My Biggest Learning

I first came into a gender support group in 1984 at a TGIC club meeting at the old Club 145 in Schenectady.

Here’s the most important thing I have learned in nearly thirty years of being in gender support venues.

You gotta meet people where they are.

You can’t meet them where they should be, where you expect them to be, where they need to be, where you think would be right, anything like that.

They are where they they think they are.  And they are there because that’s where they need to be, even if I know where they think they are is really a bit twisted, a bit off, a bit temporary, a bit crap.

I may know where they really are, which is not where they think they are, but that means nothing, because they are where they think they are, even if they know that where they think they are is nowhere near where they are going to end up.

People come to trans community not to be a finished human, but because they have work to do.  Remember I said that trans is a transactional state, a transactional identity, not a desired or fixed one.   Trans is the place we travel through on our journey to ourselves, that liminal zone between, not some destination where we always wanted to end up.

Transaction comes from the same root as trans, which means accomplish, drive or carry through, the same root as transportation, movement.

That’s what I know about every person who comes into the trans world; they are a moving target, going from there to someplace else, and right now, right now, right now, they are where they are.    They are exactly where they need to be right now, doing exactly the work they need to do, from which they will learn what they need to learn and then move to a new place, a new understanding.

My job to support them, to be there for them, to understand them is to meet them where they are, and maybe be able to offer them something they need to move forward in their own personal journey.

I may think that they are an idiot, or they have their head up their ass, but I have learned, though painful and challenging experience, that it’s not my job to impose my knowledge, thinking or expectations on them.   I know that if I try and do that, they will reject it.

One of the first articles I wrote for Transgender Tapestry was in 1994, called “Safe Spaces.”  In it I talked about how important it was that we create safe spaces for transpeople to open up, to see themselves, to feel the possibilities that they have been denied for so long.

How do we become a safe space, how do we get people to open up and show us (and themselves) the person they could be if they just left the prison, dropped the shackles and become new?

Easy: we meet them where they are.   We don’t impose our knowledge or expectations or assumptions or worldview on them.    People gravitate towards people who they feel can help them learn and grow, and it seems to me the first step in that process is finding someone who will be a safe space if they stumble a bit.

I was in the caregiver space for a long time, and I found that people who liked to say “Stop whining!  You have the privilege of taking care of your parents,” didn’t really support the challenges of caregiving.  It’s the same in motherhood too; as divine a calling as it may be, it’s not without downsides & challenges.

Being a safe space can be a pain in the ass, of course.  People in gender support usually imagine I am just a few steps ahead of them, because they can’t imagine where I actually am.  But I couldn’t tell them where I really am if I tried, any more than I could tell a 13 year old what it’s like to be 53, because they just don’t have the experience to understand.  That is a very lonely truth for me, but it is a truth.

My response to your note is simple: you aren’t taking me where I am.

Instead, you are telling me where I should be, where in your worldview I am failing to understand,where I just don’t understand how it really is.

You seem to reject my own expression of self as something not worth engaging, not true, not sincere, not right.  That doesn’t feel safe to me because you aren’t meeting me where I am.   Is it possible that other transpeople you care about have the same experience of you?

You tell me about bras, about the cute story of a mother lying to a girl who was being sentenced to a lifetime of them, by telling me I didn’t understand, that you find bras confining and uncomfortable.  I accept your experience there, but do you accept my experience of having a rash where my breast forms hold sweat against my skin?   Do you really think I don’t know the challenge of dealing with a body and a woman’s presentation in the world?

“What more do you really need to know than she says ‘My name is Chelsea and I am a woman?'” asked a friend about the person charged as Bradley Manning.   That’s where she is, and with a long term in a military prison in front of her, she won’t be able to move far from that for a while.

It’s exactly the same for transwomen who are committed to being men in their family, who need to stay where they are to meet the multiple demands of their lives.   It’s the same for so many transpeople, maybe for all of us; we are where we are because it is where we are, and we can only move forward in our own time, in our own way, in our own context.

