The Lazy Person’s Guide to Trans Empathy

8

Imagine being James Baldwin in 1957. You crack open a fresh issue of Dissent Magazine to stare down the barrel of an essay called “The White Negro” by noted white person, Norman Mailer.

Exactly how deep is your eye roll?

No matter how annoyed you might be at this, and how stupidly tone-deaf it might appear to you, it’s not exactly a novelty. You’re used to being discussed in offensive terms by the media. You always hope that something will change—or that (god forbid!) you’ll read something actually written by a Black person.

But time goes by—days, years—and the song remains the same.

Fast forward a few decades and you have the present day—but replace “The White Negro” with “Young, Transgender, and Acting on TV”, one in a string of pieces devoted to trans issues written by cis people, including but not limited to:

Transgender Kids: A Family Quest, a Medical Quandary

The Transgender Bathroom Debate and the Looming Title IX Crisis

About a Boy: Transgender Surgery at 16

Transgender on the Force

Poor, Transgender, and Dressed for Arrest

Meet the Transgender CEO Who Made 38 Million Last Year

Does this strike you as strange? Perhaps not. It isn’t strange—for something that’s become so newly important, the trans rights movement has enjoyed a lot of coverage. Should it feel like such a huge problem that no one is going out of their way to make sure that trans writers are writing about these issues, with headlines that say something more than “A Trans Person Somewhere is Doing Something”?

Maybe not—but it is a problem. And it’s taking our culture kind of a long time to figure that out. Headlines that would be totally inappropriate if the word ‘transgender’ was switched out for the words ‘of color’ not only dominate the news when it comes to trans issues, no one seems to care in the slightest.

Or if anyone cares, they’re being awfully quiet about it. There’s a sense (unspoken mostly) that trans people should be grateful for any kind of coverage, however far from perfect it might be. This is the first flush of national engagement in what many people still view as a new and niche struggle. But it’s really not–it’s not new at all. Trans people–indeed, gender fluidity, is as old as humanity. People have been using whatever bathrooms they please since time immemorial. There’s nothing new about these issues whatsoever–it’s just that people are only now realizing what’s been going on beneath their noses (and their regard) throughout history.

So what happens to trans people who are lucky enough to be trying to do something beyond just surviving–writers, artists, etc.– when our minority status is the only thing people seem to want from us? When the only thing people care to listen to is what you have to say about the least individual part of your individuality?

When the people in my life who are not trans want to ask me anything personal, they struggle. They want to know about what they see as the inner workings of being trans: How does dating work? When did you know? Do you need surgery? What is the surgery like? What do you do when you need to go to the bathroom?

Hence the influx of articles, interviews, roundtables, human interest stories, and after school specials built up around these questions.
And I get it. People are still scared, they’re curious. They want to understand, but they’re afraid. The dumb questions are an entry-way–and they desperately need one. We’re still in that weird place where cis people really have to struggle to find similarities between themselves and us–even though the similarities are overwhelming, and mundane. It’s less important for people to know what happens in the bathroom. The important takeaway is that we, like all humans, do indeed use the bathroom. There you go. End of conversation.

Some time ago, I made a list of questions that I wish people asked me instead of the boring stuff. Some of them seem a little invasive, and some of them you definitely wouldn’t want to ask at a first meeting.

Curiosity is a very powerful thing. It’s really the most important tool we have. With curiosity you can defeat almost any fear, any depression–it’s that spark that makes you want to know the answer to something so badly that you can’t help empathizing with someone, or something, that isn’t you.

This is the basis of most great (and even some lousy) fiction: What is someone else’s life like? As a question, it never gets old. And I’d love it if people found ways to ask it of me, without zero-ing in on what they see as the crucial details of the difference between us: Bathrooms, genitalia. Boring stuff. There are other ways of satisfying curiosity. For instance, reading books about trans people written by trans people. Listening to their stories. Trying to imagine what it would be like if, for some reason, their struggles were yours.

But they’re the questions that need to be asked somehow, at some point, on a cultural level. By artists, politicians, and family members, and anyone who has enough curiosity about our lives to follow through in the move toward empathy. I’ve thought about each of these questions deeply, but not because anyone asked me to answer them. I wish someone had.

