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:
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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