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This is not legal advice, which can only be given by an attorney admitted to practice law in your jurisdiction after hearing all of the facts and circumstances in a particular case.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Understanding the transgender community, Part 2

Understanding the transgender community, Part 1

“Community” is a contradictory word, particularly when applied to the transgender population. "Community" refers to a group of people with common interests. At the same time, however, that group is composed of individuals with different, and often antagonistic views. Assumptions are dangerous and can lead to sudden and, to the unknowledgeable, surprisingly angry conflict. There are wildly different beliefs about politics, gender, advocacy and alliances. Understanding such a community can be a demanding task. Especially seductive is the feeling that "well, I am a tolerant liberal, so therefore understanding this will be an easy task for me." I think it is especially important to understand that tolerance is not enough, nor is liberalism enough.

I have met staunch diversity advocates who have asked me "I don't mind transgender women who take care of themselves, some of them are beautiful, but I have a hard time with those who don't know how to use makeup." I have met liberals who have said "I can't take transgender people who are conservatives -- they must be schizophrenic." I have met gay people who have said "Transgender people are people who couldn't deal with being gay, so they went the socially acceptable route." And I've met transgender people who have said "I hate transsexual people who think they're not in the same community with cross-dressers." So what does it take to understand the transgender community?

I remember going to an interview for a teaching position at a law school, where the very sympathetic interviewers decided to tout their school to me by telling me about the gay nightclub district in town and how colorful it was. It had the opposite effect because it told me that the knowledge gap was larger than I expected. It didn't help that I tried to explain. Needless to say, no callback on that one.

It is a mistake, though an understandable one, to assume that, because many liberals are supportive of our community, therefore we are all liberals. Some are conservatives and libertarians, even socially as well as fiscally. It is also a mistake to assume that we all consider ourselves "transgender", having common cause with the public community of gender variant people, including transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag artists, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, etc. Some, on the other hand, see a very clear distinction between themselves and these others, feeling strongly that their interests and concerns are different. In regard to our relationship with the gay and lesbian advocacy community, some are members of established gay and lesbian advocacy organizations, most of which have expanded their missions in the last several years to include transgender people. Others have come to feel that these organizations are dominated by rich, gay white men who see no common cause with transgender people, despite mouthing words to the contrary. In regard to transgender rights, some feel it important to demand trans inclusion in legislative efforts, and to fight against those who allow for anything less. Others feel that fighting against allies, even misguided ones, is a mistake, and that obtaining trans rights requires retaining alliances, and relentlessly educating and re-educating our political partners about the important relationship between sexual orientation and gender identity.

Personally, I support the right of transgender people to have their own individual and independent ideas, even if they conflict with my own. I believe it is important to understand these various beliefs in order to be an effective advocate for transgender people. I believe that it is possible to embrace all of these individuals, with their opposing ideas about politics, gender identity, advocacy and alliances. I think it is important to ask transgender people what they believe, not to make assumptions, and to support them in creating a life with integrity for themselves. I think it is possible to be an advocate for a community which has angrily conflicting opinions about the very issues that purportedly constitute it as a community.

My willingness to stand in the whirlwind of conflicting opinions within the transgender community comes from my personal experience. I have been laughed at in the street because I am transgender. I have been afraid for my safety because I am transgender. I have been afraid of the police because I am transgender. I have lost jobs and friends and family and lovers because I am transgender. I have wrestled with issues of passing and stealth. I have had to deal with the fear of losing the right to see my son because I am transgender. I can not begrudge the right of anyone who has had to deal with these torturous issues to make their own heartfelt choices. Frankly, I think anyone who has faced such issues and come out on the other side is my comrade and I cannot feel anything other than love, admiration and kinship.

I have found that, no matter what opinion transgender people hold, I myself have thought the same thing at one point or another. I may have a different opinion today. I may disagree. But I cannot judge them for it, even those who judge me.

So, what does it mean to understand the transgender community fully? It is not enough to tolerate transgender people who pass well, or who hold your own beliefs about gender. It is not enough to be liberal towards those who are also liberals, or who agree with your beliefs about civil rights and advocacy methods. It is not enough to make alliance with those who join your organizations and your alliances. It means embracing the wide spectrum of transgender views on politics, gender identity, advocacy and alliances. Tolerance is not enough, and liberalism is not enough. Rather, true understanding implies full inclusion and acceptance of difference, including different beliefs about gender, advocacy and community. It's not easy, and it doesn't always make sense. Sometimes I wonder whether it is even possible. I like to think of Emerson's quote: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

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