This post is part of my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.
It’s raining today. The sky was overcast all morning as I nurtured a throbbing hangover. Last night was my first gay wedding. Well, it wasn’t my wedding, but of all the weddings I’ve been to, this was the first same-sex affair. It was a delight. The grooms hosted an amazing party, with delicious cupcakes and a well-stocked bar at a local staple of the “gay district” in Milwaukee, and two local drag queens performed. It was beautiful.
It was, in a word, progress.
There’s a reason why this was my first gay wedding: Up until a few years ago, same-sex marriage was still illegal in most of the country. But through advocacy and activism, through raising our shared voices and not just waiting for legislators to give equality, but facing the courts and demanding it, this battle was won.
But this battle, big as it was, is just a single front in a much larger, ongoing war.
In college, I was on the front lines of this war: I attended weekly meetings of campus LGBTQ organizations, doing my part to educate myself and share that education with others. I made phone calls and wrote letters. I blogged whenever and wherever I could. I made myself a vocal and visible ally. I volunteered and helped organize entire week-long community service-learning trips. I did my share of calling out and, I hope, did my part to call in others. It was never a war of swords and shields, but a war of words.
After college, in particular after undergrad, maintaining that battle-ready physique fell flat: No longer was there an on-campus organization I could attend weekly; no longer were there bastions of our community working together to keep me informed; no longer did I have the time in my schedule of full-time work and full-time graduate school to keep myself apprised of the developments in our community.
In my community.
In fact, for a while, it stopped feeling like my community: My world had changed, and that part of my life–the queer warrior fighting for social justice on all fronts–came to an end. It was a loss I didn’t realize and was too busy elsewhere to mourn, but I felt its absence, and in the year since I finished grad school and concluded my Teach for America commitment, I’ve become astutely aware of this change and I’ve begun to take the steps to reintegrate myself into the queer community and rebuild what was lost.
That’s not to say these years were idle: Within my first year in Milwaukee, I was (unintentionally) outed at work, becoming a role model and source of support for queer kids at our school, and I even helped support students in forming a Gay-Straight Alliance that has become one of the most recognized groups on campus. I also participated in LGBTQ education opportunities through Teach for America to help other teachers learn to be allies for their students. These were far fewer and significantly more limited in scope than my activities in undergrad, but I still believe they were important.
Where my awareness has most been stunted is my connection to the transgender community: As far as I know, there aren’t any transgender students where I work, and I haven’t made any trans friends (let alone met more than two or three openly trans people) since I moved to Milwaukee. And, like most of my friends from college and North Carolina in general, I haven’t kept up with my trans friends regularly enough to keep trans issues at the forefront of my awareness.
These aren’t excuses, though they feel like them; they’re statements of facts. Facts I’m not necessarily proud about, but facts nonetheless.
And yet, of all the battle fronts in this war of ours, the most besieged is the transgender community. I had thought, under Obama’s administration, that things were improving for all parts of the LGBTQ community, even if not at equitable rates. I hadn’t imagined that the Trump administration would be so blatantly and actively and assertively opposed to advancing trans protections that what we had gained would be torn back.
In this sense, the broad strokes I know about: the transgender ban in the military, insensitive and ill-informed bathroom bills, the legal erasure of trans identity in law that represents some of the most vile and dangerous means of this administration’s hatred.
What I haven’t seen are the internal dialogues within the trans community, threads of conversation that don’t float to the surface but still matter and continue to shape the struggles for inclusion that the most-marginalized among us constantly face.
Some might say this “dirty laundry” shouldn’t be aired, that such family business should be kept behind closed doors, but there’s an insidious risk in this self-serving silence: On the one hand, if our arguments are kept to ourselves, our own words can’t be turned against us by our enemies. But on the other hand, hatred spreads like a virus, and until and unless the unsuspecting can be vaccinated against this infection of the mind, then those ill-informed and prejudiced perils will continue to harm our community, tearing us apart from the inside as our foes try to topple us on the outside.
Take my words with a serving of salt: I am not transgender, and as much as I strive to be an ally, to educate myself and listen to those who are transgender, I will never have the first-hand perspective that allows me to speak as confidently as I do about issues of being gay and being Jewish and being an educator. My awareness is constrained by not being trans, and inevitably I will make mistakes and say the wrong things (or the right things in the wrong ways) and I will hurt people where I only want to help. But I’m hopeful that those who may be pained by what I say will speak up and help me learn: I want to learn. I want to be an ally. But just as I know I can’t expect a straight person to be a perfect gay ally without any guidance, I must accept that I cannot be a perfect trans ally without the occasional person helping redirect me. Making mistakes is part of learning, and as a cisgender trans ally, learning from others is the only way I can advocate for the trans community: here is where my experience ends and my responsibility is to listen.
So why am I even writing this post? Part of me doesn’t want to. Part of me wants to think that I can’t speak for the transgender community, so I shouldn’t try. But this is the part of me that’s afraid of doing harm where I intend to help; this is the part of me that’s ashamed I don’t know more, the part that fears I call myself an ally when I’m only part of the problem–the worst kind of person: the hypocritical saint, the “trans” savior.
The wiser part of me knows this line of thinking is misdirected. These fears are self-centered and ignore the fact that as a cisgender man, I have the privilege of people listening to me and respecting me–what I say isn’t instantly disregarded because of my sex and gender identity or expression. With this privilege comes power, and with power, responsibility. Ignoring this responsibility is what would truly make me a bad ally.
And when I asked on Facebook what types of topics people want to read about in this series, an overwhelming number of my friends mentioned issues facing the trans community. Surely this put the pressure on me to do justice to the topic, but it also made me hopeful: others also recognize their own lack of awareness regarding transgender issues, and they are eager to learn–and eager to better themselves as trans allies.
So I’ve reached out to my friends who are trans, and I’m indebted to their openness and honesty talking about such a personal part of their lives that I feel even marginally more prepared to talk about it here. And I’ve read a number of articles online, some of which inspired me and some of which angered me. Through all of this, I’ve learned.
The biggest thing I’ve learned: what I want to say is bigger than a single blog post.
In a sense, this post is an introduction, but hardly the main idea. It’s a preface I needed to write for myself, to build up the courage I need to say what I feel needs saying. After all, this is a battle of words, and words are my greatest weapon, but even words need to be sharpened sometimes. It’s also a promise to you, my audience, a person who may be trans and who might not be. It’s a promise that no matter the mistakes I make in trying to be a better ally, I will own them and learn from them and constantly strive to be better.
It’s an ironic fact that every introduction also needs a conclusion, so to wrap this up I’d like to lay a map of the battles we’ll visit on this tour of transgender battle lines. First, in TERF Wars, I’m going to address the rise of trans-exclusive feminism and what it means in the fight for transgender rights. Next, I’m going to talk more about gender constructs and why they matter (or don’t) in a post called Breaking the Binary. Finally, I’m going to bring it all together in a story I’d like to call Man in the Iron Masc. It’s a pun. I like it.
At least, that’s the plan. As I write these words, this is the future I foresee–but as I write those words, they might not become the stories I imagined. Titles and topics might change. Nothing is certain. Nothing is solid. Nothing is forever fixed in one place.
They say history belongs to the winners, that the victors write their own legacy, but in the present, as the battles rage on, there is no history, only our story. And it’s that story I hope you’ll join me for in the days to come.