trigger warning: transphobia and gender-based violence
“Just be yourself,” they say. “No one can be a better you than you. There is only one you in the world.”
They also say “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” and “Haters gonna hate.”
Yes. Well. All these well-meaning words of affirmation are certainly true at some level. And yet.
The Family Research Council has issued a five-point plan to, as Brynn Tannehill put it in her Huffington Post piece And Then They Came For the Transgender People, “legislate transgender people out of existence.” Their goals include ensuring transgender people may not legally change their gender, have no legal protection against discrimination, may not use public facilities in accordance with their gender identity, may not receive medical coverage related to transition, and may not serve in the military. (Tannehill) On their website, they urge resistance to non-discrimination laws, for example because they “mandate the employment of ‘transgendered’ individuals in inappropriate occupations, such as education.” (FRC)
Because we certainly don’t want transgender children to see themselves in their environment now, do we? That might make them think… I don’t know, maybe that the world might accept them for who they are?
Ms. Tannehill’s article links to an excruciating clip from “I Am Jazz,” the TV show featuring transgender teen activist Jazz Jennings. In it, she is reading through comments on one of her YouTube videos with her brothers. One reads, “Someone please shoot it, if not I’m going to kill it myself and make it die a horrible, painful death.” (quoted in Rose)
Granted, these are the extremist views. Granted, there are many people out there supporting transgender people, including people who may belong to groups commonly and unfairly overgeneralized as anti-LGBT. And granted, many transgender people are extraordinarily resilient and are leading happy lives.
But while the extremists are definitely in the minority, the fact is that in a majority of states, elements of the Family Research Council’s agenda are effectively mirrored in law, and there are currently over 200 bills in progress in various states whose intended effect would further that agenda, whether or not they do so knowingly and deliberately.
In direct response to Target's inclusive bathroom policy, Oxford, Alabama passed an ordinance requiring people to use the bathroom of their birth gender (Gettys). There are 2700 students in the district, and given a recent study in New Zealand reporting that 1.5% of students identify as transgender and gender non-conforming, that would suggest that approximately 40 children may be negatively affected by this ordinance.
All this can, to put it mildly, make it difficult for transgender and gender non-conforming people to “just be yourself.” Even here in Massachusetts, there are no legal protections against business owners refusing to serve transgender and gender non-conforming people or even just let them use the bathroom (although there is hope those protections will soon be granted as a bill to that end is scheduled to be considered in May). Beyond that, there’s the risk of street harassment, being beaten up, or even being murdered just because of your gender identity and/or expression. No wonder “Transgender Day of Visibility” is seen somewhat ironically by many within the transgender community.
My own gender expression tends to blur “feminine” and "masculine." As a gender activist, I like shaking up gender norms. As a teacher, I want my students to know that, however well you feel you fit within binary boxes, you should be free to use the gender expression that reflects your true self. People tell me they appreciate the role modeling I’m doing for our students.
But I do, always, have to think carefully both about where I’m going to be and with whom I’m going to be; just how “feminine” can I skew and feel reasonably comfortable, not so much with myself but more with the possible reactions I might encounter? Sometimes, some places, pushing the edge is not worth the risk. Plus, it’s one thing to take personal risks when I’m on my own, and quite another to take the risk of getting someone else unwittingly involved.
So by all means, let’s celebrate each and every person’s authentic self. But at the same time, let’s not close our eyes to the context in which we all live. Only when society is ready to fully, respectfully, and lovingly welcome each and every person’s full, authentic self can we be reasonably certain we are all fully able to really be who we are deep down.
Our school’s mission calls us to work toward that day.