05/07/2013 12:06 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Responsibility and Liberty

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When I was a plebe at the Naval Academy, my first history professor insisted on teaching the evolution of philosophy up through the American Revolution. I never actually thought that things like Kant's categorical imperative or the utilitarian theory of ethics would have any practical applications.

Recently I asked a number of transgender and cisgender friends the following: Given a situation in which a transgender person does something that gains negative attention, how would you view this? Would you apply the categorical imperative, which values an individual's right to determine what is right for oneself above all else, or would you apply a more utilitarian view that the ethical thing to do is the thing that maximizes the common good, even if the action is at the expense of self-interest? In other words, if someone does something that may reflect badly on the community, is their personal freedom of expression more important than expectations to conform at some level?

Both opinions are right.

Transgender people are viewed negatively by many people and organizations. The transgender community is demonized by religious organizations, by the military, by people on the left and right and even by other trans people. The local media even piled on recently by victim-blaming a murdered transgender woman. The last thing we need to do as a group is work even harder at tearing down our own. There are plenty of people outside the transgender community doing it already.

At the same time, we are losing ground in many red states. Legislation aimed at preventing transgender people from having legal recourse when they face discrimination in all facets of life is spreading through states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. Whenever a transgender person gains attention in a bad way, the hole we're in as a group gets even deeper.

Having people in your community who make you wince is nothing new to any group. One lesbian friend of mine bemoaned the obnoxious behavior at many LGB events. "I think it makes us look like sex fiends who can't act right in public. I don't take my kids to pride events because of that. Most big-city prides are not family events at all. It is sad, like we gave up on the idea we could have a family."

Another gay friend cringed when describing the litany of public behaviors he has witnessed that personally embarrass him as a professional gay man: questionable taste in clothing that emphasizes sex, promoting drug abuse, not keeping sex lives private, being a "total queen" in public, attacking all religions and religious people with emotional arguments. The list went on and on.

Still, there is one crucial difference between the LGB and transgender communities when it comes to public exposure. Americans increasingly know more than one LGB person. Additionally, there are plenty of very well-liked LGB people in American popular culture. Ellen DeGeneres and George Takei come to mind. So when a member of the public sees or hears about an LGB person behaving badly, their perception of the entire LGB community will not be based on that one individual.

However, when a member of the public interacts with an openly transgender person, it is possible, if not probable, that this is the first time they have ever knowingly met one. Almost everything this member of the public will know about the transgender community going forward will come from this single interaction. With you. There aren't any Ellens or Georges for the transgender community to fall back on. John Q. Public doesn't have a transgender friend at work whom he has lunch with sometimes. You're it, the alpha and the omega of their transgender interactions and impressions.

You're the ambassador for all of us. If you blow it, this will be the impression that others carry forward until they have enough positive interactions with transgender people to overcome their negative first impression. Given our lack of visibility and our rarity, changing a negative opinion is unlikely. This adverse impression is also an experience that they will share with others.

A professor at the Naval War College once told me that according to information operations theory, word of negative interactions reaches roughly 12 times as many ears as news regarding positive interactions. This was in reference to our operations with the local populace in the Middle East, but the analogy holds true here as well. When one of us generates negative publicity with an audience that is already suspicious at best, word travels far and fast. It then becomes increasingly difficult to change the conventional wisdom.

This is the usual double standard. Women, people of color and LGB people have had to deal with having to be twice as good as the next person for generations. However, it does not change the reality that in this era of social and data interconnectivity, what one of us does has the potential to affect all of us.

So how do we as a community handle this paradox between, on the one hand, trying not to pile onto other people and respecting personal freedom and, on the other, avoiding negative attention? Two bits of classic leadership advice seem appropriate.

The first is an adaptation of Ronald Reagan's "Eleventh Commandment": Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow transgender person. Tearing each other to ribbons in public forums doesn't get us ahead.

The second is simple: Praise in public; criticize in private. This is not to say that you shouldn't try to stop someone from making a huge mistake. And by "huge mistake" I mean "stuff that will get you arrested." When mistakes are made, usually you do not need to tell the person what went wrong, because half the world seems to be pointing it out already. Only discuss behavior, not the person, with others and why it is damaging.

In the end we are all ambassadors, and as such, the burden of leadership and personal responsibility is spread across the community. We are our brother's and our sister's keepers, both in how we present ourselves and how we help lead others to do so as well.