My narratives, my stories, resonate with many transpeople.  I told you that Who The Fuck Wants To Be A Tranny?” is the hit single on my blog, and you reject that concept, saying that being a tranny is bold and cool.  Yes, but what of all the people who have affirmed that post?  Are they all wrong and missing the point?   Or does that post just reflect where they are at the moment?

My writing is the explication of moments.  A friend suggests that I split the blog into good, positive posts and sad, negative ones that people might find whiny if they don’t have the context to understand them.  She knows many will just apply their own worldview and want to tell me where I should be, tell me that where I am is wrong and self-indulgent and crap.

Those people are exactly the people who I need to reach as a wounded healer.  And my message to them is simple: I am where I am.   My wounds and my power are not somehow separate things, they are two sides of the same coin.  Every gift is a curse, every curse a gift.

I am not broken OR brilliant, I am broken AND brilliant.  That’s the transactional truth of human lives, beyond binary thinking, beyond one or the other to continuous common humanity, messy AND beautiful.

My message is this: they need to meet me where I am.  And when they can do that, they can meet others they care about where they are.  And maybe, after doing that long enough, they can meet themselves where they are, free of the woulda shoulda couldas that bind up so much human love and possibility.

The transwoman known as ShamanGal in my blog is struggling so hard to deal with her inner critic, her ego, which always works to seek comfort rather than truth, to venerate fear rather than love, to sabotage change rather than engage it.  She needs, needs, needs to meet herself where she is, and I put a lot of time and energy in to model that for her, to help her get to that point where she can listen to others and herself without imposing expectation.  To get to that point where she can meet them where they are.

Rachel Pollack reminds me that the maxim in AA is to tell someone once about AA and then let off.  That’s recovery knowledge based on the understanding that you can only meet people where they are, and if they aren’t ready to hear, well, they aren’t ready to hear.

“When the student is ready a teacher will appear” doesn’t mean teachers don’t exist in the world all the time, it means it is only when we get there and open our eyes to them that they become accessible to us.  Teachers can’t meet us where we are, we have to meet them where they are, so they can help us take the next step.

I know, I know, I know that so many non-transpeople want to take snapshots of transpeople and think they have captured them.  But trans is a transactional state, which is what makes Kate Davis’ film “Southern Comfort” so powerful; we see the transactions and see transpeople moving through time and growth.  By meeting them where they are across the arc of a story, we see their lives and realities as journeys.

Robert tells how he was a little girl, a tomboy, a wife, a lesbian, and now a man, and transpeople know that each of those identities were real and potent when he held them, no matter how contradictory they might seem to nons.  People had to take him where he was at any moment, even if the idea of a man with ovarian cancer just seemed like something that would freak out even trained medical personnel.

People don’t live their lives for you, for you to judge or assay or correct or idealize.  They live their lives for themselves, and if you don’t understand their life in their context, do you really understand it at all?

We have no obligation to defend, justify or even explain themselves to you, so if we do choose to share with you, that is a gift.  If you want people to trust you with their most intimate secrets, their fears and fantasies, then you have to show them you are going to take them as they are, not judging, controlling or erasing.

For me, the more trans narratives I take as they are, the more I hear, and the more I hear, the more I can understand what people are trying to say to me with the symbols they have at hand right now.

As Ms. Rachelle reminds me, it  is often tough to just witness someone elses struggle rather than trying to correct and fix them, tough to let them feel the pain rather than trying to lift them.  We want to help, want to point out the alternatives, but that can only come after we have engaged and acknowledged someone’s very real experience and very real feelings.

A quote:

The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.
George Bernard Shaw, Man & Superman.

This is what, after consideration, I want to share with you, the most important thing I have learned in three decades of being with people who are in a trans state:

You gotta meet people where they are.  If you don’t, you won’t really meet them at all.

That’s the most amount of wisdom I can offer.   And that’s what honouring queer means to me.

