“You just don’t understand!” every teenager eventually moans to their parent.
“You couldn’t possibly understand! You clearly don’t feel it deeply, like I do! If you did, you wouldn’t be so callous and dismissive, saying that I will get over it! This is real, real, real and deeper than you can imagine!”
When emotions sweep us, it feels like we are the first person to ever discover them. Our love, our pain, our insight, our anger is so fresh and new to us that no one could possibly ever have felt like this before.
If they did feel this way, wouldn’t they be swept away by it, too? Wouldn’t it inform every choice they made, sway them to think with this in the forefront, make their choices be the same as ours?
The notion that there is life after this intense feeling, that context and maturity comes, well, that’s a hard idea to even engage when you are held in the thrall of something so new and so overpowering that it totally defines your view of reality.
As someone who fought hard to grow up, facing those who believe that if you don’t agree with them then you just don’t understand them, just don’t get it, is very hard.
How can we possibly effectively explain to them that we have been there, felt those feelings, done that work, immersed in the process and then have moved on?
They believe that if we aren’t where they are, we don’t get it. We know that we got it, but that we also got other things, including context.
I watch people who are deeply immersed in social justice models of us versus them oppression write me off as an oppressor when I suggest that queer models of individual empowerment have real benefits.
How could I possibly have done the consciousness raising, understood the systemic nature of racism, confronted the truth of embedded privilege and really become liberated if I don’t agree with them?
If I am not willing to surrender my voice to speak for the truly oppressed, for those battered by intersectionality in politically correct ways, then clearly I just don’t understand the way that the world works against the victimized, oppressed and abject.
If I am not part of their solution, then I am part of the problem, reads the binary that they live by, and I can be dismissed and targeted as an oppressor.
The idea that somehow they are not understanding me and my position is beyond them.
I saw my first therapist when I was thirteen years old. I’ve often told the story of how she had no tools to talk about gender identity, so she asked me who I would like to be when I grew up. I was well old enough to know that was a trap question, her wanting an either/or answer, so I answered that I wanted to be myself.
While that answer frustrated her, I knew it was true and with my later reading of Joseph Campbell, I knew that there was no other answer.
Since then, over the last fifty years, I can’t count the number of times when I realized that it was my obligation to train therapists on topics that they didn’t understand. Even today, long after I stopped trying to find a clinical professional who can understand the challenges of being a long term trans guru, finding someone who understands the challenges of growing up with two Aspergers parents seems beyond their ability and comfort zone.
In the 1990s I worked with a therapist who since has written articles and even a book on transgender emergence, becoming known as an expert in the field, but I even had to train them.
“You don’t understand,” I had to tell her. “I know you tend to see me as a man with something extra, know that’s how you tend to see people like me, but if you want to be my ally, you need to call me ‘she.’ If you don’t do that, you don’t hold open the possibility of transformation beyond convention.”
She pooh-poohed my comment, sure of her feminist stance.
That was until a night when we were both stuffing envelopes at the Lesbian & Gay Centre and Barbara Smith referred to me as “he.”
Afterwards, she said to me that she finally got it, that she knew that her using masculine pronouns with me lead Ms. Smith to doing the same. Since then, she has become much more empowering to transpeople, more of an ally in opening space for them to blossom beyond the binary conventions placed on their body and their history.
It’s great that I could offer her that learning experience, but the notion that it is my job to train people who claim to be helping professionals and usually want me to pay them for the experience, well, it’s just nasty.
Sure, I have do have some successes. A piece I read to a class of LSW candidates in 1996 lead one of them to thank me when they met me again twenty years later, as well as allowing another transwoman to read it at a recent open mic.
Trying to find help, though, from someone who doesn’t understand what you are saying is very difficult. Too many therapists feel the need to be the smartest person in the room seeing any client as someone less functional than they are.
Instead of having the professional listen to and understand our truth, they just map their understanding of the way the world works onto our details and become indignant when we don’t embrace their superior wisdom.
Because transgender is such an individual journey, one towards a truer expression of self that demands moving away from social pressures and conventions, we don’t assimilate, moving to agreeing with the crowd.
That means that we have to leave shared understandings behind to discover what is profoundly true for us.
Learning to follow the golden rule, engaging and understanding the personal truths of others in the way we need our own personal truth to be engaged and understood is at the heart of maturing as a gracious, open and enlightened queer person.
This usually means moving away from spaces where others feel the need to attack anyone who challenges their own beliefs, finding a kind of smugness in silencing voices that challenge them.
Understanding that individual experience is individual experience, that we don’t have to agree with or make the same choices as anyone else is the basis for real, deep understanding. “I could never wear that, but it looks fabulous on you!”
This always starts with open mirroring, reflecting the view of truth that others share without calling it out or judging it. Rather than working to shape it to be what you believe to be correct, you need to just start by affirming that you heard it, because no one can hear you until they believe you have heard them.
Too often, though, understanding is constrained by belief. That, though, leaves us no space to find common ground.
It just makes hearts looking to express their contents invisible and broken.