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Monthly Archives: March 2015

Why Labeling People “Privileged” Isn’t Helping

PrivilegeBack in October I tabled a Trans Health Initiative conference here in Buffalo. It was a great day and we actually appeared to have more cisgender folks there than trans for a change. This was fantastic because first hand, in person exposure to a trans person is the very best way to create understanding and a desire to be supportive. Usually anyway, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The keynote speaker was CeCe McDonald, and I was pretty excited we got her to come on down to Western New York and spread an inspirational message.

For the most part, her talk was very good, and I was glad I was there to see it. Her message was one of struggle, overcoming overwhelming adversity, and her personal courage. From my vantage point at the Spectrum table I could see that she was resonating with the audience and was overjoyed that she was reaching the cis folks as well. Then she went into privilege and one by one, I could see her losing them. From there she transitioned into white trans privilege and she started to even lose some of the trans folk. Nothing she said about this was the least bit untrue by the way, but nevertheless, the message was building up the very walls she so effectively knocked down moments before.

We speak of white privilege, male privilege, socio-economic privilege, cis privilege and so on. These are all true things, do really exist every day in the real world, and do impact everyone on the basis of whether or not they have these things. There is no denying it. Privilege exists and it has the power to profoundly impact, through opportunity or repression, what a person might achieve in this life. I can see very clearly what a huge advantage I had living as a white male and how far I have fallen as a white transgender woman. I can also see that where I am now is a far, far more advantageous position than if I was a black transgender woman who came from impoverished circumstances. There is no comparison. Here’s the thing though. People, particularly American people, absolutely despise the notion that they have been granted huge competitive advantages simply through the accident of birth.

American culture is funny that way. We admire and celebrate achievement, fame, and fortune. We hate the idea of these things, however, though any means other than overcoming great obstacles. We believe in the underdog, and nearly all of us secretly believes that we fall into that category. We are a nation who worships rugged individual achievement and abhors the concept of aristocratic entitlement by birth. One of our favorite pastimes is comparing how hard we had it growing up, and the guy who brags about his posh school or family’s wealth is generally labeled a complete schmuck. We all know this is true here. Accusations of advantage are overwhelmingly met with defensiveness. Understanding this about our culture, does it really seem like a smart strategy to start shaming the very people we want to support us?

I will reiterate again; privilege does exist, it is pervasive, and it has a huge impact. We can agree on this amongst ourselves and know that it is true. Some of us can also agree that not all trans begin the race at the same starting point, and that many of our sisters and brothers have many more hurdles to clear before even approaching the much cushier spot we drew. If you can, and want to use the knowledge to make a difference, great. If you can’t and the idea makes you pissy and contentious, just try not to think about it. When it comes to the cisgender population, it’s far better that we stop continuously pointing this out.

I can feel many of  you bristling from here. It’s OK. What I’m proposing sounds akin to staying silent in the face of racism, sexism, or any other ‘ism’ out there. I can also hear someone loading up the “… and there was no one left to say anything when they came  for me” quote. We need to recognize, however, that this isn’t about them, it’s about us. Calling out privilege will not take it away nor bestow it on the trans community, but it will create divisions. It’s not about being right, but being heard, recognized,  and embraced as equals. Emphasizing differences in a “j’accuse!” kind of way puts up walls and dulls the edge of empathy. It’s also good to remember that for all the privilege we assume someone enjoys, they may be facing their own struggles that we have no conception of.

Our true inroad to the hearts of the cis folk is our humanity. It is by living our lives, working, and struggling against inequity are the best tools to gain sympathy, solidarity, and general acceptance. Simply harping on how we are owed on the basis of cis advantage and cis privilege brings none of those things. Those capable of the self-awareness it requires to own their advantages and have clarity about the inequity are can understand this without our pointing it out. Those who are not can easily move from positions of support or even ambivalence to adverse, and that is not good for anyone. We get farther and faster fighting the good fight and inspiring the cheers of those who support us than railing against them for their comfortable seats outside the ring.

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Trans and Faith: A Needless Dispute

MIS SmileI recently flew to St Louis to be in the wedding of my oldest friend, and wasn’t completely sure what to expect. The venue was a conservative denomination of Presbyterian, and although I had received nothing but unconditional loving support from my friend (whom I consider my brother), the notion that some of the congregants might have some feeling about yours truly up at the altar did come to mind. After all, our demographic does have some history with religious intolerance. The experience got me thinking about the problem of faith for so many trans people, as well as the problem that many people of faith have with the very concept of transgender. Let’s talk about that for a minute, shall we?

As no religious demographic exists that fails to produce trans folk, waters can become challenging to horrendously difficult to navigate depending on the prevalent belief structure. Some faiths are very tolerant and welcoming, while others are downright sadistic in their treatment of the non-conforming. At the same time, trans folk are faced with attempting to reconcile their religious identity with their gender identity and often find themselves unable. Both cisgender and transgender people of faith find themselves wondering what kind of God would inflict someone with such a burden in life, especially if it flies in the face of cherished theology and dogma. The gap is too wide to ignore, and oftentimes the results are horrifying. Leelah Alcorn comes to mind.

