I wrote this a couple of months ago so some things are a little out-of-date. The overall message, however, remains the same.
When I came out as a non-binary trans person in 2014, I knew I had a lot of explaining to do. I didn’t mind, though; in fact, I immediately started speaking out about the subject as soon as I finally embraced my gender identity. Since then I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to explain what it means to be non-binary and trans in such outlets as Everyday Feminism, Splice Today, Rewire.News, and the 2017 American Humanist Association conference. Other than the occasional troll sliding into my Twitter mentions just to say, “You’re a dude in a dress,” I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from both cis people who have since come to understand more about trans and non-binary issues, and fellow trans and non-binary people who appreciate me saying the things they’re too afraid to say.
Lately, however, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all worth it. No matter how many articles I write or talks that I do or podcasts I’ve been on, transphobia is still the best seller in the marketplace of ideas. On the right are traditional conservatives like Ben Shapiro who argue that trans women are still men because of chromosomes. On the left are radical feminists (or radfems for short) like Meghan Murphy who not only echo Shapiro’s talking point, but also think trans women are men trying to infiltrate women-only spaces in order to assault women. In the center are members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web — the Popular Kids’ Lunch Table of public intellectuals — who are more concerned about Murphy’s recent Twitter ban than her hateful rhetoric, who think trans activism is inherently homophobic (which doesn’t make any sense), and who spread lies and misinformation about gender-affirming therapy. If there’s one thing that unites people from all four corners of the political compass, it’s hatred of trans people.
Sure, I could talk about the science behind gender identity, how biological sex isn’t a strict binary, and how prenatal contact with hormones may affect an individual’s gender identity and presentation. I could write another op-ed trying to convince transphobes we have inherent worth and dignity as human beings. I could even throw a few prominent trans people on Twitter under the proverbial bus in order to make myself look like the Respectable Trans. But there are several other articles, podcasts, op-eds, YouTube videos, and Twitter threads that have done all those things a million times already, and transphobia is still winning. We see this with President Trump’s plans to erase trans people and ban us from the military. We see this with the murder of Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a trans woman who died in an ICE detention center. We see this in the ever growing list of names we read every year at Transgender Day of Remembrance.
This is why I’m cynical of calls to reach across the proverbial aisle and find a “middle ground” between the far-left and far-right. In some cases, compromise and common ground are good things. For example, let’s say I’m a state politician and have to work on the state’s annual budget. I have no problem talking to Republican colleagues who have the same values about education and the environment that I do in order to come up with a final budget that may not solve everything, but it’s at least a good bipartisan step in the right direction for all citizens.
However, there are some issues where there is no middle ground whatsoever. There’s no middle ground between young-earth creationism and evolution, no middle ground between flat-earth theory and reality, and no middle ground between oppression and human rights. Yet in our current discourse, the big name pundits and public armchair intellectuals all believe that the only way to create a more civil America is to debate the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. It’s no longer a debate about the most effective ways to fight bigotry, but rather if we can allow certain forms of bigotry to prevail in order to make everyone happy.
It reminds me of a famous passage in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
As a white person, I don’t want to make a direct comparison between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and my struggle for trans liberation (although racism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry do intersect for my LGBTQ friends of color). However, I’m struck by how similar the white moderates’ voice sounds to today’s classical liberals. Remember in 2016 when Bill Maher complained that trans bathroom bills were “boutique issues” liberals had to put aside in order to defeat Trump? This was Maher’s way of telling trans and non-binary people wait for a more convenient season, despite the fact that trans women were being assaulted in public restrooms. He was putting moderate politics before human lives.
As Audre Lorde once said:
Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.
The same applies to trans people being expected to educate cis people. Sure, if someone wants to know my story and listen without judgement, I’d be more than happy to talk. However, cis people have a responsibility to do their own homework and listen to what trans people have to say rather than just sit in their armchairs and think about our lives as if we are nothing more than abstract concepts. I don’t expect all cis people to fully understand what it’s like to be trans and non-binary, but I do expect them to at least recognize us as human beings with as much inherent worth and dignity as they do, and should have the same full unalienable rights as everyone else. I’m done trying to bend over backwards and literally hurt myself in order to get people to see me as a human being. If cis people want to reach out to me in order to understand what I’ve been through, that’s fine, but I can no longer debate my humanity with them.