As a white, leftist genderqueer, I’ve found that the response from some of my non-transgender pals to Chelsea Manning’s coming out has been painful. Some of the very people I expected to be supportive of Manning lack a basic education in trans (or trans*, if you prefer) issues, and I see no excuse for this – in my opinion, it’s willful ignorance.
I’ve not encountered over-the-top, horrendous transphobia; I don’t travel in circles where I have to deal with that kind of assault. This is typically subtle stuff from good white lefties, people who mean well but simply don’t take the time to learn what they need to live in 2013. Most of them are older – over 50 – and, to be blunt, don’t have enough contact with young people who are growing up in a world in which being gay, lesbian, or bi is no big deal, and gender differences are becoming more and more accepted and understood.
I’ll give a few face-to-face examples from very recent conversations with friends, as clearly the ignorant drivel from web trolls isn’t worth bothering with (yes, I must stop breaking my “never read the online comments” rule). First, some people can’t stop calling Chelsea Manning by her given male name, “Bradley.” It’s an honest mistake, especially coming from those who followed the whistle-blowing and court case closely for three years and had come to think of Manning as a sort of son, a small, gay man who needed protection from the military forces of the world’s most powerful empire. (Two of my friends, both women old enough to be Chelsea’s mother, took part in the support demonstrations outside the trial.) I get this, and I also understand that it takes time to get used to a person’s gender change, especially if one hasn’t been aware that it’s in the works, so to speak, before the public announcement.
What bothers me is when people don’t seem to take a trans person’s identity seriously. A couple of nights ago I went out for beer and nachos with a group of friends and acquaintances after a political film event, and when I heard someone say “Bradley Manning,” I responded, “That’s ‘Chelsea’.” A lesbian friend (who was, by the way, not intoxicated) tossed a balled-up paper napkin down the table at me and said something like, “Oh, you’re always so politically correct!” She was “kidding.” I wasn’t amused. Even putting aside that she knows nothing about my own genderqueer feelings, she might remember that I spent seven years in a relationship with a genderqueer person. But she doesn’t.
I can stand even that memory lapse. What I can’t live with is that these progressives haven’t educated themselves about transgender anything, and when someone attempts to teach them, they can’t seem to retain the information for five minutes. My friend told me that a local trans activist had attended a public political meeting last week, when I was away on vacation, and had shared helpful information about Chelsea Manning and transgender identity and issues. I was glad to hear this, I thanked my friend for telling me – and then she proceeded to refer to the activist, a trans man, using female pronouns.
I can hear readers out there thinking, “Ah, don’t sweat the small stuff.” The problem is, it’s not small. I’ve lived through this before: it feels just like heterosexual leftists’ responses when we bisexuals, gay men, and lesbians said to them back in the 1980s, “Hey, you’re being homophobic; we need to talk!” But now, some of the people dissing and ignoring trans people are lesbian and gay – the very people who spent countless hours on what used to be called consciousness raising with their straight friends and political compañer@s are now committing the same “microaggressions.” What I hear and feel when my left friends don’t bother to get the pronouns right and learn more about trans people: “Your life and the lives of your transgender friends don’t matter to me.”
Now, as then, it isn’t blatant – no one is being called slurs; liberals and progressives aren’t physically assaulting trans people. The discrimination’s subtle, but it feels dismissive and terrible. When people I love continue to refer to Manning as “Bradley” and “he,” it feels like a slap in the face. It doesn’t matter that many don’t know I’m genderqueer – they shouldn’t be doing this in front of anyone.
I understand that everyone’s time is limited, and that we have to choose our struggles. But if my friends and “comrades” could take the time in the first place to support Chelsea Manning in her whistle-blowing, if they could read articles about the case, sign online petitions, send email messages, make signs, go to demonstrations – even, in the case of the two aforementioned friends, travel to the trial to support Manning – then why can’t they spare some hours to read some articles online, read a good transgender memoir, and listen to some trans speakers? Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.
How to get up to speed and stop being offensive? Here are a few suggestions, with links at the end to get everyone started.
Read: It’s the era of the world wide web; any of us in my middle-class political and social circles can use a search engine to find Trans 101 information within minutes. Even our 93-year-old activist friend owns a computer and uses email to do political organizing.
Ask and listen: We live in an area with several community colleges, the main state university campus, and at least five elite private colleges, most of which have made great strides in the last 15 years to diversify their student populations. Trans and non-trans students at most of these schools have spent a huge amount of time and effort educating themselves and their administrations to make sure trans students have an inclusive and safe place on campus. Ask the students you meet about this work (and if you’re not meeting any students, you need to get out more.)
Get the pronouns right: Part of the asking and listening is finding out what a trans person’s preferred pronouns are and using them. The vast majority of trans people I know and have met make it easy – their preferred pronouns are she/her, he/his, or they/theirs. It sets my teeth on edge when a cisgender person keeps mucking up the pronouns. It’s not that tough, especially if this is someone you’ve just met (because you don’t have to break the habit of referring to someone by old pronouns).
Attend and participate: Trans folks and their allies from these colleges/ university work with the non-campus trans communities to organize several public events in our town every year. The annual lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Pride Parade, while hardly an event the size of Boston’s or New York City’s, is enormous for our little city of 30,000, and heterosexual allies never hesitate to show up to support and participate. But attendance at the few Transgender Pride parades and rallies has been minimal. Anyone’s participation in the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in November and public lectures, panel discussions, poetry readings, and pageants for trans women is always welcome – no one checks gender IDs at the door. Yes, cisgender people might feel a little uncomfortable – that’s what it feels like to be a minority in an ocean of majority folks. Welcome to my world.
Don’t pathologize: This, too, is reminiscent of heterosexuals and plenty of GLB people 20 years ago, when looking for the “cause of homosexuality” seemed to be quite popular. I don’t consider my gender queerness a flaw, so I don’t give a damn what causes it, and I don’t want to hear whatever you just heard on National Public Radio about in-utero brain development. There are trans people who don’t feel this way, and that’s fine. But I don’t need to be told there’s something wrong with me and scientists are searching for a cure. I’d really like to know when they’re going to find a cure for prejudice against people who are different.
An additional request: can we please finally drop the phrase “politically correct”? Since the days when George Bush Senior was in office, this phrase has been used as an accusation. Whenever a member of an oppressed group of people protests a microaggression or an outright slur, they’re accused of being “too politically correct.” As one of my grad school professors and friends, a Chicana feminist poet, used to say 20 years ago, “How about humanly correct – I’m a human being!”
Beyond the Gender Binary: 11-minute TED Talk by Yee Won Chong:
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a Colby College professor, has written several memoirs about her transition and family, and a number of columns in national magazines and newspapers: http://www.jenniferboylan.net/
Matt Kailey, author and journalist, has a great blog on which he answers reader questions: http://tranifesto.com/
University of Massachusetts Amherst Stonewall Center, transgender resource list: http://www.umass.edu/stonewall/nationalresources/#Transgender