Monday, February 6, 2017

Trans Nation

N.B. I have been working on this article for quite some time, but a development has prompted me to finish it.  More below.

I write today about the T in LGBT.  T stands for "transgender," and while transgender persons face some of the same kinds of discrimination as homosexuals and other sexual minorities, being transgender is something altogether different from sexual orientation.  Being transgender means having a gender identity that differs from the outward manifestation of your sex--for example, identifying as male when your sex organs are female, or vice versa. (This is a simplified description; there is much more to this issue and the issues that hover closely by it.)

Gender identity has been in the news quite a lot lately.  As the concept of equal rights for homosexuals has gained popular support, that support has begun to extend to other sexual minorities, including transgender persons.  Various cities of all sizes have begun to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances that expressly protect against discrimination based on gender identity.  The reaction to these ordinances has been histrionic and predictable.

The standard reaction has been to refer to these nondiscrimination ordinances as "bathroom bills," and to attack them on the basis that they provide cover to (cisgender male) child molesters and rapists, who will gain legal access to single-sex bathrooms by dressing as females, where (presumably) they will commit rape with impunity as law enforcement officers look on, helpless and incapable of acting lest they be sued for discrimination against these predators.

Of course, this sort of thing happens so rarely that it doesn't really deserve mention.  The real goal of these bills is to punish people who step outside what has been traditionally considered normal.  In fact, virtually all of the legislation in the sexual sphere is specifically designed to punish certain classes of people--essentially, everyone who is not a binary cisgender heterosexual person.  (You might, in certain cases, add "married" to that list of adjectives.)

After the backlash against North Carolina's misguided attempt to rein in transgender acceptance, which cost Pat McCrory his job as governor, the traditionalists are focusing on a different approach--setting up laws and policies that expressly permit businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities on the basis of their religious beliefs.

As I see it, there are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this question.  One of the approaches, the authoritarian traditionalist approach, focuses on crafting laws and policies, and on conforming your behavior, speech, and attitude, to express a powerful social disapproval of anything other than married heterosexual procreative sex.  The other approach focuses instead on giving individuals the freedom to chart out their own lives and to make their own decisions when it comes to their interpersonal relationships, especially their sexual ones, and their sexual and gender identity.

As a lifelong liberal, my tendency is toward the second approach on social issues. But I will be the first to admit that I have not always hewed closely to that approach, mostly out of my own fear and ignorance.  For example, I was well into adulthood before I managed to rid myself of the fear that I would be seen by other people as gay--a fear that requires some measure of hatred toward gays, simply to operate.  It takes time and practice and courage to look inside yourself and to define your personal outlook by what's in there rather than by how other people see you.

When it comes to transgender issues, it took even longer to get to where I am.  I mean, I don't think I've ever had any active dislike of the concept, but it was a topic that escaped my understanding for a very long time.  I can remember seeing a Super Bowl ad (Ooh! It's a link! He never posts those!) for Holiday Inn in 1999, when they were touting the fact that they had spent a huge amount of money renovating their hotels.  The setting was a high school reunion.  A beautiful, glamorous woman walks in and draws the attention of every man in the gymnasium, while the voiceover recounts what she's spent on cosmetic surgery.  She approaches one man who can't quite seem to place her.  Soon he realizes who she is--"Bob?  Bob Johnson?"  The tagline is something like, "Imagine what Holiday Inns will look like after we spend a billion."  I thought it was a clever idea, and really funny--and the joke relied on at least the tacit acceptance, if not the outright approval, of the concept of gender reassignment surgery.  (Unsurprisingly, outrage forced that ad off the air, but it scored Holiday Inn a major win in publicity.)

But if you had asked me then about transgender issues back then, I probably wouldn't have had much to say about it.  My outward gender matches my inner maleness.  It's hard to conceive of wanting to change that.  For many years, it was something that I didn't understand.  It is a very human thing to fear what you don't understand.  I'm not immune to that.

