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Tuesday 28 February 2017
How I Came to Change My Mind about Trans People

Filed under queers

This is a post inspired in part by Frank Bruni’s “Two Consonants Walk Into a Bar” from Sunday’s NY Times, which itself cites John Aravosis’s “How did the T get in LGBT?” which I’ll refer to below.

I.
In 2007, I was freshly out and Congress was considering whether to add gender identity to the list of categories protected under the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. I was against it. Mostly, if I recall, because I read and was convinced by Aravosis’s argument: what do we gay and bisexual people have in common with trans people, when our identity is formed by sexual orientation and theirs is formed by gender? These are different, but for some reason we’ve been lumped into the same dumb acronym together. Trans people, I felt, were hopping onto our fight, and if they wanted the same rights we were about to get, they needed to fight their own fight for them.

These were ideas I carried around for nearly a decade. We weren’t comrades, us gays and them trans folk. All we had in common was that we weren’t cis-straight people.

II.
The other night, we had friends over to watch the Oscars, and a strange thing happened. It’s not the strange thing everyone’s talking about, the strange thing at the end where the wrong movie was named Best Picture. The one I’m talking about happened about halfway through.[1] Host Jimmy Kimmel had a bit where he led unsuspecting tourists through the room (they thought they were going to tour a studio or something). Everyone had a phone out. Celebs were kind of enough to take selfies. Kimmel made Aniston give her sunglasses away. Etc. He asked one woman her name, and she said “Yulree. It rhymes with ‘jewelry’.” Kimmel scoffed at this, and when he met her husband Patrick, he said, “That’s a name.”

El, my friend who just came out as trans last month,[2] was livid at how blatantly Kimmel shamed Yulree for her difference. Our friend, Andy, objected that it had less to do with her ethnicity and more to do with having a strange name, as his white sister does. Furthermore, he felt that overall the left had to calm down these days with the “political correctness.” It led, usefully, to an argument.

My contribution: “political correctness” is itself a conservative idea. We leftists ought to call it what it really is: egalitarianism. Or courtesy. Sympathy. Egalitarianism, though, is too hard a word to soundbyte. “Political correctness” as a term takes one good thing and turns it into what are for a large number of people on Both Sides Of The Aisle two bad things: politics and correcting others.

When we see the act of granting others equal treatment as “being politically correct” we turn empathy into a kind of test to fail. (This is why “check your privilege” is such a lousy clarion call, turning egalitarianism into a shaming competition.) Complaining about “political correctness” means complaining about giving people equal treatment in our discourse. It means we ought not call people what they ask to be called but what we choose to call them. And once you decide not to grant people equal treatment in our discourse, it’s easy not to grant them equal treatment in the workplace or the courtroom.

“Political correctness” favors having an opinion over having an imagination, and how I came to change my mind about trans people was that I stopped having an opinion and started having an imagination.

III.
It happened, in all places, at a writers’ conference. I met a trans person for the first time. In fact, I met two. I had admittedly probing, personal, othering questions they were patient in answering. But the big shift in my thinking happened while sharing a cigarette with my friend, Clutch, after one of the keynote speeches. The conference overall had been short on new ideas. A lot of old dead writers trotted out as models. Clutch blamed this on the utter whiteness of the panelists and attendees and speakers. “Wait a second,” I said. “It’s not like the only new ideas are about race or gender.” That wasn’t their point, they said. Their point was that diversity isn’t just a feelgood move of including people for its own sake. Diversity is what’s needed for the airing and dissemination of new ideas. When everyone in the room looks the same and comes from the same background, you end up with a lot of reminiscing and endorsing old ideas that have worked only for the people in the room.

Trans people, I saw, weren’t different from me so much as different like me. It took me much longer than it should have, but that was the night the LGBT(QIAA) acronym looked small for the first time. Suddenly, I wanted more of us in the room together.

IV.
One debate happening right now is over letting more people into bathrooms together. The president doesn’t want trans people in bathrooms with cis people. I try to imagine where this idea comes from, this fear, or maybe it’s just a concern. It’s easy to see it as coming from transphobia, because we’ve been given no evidence to the contrary. It comes from a fear of change, I imagine. A fear of lost ways. What is a bathroom but a place where for so long men and women have retreated from each other? Maybe retreating from one another is the old way we ought to lose, and all bathrooms should become like the egalitarian shared one on Ally McBeal. There are few things more egalitarian than the human body we all live with; maybe when men hear the sounds of women shitting they might realize they deserve equal pay.

Pissing wherever you want to is a freedom.[3] And people with freedoms others don’t have are historically grumpy about sharing. If you have uneasiness about a trans person sitting in the stall next to yours, that’s understandable, because new things make many of us uneasy. But imagine being a trans person. Use your imagination. If that itself is difficult, then talk to a trans person. Ask them what they need and why. Whatever opinion you’re holding onto will change, and I promise you’ll be better for it.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. You’ll find a great summary and commentary on the weirdness of this bit here. In short: despite everyone’s phone, the bit was a Vonnegutian nightmare, turning us middle-class people into zoo animals some untouchable alien elite got to gawk at. Or, here:

    Hollywood has never prided itself on being in touch with the working class, even when the movies were sometimes about poverty. Hollywood was always supposed to be a thing people wanted. The money, the fame, the power: The Oscars are where we got to see the people from the movies, playing characters based on themselves. We’re supposed to want to be them, or have sex with them. So when a smart writer like John Robb tweets that the ceremony was an “amazing example of ultra-orthodox cultural neoliberalism” that was “pure jet fuel for #trumpism?” I think he’s saying that to the millions of people who voted against the pop-cultural elite alliances they saw in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Oscars aren’t aspirational. They’re an insult.

  2. El, for what it’s worth, is not only the first trans member of the San Francisco Symphony, but the first trans person to ever play for a major orchestra in the world.
  3. I’m thinking here of Taraji P. Henson’s character hoofing it across the NASA campus in Hidden Figures just to pee at the one bathroom designated for “colored women”.

2017-02-28  ::  dave

Talkback

  1. Seth Madej
    1 March 2017 @ 7:51am

    Since you mention calling people what they prefer to be called rather than what one wishes to call them, I’ll point out that “cis” is a label put onto the gender-conforming community by others and doesn’t meet the test of egalitarianism. Even though “cis” is taken from the prefix of the somewhat scientific term “cisgender,” calling someone “cis” is no more appropriate than calling someone a “homo.”

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