A few weeks ago, Donald Trump announced to the world that transgender troops would not be welcome in the United States military (CNN Politics). After some initial pushback from military leaders, Trump signed a directive that began the process of blocking transgender persons from joining the military, and removing those transgender soldiers that are already there. My immediate reaction was that of disgust and heartbreak. Disgust that a sitting President would engage in such dehumanizing rhetoric about American citizens that currently are putting, or are willing to put, their lives on the line to defend our country (this is in stark contrast to Trump’s position that protesting racially-motivated police brutality during the singing of the National Anthem is just too disrespectful to bear, but that’s another story for another time). Heartbreak over the effect that kind of hate speech – and make no bones about it, it is hate speech plain and simple – has on transgender Americans and the people who care about them.
In my own daily life, it seems like the biggest adjustment I have had trouble with is getting pronouns correct. When talking about friends even, people for whom I should know better, I’ll occasionally use the wrong pronoun. I usually notice it immediately, but I still feel horrible about it. I feel like I have betrayed a friend. They aren’t asking a lot of me, just to change some of the sounds I use when I speak of them, but I stumble even doing that.
It does seem like such a small thing to ask, doesn’t it? It’s just a word, just a name. I remember back when another friend, Logan, had publicly shared his transition (Logan’s name is used here with his permission). I joked with Logan about how I would probably call him some sort of mash-up of his birth name and his newly self-chosen name. To give you an idea what I mean, every once in a while someone will call me St-cott, they start to call me Steve (my brother’s name) and then switch midstream when they realize they are using the wrong name. It was something like that. (I had originally intended to include in this post the actual name mashup for Logan, but after reading this article (popsugar.com) on how some transgender people view the public disclosure of their transition as a signal they are leaving negative associations behind, and prefer to leave it that way, I opted against it.) As it turns out, I never had a problem with Logan’s name. It doesn’t hurt that Logan is also the name of the comic book hero known as Wolverine. If you know Logan at all, you know that is a very appropriate comparison! I’ve never really had a problem with anyone changing their name, for any reason. Sure, maybe I’ll say the wrong name a couple of times, then maybe catch myself a few times before actually saying the wrong name, but after that it’s a pretty easy change to handle.
Names, are one thing, but pronouns are another. For some reason, I have a much more difficult time adjusting to the correct pronouns. I would’ve thought it was the other way around. Names are very specific, applying to a unique individual, but pronouns, by their very nature, are much more generic and apply to many people at once. But even to this day, even for people I’ve known for a long time under their correct gender, I still have difficulty using the correct associations. And that’s the difference right there: associations. I’m certainly no expert, but I know enough about human psychology to know that our memory is highly associative. In other words, we remember things by associating them with other existing concepts. That’s why whenever I hear the word “gallows” I hear the band Styx in my head (you know what I’m talking about!). That’s why whenever I say the word “reciprocal” (a math term) I feel compelled to make a flip-flop motion with my hands. Those associations can be very deeply embedded and stubborn. Names are superficial, they don’t really tell you anything about a person. But there are many social implications, whether they are warranted or not, related to gender roles and gender-based pronouns. We learn those associations from a very early age, and they are reinforced almost daily. They’ve been around for hundreds of thousands of years, if not more, as our early ancestors developed the social habits and expectations that eventually developed into our modern world-wide societies. Re-wiring our brains at such a fundamental level takes time, persistence, and patience.
Speaking of early humanoid development, let’s go back to Trump for a bit (did I say that?!). It was so devastating to see the President of the United States take such a regressive stance. And now we have others like the US Attorney General (CNN Politics) and the Pope (PinkNews.co.uk) getting in on the bigotry, and opening the door for further dehumanizing discrimination. Our society has been making slow, but promising, progress on so many fronts lately. We were beginning to overcome some of our instinctual prejudices and see other people as people, seeing them as us. Another holdover from our clannish history is our tendency to distrust or even hate “the other”. So any progress in this area is a good thing, and any regress is a bad thing. It is heartbreaking to think about the pain and anguish that some people must endure in their lives. These people that are friends, family, coworkers, fellow citizens.
So what can I do about it? The problem-solver in me knows that the best first step is to try to gain a full understanding of the issue. Starting from a place of knowledge leads to the most effective solutions. So I tried to see the world from the point of view of a transgender person, but that can be very challenging. I am a straight person, but I can somewhat relate to a gay person because I at least know what it is like to love someone, or to be attracted to someone. I am a white person, but I can somewhat relate to someone of a minority race because I at least know what it is like to be part of a racial group (I even have a little experience being a racial minority in my community, though obviously the experience is very unlike the experience of non-white races in America). There are some oppressed groups I find easier to empathize with, simply because I have at least had somewhat parallel experiences to go on. I have certainly not experienced the type and degree of bigotry that those groups have, but I feel I at least have a shred of an idea of how that bigotry manifests. Yes, of course, I do have a gender identity. I get that. But, from what I understand, it’s not that transgender people don’t know their own identity, they see themselves as clearly and consistently as anyone else. It’s that society is just as consistently telling them otherwise. They are being told that what they can see as plain as day is actually wrong. That must take a huge psychological toll on someone, like a constant weight on their shoulders.
I wonder if my reflections on pronouns can give me even the tiniest clue what it must be like for a large segment of society to tell me that I must be a person other than who I clearly am. There are certainly differences, in nature and magnitude, but there is some similarity to be found there. I am being asked to change my thinking and mental associations related to a small number of individuals. That’s a fair expectation and, as I said before, is not really asking much. On the other hand, transgender people can be subject to terrible, and unfair, pressure to radically change their own thinking about their own identity. What could be more foundational than one’s own identity? It’s really no wonder that things like depression and suicide affect the transgender community in such large numbers. Is my experience similar? Well, no. Can it give me any insight into the life experiences of others? Maybe, maybe not, I honestly don’t know.
What it boils down to is that the most important part of “transgender person” is the “person” part. And if you start from that point, it is easy to recognize that they deserve the same rights and respect as any other person. They just want to live their lives, just like anyone else. They just want to be true to themselves, just like anyone else. They just want to love and to be loved, just like anyone else. I may not have a complete understanding of their experience, and that’s okay, but I certainly know what it is like to be a person that is just trying to get along in this world, and I think that is all the connection that is needed.
So how can I be a good friend to the transgender people I know? Well, I can start with simply being a friend. I do have experience with that. I certainly know what that’s like. I can let them know that they matter to me, and that they can count on me for support. I can stand up for them, even when others don’t. And if taking on the challenge of adjusting my own perspective helps them feel more like a respected part of this society, well that’s the least I can do.
Note: Normally with these blog posts, I like to include a link to a related book from my own bookshelf, both as a “for further reading” suggestion and to give a peek into where I am coming from. When I started writing this, I realized that the closest I had to a book about the transgender experience was a science fiction book whose main character happened to be transgender. The author of that book is not a friend to the LGBT community, so I decided it would not be appropriate to recommend their book with this post. Fortunately, my friend Logan was able to recommend the book “Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue”, by Nicholas M. Teich. I have found this book to be very accessible and informative, and happily recommend it here. For a quick read, I would also recommend “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People”, by Alex Kapitan. Interestingly, these two authors don’t agree on every point. But that is not surprising, considering there is diversity within any group of people, and just goes to show that there is no one “correct” perspective here. It’s more about caring and respect than it is about saying the exact “correct” words.
Note: A couple of days ago, a federal judge blocked Trump’s transgender military ban (CNN Politics). Maybe there’s hope for us yet!