Now yesterday, when I got your note, I started to write about where I am, about what I know of the trans experience, and I’ll leave that stuff below, because it’s real and true and might have some value.   But it won’t have any value if you can’t accept it as where I am, instead, wanting to tell me where I should be.

You gotta meet people where they are.  If you don’t, you won’t really meet them at all.

That’s what I have learned, painfully and slowly, in my own transactional gender journey.

And I offer that learning to you, just in case you are in a place where you can use it.

Leslie Stahl did a 60 Minutes report on the experiences of blacks and non-blacks in the world.  It was done by Denny’s, because they had been accused of racism, so needed to understand what was happening.

What they found was that when a waitress clumsily dropped a plate in front of a non-black customer, the customer assumed that the server was having a bad day, or they weren’t good at their job.

When a waitress clumsily dropped a plate in front of a black customer, though, the customer assumed that the server was sending a message that they weren’t welcome or wanted in the restaurant.

I agree with you completely.   My social history defines my experience of the world, just like it does for those customers at Dennys who felt racism when all that was happening was a less than gracious server.

Some call it emotional sunburn.   But what all queer people share is the experience of being shamed and stigmatized into the closet.  It’s that experience that defines much of our over sensitivity, our need for tunnel vision, our resistance to being exposed.

I have issues with the feminist/social justice view of the world — it casually applies group identities when individual ones are more important –but the consciousness raising done around oppression is important work.   I need to understand what others find oppressive.

In a local meeting, the mother of a trans child got distressed when a woman from the ACLU was discussing why some in communities of color were resisting the passage of GENDA because it extended hate crime laws, and those laws are often used against people of color.  This mother couldn’t understand why anyone would have an objection to the law she knew her child needed and wanted to dismiss that argument as nonsense.

The general consensus is that GENDA provides more good than bad, and should be passed — should have been included in SONDA ten years ago — but the activist groups also know that the concerns of marginalized groups need to be considered.

There is a law in NYC that the police can use the possession of condoms as evidence of sex work.  This primary affects lower-income transwomen of color, but that is still important to me, even if the nice, suburban mom of that transkid doesn’t understand why she should also stand up for potential sex workers in the city.

The profiling of transwomen — NYT Article — concerns me, affects me.   It is part of the burden I carry, part of the expectation of social policing that I have internalized.

You can argue that this shouldn’t be true, that I shouldn’t carry this sunburn, but I do, and virtually every transwoman I know also does.  I was incredibly moved by my dinner conversation at Empire Conference with Wayne Maines, who has fought for his daughter Nicole, because he was truly open to the life experience of transpeople, not just to fighting for his daughter.

This is the challenge of every transperson.  We are going to be saddled by choices the most outrageous, broken and strange of us, so we have to have a position on their choices.  Do we write them off as freaks, drawing the line of sickness as lying just beyond us, or do we include them in our understanding of how society treats transpeople?

I do understand that you see trans as a bold, free and courageous expression, a reminder of our continuous common humanity.   I know it to be that — that’s my mission statement — but I also know the experience of growing up trans to be a crushing time for tender souls, leaving us bashed, battered, bruised and twisted.

It makes me crazy when nons decide that transpeoples stories mean what they want them to mean, cutting away the blood and broken bits to only focus on the glorious claiming of freedom and authenticity.   I know myself to be a wounded healer, but my wounds are true and key to my understanding of myself as a healer.

I know that the people at the table were just individuals.   I understand them as humans; you and your deep commitment to transpeople, the transsexual woman, and her not engaging the suicide until the third viewing, the producer and his treatment of a friend of mine in LA.

But I also understand the responsibility of the panel, where you are presented to the audience as experts, the ones with the answers.   You are expected to give authoritative answers, and that is a responsibility.  That’s one reason every out gay person has had to say “I speak only for myself and am not an authorized spokesperson for the LGBT community,” because being on the TV or the panel opens you up to attack.  If you are going to be on the panel, you have some obligation to speak in a broad and inclusive way, having done the CR work.

2 thoughts on “My Biggest Learning”

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