All posts by iusescarywords

Three Common Ways to Perpetuate the Marginalization of Trans* People, Even if you’re Not ‘Against’ Them

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.


On Gun Control: The Question that Keeps Getting Buried


The recent debate over increased restrictions on firearm ownership has raised a number of questions. Most of us have made (or at least encountered) several arguments over the proposed changes to firearms regulations, and everyone seems to have opinions on whether having guns available to the public increases or decreases the frequency of violent crime. Activists on both sides of the issue will acknowledge that guns make killing easier, compared to other weapons used at an interpersonal range (including blades, blunt instruments, hands and feet, etc.), but the tension skyrockets as soon as someone expresses an opinion on the implications of that fact.

Although research shows that a gun in the household increases the likelihood that a resident of that household will die in a gun homicide, there are also a small percentage of cases (compared to yearly estimations of violent crime rates) in which would-be victims use guns in self-defense. I have observed during my own research that statistics linking violent crime rates and increased gun ownership are all over the place. Pundits on both sides of the issue have no trouble finding numbers that support their claims.

The question at the center of the gun control debate is whether or not there is something unique about guns, which makes them a greater hazard to innocent people than other weapons. Specifically, does the availability of a gun contribute to the likelihood that someone will get injured or killed, by accident or intent, more so than the availability of a knife, baseball bat, cudgel, sword, or any other relatively close-range weapon? While this is an important inquiry, and has received a considerable amount of media and research attention, I believe that if we want to get to the core of the issue, we need to get even more specific and ask something that is often glossed over. We need to ask if carrying a gun, by itself increases the likelihood that an individual with violent tendencies will commit a violent crime, more so than carrying another interpersonal-range weapon. In other words, we know that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” (for all that argument is worth), but how much does a gun influence the decision to kill?

Of course, this is an extremely loaded question. Many gun law opponents refuse to give it a moment’s consideration, most likely because they believe that asking it insinuates that carrying a gun, (or wanting to) inherently makes a person more violent, which is not only offensive, but also false. Regardless, the question requires close examination before anyone can develop an effective approach to gun law. The purpose of this post is to consolidate the evidence that killing with a gun requires less aggression and less psychological instability than killing with a knife or another interpersonal-range weapon. If true, this would mean that a potentially violent person is more likely to attempt or cause a violent death if they have access to a gun. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is so concerned about empirical research into this question that it has taken measures to prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence. However, relevant evidence still exists. Let’s take a closer look at it.

Guns Make Killing Easier

The most obvious way in which guns are different from other weapons commonly used at a similar range is that, physically, they make killing very easy and efficient. They only require aiming and pull a trigger, which requires less effort (and significantly less risk of bodily harm) than any other comparable act of physical violence. If this essay were discussing any other topic than killing, it would seem obvious to assume that making an action easier will increase the likelihood that it will occur, and therefore its frequency. For example, the less security a valuable item has, the more likely a thief is to steal it, regardless of that thief’s commitment to following through with the theft. The easier a test is, the more likely a student is to pass it, regardless of that student’s commitment to learning. The more intuitive a puzzle is, the more likely a child is to solve it, regardless of that child’s intelligence. The easier an outdoor trashcan is to access, the more likely a pedestrian is to avoid littering.

And so on. The examples are endless. So why do we assume that a weapon that makes killing significantly easier and less risky than other weapons won’t result in more death, even in the hands of someone who isn’t as committed to killing as some other murderers? I believe the reason for this inconsistency is that the idea of deadly violence is steeped in mysticism, and many people believe that killing is a matter of good versus evil instead of a bell curve of violent tendencies throughout the population. Examining cultural notions of good and evil and how they skew our perceptions of violence is a topic that warrants its own essay. Since it’s beyond the scope of this one, I’ll move on.

Guns Make Killing Less Psychologically Traumatic

In addition to dramatically decreasing the physical effort and physical risk required to commit most murders, guns make killing more psychologically palatable. Let’s try a thought experiment to illustrate this point: Imagine that you needed to kill someone, either in self-defense, defense of a loved one, on a battlefield, or whatever other circumstances would be necessary for you to contemplate killing another human being. Would you rather wrestle the person to the ground and gouge their eyes out, stab them with a bayonet, impale them on a pike, or shoot them with a gun from a minimum of 10 feet away? If you’re like me (and most other people), you would probably hope that you had a gun available. If it were absolutely necessary to kill this person, the gun option seems the least visceral, the least nauseating, and by all accounts the least horrendous, even though the end result of causing another human being’s death doesn’t change.

The reason for this is that our natural resistance to committing homicide decreases with greater distance, both psychological and physical, between killer and victim. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman expands on this principle in On Killing. According to Grossman’s simple diagram illustrating this argument (shown below), killing with a pistol or rifle presents the least psychological resistance to killing than any other “close range” weapon. The far left of the diagram shows the closest possible proximity, “sexual range,” which would be required for the first option in our thought experiment above, presenting the most psychological resistance.


