I just don’t have the bottle to train new people how to engage me from scratch.
There is a 2008 quote from Barney Frank that says “Nobody is more different from the average person than a transgender person and that makes them nervous.”
I played on the phrasing of that quote, agreeing that nobody is more different, but the truth is that no matter how much all humans are fundamentally the same, part of the continuous common humanity, transpeople are essentially different, outside the experience of the average person who sees gender opposites (and opposites of all types) as real and fixed.
How do we build allies who understand and empathize with the experience of transpeople when we don’t even yet know how to be allies to each other? I know that while I am unfailingly supportive of the journey and struggles of other transpeople, most are not supportive of my expression and journey because they find it too challenging, too outside, too queer.
The amount of effort I have to expend to train other people in understanding the trans experience, in understanding my experience, is just enormously heavy lifting. After all, they have neither the real interest or the real incentive to step out of their history, expectations and comfort zone to engage me, and even if they wanted to, they just don’t have the time, attention and energy in their busy lives to do the work.
Unless someone is ready to learn there is no point trying to teach them. They just feel challenged and threatened by others who require them to change or stretch their comfortable mindset to be in relationship. They want to use the tools and understandings that they have worked hard to acquire to handle a new relationship, not to be asked to own or create a whole new set of understandings and strategies.
This is not unreasonable behaviour from people. That’s why my primary approach in dealing with others is modulation. I attenuate myself, cut my expression down, to fit into their mindset and expectations. I try to remove what they read as noise, communications that they cannot interpret, to focus on what they can understand in the moment.
The tradition of transgender theory is the tradition of transgender rationalization. We look for ways to package our desire and our choices in a way that is comprehensible to those we need to live and work with everyday. We create rationalizations that are effective.
Central to that process has always been the idea of separation. There is a reason why Trans 101 sessions have usually involved separating TV from TS from drag and so on, because that idea plays with people for whom separation is real. It allows us not to have to justify all queer behaviour, allows us to ally with other average people in agreeing that some are just too queer.
To create political structures, we need to herd cats, get people in line. One of the easiest ways to do that is to impose identity politics, assigning identities and then creating tensions based on those identities. Are you with us or are you against us? For example, today, anyone who uses the word “tranny” is labelled as against the true transgender cause, a traitor worthy of attack. This false separation consolidates political power for those who use it.
My message, my theme, my expression has always been based around the notion of connection rather than separation, and this idea is profoundly challenging. It forces us to look within ourselves and rise to challenges rather than look outside of us for where to place blame. It forces us to open to and engage others rather than just work to silence them. It forces us to learn, to teach, rather than just to separate, to preach.
For someone who believes in connection, the obligation to separate ideas to make them digestible by others is a big reach.
I had a thing called the five minute rule. If you saw me as a transperson, more different than the average person, you would be uncomfortable with me, but if you spent five minutes in conversation with me, you would begin to see where we connect, begin to see our shared, continuous, common humanity.
The problem comes with thirdhand fear and snap-back; once your mind started opening to queerness, the conventional world around you would remind you how dangerous and queer what you were engaging was, how threatening to comfort that removal of separation is, and end up pulling you back away from stigmatized ideas and choices.
The world is very different today for lesbian and gay people. Their expression is understandable now, in the mainstream, and the leap to supporting love between same sex couples doesn’t appear as a big thing to many, many people, though certainly many in this country still find those ideas make them feel threatened and offended.
Being an ally to a gay or lesbian person isn’t such a big deal anymore. But even lesbians and gays have trouble being allies to bisexual people, those who don’t enforce clear gender boundaries in their love, because that makes them nervous as Barney Frank would say.
And if bisexuality is an issue, well then trans is even bigger. Transpeople are usually clear on who they love, but to love a transperson you have to engage your own bisexuality, because you need to love all of them, not just who they are in this moment. Politically, transpeople are all bisexual, no matter who we love.
I know that I can’t just walk into a space and be accepted as trans. I often want to joke “It’s okay, I’ll just sit with the other transpeople,” knowing that there will very rarely be any other transpeople in the space, and even if there are, they probably know themselves not to be trans like I am. I would make them nervous, threatening their separations.
Calling ahead to ask if the space or organization is trans inclusive is no use either, because once you say those words, people imagine the worst, most unhealed and struggling transperson they can think of and then decide that is the kind of person they don’t want in their place. I know that the real question is if they will be inclusive of me, and they can’t know that until they know me.
Ah, but knowing me, well, that’s the thing. Do I play nice, modulate myself way down, package myself small until they get to know and like me and then reveal my essential, challenging queer connectedness, or do I just let the freak flag fly on the first visit and see if they can handle the challenge?
I have often told of an LGBT religious workshop where a Jewish man told of his coming out at synagogue over time, slowly, step-by-step, helping the congregation come to understanding. The participants loved the story, thinking that’s how it should always happen. After the session, I asked him if he did the same process in every new temple he joined, and he replied “No! I’m out now!” Right. He did the process once, but the obligation to do the slow hand holding every time is just way too much heavy lifting.
I know that people aren’t going to get me quickly unless they have already done the work, work in connection and queerness that even most transpeople haven’t done. Unless they have done the inner analysis, getting past their comfortable separations by facing their fears, well, then, I am a real challenge.
But sometimes I choose to do the work with someone who says that they want to be my ally, to stand with me in support of my own goals, dreams and possibilities. Sometimes I invest in helping them understand me, engage me, build relationship with me. Sometimes I even imagine that this slow, difficult learning, pushing past their own challenges is a gift to a wider community, leaving an ally who can help other transpeople in their own struggle.
I invest my energy and my time to do the work, trying to use my big brain to explain the emotional truth of the transgender experience. Trans is essentially an experience not of the brain but of the heart, an understanding and calling that we experience very much beneath the rational, logical level. We are forced to deny our heart to honour convention, demanded to put what doesn’t neatly fit into a deep dark closet where it will grow twisted from lack of light and love.
The experience of growing up trans in this culture is the experience of being abused into severing parts of our heart to fit into the expectations of others who just still see transpeople as “more different from the average person than a transgender person and that makes them nervous.”
It’s one thing to have people be rude. It is another thing to know that I have to cut myself back, lying or being called a liar. becoming a lightening rod for all the distress about the costs of compulsory gender separation in the world, the shame around gendering that Brené Brown talks about so clearly, and still end up being surfaced, erased by their assumptions & expectations, end up feeling invisible, frustrated and hurt.
I just don’t have the bottle to train new people how to engage me from scratch.
It might be different if I had some allies, people who could do the work of helping others understand and the work of understanding me when I feel too shattered by the work, but that isn’t something I have been able to drum up in all my decades. I thank God for the few and the powerful friends I do have everyday.
I understand why I am such a big challenge to understand and I work very hard to make myself accessible, using my big old brain to make my experience clear. That doesn’t mean it is primarily a cerebral experience, doesn’t mean that thinking better, clearer or slower will help me solve my problems.
My experience is that of connection beyond opposites, and if the first connection is between heart and brain, so be it. That is where I live, as queer as that might be.
I know that I have no power, no agency, to change others. You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think. People heal in their own time and in their own way. The only thing I can do is be present in the moment and work the process.
I just don’t have the bottle to train new people how to engage me from scratch. I have done that work for many years now and have not been particularly successful. Some would say that the smart thing is just to package up some of what I have, a few of the treasures I have brought back from my own transformational journey, into nice, easy to sell bundles that work with people’s assumptions and expectations rather than against them would be the best plan, but that just seems altogether too daunting to do on my own. I don’t have the inner editor for that trick.
So I know how queer I am, how queer I be, and I know that desiccation is the result. I have done lots of heavy lifting, but like Sisyphus, there is only so much boulder pushing any one human can do.
I just don’t have the bottle left to train new people how to engage me from scratch.
And I tried. God knows, I tried.