I just finished watching the Netflix documentary Disclosure, and it was transformative. Seeing the full lives and perspectives of trans individuals had such an impact on me. I do not want to claim that I am totally different now than I was before I saw this film, but it really brought home what I felt in writing the essay below several weeks ago. Exposure to and connection with one another’s stories is not a cure-all for biases, but it does change us. Stories help to normalize people’s experiences. Stories help us see the common humanity we all share. They help us look across what divides us and see what connects us. Please, take a couple hours and watch Disclosure. You owe it to yourself and to others to hear these stories.
Am I transphobic? Maybe that is too strong a word, but am I uncomfortable with transgender people? Mentally, I completely agree with each trans person living in whatever way they feel they should live. But I must admit that when I am physically in the presence of a transgender person, I experience some dissonance. I was raised in an environment and in a time when gender was presented and viewed as simple — male or female, completely connected to the physical body and the features with which one was born. So now, when I am with someone who does not adhere to that simplistic view, I experience discomfort.
We have tried to explain to our child that people might be born with a particular set of features, but they might experience their gender as not matching those features. One of the children’s librarians at our local library is trans, and our child appears to be comfortable around them. But I always feel a little bit uneasy — will I use the wrong pronoun, will I say the wrong thing? And really, it all comes back to my own experience, or lack thereof. It comes back to the implicit bias that is built into the normalizing of that experience.
At the same time, I have to be aware that individual implicit bias is tied in a very real way to systemic oppression of a people. Those individual biases and discomforts, when allowed free rein, give cover to a society that presents a monolithic “right way” to be…or in this case, two particular right ways to be. And for those who do not fall neatly into those two categories, we are free to discriminate against them in any way.
That discrimination took a hit this week, when the Supreme Court ruled that civil rights law protects gay, lesbian, and transgender people from workplace discrimination. This is a small step in recognizing the humanity of gay, lesbian, and transgender people. I celebrate the decision, and know that we must extend the decision outside of workplaces into other realms. Unfortunately, this decision doesn’t change the systemic discrimination that trans, gay, and lesbian people have to endure in other arenas.
And this decision does not change the discomfort that still dwells in my body. That is something I must work to examine and root out. But while I do that work, let me be clear — I can feel discomfort around people and still recognize and fight for their humanity. And over time, fighting for that humanity will also make me better able to recognize and feel it.
One person’s liberation must not depend on another person’s comfort. I do not need to be comfortable with you to fight for you. My discomfort is not about something that is wrong with you — it is about something that I must unlearn. As a white, heterosexual, able-bodied man, I have much to unlearn, and I commit myself to doing so in the realms of gender, of sexuality, of race and ethnicity. I have many years unlearning and learning ahead of me, many connections and relationships to develop, and much discomfort to embrace. And while I am doing that work on myself, I have much work to do to ensure that government policy and process do not enact my comfort at the expense of transgender people and their liberation.
Please follow this blog by subscribing at the bottom of this page. And please follow me on Twitter and Instagram: