Austen Crowder

Ground vs. Air (and questioning folk trying to land)

Filed By Austen Crowder | May 19, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: closet cases, living, media, questioning, transgender

I don't want to jump in on ENDA commentary that's been bubbling lately. Not because I feel like I can't, or that it's not important to discuss it, but because I just prefer not to be a part of that volatile world right now. closet.png

See, the more I read on the issue, and the more that trans issues make the national rounds, the more I see huge rifts opening up between life on the ground and the noise in the air. This worries more than anything else in the LGBT movement.

In the air, the rhetoric has gotten to be pretty horrible, especially as far as trans folk are concerned. There's something about trans inclusion that brings out the worst in people. After seeing just how much trans-bashing the mainstream media is willing to accept in the name of "fair and balanced," I'm not terribly inclined to immerse myself in the debate.

On our end, trans people are painted as eternal victims of circumstance and bigotry, and few other narratives work their way to the surface. Seems that everywhere I look I see being trans as this huge load to bear, or this unthinkable taboo that should obviously be shunned by the public.

On the ground, however, things are very different. To use my life as an example, I just sold my first novel, and between frantic edits, drafting a completely new novel, and settling into my life as "just another girl in the crowd," I really don't feel that the storm of controversy over trans women in classrooms and bathrooms really applies well to my own life. The further along I get with my transition, the harder it becomes to associate the problems we espouse over the airwaves with my own transition experience - or to my pre-transition mindset. Outside of a few "in-the-know" circles it's nearly impossible to see this ground view in the news media, let alone reflected in the everyday lives of people in the community.

Worst of all, this disconnect makes it even harder for questioning individuals to find their way through the transition process, whose welfare I feel really needs to be addressed in this fray. More than ever I think we need to reach out to the questioning part of our community; they are the ones who will be most adversely affected by the increased political vitriol, and they are the ones who won't be able to see the ground below the airwaves.

I understand the method behind the madness of political debate. The point of persuasion is to make your position seem as compelling as possible. For us, this means painting our discrimination in the most vivid descriptors imaginable, presenting our transitions, our struggles, and our lives as day-to-day fights for approval and basic needs. For our opponents, this means creating a nasty a smear campaign about trans folk, knowing that it is one of the few things left in our society that is flat-out unacceptable in many circles.

The problem is that our airwaves are only concerned with these two extremes: victimhood or perversion. The debate leaves little room for the people in the middle, who are just living their lives day to day and generally making a decent living for themselves.

The issue isn't exactly the most visible one on our docket: in fact, I didn't think about it until I started putting together the experiences of trans-questioning friends talking about their issues. They all share a common terror of transition: the only images on the airwaves come in the form of scintillating, ratings-grabbing tell-alls, trans-bashing jokesters, or "fair and balanced" debates with hate groups. And when they turn to the LGBT blogosphere they're faced with the exact opposite vision: tales of terrifying murders, unemployment, estrangement, general horror. No matter where they turn, be it insulting or well-intentioned, they are faced with the same take-away thought: being trans can only be horrible.

I mention this disconnect only because I want to create an open, frank, and honest conversation about what this debate does to the people it attempts to help: victory is our primary concern, yes, but I think it's important to look at the costs of this ENDA slug-fest in a larger lens. Gaining political power to enact trans-friendly laws requires creating victims, and in a sense attempting to generate an empowered image of trans people goes against our political agenda. If trans people can be successful, then they don't need laws protecting them!

Debating trans issues hurts questioning people. Period. It is a necessary evil, and there is no avoiding the collateral damage in the conversation. Staying silent makes us even more invisible. However, attacking prejudice requires dealing with people who are really, truly nasty and ignorant towards LGBT issues, which creates an environment that is far from friendly to questioners. I think an important issue we need to be raising here - and, in reality, at all times of advocacy - is how we can reduce the impact of this debate on LGBT people's day-to-day lives. This is especially important to consider now, while increased trans visibility is on the horizon.

As far as I'm concerned, if we make it harder for even one person to come out and live an open, honest life, we are not doing our job.