Of course, we all know from crime dramas and pop psychology that some humans don’t experience the same natural resistance to killing that the rest of us do. Some people have antisocial personality disorder, sometimes known as psychopathy, which is rare in its most extreme forms. However, most criminals do not fit the criteria for APD, so whether or not Grossman’s theory applies to those diagnosed is beyond the scope of this post.

Guns and Impulsive Murder

Another important note about the unique nature of guns is that they not only make killing easier, they make it faster. In other words, guns make instantaneous death a more likely outcome of violence. The below graphic from the Washington Examiner illustrates the overwhelming majority of murders in 2010 that were committed with guns as opposed to other weapons. I have argued that guns make killing easier, more efficient, and less risky than other close-range weapons do, both psychologically and physically, which is a likely reason for the prevalence of guns as a murder weapon. Another plausible factor is that victims of gun violence are more likely to die of their wounds than victims of violence that involves other weapons, whether murder was intended or not.


The decision to kill, just like any other human decision, is subject to impulse. Previous research indicates that most violent crime is not premeditated. In fact, it has been estimated that between 60 and 90 percent of violent crimes are committed impulsively. This contradicts the argument posed by some gun control opponents that choosing a gun instead of another close-range weapon merely reflects a violent criminal’s desire to kill. Since more violent crimes are impulsive than premeditated (which seems unsurprising if you believe in the bell curve of violent tendencies rather than the forces of good and evil), then most violent perpetrators do not “choose” their weapons at all. They merely attack with whatever is accessible, both intellectually and spatially, which is more likely to result in death if they have access to a gun.

If most violence is spur-of-the-moment, and most murder weapons are guns, then it’s likely that guns contribute to deaths that result from impulsive decisions more often than other comparable close-range weapons. Suicide is also frequenly a form of impulsive killing. According to research by Miller, Matthew, Hemenway, and David (2008), about 70 percent of suicide victims make the decision to kill themselves within an hour of the act. Furthermore, an overwhelming 90 percent of people who survive a suicide attempt do not die in a subsequent attempt, and instead go on to die of an unrelated cause. I have already argued that using a gun is easier, quicker, more appealing, and more efficient than other close-range weapons, and that gun wound victims are more likely to die of their injuries. Therefore, the evidence is strong that access to guns increases the risk of death for individuals with suicidal tendencies. This could explain why previous estimates have found that more than 50 percent of completed suicides are committed with guns in the Unites States.

Some gun law opponents argue that access to guns only increases the risk of suicide by guns, not the overall risk of suicide. However, this study from 1999 showed that suicide was the leading cause of death among a sample of recent firearm purchasers. Another study, a literature review by Miller & Hemenway, showed that the rate of suicide is higher among people who live in homes with loaded or easily accessible firearms. While the latter review does not examine the possibility that the availability of guns may affect the rate of attempted suicide, it does look at rates of successful suicides.

Guns and Accidental Death

If you accept the arguments presented so far, it seems intuitive why guns would cause more accidental death than any other close-range weapon. Although yearly deaths by accidental gun discharge are a popular topic in scientific literature, very little data is available for comparing accidental gun deaths with accidents involving blades, clubs, fists, or other close-range weapons. However, it is worth noting that guns are the only close-range weapon to make it into the top ten causes of  accidental death for any age group (10 to 14 in 2010, 2007, and 2005, as well as 5 to 9 in 2007), according to this data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Although the purpose of this essay is to compare guns with other short-range weapons, I would like to bring up a popular rebuttal to the citation of yearly accidental gun deaths in the United States. Gun law opponents often compare statistics on gun accidents with the much greater prevalence of accidental deaths from more mundane risks, such as dying in an automobile accident or drowning, which are examples of national leading causes of accidental death by injury. Why don’t we regulate water and automobiles, too? They ask.

First of all, automobiles are already more tightly regulated than guns. Secondly, although automobile and drowning accidents cause more deaths per year than firearm accidents, things such as cars, water, and certain potentially toxic household substances are necessary for our society’s way of life. For better or for worse, we depend on these things, and they are useful more often than they are deadly. We do not depend on handguns or other firearms for any routine, practical purpose. Given their relative lack of utility compared to other potentially dangerous items, calling for more restriction on them than, for example, water, is reasonable.


Although the topic of gun violence is receiving copious amounts of media attention and focus in political discourse, an alarmingly small portion of the discussion even scrapes the surface of the psychological and physical factors that set guns apart from other interpersonal-range weapons. Even most media that advocates stricter gun laws glosses over the logic behind the focus on guns and what makes them more dangerous than other weapons. For a debate that centers on the role of firearms in accidents and violence, we desperately need a heightened focus in this area, since much of it is unintuitive and poorly understood.

The consolidated evidence in this essay shows that guns do require different regulatory treatment than other comparable weapons. The physical ease and efficiency required to kill with a gun, combined with its relative psychological accessibility, indicates a strong possibility that the availability of guns, more so than other weapons, can increase the likelihood and frequency of violent crime.

