What’s the T? I Honestly Don’t Know

LGBT.  It is so common as a part of a title, organization or event that it has truly become its own word.  Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.  That’s what it’s supposed to mean, but often it is used interchangeably with “gay” at events, in the media and in addressing civil rights.  As a result, the issues and challenges facing transgender individuals are often marginalized or skipped completely even as we claim they are a part of our LGBT community.

The journey of being gay is obviously familiar to me.  I can relate on some level to some aspect of most gay people’s journey.  However, in attempting to consider the journey of someone who is transgender, I can only consider it as an academic exercise.  I have no frame of reference for the journey of feeling in opposition mentally, emotionally, spiritually or in any other manner with the biological gender of my body or the gender assigned to me at birth.  I can hear the concept, but cannot realistically imagine what that conflict and journey must feel like.

As a result of that initial inability to relate, and my lack of information on the challenges it creates, it is much easier for me to be the person saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question or making the wrong comment.  I would imagine that some of my inquiries at this point would come off to a transgender person like the truly uninformed heterosexual question of “so, who is the woman?” does to a gay man.  I know the question isn’t inherently homophobic or even bigoted, as mine to them would not inherently be transphobic, but the colossal lack of information and understanding it represents makes it difficult to start the conversation.  The transgender community must feel this to an even greater degree with me and others.  Trying to frame someone else’s journey through my own terminology and experience leads to unintended offense and a difficulty in communicating.

Also, as a gay cisgender man, I honestly have not given a great deal of thought to the transgender part of our community, and this makes me, along with others like me in the LGB part of the community, a part of the problem the transgender community faces with society at large.  Several recent news stories have demonstrated how woefully uninformed many are about our brothers and sisters in the “T” part of the LGBT equation.

There are obvious and basic errors, using the incorrect pronoun for example, but it quickly gets into a world of terminology and discussion where I admittedly have no idea what I’m talking about.  The recent interview Katie Couric did with actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera easily demonstrated how a lack of understanding of transgender issues can quickly go awry.  There was a quick outrage about the inappropriate nature of Ms. Couric’s reference to genitalia.

I don’t think many, even those understandably upset by the invasive question, believe Ms. Couric to be a hack journalist interested in sensationalist storytelling, but she still erred in the discussion.  My first reaction in watching it was to think, “well, they are discussing transgender issues, she’s asking where they are in the journey of bringing their entire being into alignment with the gender they are.”  It shows my own lack of awareness.

A further consideration of the question makes my initial reaction obviously ludicrous, as did Ms. Carerra and Ms. Cox’s articulate and thoughtful responses.  If I were doing an interview about being gay, I would consider a question about which position I prefer in bed quite irrelevant to my ability to discuss the gay issues at hand.  It’s not a direct correlation, but it’s close enough to show how my being uninformed would allow me to be insensitive or offensive.  If someone with Ms. Couric’s professional experience can get it so wrong, it demonstrates the great challenges the transgender community faces in communicating with people unaware in the way so many of us still are about their experiences.

The Couric debacle is a matter of propriety and avoiding prurient questions.  However, the more recent tragedy shows just how dangerous being unaware can be as it leads to terrible consequences.  The story of Dr. Essay Vanderbilt began as a journalist’s probe to understand a new golf club.  It started with a putter and ended with a piece that outed a transgender woman after she committed suicide before the publication of the story.  The original piece is here.

The internet praised the story for two days and then exploded in response to the treatment of the transgender woman at the center of the story.  Calls for the death of the writer were made, critiques from other press professionals were offered, transgender individuals and advocates weighed in (my personal favorite for its intelligence on both transgender issues and the ethics of journalism is this one by Christina Kahrl) and then the editor-in-chief of Grantland wrote an apology and explanation for how the story came to be published here.  Assuming there was no genuine ill-will on the author’s part, it demonstrates at the very least that even just ignorance is dangerous in a very real way to this community of individuals who face so many struggles different from my own.

Certainly the exact circumstances that lead an individual to suicide are complex, but statistics state that 41% of the transgender community have attempted suicide, a fact that even without the specifics of Dr. V’s case should be sobering and alarming as the rest of us consider our level of awareness in regards to the transgender journey and experience in our LGBT community, our greater communities and our nation.

I would heretofore have said I am a supporter of transgender individuals and transgender rights, but I must admit it’s more in theory than in any concrete way since my awareness of legislation and progress related to transgender rights is only through what appears as large national stories.  I know when a transgender individual is singled out related to ludicrous bathroom legislation, or brutally attacked for not “passing” in public, but I’m not as aware of the many instances where gay rights and non-discrimination is advancing without including the same protections for transgender individuals.

This is where it matters most and where ignorance like mine is contributing to holding a community back.  It’s important that news be reported respectfully and sensitively in regards to the preferences and privacy of transgender individuals, but their rights?  That’s about all of us.  I can’t, and others like me can’t, fight as allies for their progress and equality if we don’t understand the issues they face.  If we as a community are going to claim transgender individuals as a part of the welcoming LGBT rainbow, then some of us need to be more informed than we are about the journey, experience, rights and challenges of the transgender community so we can join those who are informed in contributing to actual progress.

In many of the comments related to the recent stories, transgender individuals and allies responded with “educate yourself!” to many of the uninformed.  So, as a gay man who should certainly be sensitive to the challenging journey of other minorities, I am doing just that.  

It’s past time that I and other members of  the gay community like me with little knowledge and experience regarding transgender issues make sure we know more of the “T” so that we can ensure that we are as sensitive to an often overlooked segment of our community as we ask the rest of society at large to be to all of us.  I’m working to ensure “the silence of our friends” never applies to me so that when I claim to be an ally, it truly means something.

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