Monday, February 17, 2014

Leaving Room for Levity in Activism

As a person often frustrated with the pacing and progress of reform, I have to say that the increased tolerance towards LGBTs exceeds my expectations. I never felt entirely alone, but I always believed myself to be a member of a hopeless, forever excluded minority. Fifteen years ago, I never doubted that most people of my generation were solidly in my corner. But as is often the case, I felt that those older than myself, raised in very different times, would not be receptive. I am pleased to be proven wrong on more than one occasion. They've been the ones to shape the legislation and seize the initiative, because those my own age are only now beginning to gain in influence.

The last remaining hurdle to jump is that of transgender equality. Marriage equality between two men or two women is now comprehensible to the average American. The next step is to increase visibility for everyone who falls under the transgender umbrella. Correcting years of misinformation and an inaccurate understanding of transsexuals is the next step. It may come sooner than expected, or it may not.

And though the work so nobly advanced has made a great difference, we must also get our own house in order. To some, even partial ignorance of the terminology and narrative of trans issues automatically must be destructive. The focus shifts from an altruistic desire to aid and assist to a desire to be right at all cost. Some people think that one interaction and exchange of ideas with a transgender person speaks for everyone. We become focused on being a perfect ally, however we define it individually. We ourselves have flaws and shortcomings in more areas than one. The only fair move is to grant others the right to the same imperfection. The unwritten rules of orthodoxy hold us back the same way certain religious groups have to some.

I’m not speaking about the transphobic and deliberately hurtful voices, the Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church hatemongers. These are extreme examples, but sometimes anything that smells even faintly like this sort of intolerance is treated as though no distinction exists. These reactionary voices must be refuted, even though I wonder at times whether their vituperative banter is meant more to produce a reaction than to win anyone's support. They may have been the original trolls, well before the internet. And if they were, what does that say about the kind of anger and venom now thrown about casually in the comment section of multiple websites?

Say something transphobic in a feminist or gender studies forum and the response can be swift and cutting. There’s something more than a little self-righteous about this attitude, as though a few are the keepers of ultimate reality and the one true reform. I would take a step back, if I were they. I've known Atheists who have been rejected from Christian faiths and have called some of them my friend. They sometimes structure their new identity and organization in ways that are as restrictive, exclusionary, and even similar from where they started out.

I’m a person of faith, which is why I often use Scriptural passages to underscore my argument. Here I am referencing the Pharisees, the priestly, elite class of Jews whose hypocrisy and hubris made them a frequent target of Jesus.

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

For the whole of my life, I have known that I wasn’t entirely male. Outside of small groups of sympathetic people, I usually don’t talk about such things. Here's why. Among some, gender identity is rigid and unchanging. To them, my views are automatically invalid and suspect. Among others, I am simply playing with labels in an irresponsible fashion. In reality, my gender identity has changed over time, partially through introspection on my part and also in hearing the distinct stories of others who feel the way I do. Who I am at this moment may well change to my dying day, as I change and as my insights change. Our knowledge and understanding is always in a state of flux.

A year ago, I attended an LGBT conference. Even years after I’ve come out as bisexual and genderqueer, the thought of being around that much commonality is enough to throw me into a fit of anxiety. It was the best of times and the worst of times. I bunked with a man who I presumed was some flavor of queer, though I had no need, nor any desire to ask. We chatted pleasantly because he reminded me of my long-dead Grandparents. But when the talk turned heavy, he noted that he’d never really been able to understand how he ought to identify or how he turned out the way that he was.

He wore a woman’s slip to bed and no one breathed a word of complaint or offense. I found the next morning, when it was time for a shower, that he was hardly the only one to wear some item of women’s clothing. In that regard, I fit in completely and no one judged me. Usually, in situations like these, I resort to slight of hand and paranoia to conceal how I dress. 99.9% of the time, I insist upon strictest secrecy. That wasn’t necessary in this setting and I breathed several great sighs of relief.

Another man the age of my father had been born Mormon and had only recently accepted himself as he was. He harbored lots of resentment towards the church that had insisted he stay closeted. But even so, he showed up every morning for Bible study and usually sat next to me. His behavior at times overreached. Or to put it another way, he tried too hard.

He lived in a rural, conservative small town and took it upon himself as his personal crusade to protect queer youth from violence and suicide. He was obsessed in attracting attention to his cause. I wondered if his motives stemmed entirely from a genuine desire to help or an equally genuine desire to call attention to himself.

In my opinion, it was probably a bit of both. I’ve always challenged myself in Worship or beyond the four walls of the Meetinghouse to get to the seed (a good Quaker term) that pushes me towards God and away from self. For Friends, Worship is an ongoing event, one that does not conclude at 11:30 am on Sunday morning. Using that example, I’ve sought to take every available opportunity to commune with God.

Commune with your own motivations, but don't become shackled to them. For activists and reformers, don’t lose sight of your core initiatives, regardless of your cause. Don’t lose your temper or your composure. Leave room for the unexpected, even as you draw up your battle plans in ways that anticipate no surprises. Don’t let your frustration trick you into confusing allies with adversaries. Know that any hard line stance leaves no room for irony or spontaneity, both of which are essential for levity, sanity, and maybe even a few moments of mirthful laughter here and there.

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