You can never truly know how a person will react to news as big or consequential as a family member coming out as transgender. I suppose that statement requires a bit of context so here it is. Two weeks ago I made an important decision about the visibility I was ready to have as Emma (transwoman extraordinaire, of course) by choosing to finally change my name on Facebook. This was big news for a few different reasons, the greatest of which was because by doing this I was essentially coming out to almost all of my family members and in-laws at once. I had previously told my friends that I was transgender but most of my family had no idea that anything was different about me. As you might imagine this decision was filled with a large amount of anxiety and doubt on my part because I couldn’t know for certain how those family members and in-laws would react to this news.
It was in this heightened state of anxiety that I received a message from my cousin last week asking for my phone number so that my uncle could call to talk to me. Despite her trying to convince me that there would be no judgment in the conversation I still felt an overwhelming foreboding of having to talk to one of my family members about my gender identity. I gave my number and received a phone call later that evening from said Uncle, but found myself incapable of answering the phone for fear of the conversation that might ensue afterwards. This reservation about talking to my uncle continued for a few days until I finally felt ready and mentally prepared to talk to him. Deciding I’d made him wait long enough I called him this past Monday night and boy was I ever surprised by the conversation that followed.
My uncle, a man I have known my whole life and one with whom I’ve always shared a fond, if not distant, relationship with presented the most loving reaction I have had since first coming out a few months ago. His very first inclination was to make sure that I was okay because he knew how difficult things like this could be for a person. I cannot express into words the powerful emotions of love I felt at his simple kindness. He was filled with questions, as to be expected, but his first instinct was to set his personal confusion aside and to offer me empathy and love. Never in my life have I been presented with such grace and compassion. Every other person I told either immediately told me they supported me or immediately jumped into their questions about what this meant, so you can imagine my surprise at this very different approach.
I had had so much worry and fear about my Uncle’s potential reaction that I briefly forgot that at the heart of every person lies infinite love and kindness. A love and kindness that knows no bounds and cares very little for the labels of the world. A love and kindness that’s around us every day if we only take the time to look for it. A love and kindness that each of us can call upon in every moment. The compassion my uncle showed me resonated inside of me so deeply that it may have permanently changed my life and my expectations about how others will react to my non-binary gender expression. Such compassion is something each of us is capable of and to exercise it can have profound effects on those we interact with.
It is for this reason that I am continuing to talk with other transgender people seeking some sense of understanding, guidance, or empathy about their situations. It’s why I’m continuing to write blog posts like this one in order to try to restore our collective faith in humanity and the cisgender community.
There have been a lot of grumbling over the past months and years about the way cisgender people are treating or representing transgender people. The most recent of these is the backlash that has come in response to Jeffrey Tambor winning a golden globe for his portrayal of Maura Pfefferman in Amazon’s “Transparent” series. People who have led lives filled with pain and anger are quick to condemn the actor because he is a straight, white, male portraying a transgender person when there are transgender actors out in the world unable to find work because of their gender identity. Their reaction is understandable because seeing him win the Golden Globe strikes a nerve that is already ragged from the various discriminations and marginalizations that they are forced to live with every day. Because of that I will not condemn them for their reaction, but we as transgender people must understand that we can never hope to receive equality, empathy, and compassion when we are incapable of giving it ourselves.
I do not fault cisgender actors and movie makers for their gender identities when those same cisgender actors and movie makers are providing a great service to transgender awareness. I refuse to project the hurt I have felt from the rejections I’ve received from other people onto an actor who received his award with as much grace and kindness that anyone could have expected. I do not even fault the other cisgender actors who portrayed transgender people in other movies for their jokes about hair waxing, etc. They do not know any better, and to reprimand them will not teach them the error of their ways. We must meet them with kindness and compassion, explaining the effect their jokes may have on people they do not know and kindly asking them to think of transgender people as humans with emotions and needs.
We must become the compassion and love that we hope to receive, only then can we tear down these walls that separate us from the rest of the world. I know it is easy to feel attacked or violated by people’s reactions and misunderstandings about our non-binary genders, but to react defensively will only further the alienation we experience. We must find ways to empathize with those reactions and misunderstandings by being willing to look beneath them to see the needs and emotions that are behind them. When someone says I’m not a real woman and will never be a real woman I can choose to look for what is really being said, “I don’t accept that you are a woman because it goes against what I was taught, and when I see things that go against what I was taught I feel insecure.”
By acknowledging the insecurity that a person can feel when presented with a person of a non-binary gender, we can choose to see that person as a human with needs and emotions instead of a bigot or a jerk. By refusing to accept responsibility for their emotions but also give empathy, we make a change in them. No longer will they feel the need to shout hurtful things at us, but will begin to break down the intense energy feeding their insecurity. If I can manage to react to their statement by saying, “Are you feeling upset because the gender I claim to be is contradictory to what you were taught about women?” instead of reacting negatively, I will automatically begin the process of healing the pain they are experiencing. By giving empathy instead or criticism or defensiveness, I allow for compassion to be fostered in them and can eventually break down their resistances to my non-binary gender.
So to the trans* folks out there who are upset about Jeffrey Tambor winning an award, I want to ask, “Are you feeling upset because you are wanting to make sure stories like your own are reflected accurately?” ‘are you feeling upset about him being straight and white because you are wanting more transgender actors to find work?” “Are you feeling upset because you are wanting greater acceptance of transgender people in the film and television industry?”