The longer I live with Denise, the more I recognize that a particular sort of timidness on the surface is borne of a deep-seated group of complex fears which are easily confused with a sort of guilt which those of us who support our trans friends might describe as misplaced. Be careful, dear readers, for what we (and sometimes our trans friends themselves) describe as guilt may in fact be simple fear or anxiety. Regardless, being dismissive of the things any person feels at the core is a very good way to make that person feel bad.
Timidity and Self-Reproach
A week or two ago, an old roommate and good friend of mine, Brian, was in town for a business trip and popped by to visit. He and Denise and I played a game, and towards the end Brian misgendered Denise (his brain registered her as male, and male words came out of his mouth). Denise did not correct him. Brian left a few moments later to fetch a different game from his car.
“Why didn’t you correct him?” I asked the moment the front door shut behind Brian.
“I…I don’t know. You usually do it so I don’t have to,” she said timidly. “You can do it in a way that isn’t offensive.” Her voice was full of the same uncomfortable and negative emotion I have often heard when we discuss such things, but which I have never been able to put to words. It’s not quite guilt, fear, anxiety, or timidness, but it sounds rather like all of them mixed up together.
“I do?” I asked in genuine surprise. “I thought I was specifically leaving it up to you to correct people. I feel like it’s your place and not mine…Really? How am I doing it?”
“Yeah. You usually follow it up with a sentence referring to me with the correct pronouns, so they get the point but it’s not like they had to be corrected.”
“Huh. I didn’t even realize I was doing that,” I said, thinking it was a rather sideways sort of correction.
I pondered that, but then Denise said something which almost broke my heart:
“It’s nice that you do. I…I lack the self-confidence to do it myself.”
I put my dropped jaw back in place and we stopped talking because we heard Brian’s approach.
On Saturday I was reading a blog post by Transman, as he calls himself, in which he describes similar emotions, and in fact discusses feeling downright guilty about transitioning (changing his body to reflect his gender) because women might see it as a betrayal to their gender.
Transman lists several fears backing up this guilt. He’s afraid of women’s reactions. As a woman, I wish I could reach out to him and tell him that he is a transman, not a woman, so he cannot betray womankind. As a human, I wish I could take away his fear and guilt, and leave him refreshed and ready to be himself without the mental and emotional hangups our culture seems to thrust upon trans people.
We (Americans) as a whole do not have a true conception of what it is to be trans, thus to be born trans in our society is to be raised to believe that something is wrong with who one is on a fundamental level. It can take a lifetime of self-analysis and/or therapy for a trans person to move beyond this and truly accept and love one’s self. It took me five years to accept that I am not straight despite the fact that our society is moving towards acceptance of non-heterosexual people, and it still seems entirely unaware of trans topics. I always knew it is tougher for trans people than other LGBT folks, but living with a trans woman and reading Transman’s post have really hit the concept home for me this week.
(A note on vocabulary: Denise prefers “trans woman” to “transwoman” because it shows that being trans is just one quality of herself rather than who she is, hence its use in this blog. Other trans people use “transman” or “transwoman” as single words with no qualms.)
Love Versus Respect
In the post mentioned above, Transman describes a deep confusion surrounding the hypocrisy of loved ones purporting to love him, yet constantly using the wrong pronouns and the wrong name to address him. Denise’s mom still won’t acknowledge her gender. In fact, they have not spoken to one another since she was here to help Denise move in to our apartment. Her parents have been divorced for some time, and her father is entirely supportive, as mentioned in my first post. He has changed her name in his phone, and makes an effort to use the correct pronouns. That shows both his love and his respect. Denise’s mother’s reaction shows absolutely no respect. Can she really love someone towards whom she cannot show even basic courtesy?
While it’s not my gender that my own mother cannot respect, Denise and I are in similar situations despite my parents remaining married. My mother has difficulty addressing me with enough basic regard to use my name, a word she has not yet used to address me. Her actions throughout my life have shown her to be homophobic despite her stout declaration to the contrary. My father, on the other hand, seems to be making an effort in regards to my name, and truly has no problem with my sexual orientation. This and other factors would make it easy to point at my dad and say, “He loves me,” my mother and say, “She loves me not.”
However, both of my parents express that they love me. I have no reason to doubt their words. I truly believe that some people are somehow capable of treating people they love very poorly indeed. This does not mean that love trumps respect. In fact, to me it means that love is not good enough by itself. It is an emotion someone feels, and is not indicative of the way in which that person will behave towards the loved.
Comments on Transman’s post discuss the idea of cutting people out of his life if they cannot use his name and the proper pronouns to address him. Some of those who commented said it was the only way they could get their own loved ones to recognize that it really is a big deal to them. I feel it comes down to this, for trans and cis (not trans) people alike: What types of behavior will you accept from those around you, and what will you decide merits defenses? Where is your line, and what are you going to do to stand by it?
Love is not respect, but if one loves one’s self, one ought to consider one’s self deserving of basic respect, especially from loved ones. Basic respect includes using the name a person wishes to be addressed by. Common courtesy in our culture dictates using gender-appropriate pronouns. Allowing someone to use the wrong pronouns or an undesired name is not something the average cis person would stand for, so why should trans people?
Finding Inner Courage
As much trouble as trans people have, and as worn down as it seems to make Denise feel, she had a series of two glorious moments on Friday in an engineering class. First, her model more successfully resisted forces than her peers’ models despite the teacher accidentally breaking it. Second, her teacher misgendered her, and she corrected him right then and there, in front of the class, and without me there to accidentally sideways-correct him. He immediately apologized and continued with female words. She told me about it that evening with a grin. I am very proud of her!
That night was taco night, and she checked her e-mail while we ate. Suddenly, she seemed rather excited. Her teacher had sent her an apology. It was short and simple, and didn’t even say what he was apologizing for. She responded, saying that if the apology was for misgendering her or for breaking her model, it was happily accepted, and that if it was not, she was rather baffled. The apology e-mail felt like a triumph, regardless of his reasons for sending it.
Earlier this week, Denise and I poked around in the shops in Morro Bay near closing time. We popped into a tourist trap full of every souvenir imaginable just to see what oddities they had for sale.
“Hello there, ladies! Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you,” said the man behind the counter. I felt like grinning just because someone had correctly gendered Denise, and smiled back at the man.
“Thanks!” Denise and I answered nearly in unison.
I walked around the display to where she was standing, remembering reading something along the lines of, “Don’t expect a #$@!-ing cookie just because you used the right pronoun,” in a few recent blog entries. I wondered how she felt about it.
“Does it make you feel happy or just neutral when that happens?” I asked quietly, knowing she would know exactly what I was asking about.
“Oh, happy! Definitely!”