In regards to religion, sacred documents and scripture are notoriously unclear how to handle our population, leaving the field open to wild interpretation. Many attempts have been made to shoehorn us into instruction on the treatment of eunuchs or homosexuals, with neither being a particularly good fit. While some genderqueer folk do consider themselves to be neither gender none of us identify as eunuchs regardless of pre, post, or non-surgical status. I do not consider myself a castrated man, I consider myself a woman. While we often align ourselves with the homosexual population for mutual interest, our numbers are equitable to the cisgender population in sexual orientation. Still, many religious entities find it impossible to leave this unclassified and unspoken and ultimately make some ruling rather than let the issue simply be. This sometimes works in our favor, and sometimes not, but in neither case does it intrinsically change our gender identities, but only make them more or less easy to come to terms with.

The secondary problem, and one that goes hand in hand with lack of citation in sacred writings, is an inability to classify what exactly causes the transgender condition. Theories abound ranging from pre-natal hormone wash, multiple souls, genetics, karmic punishment, nurture, sexuality, mental illness, lifestyle desires, and demonic possession. I even had gluten allergy proposed to me a few months back. Some theories are more credible than others obviously. Lacking clear and comprehensible evidence that transgender is a medical condition, psychological condition, lifestyle choice, or divine intervention, religious entities are left to pick one that best matches their particular belief system and provide guidance accordingly. Problems arise when the belief structure fails to match the first hand understanding of the trans person. Calling it a lifestyle choice, for example, when the trans person would gladly choose anything but, creates a crisis of faith. The religion may consider the trans person to be obstinate and willfully disobedient, while the trans person is left in crisis with a rapidly eroding certainty that their faith was well placed.

The answers that trans people come to are varied. A few are fortunate enough to belong to a belief system that embraces their identity. Some eschew faith all together and rely solely on observable, testable, and repeatable science to explain all aspects of the universe, denying even the possibility of a God or spirituality. Others attempt to find a variation of their original faith, or a different one all together, that is more accepting. A tiny handful attempt to stick it out and effect a change in understanding; how their existence is not incompatible with the core tenets of their religion. These, of course, are the ones who survive the process. Far too many, cast out by an inflexible system that includes their family and support network, see no other option than to take their own life and end the disparity once and for all.

It seems that at the core of this is the old duel between science and faith. The scientific process produces more evidence every year that ‘transgender’ is a real, verified, and enduring condition of existence for a certain percentage of the population. Some, but not all, religious belief systems cannot account for this in their cosmology and thereby view it as a willful rejection of God-given identity at birth. Man of science, woman of faith, the two shall forevermore be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I don’t really see why the two should be considered incompatible at all if looked at correctly. It’s only when we try to dissect one with the knife of the other do problems start to pop up.

As it’s the biggest tool in my box, I’ll reach in there and pull out an analogy. If one is a detective, he or she will examine each mystery in a precise and methodical way. Looking for clues, developing theories, testing them, weighing the results against existing knowledge, and eliminating the alternatives, a detective will drive to a conclusion that holds up in court. If one is an artist, however, the endless quest is to reflect the unquantifiable nature of the world and capture the emotional essence. If a crime is committed, the detective is most valuable. If creativity designed to produce an emotional response is desired, the artist is the best choice. Just as an abstract painter would be disastrous in working a crime scene, the analytic skills of the detective are fairly useless at the Louvre unless the Mona Lisa is stolen again. It’s not a perfect analogy, but represents what happens when the mind is used to quantify the heart, or the heart is used to puzzle something logistically tricky out.

When attempting to explain aspects of our physical universe, it makes much more sense to utilize the scientific tools we have to ferret out the answers. Using ancient documents, not so much. At the same time, mankind’s attempts to commune with a higher power, spiritually comfort one another, or find hope against all logic, faith is truly best. Each has its function and place, and reliance on only one for all things seems to be a recipe for failure half the time. Using faith to determine the age of the earth, the evolution of species, or whether Noah’s flood really happened or not is missing the point as these things truly don’t matter in a spiritual quest. Likewise, science is a poor tool for determining the nature of God, quantifying enlightenment, or nailing down the afterlife. Each is best in its own sphere, and left there, the constant animosity becomes irrelevant.

As being transgender almost certainly has a root cause in the physical world, it belongs to the realm of science to answer how and why. In the meantime I think it would make sense for faith based institutions to withhold judgment in this arena and welcome existing and new adherents who can contribute to the congregation and be simultaneously helped by the simple acceptance. Trans people could be relieved of the anxiety and guilt they may feel due to shaky interpretations of what God in any setting has been very unclear about. An embracing acceptance of what simply is seems much more in line with the tenets of love and compassion that run through all faiths.

Finally, I think it’s a mistake to assume one must be either a detective or an artist. A detective may use their finely honed logic to pick through meticulous detail and solve the mystery, then come home, get out the canvas and paint something both beautifully inspiring and wholly unrecognizable. It is the reconciliation of each aspect of our being as not incompatible but complimentary, that brings the best peace and greatest good.

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