Brynn Tannehill

Transgender: The Kobayashi Maru of Conversations

Filed By Brynn Tannehill | February 07, 2014 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: apologize to those you've hurt, catch-22, cisgender privilege, educating allies, Janet Mock, Katie Couric, Laverne Cox, no-win scenario, Piers Morgan, privilege, transgender allies

janet-mock-piers-morgan-return.jpgThe recent back-and-forth between Piers Morgan and Janet Mock has been very well documented in the media. So was Katie Couric's faux pas with Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox. Piers Morgan has been part of the media for decades, and had to know about what happened with Couric, yet somehow he managed to make the same sorts of mistakes that she did just two weeks earlier.

Unfortunately, conversations about transgender issues often are a no-win scenario. People who regard themselves as allies unconsciously have bought into all sorts of negative cultural narratives without realizing it.

Seeing transgender women as deceitful or as "traps" is one example. Another example is that people don't tend to see transgender individuals as being their target gender without having had "the surgery". Piers Morgan bought into both subconsciously, and it showed.

When Mr. Morgan made these mistakes he was met with a flurry of angry tweets. Having come from a place (probably) of good intentions, he was taken aback, and defensive. His feelings of, "Don't you people know I'm trying to help you?" were palpable. The transgender community was far from mollified by this position, though.

It isn't as if we haven't seen this sort of thing before. At the beginning of the war in Iraq, we sent our troops there without sufficient cultural training or competency. As a result, we came across to the locals as rude, boorish, insensitive, ill-mannered, and most of all, unwelcome. When the Iraqis responded angrily, all too often we took the defensive stance of, "Don't you people know I'm trying to help you?"

The backlash from elements within the transgender community is also understandable in another sense. We have been the American untouchables for so long and suffered so much violence that for many of us being angry and radicalized is unavoidable. While modern discussions of civil rights may focus on Martin Luther King, Malcolm X reflected the righteous anger of a people brutally oppressed for far too long.

The transgender community is no different. There are beautiful, brilliant, empathetic leaders like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, who try to build understanding and consensus.

There is also a base behind them which has been left raw by every indignity, stereotype, and hurt inflicted on them. We wield that pain like a scourge, because it is the only way we know how to fight back against constant de-humanization.

sidelined.jpgThe transgender community all too often feels sidelined on its own issues as well. Many times LGB allies end up representing us on legislative and policy issues, with mixed results. I can't tell you how frustrating it is for us to listen to pollsters and focus-group experts who remind us how hated we are, how hopeless it is for us to have conversations, and how unwinnable our needs are.

Other times, people have no clue how far behind the LGB community we are in terms of acceptance.

We are ordered to accept the fact that other people's irrational fears supersede our actual need for physical safety. In one mind-bending moment at Creating Change this past weekend, I was told that non-transgender (cis) people won't accept us, our gender identity, or our right to public accommodations without "the surgery". In the next breath I was told that convincing the public that insurance should cover "the surgery" is an impossible task; bringing it up just makes them angry.

The hopelessness of these Catch-22's was completely lost on the well-meaning allies speaking them.

A friend of mine who is a leader in the transgender rights movement recently asked the rhetorical question, "Do we really want to be known as 'those people that sue you?'" The implication behind this is that if we do nothing but agitate, litigate, and generally make an unholy racket about everything, we will never gain societal acceptance.

She's right: acceptance is the end goal. In the interim, though, I have to ask if we have any choice but to be "those people who sue you."

In my experience, the people most responsive to transgender issues in the U.S. are the medical and legal communities, where logic, peer-reviewed research, and case law are more influential than religion or general squeamishness. This explains why most of the improvements for transgender people come from behind-closed-doors policy work with doctors and lawyers, and so rarely at the ballot box or legislative sessions.

Still, that leaves the ultimate question of what to do with clueless allies. The work I have done has very clearly illustrated that we need every last one we can get, and that joint efforts are valuable. But, we've also seen how hard it is for others to respect the positions and life experiences of transgender people.

I'm sorry: My apologiesPerhaps it falls to the allies who "get it" to impress upon those who don't how to handle situations where offense was given. Sue Fulton, a fellow academy graduate, veteran of the DADT fight, and ally extraordinaire in the effort to win open transgender service, said, "If someone from another community was offended by something you said, the only right response is, 'I'm sorry.'"

Maybe, if people in the media learned to say those two words, the transgender community could be people you have a conversation with, and not "those people who sue you."

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