We can't enjoy our rights if we create bigger closets

Let's be honest: coming out as trans requires some steps that most people never have to consider. Finding transition resources - let alone accepting doctors, therapists, and mentors - is not an easy proposition. I can remember digging through dozens upon dozens of half-baked resources, internet sites with anecdotal tales of terror, scam sites telling me to buy "specialty" clothing for my male frame, black-market hormone sites... all manners of cons, cooks, and crack-pots roaming around a wide-open, taboo subject, offering all sorts of contradictory information to their visitors.

Finding the right people to get transition started is a matter of luck, networking, and trial and error. I knew I was trans for a long, long while, but it wasn't until I met my first in-the-flesh trans person in town that I knew who to visit to get started. Add to this the fact that trans communities are, by their privacy-minded nature, notoriously difficult to find, and you have a situation that makes approaching transition an impossible feat.

The trans community has become a sort of ivory tower: only those connected, tenacious, or savvy enough to research the right websites or bump into the right people can hope to find their way on the path. With all the air traffic from the religious right and the activist left, it's hard to find one's way to the ground. We are stirring up a hornet's nest with ENDA, DADT, marriage protests, and health care concerns - all very valid concerns - but at the same time I think we're forgetting that not everyone in our community is used to getting stung all the time.

While we stir up ire of the social conservative movement, are we also creating adequate numbers of "first aid stations" along the way for the nasty stings our community members will take along the way? I'm really struggling with the answer to this question, and want to hear thoughts on the issue. Gaining our rights will come at a cost and I want to make sure we understand the collateral damage that will occur.

The common thread out of the questioning people I talk to is one of fear. The closet is a terrible place, granted, and there are people out to make it even worse for those still questioning themselves. However, the real surprise from the my discussions was that most of the fear they stored up came from advocacy websites like Bilerico. Sure, they know the anti-gay websites are bull crap, and have been quick to point this out on every occasion; however, their big fears came from the terrible stories they heard on LGBT activist websites. "Do we all have to live like that?" they ask, and I spend the rest of the conversation explaining the difference between the ground and the air. "It's great on the ground, but we're busy fighting for our rights in the air. Pardon the mess." It breaks my heart every single time.

I guess another way of putting it is this: our goal in advocacy is to create a world in which LGBT people can live meaningful, respected, successful lives. If I'm actually making progress toward that goal as a trans woman who's just getting on with life, do I have a duty to continuously read rants pointed at denigrating my identity, or, more specifically, a duty to respond to those accusations? Is there a valid position in the community for people who step up and live their lives peacefully and openly, walking softly and carrying a big stick?

In the melee of political agenda, do we have a responsibility to create resources to help those questioning their identity and sexuality? If so, what priority should be attached to that effort? I told myself that once I got comfortable in my identity that I'd work to make things easier for the people coming behind me. This is not just an empty promise, and I want to make sure we're thinking about and reaching out to those struggling with their sexuality and gender identity.

I want to win political battles just as much as the next person. However, how can we make sure that we're not barricading the closet door for those coming up behind us?

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Fabulous post, Austen.

I hear your point, but my view is that young people need to know the worst, even if it scares the living crap out of them. I don't want them to have a rosy view of life as a transsexual, transgender or genderqueer person. That is a setup for failure. But if they wish to persist in the face of that, I will welcome them to the fold, and do pretty much anything I can to help.

I think my view on this point is generational, and will change soon as dinosaurs like me recede into the tar pits.

I come from the "old school" of transsexual identity, which I would characterize as "you should only do this only if it is the most important thing in your life and you absolutely have to in order to survive another minute." When I began exploring my gender issues in 1995 or so, my life had basically fallen apart and gender issues loomed so large that it was this or suicide. I was in my mid-thirties, with a kid and a wife and a profession and a lifestyle. I had never even heard of a transsexual who had transitioned before 28 years of age. Most others were older than me. Lotta strange people, too, including most of the few therapists available to help. I had never met so many bizarre, dysfunctional people in my life. I had to hack my way through the jungle, encountering many villains and monsters, until I came to the magic castle. I've seen many fellow pilgrims fall into various pits and traps. I knew I would lose pretty much everything when I transitioned, and I did.