Several years ago, I was in the lobby of a Baltimore hotel, waiting on a shuttle to take me to the train station.  I took notice of a woman who seemed to be waiting on a taxi.  She drew my attention primarily because her build was rather masculine--she was taller than me, and I'm 6'2", although that might have been the pumps she was wearing.  She was wearing a nice blouse and a skirt, very professional-looking, but underneath she was built like a linebacker.  And it became clear after a few seconds that she was biologically male but presenting as female.  She smiled at me, and said, "It's a beautiful day today."  She seemed very nervous.  I smiled back, weakly, and agreed.  I excused myself and stepped outside.  I'm sure that my face showed my recognition that this person was "other."  My shuttle wasn't for another 15 minutes, and I could have talked to her.

But I didn't.

Later, as I was sitting on my train to New York, I reflected on the encounter.  I felt ashamed.  This was a chance for me to test the liberal viewpoint I have always talked about, and I failed, because I was nervous and uncertain.

For all I know, this was the first time this woman had shown her true face to the world.  For all I know, she was only looking for someone to see the person she felt like inside.  For all I know, she had decided to be brave and to see what the day would bring.

And for all I know, I could've been the person who gave her what she was looking for:  acceptance of the person she is, without judgment or condemnation or fear or derision.

I don't know what makes people who are genetically male feel female, or vice versa.  I don't know what makes people feel attracted to members of the same sex, or to both sexes.  I don't even know what makes me attracted to women.  It might be genetics.  It might be the environment.  It might be a choice, or simply a choice to follow your true self.  I'm not sure it matters.

Because what I do know is that each of us is a person.  None of us is better than anyone else.  None of us is more entitled to make decisions for others' lives than they are.  No religious principle or social construct can elevate any of us over others, to give some people power over the most intimate details of others' lives.

So, if your birth certificate says you are male, but deep inside you feel female, then it's up to me to respect that.  Your status as a person entitles you to nothing less.  It may be difficult for me to understand, but I don't have to understand why you are as you are to respect you for who you are.

I chose to finish this post today for a man whom I never met.  He was a twentysomething trans man, assigned female at birth, but he knew from an early age that he was really male.  He lived a troubled life, which is understandable because being in a body that betrays your mind leaves you open to the kinds of irreconcilable mental conflicts that express themselves in other, self-destructive ways.  But he was loved by his mother and by his grandparents, and they accepted him for who he really was, even as others in his life didn't.

I never met him.  I've actually never met anyone in his life.  We are connected only loosely, through a chain of acquaintances.  I don't know what might have triggered his despair, but I can't help but think things might have been different if he'd felt a broader measure of love and acceptance.

When I learned today that he committed suicide over the weekend, I wept.

So often, we do not know the damage we cause to others.  I can imagine the course of the life of the woman I met in that hotel lobby.  I can imagine that some other person extended her the kindness that eluded me on that day.  Perhaps she found the acceptance she was looking for, and that emboldened her to live her life more openly and courageously.  But I can also imagine that my giving her the slightest indication of discomfort made her withdraw from her tentative progress.  I will never know how it turned out for her.

But I do know how it turned out for that young man.  And I wept for him, and for everyone like him, almost all of whom I will never know.  I wept because these are valuable people who have much to contribute to our society, and so many take their lives, every day of the year.  They take their lives because what they experience in the world is wrapped up in hatred and derision.

If you want to understand why I believe it is so very important for us to learn to accept transgender persons for who they are, you need look no further than the face of his devastated mother, who only wanted for her child what all good mothers want for their children:  Happiness. Fulfillment. Peace.

What kind of person will you be?  Will you be part of that hatred and derision?  Or will you be kind?

When you back laws and policies that are designed to harm transgender persons, you aren't doing anything to encourage transgender persons to "be normal."  You aren't showing respect for "traditional values."  It costs you nothing to be kind, so you save nothing by being unkind.  You're just causing damage you will never see.

It doesn't have to be this way.  But it will take some courage.