I am participating in Trans*forming the Dialogue, Simmons College’s Online MSW Program’s campaign to promote an educational conversation about the transgender community. By participating in this campaign, I will be offering my perspective on what TO ask and what NOT to ask trans*people.
Don’t try to fit me into your taxonomy, whatever that is.
I used to go to gay bars and the question would often come up “So who do you want to meet anyway?” For most gays and lesbians the bar was a place to find partners, because those gender identities are about who you sleep with, so they projected the same desire onto transpeople. We were there, though, because it was the safest space we could find to express who we were, a different thing.
Trying to figure out where a transperson fits in the nice, compartmentalized world of heteronormativity is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.
First, most of us don’t know where we fit. We haven’t had the kind of mirroring and experience that lets us understand all about who we are. We may have some idea of who we aren’t, what doesn’t fit us and makes us very distressed, but knowing who we are in a society that keeps demanding either/or is enormously hard.
Second, we lie. Like any liar, the first person we lie to is ourselves. We want to be stable, fixed, want to be tame and assimilated, fitting in to society. That leads us to try and tell people who we want to be, who we imagine we are, leads us to offer the rationalizations and tropes we have created to function in the world. There may be truth there, but much of the truth is also hidden.
Third, and most important, trans is a transitive identity. It is about transformation, transition and growth. To be trans is to have your identity based in process, to be enervated by change. We can never, ever be just one or the other, rather we are always moving, always shimmering, always both who we are now and who we were then.
Trying to pin down a transperson is forcing them into a reactive stance where it is your observation that shapes us. We become who we need to be to be in relationship with you. That may be defended, it may be angry, it may be rationalizing, it may be placating — any of the Six Responses — but it will always be more about you than about us.
So, if trying to pin down transpeople is counterproductive and rude, what can you do?
Do engage our stories. The closest thing that we have to truth is in our tales, in the way we share our experience of being trans in the world.
Our stories, like any human stories, don’t mean what you think they mean. They mean what we think that they mean. You can only understand them in our context.
This is often hard for people to grasp. They search our narratives for bits that they understand in the context of their lives, using the traditional human technique of only listening to someone close enough to figure out what you want to say next. They scan for shortcuts and handles to use to fit us into their nice, comfortable heteronormative boxes.
We need to be heard, not categorized. And that means you have to be willing to take the ride with us, have to see the world though our eyes. You have to be willing to go to our hell.
Listening close to our stories is the only way to really hear what we are saying, the only way to be an ally to us, the only way to connect with us and help us be more effective and empowered in the world.
We have all spent a lifetime in a culture that wants to put us in boxes. We have all experienced the pain of being asked to lie, being made invisible, of feeling like we had to kill off part of who we are to be tolerated in society. Those simple binaries are death to us, cutting right through our tender hearts.
Don’t try to fit us into your already prepared boxes, whatever they are. Do really engage our stories to get a glimpse of who we are, of our continuous common humanity.
It’s just that hard.