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The Truth About Anti-Trans* Slurs

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SUICIDE
Diane Diederich via Getty Images

When someone chooses to use words that they don't personally find offensive, that does not absolve them of responsibility for the harm that can be caused to others. If a person does not consider the effect that their words have on others, it does not lessen the pain that another person might feel.

I do have a trans* agenda: to work for a world where no trans* teenager believes suicide is a necessary response to gender nonconformity. Does the use of trans* slurs cause teens to attempt suicide? I don't know. Does it contribute to an environment that causes trans* teens to attempt suicide? Of course it does.

I have to ask myself two questions: What good will it do? And what harm could it do? If I am not making my decision through the lenses of potential good and potential harm, then my motives are self-serving. If I make my decision based solely on what is good for me, then I am just wrong.

I once had the opportunity to share about being trans with a group of seventh, eighth, and ninth graders. One of them talked about how he had said something to someone who had been using the expression "That's so gay." This young man was rightfully proud that he had called out this other person.

However, what he did not understand was that his actions and words were far more powerful than just standing up to a bully. What he did not understand was that there had undoubtedly been a silent bystander who'd seen him stand up, a person who had been quietly suffering and who was not strong enough to take a stand.

That person suddenly realized that someone else was strong enough to take a stand. They suddenly knew that there was at least someone who thought they were worth standing up for.

What we will never know is whether or not that momentary hope for a different future was the one thing that gave that person the strength to carry on, or what might have happened if the young man had not taken a stand. Was this the day that the silent bystander was trying to decide if life was worth living?

If we are looking at the use of anti-trans* slurs through the lens that says people should be strong enough to stand up for themselves, that this is just a joke and people shouldn't take it seriously, then we are casting aside those people who are not strong enough. We have chosen strength as a measure of worth. Is that not the same exact choice that is made by bullies? Have we not ourselves become bullies to the ones who are harmed by the use of words like "tranny" and "shemale"?

Do you think in the last year that no gay teenagers took their own lives because they were repeatedly referred to as "fags," that no young trans* person ended their life because someone was calling them "tranny"? Should I consider these tragedies to be unimportant? Is someone's life less valuable because they are harmed by words that we don't find personally offensive?

On more than one occasion, I have spent hours on the phone with a transgender teenager who is on the verge of suicide. I have stood in front of city councils and state legislatures and witnessed the procession of people who stand at the podium only to say that I am just a man in a dress. I have dried the tears of the people for whom those words were daggers in their souls.

We must find a way to understand the damage we do. We can't continue to throw around words that we don't find personally offensive and wash our hands of the harm they cause to someone else. If we do anything less than put an end to the use of anti-trans* slurs, then we are just bullies.

Do I personally find it offensive? No. People who use such slurs don't have that much power in my world. But if it harms even one person, if it gives rise to someone's pain, then it becomes personal. Expect me to say so.

Need help? In the U.S., visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.