“We are transgender people at a certain time in history,” as I said in my 1995 IFGE Keynote speech.
From where I stand, it looks like that time is period of reactionary separation. Technology, especially digital communication, has sped up the flow of information in a way that makes the pace of change astoundingly fast, news cycles in the blink of any eye and social reaction that ebbs and flows like swirling storms.
The old forms of stability are gone and the new ones have not come yet. We know what has failed to keep up in this time but we do not yet know what will succeed in forming healthy, respectful and resilient structures.
The reactionary has been the most visible response to this torrent of unpasteurized change. Between politicians, media players and activists, complex and nuanced issues have been reduced to simple emotional triggers, usually labelled as “common sense.”
Us versus them, the battle of good vs evil has been the charge, asking people to take sides in the big binary battle against the enemies of civilization.
We are, then transgender people who are living through the culture wars of sweeping and furious change.
That makes us feel like cannon fodder in those campaigns, pushed ahead as shock troops by some, mowed down as signs of deranged mess by others.
When people fight to enforce binaries, transpeople, those who cross boundaries, will always be the casualties.
“In cultures where gender boundaries are rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.”
I knew that was my mission statement the first time I heard it, but what I also knew was that those who found walls comforting, who feel the need to brutally enforce simplistic and reductive boundaries will always find the need to erase our liminal truth to enforce their fundamentalist views.
If we weren’t living in a time of change, transpeople would still be shamed and marginalized into invisibility. The very fact we are living at this time in history gives us both blossoming opportunities and incredible challenges as we help invent the future against almost overwhelming resistance.
When I see big binary battles in the culture wars, from the shorthand politics that casts transpeople using public facilities as demons to the tragic battles between some police and some people of colour, I feel overwhelmed, distressed and very tortured.
I have skin in the game of these fundamentalist binary wars because I have nowhere to hide. I can’t simply duck into one group or another, can’t pull my own beliefs over my head.
There are transpeople who try to play that game, of course, trying to assert some kind of simple binary group identity, be that the identity politics of the streets or the reactionary beliefs of the country club, but for me all of that erases the connection to the grace continuous common humanity offers.
Liberty means responsibility.
That is why most men dread it.
— George Bernard Shaw.
If I want my freedom to be me past the imposition of group identity, I have to take responsibility for my own choices instead of finding some other group to blame things on.
That’s one reason, I know, that my message of personal liberty is hard for other to hear. They want a shortcut, want the world to change to respect & care for them rather than to have the obligation to open themselves in a way they can respect & care for the world, changing it one interaction at a time.
To be a lonely, individual target in a culture war is exhausting work. None of us signed up to be trans, at least not in this life, and that definitely means we didn’t sign up to be culture warriors, strafed by so called allies and enemies for not being who they want us to be, who their belief structure demands that we be.
My heart breaks whenever I see something in the news that heightens the divisions in the big binary culture war, fuelling the fire that stokes an “us vs. them” mentality. How can I possibly speak for moving past divisions, for moving towards compassion and continuous common humanity against such a torrent of coded, divisive and fundamentalist messages?
Trying to get people to move beyond simple divisions and into connection is dammed hard work, as a lifetime of trying has taught me. People value what they already know they like and want, not what challenges their fundamental assumptions.
Standing for considered, conscious and compassionate change is always harder than standing for resistance, for the attempt to hold onto a status quo that we have grown comfortable with, no matter how much it fails us and others in society.
I am blessed to have had the opportunity to live in a time of change, a time when people like me could emerge from our closets to claim our nature beyond binary social obligations. The cultural acceptance of trans today is beyond any belief I could have had when I first heard Virginia Prince speak in 1968.
The price of being on the front line of the culture wars, though, has been enormous for me. The denial and negotiations I have had to make have cost me health, vitality and possibility.
As long as people believe in absurdities,
they will continue to commit atrocities.
The lessons of connection I have struggled to find and which I have struggled to share are not new and unique in human culture. They are revealed again every time some group or other tries to enforce separation, marginalizing and erasing others who reveal facets of humanity which challenge easy binaries.
Standing up for one view of the truth does not mean that all who stand for another view are against you, are your enemies, your determined foes who deserve whatever they get. The golden rule is the golden rule; it is only by giving respect that we get respect.
Democracy only works when we care more about what connects us than what divides us. Those who introduced reactionary fundamentalism into political dialogue, offering the notion that stopping what we didn’t like was always more important than coming together to get more of what we can all get behind, are reaping the rewards of their divisive, short-sighted goal to grab power by creating an emotionally manipulable populace that doesn’t give a shit about respect, grace, kindness and equality.
We are the transpeople born into the culture wars. Everyday we have to decide what we stand for in the world, be that wrapping ourselves in expected divisions & finding someone to blame, or standing up for continuous common humanity & taking responsibility for our better choices.
As costly as it has been, for me, I couldn’t possibly see any other choice.