1. What was the first time you remember feeling like you were doing something wrong by being you?

2. Where did this guilt come from? (i.e. religion, community, social beliefs of parents, class expectations etc.)

3. When was the first time you realized it might be okay to be you?

4. What was the reason for that?

5. Describe the first friendship you made as ‘you’ (after you came out)

6. How did your friendships change once you came out (both friendships you made and friendships you’d had before)

7. Who disappointed you the most when you came out to them?

8. Who disappointed you the least?

9. Who surprised you?

10. Has your identification changed since you’ve come out?

11. What about your ideas about gender?

12. When did you learn about trans history?

13. Did someone tell you about it or did you seek it out yourself?

14. What was the first violent event you associated with being trans (the first suicide you heard of, movie or tv show you watched, book you read)

15. How did it affect you?

16. Who was the first trans person you met?

17. What was (is) your relationship?

18. In your current life, do you have to tell people you’re trans?

19. If so, how does the relationship change afterward (if at all?)

20. If not, how does it affect you?

21. As a child, when and where did you feel the most safe?

22. As an adult, when and where do you feel the most safe?

23. If you could have picked a perfect time to ‘come out’, when would it have been?

24. What was your first experience with suicide or a suicide attempt (your own, or someone else’s)?

25. When was the first time you felt you had established a chosen family (if at all?)

26. When was the first time you felt someone really got you?

27. What was your first positive mental health experience (if any?)

28. What was the first representation of transness that you saw that made you angry?

29. What was the first representation of transness that you saw that left you feeling positive (if any?)

30. Do you feel like you had a childhood?

31. What’s something you hope to do for a young trans person growing up that you wish someone had done for you?

It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a good start.

 

Henry Giardina is FourTwoNine’s Senior Editor. His work can be found at henrygiardina.com

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About The Author

Henry Giardina is FourTwoNine's Senior Editor

  • Patrick McHew

    I think the biggest confusion comes from understanding what trans people mean when they say they feel like they are in the wrong body. How can anyone know what the opposite gender feels like? How does anyone know what their own gender feels like? I am a man because I am born with male parts. I have lived my life as a boy then man due to my biological makeup and all my hormones.

    For example, boys are not inherently born with a desire for short hair any more than girls are born with a desire for long hair. The same goes for the clothes that they wear. Even behavior and emotions don’t belong to one gender or the other. A girl can be as traditionally masculine as comes natural to her but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still a girl. The same goes for a boy who is into fashion, likes to wear dresses/dress effeminately, or be super emotional. The gay community sees this all the time but they usually identify as cisgender.

    I don’t particularly care for certain behaviors that society deems appropriate for men such as watching sports, hunting, beer, or rough housing but that in no way makes me think that I am not a man.

    Also, even though there may be a history of transgender folk being around forever, so has schizophrenia and a lot of other mental illnesses that treatment has/had not been discovered yet.

    Therefore, I ask, why can’t transgender people be who they are without altering their bodies or desiring different pronouns? Does your hair, clothing, makeup or lack of makeup determine your gender or do you need to physically look how you feel? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be who they are, quite the opposite, but to demand society to change for what seems to be such a small percentage of the population seems a tad extreme. I think we, as a society, should be more open to the two sexes engaging in behaviors that comes naturally to them and to not judge them for it. If you are born male but want to wear dresses and have boobs, then by all means do what you want to do, just know that you are a man in a dress, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.

    All that being said, no violence or poor treatment of transfolk should ever be permitted.

    • Katelyn

      Because my brain literally shuts down because it isn’t mapped for the body I have. You are naive to think being trans has anything to do with hair and make up.

      Imagine someone mashing all the keys on a piano all at once when your brain senses a body part out of alignment?

      Cis people experience it too, to less extremes. Some men are ashamed when they get man boobs and vocalize that it makes them feel less of a man. Women spend hundreds of dollars getting facial hair removed with nary a criticism. But as soon as trans people do or feel these things, all of a sudden we’re “mentally ill” or on par with schizophrenics. That’s bigotry.

      • Patrick McHew

        The difference is that those cisgender folk are doing it for cosmetic reasons due to society’s expectations of what their SEX should look like. It’s about vanity not identity.

        I am not trying to offend anyone so I apologize if it is coming across that way.

