Reynolds Price, in his book “A Whole New Life,” talks about his frustration with people who met him after he became a paraplegic and seemed to think that his health was an open subject for curiosity. They would ask intimate questions about his body that they would never think about asking of normative people, feeling entitled to their intrusive curiosity, about their attempt to create a separating taxonomy, because he was now a public freak in the world.
Carol Queen noted that whenever queers write a book, straight people always assume that the content is about them. They believe they are normative so they can understand anyone else through their own experiences. I use the allegory of describing how an exquisite Pot de Crème au Chocolat tasted in Paris and someone responding “I understand completely! I always get the chocolate pudding at Sizzler, too!” They have missed my story by replacing it with their own.
Whenever someone calls me magical, courageous and an inspiration to them, I get concerned. I can feel them putting me up on a pedestal and removing my messy, challenging humanity in the process. Jennifer Tomlinson notes that “while it may be tempting to provide effusive praise, I think it’s also important to communicate understanding and validation of a person’s core identity.”
Treating transgender people as if they are curiosities, are simply normative or are on a pedestal are three different ways that people deny understanding and validation of our core identity.
These aren’t the only ways to reject our reality and substitute your own, but they are ways that still invalidate our core identity while believing that you are being considerate and gracious to transgender people. We learn very early that people who do any of these things are dismissing our identity and are not safe space, learn that a gotcha is possible at any moment with them.
As transpeople, we grow up in a world that does not understand the reality inside of us, a world where we are told that reality is wrong, perverted, and invalid. We scrape like hell to shape an inner reality that both is connected with the world and represents the deep knowledge of who we know ourselves to be.
We know that our reality is fragile, though, easily punctured. If it is too self centred and tough, it isolates us from others, but if it is too flexible and permeable, we can get overwhelmed by challenges from others who project their reality onto us.
The reality of others can easily be tough and hard, often tracing their identity to projected birth sex differences that we see as illusions. We are defined by the shape of our heart, not of our genitals, but that doesn’t play in binary, reactionary and compartmentalized expectations. It is easy to be angry at someone who sets out to hurt you, much harder when someone hurts you our of their own unconsidered and well-intentioned reality.
People have their own realities and can easily believe that seeing us as are curiosities, as simply normative as on a pedestal is a good and reasonable thing, better than seeing us as threats, fear objects worthy of being humiliated and destroyed. They want to be there for us, want to be considerate allies, but have little idea how their own internalized assumptions tend to erase and hurt us, denying us understanding, validation and safety.
We do not surrender our dignity and privacy because we are different, do not need our narratives to be reduced to some lowest common denominator, and don’t exist as brave angels out to heal the world. All of those assumptions take away bits of our precious humanity, the heart we have fought so hard to reclaim and own in the face of a world that wanted to homogenize, silence and erase us.
Keeping our own battered and tender reality together is hard enough when we feel safe, seen, understood, valued and cared for. When we feel we are just players in someone elses assumptions, even what they consider benign expectations, we lose potency quickly, our agency sagging with stigma and another goddamn “gotcha.” The history is too real and too present.
Queer, the valuing of the individual over grouping assumptions, is hard, and we have to claim it for ourselves before we can give it to others. I am always moved when someone finds me queer enough to feel safe entrusting me with their unique story, believing I won’t dissect them, erase them with assumptions, or only want to hear what I believe are the good parts of their story. They need to believe that I respect them before they will open up.
I am not here to inspire you, to satisfy your curiosity, or to fit into your expectations of gender. I am here to struggle to be me, to be human, messy and spirited.
That is my fragile and beautiful reality.
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