By increasing restrictions and regulations on guns, stricter gun laws could reduce the likelihood that individuals with violent or unstable tendencies will commit murder, as well as cut down on gun accidents. However, the current gun law proposals have a few flaws that cause me to doubt their potential to make a substantial impact on gun violence. They would probably be more effective –or at least better reasoned– with a stronger focus on handgun regulation, since most assaults are impassioned, one-on-one altercations. Another flaw lies in their hard stance on assault weapons, which is an easy target for critics who observe how few homicides are committed with rifles. Cracking down on assault weapons is unlikely to deter any of the isolated homicides that only require one bullet, especially when these individual deaths are more often the permanent result of a fleeting impulse than a calculated plot. We need to reframe the current gun control debate in terms that make more room for the core issues of whether or not guns are unique among other short-range weapons in their capacity to increase the likelihood of violence. That is, any violence, not just gun violence. Only then can this nation’s gun policies approach sustainability and balance.

Some Ending Remarks

This author does not dislike guns. In fact, like many United States residents, I have fond memories of learning hunter’s safety from my father and accompanying him to a local shooting range. I remember the swell of pride and sense of self-efficacy I felt the first time I hit the center of a paper target with a .22 caliber rifle, and the weighty sense of responsibility I felt the first time I fired a .44 caliber handgun. I do not seek to deprive my fellow citizens of these experiences, unless they must come with a burden of a higher rate of violence and a higher rate of death following violent assaults. I believe a happy medium exists that will allow us to use guns for recreation without them posing a disproportionate level of danger to their owners and the people around them. However, striking such a balance will require a paradigm shift in how we approach guns and gun violence.

Deconstructing “PC:” Political Correctness as Censorship, and Other Misconceptions

Have you ever said (or posted) something that you thought was totally innocuous, and then had several people jump down your throat in their hurry to accuse you of brainless insensitivity? Did you wonder, perhaps with some amount of incredulous disdain, why your innocuous remark should carry enough weight to offend, or how you were supposed to know that it would?

If something like this has happened to you, and you found yourself unable to empathize with the offended individual or group, you may now believe that the person/group is at best hypersensitive and at worst responsible for perpetuating their own marginalization. You may have even taken these sentiments to the next level by feeling disillusioned by the entire “PC movement.”

If you see yourself at all in this scenario, yours was a completely normal reaction to an awkward situation. In fact, you’re right about one thing– there was probably no easy way for you to have known it would happen.

So, why are “PC” rules necessary if all they do is promote mysterious conventions that censor social interactions to coddle the hypersensitive?

The answer only requires an understanding that people with different backgrounds and experiences also have different perspectives. For a well-documented example, if you are a member of an unstigmatized ethnicity (read: white), a remark that you wouldn’t think twice about if aimed at you might, if aimed at a person from an ethnic minority, remind them of the subtle slights they experience every day of their lives. The difference there is not oversensitivity, but awareness of a kind of privilege that you may not even realize that you have. The white person in this scenario is not “tougher.” They just come from a different perspective than the person of color, and have fewer reasons to take offense.

Sound obvious? Unfortunately, you only need to read the responses to an online article in which a stigmatized individual requests better treatment to witness droves of commenters telling the person to shut up and stop inconveniencing the majority. For an example, see this article about the mother of a disabled child requesting a retake of a class picture so that her son is shown sitting with the other students instead of off by himself in his wheelchair. There is no shortage of users (most without disabilities or children who use wheelchairs) in the comments section criticizing the mother for her oversensitivity and describing how they think she should feel about the situation, apparently unaware of why their perspectives may be different from hers.

And then there’s this comment about racism that I saw online several years ago, which went something like this:

“Do you know how we can end racism? Stop talking about racism.”

(Dear Anonymous Commenter from the Past: If we stopped talking about racism, the only people who would think racism had ended would be the people who don’t experience it.)

I bring up Anonymous Commenter from the Past because silencing all discussion of racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and any other prejudice or social injustice would be the only way to end the discussions of what is harmful to say about a group with a history of mistreatment and oppression, and what is not. Are we always going to understand the intricacies of why something is offensive to a a given group, and not to others? Probably not. Should our first reaction be to trust that someone we offend has a legitimate reason to be offended, even if we don’t understand it? Absolutely.

I have also seen PC rules conflated with affirmative action, which is inaccurate. If affirmative action refers to a policy that compensates a minority group for some kind of privilege that the majority enjoys, then political correctness is simply a way of acknowledging that privilege.

PC rules exist so that you don’t have study every oppressed culture, subculture, and minority in the world to avoid contributing to their mistreatment.

PC rules exist because, no matter how benign our intentions may be when we communicate, our words and social interactions always mean something.

PC rules exist to provide us with shortcuts to making ourselves better members of an increasingly global community.

PC rules exist to help us convey our intentions in social situations without getting lost in a void of superficial misunderstandings.

PC rules are not censorship. They are a guide to more effective communication.