I spend a lot of time thinking about the trans community. It fits in a goldilocks zone in my brain of a community that is both incredibly marginalized and reasonably close to me through people I know who identify as trans.
It seems to be so difficult for the people in the community and the people outside it to come to understandings about things. It’s difficult for reasons which are often, well, incredibly human, and difficult to find a way to deal with.
In a nutshell, I think the problem is twofold: the first is that there’s a huge inferential distance between the trans community and most of the people outside of it. The second is that the trans community is an incredibly marginalized community, and as with all communities that are, the issues they deal with are powerfully emotional.
So you have a combination of explosive chemicals—emotional issues, and a huge inferential distance, sufficient that people outside of the community are regularly ignorant to the point that they will say or do incredibly hurtful things without realizing it (the results of sufficiently advanced ignorance being, often, indistinguishable from those of malice). Then, when they are called out on it, they lack the knowledge to effectively process the criticisms they receive, and often assume the people who are angry with them are overreacting in the extreme.
I do this as much as anyone. I’m a cis, heterosexual male. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I regularly react with annoyance to trans issues. I just don’t tend to mention it at the time. I tend to, when my brain goes to that “Why should I have to learn new pronouns?!” place, sit on the reaction for a day or a week or a month until it simmers down enough that I can look at things more rationally and less emotionally. When I manage to do that, I almost always end up in a different place about the issue than I was when I initially reacted to it. I’m totally on board with the necessity of learning people’s pronouns now, for example.
The other day I had a conversation that helped me to identify a bit more with the marginalized side of things. I went to look at a place to rent. The guy there was incredibly friendly, and I liked him a lot (though for unrelated reasons I was unable to rent the place). I mentioned over the course of talking to him that I was polyamorous (better for him to know now than learn down the line and freak out), and he said that it didn’t bother him at all, but followed that up by clarifying that he was monogamous because he loved his girlfriend.
Now, like I said, perfectly nice guy, I’m sure he meant nothing by it, and that he didn’t mean it to sound the way that it did. However as much as I liked him, the more I thought about that conversation later in the day, the more I felt like punching him in the face. How dare he suggest that poly people don’t love their partners just as much as monogamous people do! How dare he be so dismissive of my ability to care about the people I end up in relationships with! How dare he put me in the position of having to decide whether I’m willing to risk not having a place to live in order to correct him on that!
This is the problem. He was a perfectly nice guy, and I’m sure meant nothing whatsoever by saying that, and I imagine if I’d decided to correct him on it, he might even have responded positively if I could’ve corrected him without being too prickly about it (which maybe I could’ve, maybe I couldn’t’ve). This is a case where sufficiently advanced ignorance was enough to put me in the position of being offended and angry at someone whose only crime was not realizing the assumptions implicit in what he’d said. His ignorance was understandable, and my anger was also understandable, but the combination of the two was potentially volatile.
It doesn’t help of course, that there are plenty of people who are genuinely ignorant assholes who don’t give a shit, and distinguishing them from people like this guy isn’t always easy. Explaining to the good ones rationally and reasonably why what they’ve said is wrong and offensive isn’t always something the marginalized person can reasonably be expected to have the energy to do. It’s happening against a background of deeply personal sustained, and very often seemingly constant oppression.
I don’t know what the answer is in these situations, and I really want there to be one. I want there to be a way to communicate across wide barriers like this without explosions, but I’m not sure there is one. And in the grand scheme of things, sometimes I’m probably going to be the person on the other side, unknowingly doing damage to someone I care about. People I like and respect are going to be on that other side, too.
I don’t know what to do about it. But I want there to be something. I really do.