As a person of non-standard gender identity, and someone who works hard to use their relative privilege to speak out against transphobia, I tend to notice some recurring themes in critique of the Trans* community whenever someone pushes back against cissexist oppression. It’s particularly frustrating when this resistance comes from people who claim to support LGBT acceptance, or even people who self-identify as Trans* “allies.” When Trans* people object to the everyday slights that are both evidence of and fuel for the continued marginalization of their community, they are constantly met with accusations of oversensitivity, combativeness, and ingratitude for the “support” of people who don’t actively malign them.
I don’t claim to understand the experiences of people who identify as Trans,* and I don’t wish to speak for them. However, many of the slights I see from some individuals who believe that they support the Trans* community have to do with basic concepts of empathy and privilege that I can (and should) talk about.
A lot of cis people visibly have trouble accepting the fact that not shunning Trans* people doesn’t mean that you can’t accidentally contribute to the marginalization of those with non-cis identities. Believing that everyone deserves to be treated equally does not make you a moral champion of the disenfranchised; it simply means you meet the minimum standard of human decency. This has been said a lot, but it bears repeating: not hating the Trans* community doesn’t make you an ally, and it doesn’t mean that you can say uneducated and problematic things without backlash.
It’s impossible to sum up all the ways in which people who see themselves as allies can inadvertently silence and derail discussions about Trans* rights in a post this length. However, I’ve observed some examples more frequently than others. Here’s a brief overview of three things self-proclaimed advocates sometimes do that harm Trans* people instead of supporting them:
1. Refusing to Apologize for Harmful Behavior While Citing “Good Intentions”
In a recent online conversation I was perusing about what is and is not okay to say to a Trans* person or a person of non-standard gender identity, one comment in particular stood out to me as an example of a problematic derailment tactic. The commenter wished to defend cis folks who are criticized for their unintentionally oppressive behavior, and wondered why good intentions aren’t enough to excuse those who don’t know any better.
For a little bit of context, the controversy was over a televised interview on Piers Morgan Live in which Morgan (who claimed to be a trans* ally) asked invasive and exploitative questions of interviewee Janet Mock instead of focusing on her achievements as a trans* advocate. Members of the Trans* community, and others who observed the problematic conduct of Morgan and others involved in the interview, were outraged.
The commenter defended Morgan thusly:
“… Is there a point at which we can stop getting so offended by words that weren’t intended to be, and look more at the actions of the person saying it?”
This is the same as asking, when are Trans* people going to stop complaining about being mistreated and start being content with the good intentions of whoever claims to espouse equal treatment? Isn’t that enough?
It’s not the Trans* community’s (or any other minority group’s, for that matter) responsibility to settle for good intentions in lieu of proper treatment to protect the feelings of self-identified “allies” who don’t actually behave as such. Asking a member of an oppressed minority to be content with the good intentions of those who do not manifest those intentions in supportive behavior is the same as asking them to accept the inequality that they are trying to counteract.
“…we keep chopping who’s who and what’s what into smaller and smaller pieces while talking about how we shouldn’t label others.”
I included this sentence because it brings up a related, if different, problem that causes attempts at empathy to fall short of actual empathy. There is a very real difference between “labeling others” and unpacking your privilege in order to gain a better understanding of how others’ experiences of the world may differ from yours. Unfortunately, refusing to understand this distinction is a common form of resistance to acknowledging privilege. “What? Think about how ‘they’ experience life differently from ‘me?’ Wait a minute, isn’t that …labeling people?” In fact, it’s just the opposite, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that all of our experiences are the same. All that does is protect the current status quo.
Empathy isn’t treating others how you want to be treated. It’s treating them the way you would want to be treated, if you were them. That means taking the time to understand various ways in which they’ve been forced to experience life differently from you, and how that might make their needs different from yours.
2. Rejecting Criticism by Playing the Victim
Privilege is a sensitive topic. It’s normal to hate thinking about it, because no one likes the suggestion that they’ve been given an unfair advantage in life. No one wants to hear that things you have no control over might have given you a boost in some of your achievements. We still need to talk about it, though, and if you happen to be the one with more privilege in a given situation, it’s your job to resist the urge to get defensive and listen. Your responsibility to listen is greater than the other person’s duty to sugarcoat what they’re saying, because they’re most likely not insulting you. Privilege is simply a fact.
Trans* people shouldn’t be held responsible for everyone’s feelings that get hurt at the suggestion that maybe they haven’t examined their privilege closely enough. There’s a point at which scolding minority groups for correcting their advocates’ mistakes stops being constructive criticism and turns into silencing, which is a form of oppression. This is another example of the attitude that says “shut up and be thankful that I’m not actively trying to treat you like dirt.” It has to stop. Again, it’s not enough to simply be okay with who someone is. You also have to act like it.
I’ll conclude this section by referring you to this great comic, which does an excellent job of illustrating what it means to acknowledge your privilege without accepting guilt or blame.
3. Putting Your Curiosity Above Another Person’s Right to Privacy
I’ve seen a lot of this:
“But… I’m really curious about the physical aspects of being Trans*!”
It’s normal to be curious about another person’s experience. The question is, is your curiosity more important than common courtesy, or another person’s dignity? It’s very entitled of you to assume that someone is obligated to answer invasive questions about their body for the sake of satisfying your curiosity. Additionally, it’s something we would never do in polite conversation unless we assumed the person we were talking to somehow owed it to us for being strange.
Think about it this way: we’ve all experienced curiosity in everyday social situations, but sometimes it is simply not okay to ask questions. Maybe you’ve wondered about a cis co-worker’s medical issues before, but haven’t asked because you don’t know the person very well. Maybe you’ve wondered if your boss’s bad mood was due to a frustrating sex life. Do you walk up and ask? Probably not, if you want to keep your job. Trans* people deserve the same courtesy.
If you wouldn’t ask a cis stranger or acquaintance a given question for the sake of manners, I’d recommend spending some time thinking about why such questions would suddenly seem more okay if you found out that the stranger had a Trans* identity. Even if you really WOULD ask just anyone invasive questions about their bodies or sex lives regardless of their gender identity, then it’s still important to think about how you might some across, particularly to a Trans* or LGBT person.
I’ll stop here, since it is my intention to avoid speaking for Trans* people. If you would like a more thorough explanation of how expressing curiosity can be invasive and inappropriate, or would like clarification on some of the terms I used, I’ll refer you to another writer’s list of FAQs that she frequently receives about her personal life.