In classical etiquette, one of the most basic things we can do for another person is to hold the door open for them while they pass through it, hold open the door while they move between two different places.
It’s a simple action, sure, but it takes what all etiquette takes, an awareness of the needs and challenges of others and a considered willingness to extend ourselves. to take a moment to make others lives a touch easier and a touch more gracious.
One of the biggest challenges in any trans life is the obligation to both hold open the space for change and to transform at the same time.
Stigma is the wet cotton wool of society, the thick mat of social control, woven out of the expectations, assumptions and fears of others. Stigma wants to keep us in our place, wants to enforce the status quo, wants to defuse and deflect challenge, maintaining comfort.
The obligation to both face stigma and to become new at the same time is what makes transformation so damn hard, what keeps people down.
One of the biggest challenges I have in everyday life is to hold open the space for change. That doesn’t just mean holding open the space for my own change, it means holding open the space for change in the world, holding open the space for change in others, holding open the space for change in you.
If I walk into any situation with the assumption that change is impossible, that people are just who they are, that it was always that way and can’t be changed, then I make it much, much harder for people to step through the door to a new choice, a new attitude, a new vision.
The easy thing to do in the world is to stay defended, to not be open to possibility, to not make yourself vulnerable to disappointment and hurt by not expecting change. The hard thing is to be vulnerable, exposed, and ready to welcome transformation and growth. The hard thing is to trust in people’s willingness and ability to move beyond where they are now to a new vision, a shared vision where we hold open space for each other to grow.
I have told the story of the therapist who used to call me “he” all the time. I told her “I don’t want to tell you how to see me, because that is your prerogative. But if you want to be an ally to me and other transpeople, as you say that you do, you need to call me by my asserted pronoun, because that is the only way to hold open space for transformation in the world.”
She passed over my words until we were together working for the local gay and lesbian centre and another woman referred to me as “he.”
“She called you that pronoun because that’s what I called you,” she told me. “I limited the way she could see and understand you, closed down the space you need to have. I didn’t get that when you told me, but I see that now.”
If you want to be my ally, you have to hold open the door, hold open the space for change, just like I have to hold open the door for you, hold open the space for you to grow and change.
That seemingly simple thing of holding open my mind and heart so you can have the breathing room to become new is one of the most difficult things I do, but it may be the most important. I know that other people change and heal in their own way, in their own time, and I can’t push you into getting it, into becoming new. I just have to affirm your own possibilities and hold open the space.
That always means I have to be aware of you have to be gracious enough to give some of my attention and energy to your movement too.
Etiquette isn’t really a big thing nowadays. We live in a very self-focused society where attention is the ultimate currency. People don’t have time, energy or intention to be considerate or gracious. Often times I will slow to let someone pass in front of me, for example, and find the people behind me pushing past me, following their own agendas rather than helping created shared space for movement, for transformation.
I do understand why this happens, how society demands a go-go-go dynamic where stopping to hold the door open for another often means you are going to be run over by the flow, means you are going to be seen as a fool for enabling the slower and weaker to move in their own time, their own way. Getting it done, winning is the goal, not being considerate and gracious to those who can’t keep up, can’t fend for themselves. If they get run down, well, they should learn the lesson, get with the program, stop holding things up.
Parents can understand this challenge well, if they take a moment, knowing that holding the space open for growth and transformation of children is vital to helping them have space to become the best self they can be. And it’s certainly supposed to be at the heart of all therapy, encouraging transformation by holding open space for healing.
But too often, we want to constrain others with our own fears. That’s especially true in the interlocking communities around trans, where so many people are resisting change and transformation in their own lives and so project that fear and resistance onto others so they won’t be challenging. It’s the old “crabs in a barrel” problem, where others pull us back down so no one can easily make it to the next level.
My job is to hold open the space for others to change, to hold open the door for the possibility of growth and healing.
But whose job is it to hold open the space for me? How do I both hold open the space for transformation and become new at the same time?
I grew up in a family on the autism spectrum, where people not only didn’t have a good awareness of their own emotional state, but that left them with a deficit in understanding the emotional state of others. Reading cues, helping others open up, supporting others in their own growth just wasn’t something that people without the insight of empathy could manage.
I was with my sister tonight. In conversation over dinner, I made lots of space for her, opened to her worldview, her stories, and reached out to hold open space for her expression, growth and understanding.
I didn’t get any of that back. She knows, on some intellectual level, that I really need transformation, that the being person I was while I denied myself to serve our parents for a decade came at a very high cost for me.
But she is unable to hold open the space for my transformation, unable to be gracious enough to help by holding open the door while I struggle through it.
My biggest challenge in the world is holding open the space for others to grow, transform, become new. I have to go into every situation with the best expectations of others, exposed, vulnerable, receptive and open, even if my long, tough history as a transperson and as the child of an AS family has left me with serious scars that can easily bind me up.
I hold the door open for others, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because I need them to move forward so our shared world can move forward.
But who holds open the door, the space, for me?