Society is very dysfunctional at times. Some of those times are when things change. Which is all the time. Nothing is as dysfunctional as when one group doesn’t understand another group and doesn’t want to. That’s where wars start, families break down, cities dissolve into riot, and discrimination breeds hatred. But let’s look on the bright side instead.
What happens when a status quo challenges the prevailing view and people do want to understand?
I was challenged last summer over social issues, which in the end boiled down to the argument that if A and B are different, it isn’t up to B to educate A in order to gain acceptance or equality. Rather, it is up to A to gain an understanding such that equality is simply no longer at issue. The principle seems to be that if A has privilege (i.e. they never need to explain being different from B), then as privileged people they should be the ones to make the effort, challenge their own privilege. Why should B need to defend and explain anything? After all, both A and B are equally different …. The problem is the privilege, not the difference.
So far this seems quite reasonable, fair and logical. And yet at the time this was presented to me, it seemed equally reasonable that I should be able to have dialogue with B in order to understand why I was seen as having this ‘privilege’ of simply being (by accident) me-where-I-am. And dialogue was being refused on grounds of ‘it’s not up to me to educate you’. How else was I to gain insights, since everything else short of dialogue was going to only provide an outsider view of the difference between me (A) and B? I think I came to an impasse over this in the end.
My social range is changing (as is that of my partner!) and what this implies is that each of us is going to meet new people. Some will be surprised – by our differences: our age difference, that we are in a lesbian relationship, that I have a trans history, meaning (for them) I ‘used to be a man’. And that sort of screws up the lesbian thing a bit and, if they’ve never met a transsexual person before, make them wonder quite what I am altogether.
This places us both in a situation where explanations may be wanted. My big thing is that we don’t owe anyone an explanation about anything. Why are we in a happy relationship, living together, making a new home life? Well, it’s easy. We love each other, we feel we are good for each other, and it all feels to us the most natural and normal thing to be doing. So what should be more requiring of explanation than love, well-being and happiness? I guess some will nonetheless find us hard to understand straight away, whilst more than expected simply wish us well and be happy for us. Explanations will always be around the corner, and we can either offer them or ignore them.
So what are explanations about?
I think that what I might need to explain is why the other person feels uncomfortable or uncertain about ‘how to treat me’. In other words, I can describe the condition of being transsexual, and (as in this blog as a whole) describe my experience of discovering myself and going through a transition – but that is not an explanation. I can offer theories to date of how a person can have a gender that is not in agreement with their physiological sex characteristics, and this will offer an explanation of how I came to be transsexual at birth. But it doesn’t explain anything. What seems to be requiring an explanation is why my ‘condition’ (now fixed) is an issue, why it brings people up short, why it presents any confusion in them, and why it concerns them at all by feeling I must be ‘different’ in any way that matters. Maybe I am unpredictable, mentally unwell, weird, dare I say it, perverted, you know, sexually? Because they don’t know.
In other words, I am explaining not myself, but them. Why is this my job? Try this:
I saw someone today, and I couldn’t decide if they were a man or a woman. Then I saw them kissing another woman, and I thought, ‘I wonder what she must be thinking and feeling with someone so unusual and odd’. I couldn’t stop thinking about them all afternoon, so I talked to some colleagues, and they thought it was funny. I didn’t want to laugh, so I felt awkward joining in. I wondered, if someone like that came into my shop and asked to try on a dress, how it would make me feel. I couldn’t decide how I would address them, and thought how embarrassing it could be. Then I realised I might be more embarrassed than they, and wondered why I was thinking about it so much. Why was I feeling so uncomfortable? It’s a bit like not knowing when to help someone in a wheelchair, or where to look if someone has a disability. My friend used to say ‘look at the person, not the disability’, but I don’t think the person I saw today was disabled. Just odd.
Where is the best explanation needed? The explanation the observed person might give is simply: ‘Oh; I’m trans. I guess you noticed.’ The real explanation of the situation is more like: ‘Transsexual people make up a percentage of the population. Some you notice, some you don’t. If you’re really not sure what pronouns to use, just ask. But if you feel uncomfortable, it’s time you did a bit of simple research on gender, because your discomfort arises from a basic misunderstanding. This person you saw doesn’t share your misunderstanding, so if you want to feel better about it, sort out your own discomfort.’
It doesn’t need my life story to provide an explanation, because it doesn’t do that. The story is just how I came to understand, and what I did about it. I can always offer that for anyone who needs to know, because (as previous blogs recently) it’s come to be an ordinary fact of life. It helps people in similar situations, but it explains nothing to the uncomfortable. I remember people who said to me years ago: ‘I’m not ready to meet you yet’ (they never did), and realise that no explanation of this kind would help them anyway. I can give the facts, but the explanation of why people need to ask is, in most cases, up to them.
And so it is that I came to the conclusion that there is no more ‘coming out’ to do. That was an event that enabled me to inform people, not explain. What happens now is ‘coming in’, where anyone who wants to be part of my life is welcome to understand why they might not want to, drop this, and join me. In all our entirely shared and equal differences.
This can probably be generalised quite usefully. First find out if people socially different to you really are potentially harmful (not just conflicting with your beliefs), or not. If not, they are just different from you (and equally, you from them). They might be as uncertain about you and think you harmful. If we are all open to learn about others (and change our beliefs and prejudices accordingly), then in turn we become open to let others in. Then the whole of society has a better chance of being less dysfunctional.
I’m not coming out, but you are welcome to come in.