On March 5th, each Wellesley College student and alumna received an e-mail announcing the school's modified acceptance policy, which now includes transgender women. Halfway through my final semester at Wellesley, I viewed the news as unimportant in comparison to more pressing matters such as finding a job and the perfect outfit for a weekend's semi-formal. Unlike my classmates who rejoiced in the administration's progressive decision, my reaction was one of indifference to a policy change that simply didn't affect me.
But Wellesley isn't the only place where the transgender community has been gaining attention. Diane Sawyer's recent television interview with Caitlyn Jenner dismantled the larger-than-life image of the man the world knew as "the world's greatest athlete" who won the 1976 Olympic decathlon, appeared in the coveted spot on the Wheaties cereal box, and filled the role of patriarch of the infamous Kardashian clan. The two-hour interview exposed the inner turmoil caused by gender dysphoria that Jenner hid for decades. Had the 20/20 Caitlyn Jenner episode come out only a few weeks earlier, I would have responded to it like I felt toward Wellesley's policy announcement: apathetic.
But, thanks to a truly exceptional teenage girl named Ella, that was not the case.
Growing up in a conservative family in Maine, I rarely felt the need to interact with or understand those different from myself -- whether in race, religion, culture etc. The result was that learning to be accepting or tolerant was never prioritized. As I grew up and began to realize the outside world was not just a larger version of my lovely yet homogenous town of Kennebunk, I discovered that my inflexible perception of what was right and normal wasn't necessarily held by all of my peers. Over the years, I've managed to peacefully coexist with the more liberally minded majority, but have always struggled to reconcile my very narrow conception of what it means to live a good and moral life with other more relaxed lifestyles.
Recently, I had to face my personal conflict with accepting difference head on. This came in the form of a guest lecturer to one of my final college classes, Dr. Norman Spack, a pediatric endocrinologist at Boston Children's hospital -- who was featured in Sawyer's interview of Caitlyn Jenner -- and 15 year old Ella, one of Spack's transgender, male-to-female patients. Spack spoke to the class about his work with transgender youth to delay puberty, and brought Ella to talk to us about her experience transitioning to the young woman she is today.
Despite all of the scientific and technical information Dr. Spack provided about gender dysphoria and how it affects individuals, if it had not been for Ella, I would have left that class with an unaltered view of the transgender community. Because this community was beyond the scope of what I deemed normal, it was of no significance to me. But as Ella told us about her interest of fashion, and talked about the move from elementary school as a boy to her middle school as a girl, I began to realize that, when stripped of our differences, Ella and I are very much the same.
By that, I mean that we are both human. And though I can never truly understand her, just interacting with her in this seminar setting, I was able to relate to her on a human level.
What I learned from Ella was that to accept someone does not require one to fully comprehend why she is the way she is. And perhaps that was the most valuable lesson of all. In a world where people like Dr. Spack, Ella, and the elegant Caitlyn Jenner are forcing the rest of us to recognize a group of people whose voices we may not have even thought about listening to before, it is inevitable that I will interact even more frequently with individuals whose lives don't fit into my personal ideological framework. What these three have shown me -- and hopefully have taught others -- is that if we can view and relate to each other as just humans, then, whether or not we agree with or understand how others live their own lives, we will be able to respect each other and simply live and let live.