That I have clawed my way back into some sort of respectable professional life with a decent income is amazing to me every single day. I lived in poverty for many years.

Now, of course, it is a somewhat different world. There are advocacy groups, and the internet, and more acceptance, including among employers. Young people in particular are far more accepting of this issue. More people view gender as a continuum, and there is no need to follow any particular path of transition. I recognize that it's still not rosy for the young transgender, transsexual or genderqueer person, but it's a way different land than the one I travelled in.

So I think things will change, and in the next few years or so. But I can't help being the dinosaur I am.

I think the views of both the dinosaurs and the up-and-comings are necessary in this conversation. I know I get to be a bit pie-in-the-sky at times, and maintain that "I'll show them!" is my lifetime mantra, but you are correct. Transition is hard.

However, hard is a darn sight different than impossible, and I think that's a distinction we have to make. Perhaps this sort of equilibrium between the old guard and the new guard is exactly what the doctor ordered.

There is another unfortunate consequence of portraying ourselves as victims. When politicians perceive us to be helpless victims, who are constantly unemployed and homeless, they see us as a group that has no political power and can be safely ignored.

If instead, politicians perceived trans people to be "successful" and "influential" - i.e. having high-paying jobs, running businesses, directing movies, practicing law and medicine, etc, you bet they would listen to our concerns.

This is why it is important for trans success stories to be visible.

Yes this is a cynical view but politics is a cynical business. I feel that the unfortunate reality is that politicians ignore the groups who really need help, while listening to those who have more power in society.

Yes, but I think I want to drive a wedge between politics and daily life here. Winning political games is one thing; helping people find themselves is something different entirely. My worry is that the two worlds - the political victim game and the real world - are impossible to reconcile.

Thank you for this, Austen.

I delayed transition for much too long, partly because of the scare stories. I am also one of those doing rather well: I blend well, my partner and I are still together, I still have my job, and I have lots of friends and some family who are supportive.

It might just be that I'm very lucky, and indeed I do count myself as fortunate. I know many trans people who are having serious difficulties. But I also know of success stories. We should indeed talk about our successes, and that success is possible.

I will simply say that I delayed my transition as well, for much the same reasons. Perhaps I'll write about that moment someday - it stands out in my mind to this day.

Renee Thomas | May 19, 2010 3:10 PM

I agree . . . a really honest and articulate post. I'd like to engage it in more detail this evening but I'd offer at this outset that Dr. J is spot on I think. There are so many more useful and helpful resources to assist those who choose to transition than ever before. But to portray it as something other than potentially the toughest thing you'll ever do does a disservice to those who are questioning. Expect and plan for the worst and hope for the best is the best advice I've ever received and is especially pertinent as to applies to transitioning gender.

@ Vivian:

While I think we should feature more of our success stories, let us not throw all of our eggs into thinking life will be easier politically if those in power see us all as wealthy and successful. Look what happened to the LGB community once their almighty leadership tried to jump on that bandwagon.

LGB people's rights and power are really not that much more respected. What have politicans been able to do with the idea, as unsound as it is, that most LGB people are wealthy and successful?

Paint them as people who "don't deserve" to have any "special rights". And use it as a wedge issue between us and other populations, telling them they are "real" minorities. Then they paint LGB people as hi-jackers of the civil rights movement trying to get even more privilege.

I do agree with Austen though. I think more can be done to empower our communities around these issues. We just have to brainstorm ideas, then divert even 10% of the energy we're spending begging for ENDA to come to a vote.

I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but imagine what we might be able to build?

I don't think discussing how tough it can be to live as a trans person in this (or other) countries is mutually exclusive from creating and improving resources to aid people approaching transition. Both are vitally important. The diversity of experience and identity within the trans community assures there will always be a tangled web of messages encountered by people entering "the community." There are ways who've been there to frame tribulations in a way which tells questioners "I got through it and you can too." For me, that was the most important message to here, not one with a happy face.