        As far as mentally ill/schizophrenia is concerned, I only mentioned those things to illustrate how the argument of being around forever can easily be debunked but comparing it to those illnesses.

        You didn’t answer why you felt like the opposite gender from your sex. You said your brain shuts down and it feels like piano keys being mashed together but the question is why/how you feel that way. How can you know what a female feels?

        If 99% of the world feels that their gender is intrinsically connected with their sex, the challenge boils down to figuring out a way to scientifically explain to the world how someone could be born the opposite of what is being called a societal construct.

        It really boils down to that question and I think that once that is answered in a way other than just describing feelings then progress can be made.

        • Katelyn

          Because my brain is mapped for certain parts and when they aren’t there, my brain goes into emergency panic mode. This is gender dysphoria. Imagine a PC, all of the hardware is set up to run PC software, but some idiot puts in Mac software and the software cannot be changed. Your only choice is to switch out hardware until the software works. That’s what being trans is like.

          The truth is we don’t know what women feel, which is why so many trans people don’t even realize that they’re trans until much later in life. Some people never realize and go their entire lives thinking dysphoria symptoms are normal for everyone.

          There are scientific theories to test why transness happens but it’s wildly unethical to teat on unborn fetuses.

    • Jordan

      I completely agree that society should be more open to people, regardless of gender, not being limited by gender norms.

      But just because you personally aren’t transgender, and you can’t personally relate to how transgender people feel about their bodies, doesn’t mean that other people’s transgender experiences are invalid. The transgender community has and continues to advocate for more space in our society for people who don’t fit gender norms. But transition is the medical treatment for gender dysphoria, as acknowledged in the DSM-V, and is the only treatment proven to work.

      Why do you care if transgender people transition? This is the treatment recommended by my medical doctors, a treatment that is working well for me and for so many others. How does it hurt anyone that I’m seeking out medical care to help alleviate my dysphoria? How does it hurt anyone to use the pronouns I choose for myself?

      Society should BOTH accept that not everyone adheres to gender roles, and ALSO that some people need medical transition to feel comfortable with their bodies.

      • Patrick McHew

        The point I am tying to make is that no matter what you do to your body you will always be the sex you are born with. Any additions or subtractions are physical only. If you are born a girl you will always be a girl but if you want to wear men’s clothes and have short hair rock on! I am not saying you can’t be who you are but why can’t you be who you are and still identify as a woman? Why can’t women do what you feel you can only do as a man?

        One cannot be the opposite of their “assigned gender” if there are no real rules for gender. I don’t like to watch sports, gamble, or pound down beers but that doesn’t make me any less of a man.

        What I guess I am trying to understand is why individuals feel like they are trans. Where does that come from? Why do they feel that they have to surgically alter their bodies to be at peace with who they are?

        There’s no hate intended, just hard to articulate these type of topics.

      • Rob McGee

        Jordan:

        I don’t care if *you* transition. I do care if, for example, a lesbian teenager with Asperger’s latches onto a false trans-identity and seeks to emulate the medical-transitioning path that you chose, because YOU swear it was helpful, and Jazz Jennings is doing it, too!

        In the past, it was difficult to get answers to the basic question: When do hormones and surgery help people with gender dysphoria, and when does such transitioning turn out to be unhelpful? So few trans people were out, and there were layers and layers of confidentiality around the process. But as more trans people come out, it seems to me that now is the ideal time to ask candidly about the long-term results and risks of transitioning:

        What percentage of post-transition patients continue to experience “body dysphoria,” like 75-pound Karen Carpenter looking in the mirror and seeing Mama Cass staring back at her?

        What percentage of patients later come to regret the medical transitioning, and wish they had chosen a less radical therapy?

        Is it possible to predict in advance which patients are most likely to benefit psychologically from transitioning, and which ones would be better off with a counselor who tells them, in effect: “No, no, no, you’re not really trans, and transitioning won’t help you — you’re just differently cis, and THAT’S OKAY.”

        In short, is it possible that in 50 years, psychologists will look back on “transitioning” as a horrifically outdated and quackish approach to treating Gender Dysphoria?

        (I’ve read plenty of anecdotal claims about people who apparently didn’t experience psychological relief after transitioning, but as we know, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.”)

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