When you meet a transperson, be kind to them.
However together and comfortable in their own skin they look, on some level they are feeling too queer for the room.
They are ready for the “third gotcha,” that moment when somebody decides their moral obligation is to stand up against creeping queerness, needing to re-gender us and call us out.
We are ready because we have already survived so many gotcha moments in the past, instances where we were told that being out and visible as a transperson was rude, offensive, sick, depraved and just plain dangerous.
For me, one of the most recent of these moments was an especially blood chilling comment left on this blog, but anytime I read about trans issues in the media, especially the comment section, the threat is very visible and very visceral.
Too queer means too challenging to the status quo, too threatening to those who want to impose a social order based on what they consider to be their “common sense.” They are very sure about the way that the world should be and they believe they are entitled to attack any breach against their internalized vision.
Defending the boundaries of decency isn’t just something that religious fundamentalists do, though they often feel a duty to destroy any expression they find offensive. Those who need to defend the binary nature of gender. maintaining an “us vs. them” wall for political power or who need to make sure they remain fixed in gender even as they break gendered expectations can also be attackers. It is often those who are fighting hardest inside of themselves to stay fixed where they are told they should be who externalize the battle worst, creating the most phobic damage.
Queer, though, can often trigger queasy, even in those who want to believe they have a kind, open approach to the world.
These people, who say they want to be supportive but who shrink back and go cold when faced with real, flesh and blood transpeople are often the most difficult to engage.
We trap them between their wanting to feel open and their actual feelings of discomfort and unease. Sure, they want to support nice, appropriate people like us, at least in concept, but we feel the disquiet. We know that any minute we might become too much for them.
Worse, we know that when push comes to shove, when we need something, their efforts for us will be half-hearted and resistant. They won’t rail against us, but they will note that there is just something which puts them off in us, something not right, not savoury, not safe. We aren’t like them, after all, so a measure of caution makes sense.
They will, though, often point out how people who aren’t as open minded as they are might be really offended by us. Does the organization really want to take the risks of letting someone like us inside when we might turn off whole swathes of current supporters?
This invocation of thirdhand fear (1998) is almost impossible to challenge, because we are never in the room when it happens. Only those who stand up strongly for us can confront it, and most people, well, sticking their neck out against a powerful voice in the group just isn’t worth the risk.
They just go cold, hoping we will just go away. They don’t want to have to confront us because they have no strong case, but they don’t want to engage us either, so they resist. Should we push our way in, or should we take their silence as a cue that they are queasy and not receptive? How many times should we walk into a blank wall, spit into the wind? Do we get the message or does our internal policing end up selling us short?
As transpeople, we know all this every time we walk into a room. We know that we face the risk of bold attackers and we know that the chillers and naysayers, ready to just urge prudence and caution, taking advantage of our difference, are ready to do their insidious work to spread fear.
We may want to keep our trans nature hidden, just to avoid this kind of backlash, but we also know that when we self-police to do that we end up hurting ourselves most. The group doesn’t get the benefit of all of us as we try to play small, and the chance that someone will read us out, that we will have to experience that moment when our gender shifts in others eyes, when they look at us in a new and suspicious way can happen anytime. The third gotcha lurks, turning us into losers.
If you really want to be an ally to transpeople, you have to know that no matter how much we may trigger other people’s fears, their fears are much more terrifying to us. We know that we only have ourselves to rely on but by invoking fear they can muster the power of the mob against us, maybe not causing violence but certainly damaging our ability to be fairly seen and valued, to get what we need.
We are one person standing for ourselves, but they are fear mongers who may be ready to incite others to dehumanize us and purge us from polite society. Any transperson who reads the internet can certainly find evidence of this desire every day.
However together and comfortable in our own skin we look when we enter, on some level we are always terrified that we may be too queer for the room. We have had that experience, we have had it hurt us, and we don’t really want to have it again if we can help it.
When you meet a transperson, be kind to them. Understand that somewhere, deep down, they are feeling alone, scared and vulnerable just in opening themselves to a new group of people, a new risk.
If you want the best from us, we need to feel safe and seen. Kindness goes a long way to making that happen.