open the door for everyone else to use it.
I wish I could explain why this issue is so personal to me. Perhaps it’s because of the number of times I have heard transgender people say, “I’m not supposed to be alive,” as they talked about the extreme violence, rejection, discrimination and isolation they have experienced. I’ve read the statistics on discrimination that people who are trans face in nearly every facet of their lives. The numbers may not be identical to the LGB community, but most of us can relate to those experiences. And nearly all of us in the LGB community can relate to what it means to be an outsider judged based only on one part of ourselves, not as the people we are. In these experiences, and in our desire and work to change such trends, we must stand together. But to do that, we truly need to be allies in both words and actions, acknowledging that respect and equality means respect and equality for all, not just us.
I am cisgender and identify as gay. These are not things that I chose. But I do choose to be an ally to my trans friends and colleagues because I want everyone I know to be treated as they want to be treated. I am a trans ally because these statistics horrify me. I am a trans ally because I know what a critical role allies have played in my life, and I want to be able to pay this gift back to someone who may need a friend and know that they are never alone.
I have not always been a perfect trans ally. I’ve messed up language (and still do, even today, arguing over the use of trans vs. trans*). I haven’t always stood on the right side of some issues. I’m not proud of that, but I’m learning, and I’m deeply grateful to my trans friends who have supported my journey and created a space for me to learn and to ask potentially uncomfortable or difficult questions. They have made my understanding of what it means to be an activist, an ally—and hopefully a better person—real, and have contributed more to who I am today than I think I will ever be able to do for them, but I’ll keep trying.
It is because I’m trying that I will say this: We must do better.
One’s singular experience—or lack thereof—with a person who is transgender does not give them the right to minimize that person’s challenges, or those of a whole community. It does not give them the privilege to decide what they get to call that person, any more than someone who is straight-identified gets to decide what word to call us. I believe that we have a responsibility to identify the source of discrimination against us all—and that source is that something about us is different than it “should” be—and seek to understand more. I believe we have a responsibility to practice the platinum rule, which is that we treat others as they ask to be treated. In other words, before defending the blanket license to use a term that many, many people consider offensive, stop and ask what an individual uses themselves and what they’d want used by others.
And before expressing horror that we are “wasting our time debating a word,” remember that this isn’t just about a word. This is about equality for everyone. Equality isn’t a zero-sum game: I am not going to lose ground on gaining my rights as a gay person because I spend time focusing on the abject lack of respect for my trans loved ones. But we all lose ground when we become part of the problem, minimizing the challenges of one part of our community so we can remain comfortable in our own lack of knowledge.
I’m sure that this post will cause many to let me know (in very colorful language) that I need to lighten up and focus on what really matters. But to me, if we as a community cannot muster respect and understanding for our own, how will we ever continue to move the needle forward with everyone else? We’ve made tremendous progress, and of that I’m proud. But the past few days have taught me that we have a very, very long way to go. I’m committed to doing that work, and I’d love to see a few more people join me on the journey.
I hope to see you on the way.