"I really don't feel that the storm of controversy over trans women in classrooms and bathrooms really applies well to my own life."

I don't directly experience either at this point in my life now, but I previously have and I don't intend to forget it now that I'm "over that hill." No, there are too many trans youth in foster care or on the street, too many people still experiencing profound loss during their transitions, too many trans people unable to access proper health care or social support for a happy face. Congratulations on your book but I'm not interested in skipping down Candy Land quite yet.

I'm not advocating candy land by any stretch of the imagination; things are hard out here, yes, but I think it'd be worthwhile to sometimes stand up and say "this is damn hard, but we did it and so can you" loudly enough that those in the closet can hear it - which, upon rereading your comment, is exactly what you said.

So... um... I'll shut up now. :)

The problem is a simple one. The only voices allowed to be heard are those who are "in process" and those who transitioned, finished and emerged years later are demonized and it's been in absolute clear view right here.

The only experts on transsexuality are those who completed the journey but we are shouted down. Now dear Bil will jump in again and tell me to STFU no doubt.

Gay men are not experts on transsexuality
Drag Queens are not experts on transsexuality
Crossdressers are not experts on transsexuality
Those who never complete transition are not experts on transsexuality.

Post everything women of history are the experts and almost every one who tries to comment is run off and called the litany of familiar insults..
self-loathing (that's really rich if you think about it)
hateful (translation, any opinion contrary to the vocal activists)

In a political system that says that anything that happens to people because of something they chose to do is OK but not stuff that happens to people because of how they're born, the only way to garner sympathy is to portray a group as a victim.

It's like those people who say being gay isn't a choice so discrimination against gays is wrong... if it were a choice, would discrimination be OK? The point isn't the logic, it's that saying it's not a choice lets us be better victims of circumstance.

Which is fine on one side, but then it allows for all sorts of abuses against people who "choose" something - to enter the US without papers, to have a low-paying job, to have sex out of wedlock, etc. They're imperfect victims, so they obviously don't have a decent claim to being treated fairly.

The solution is for us to stop looking for victims - just because there are professionally successful trans people doesn't mean that there aren't systemic barriers that hold others back and that limit the success of even the successful people. But that might be too complicated for a soundbite culture.

Of course, Alex, you are correct. Soundbite culture requires simple, straightforward messaging to make a point. But within our big umbrella of LGBT journalism, do we have a responsibility to occasionally stand back and say "hey, I'm (insert letter here) and life can be awesome" from time to time?

I know that this especially difficult in the trans community, as many people use the internet as a sounding board for their issues. I don't know how to counter this pessimism - or, specifically, if we can even counter it at all.

Fantastic post, Austen. You're right - too often we're painted as victims as if no one would ever want to be queer (since it fits with all the letters of the community!).

Exactly! It's easy to talk about what sucks in our lives - talking about what is great, however, is a different story entirely!

Thank you for your post!

rapid butterfly | May 28, 2010 8:45 AM

A good post, as usual, Austen.

I'll add my voice to - I did it, and so can you! I am a professional and have transitioned in-place - stealth is out of the question, yet I have been profoundly fortunate and have been really surprised and humbled by the support I've received since going f/t a little over six months ago, now. I did my best to figure all the angles before I moved forward, and I've been lucky in that almost every reaction has met or exceeded the "best case" projections I had done.

So yes - I go about my daily business as best I can, and as myself, and it is fantastic. Absolutely wonderful, much better than I had thought possible.

Still - every would-be transitioner needs to know this is serious business, and that the risks are huge. And I think it's also worth pointing out that in the current political climate, even for those of us who succeed (defined however one likes, as befits the fact that there are many ways to succeed) - there is always, at least in my mind, the sense of having to be hypervigilant - physically and otherwise. Our well being as trans women and trans men has, at least for now, and at least for those who do not always pass for cisgendered people, a kind of fundamental fragility to it. I think that would-be transitioners need to be aware of this, too, as a price of transition, at least until for example a fully inclusive, non-gutted ENDA is passed, etc.