Thursday, July 02, 2015

When Demanding Your Freedom Backfires

I don't think I'd be able to write a column like this a few years ago. My annoyance and sarcasm would have destroyed whatever good intentions I might have had in crafting this essay. I would have opened myself up to substantial criticism, which would have made me feel even more defensive, and less tolerant. Those days are gone, fortunately, for everyone involved.

During my recent and mercifully brief hospital stay, I made friends with a fellow patient. He identified as transgender and preferred to use male pronouns. Fine by me. Only a month ago I returned from a workshop that talked specifically about gender-neutral pronouns. I wrote my own preferred set down on my nametag with a black sharpie marker, as did all the other participants. That act was part of an exercise and talk by a speaker.

I learned a lot of interesting, eye-opening information at that conference, but this education and training was presented in a spirit of calm and love, not defensiveness. Without sounding condescending, age probably makes a great deal of difference in situations like these. The transman I spoke to was only eighteen and barely out of high school. He was clearly still processing who he was, which is why he was so insistent that everyone use the correct pronoun in his presence, even though pronouns are an ingrained part of our speech that we learn at a very young age.

I'm glad that at that age, eighteen, people are now able to make the connection. I'm glad they know who they are and know what transgender even is. That would never have been the case in my own Gen X existence fifteen years before, which is really not that long ago. I didn't know what transgender or transsexualism was until I was twenty-four years old. And I didn't really understand it until about five years ago.

As is often the case for people who have been consistently misunderstood and marginalized by society, he grew instantly angry if his wrong pronoun was used, though sometimes this happened quite accidentally. If I'd been constantly reminded that my real gender was not the gender I'd been labeled by everyone else over the course of one lifetime, I'm sure I might get a little defensive at times myself, though if I could have dispensed my own advice, it would be that this anger was little more than wasted energy.

I cut this person a degree of slack. His gender identity is clearly very important to him, but if the passage of time has taught me anything, it's that priorities eventually change. I may confess to being bisexual and genderqueer, even if they make me uncomfortable to think about from time to time, but neither are they the center of my universe as they once were. They may always be sensitive topics, but my approach is more of immediate shame than it is anger. Everyone responds in different ways, but nothing has the power to offend like anger.

The problem, among many, is that attitudes like the ones displayed by this transman can come across to some as selfish and entitled. And what I saw in this fellow patient was sometimes focused purely on the ego, not on consensus-building with allies or constructive dialogue. He was not willing to meet his audience halfway. In a much larger sense, it is where this stereotypical perception of humorless killjoy feminist begins. To echo what I said earlier, though I am far from old, I recognize that part of the issue here is age and maturity.

But neither do I want to come across as some great all-knowing, sentient being. I make my own mistakes from time to time, as do all of us. Observing him, I realize I am not a Millennial, time has passed in my own life, and that I have made a tremendous amount of progress towards self-acceptance. What I'm seeing in front of me in the person of him is likely insecurity and angst, two qualities I possessed in ample quantities when I was in college.

I bother to share this anecdote to warn all of us, regardless of gender identity, how we can wrongly come across in our desire to be taken seriously and to be validated as to who we are. This man will likely be very different when he is my age, fifteen years from today. Discussions about gender and the appropriate terminology are relatively new. In another decade, I will bet you that we'll be talking about something different. I noted in a recent post how obsessed we were in the 1990's regarding young girls with eating disorders, and though those problems still exist, they're not given the same stress today.

Encountering people like the transman mentioned above makes me feel resentful, which, as an ally, I don't want. But it seems that in this society we increasingly institute social reform 150% or not at all, both of which creates backlash despite our best, most altruistic intentions. It might take a momentary period of saturation to make the changes we need, but I need a break from trans issues for a while. I will return to them eventually, but not for a while.

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