Does the public need more time to learn about transgender people?

By 1933, so much knowledge about transgender people had already been accumulated at the library of Germany’s Institute for Sexual Science, the Nazi party chose to burn it all in front of a crowd of thousands. This happened 12 years before the advent of nuclear weapons.

The burning of the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft on May 10, 1933.

In 1952, nine years before a human being first traveled into space, Christine Jorgensen made headlines as one of the first trans women to come out and educate the public about her transition. In 1966, trans women led the riots at Compton’s Cafeteria in response to being targeted by police violence, and did the same in 1969 at Stonewall shortly before humans first landed on the moon. That year, the 1st International Symposium on Gender Identity was sponsored by the Erickson Educational Foundation, an organization founded by trans man Reed Erickson to support transgender research and awareness initiatives throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

In 1977, Renée Richards, a trans woman and professional tennis player, was allowed to compete with other women in the U.S. Open. This was one year before computers were first installed in the White House.

Renée Richards.

The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, now known as WPATH, was founded in 1979. In 1981, Karen Ulane sued her former employer, Eastern Airlines, after they fired her for being a trans woman. In the early 90’s, puberty blockers were first used to treat transgender adolescents in the Netherlands, allowing them to transition earlier and without experiencing the effects of the wrong puberty. This development predates the Nintendo 64. America’s first gender identity clinic offering puberty blockers was opened at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2007. Also in that year, the first iPhone was released.

Trans people have been around for longer than your grandparents, yet it seems like we’re still waiting for much of the population to get their act together. I’ve been explaining trans issues nonstop since I came out five years ago. Contrary to Time magazine’s 2014 proclamation of a “transgender tipping point” of public understanding and acceptance, I now receive more comments than ever from people who seem to think I expect too much from my audience. “Being trans is still very new to a lot of people,” I’m told. “You need to be patient and give them time to learn.”

I understand this – but I don’t believe the time needed is very long at this point. We’ve been making headlines for the better part of a century. I’m friends with a woman who filed a lawsuit about transgender bathroom access when I was still in elementary school. And now, the world has easier access to more information about trans people than ever. Just Googling “transgender” is all it takes to find a variety of basic resources, like GLAAD’s Transgender FAQ, the American Psychological Association’s Q&A, and TransWhat.org. In a matter of days, anyone who’s so inclined can learn about what it means to be trans, how to respect trans people, and how to support us in society.

We know that there is a learning curve, which is why trans people have been working for decades to make educational materials available to the public. So I don’t think that’s really the problem here. Instead, it’s usually the case that when I’m told the public “needs more time to learn about trans people”, this is in response to some very serious issues I’ve been covering. When I discuss the damage of family rejection, the dangerous atmosphere of political persecution, the harmful myths that threaten our access to medical care, or the consequences to our lives when we’re banned from using the bathroom, the protest of “people need more time to learn” is deployed as some kind of excuse for these behaviors.

This is not a sufficient explanation, and it misuses a real learning curve as cover for indefensible acts. Hatred and hostility aren’t simply the product of not being afforded enough time to learn otherwise – they can’t be accounted for solely in terms of a well-meaning ignorance. There are plenty of areas where any of us could legitimately plead ignorance; for instance, I know very little about the safety of chemical processing plants. Nothing about this low-information state compels me to engage in protracted harassment of processing plant workers. A person who spends their time yelling slurs at us in public, barring us from facilities at school, or stripping us of our rights in a state legislature, certainly has enough time to spend on learning why they shouldn’t treat us this way. They choose not to do so.

When the entire landscape of harm we face is attributed to a simple lack of learning, this casts our current situation as, at worst, inert – a mere slowing or absence of forward progress, which only needs to be addressed by patiently waiting for the public to catch up. In reality, we’re not just sitting here passively waiting. We’re trying to survive a very lively environment of overt acts of prejudice which, individually and cumulatively, prevent us from peacefully existing and thriving. The pretense of neutrality, here, is nothing more than acceptance of that as the status quo.

This is not a small thing to ask us to endure, and this would be the case whether a person’s hostile actions were a product of ignorance or not. Whatever someone’s particular obstacle to progressing as an individual in their beliefs, this doesn’t blunt the harm that they may inflict on us as we wait patiently for them to learn. And the use of ignorance as a cover implies something even worse: that pervasive transphobia is not an abnormal condition of society, but just the default behavior of every human being.

Even if it were the case that everyone “needs time to learn” not to mistreat us, that still wouldn’t outweigh our own needs as trans people. We need time not to be attacked and invalidated at every turn. We need time to exist without perpetually being put on the defensive about our existence. We need time to live our lives like everyone else.

So why is it that we’re told we have to give the benefit of the doubt to transphobes, while transphobes are never told they need to give us the benefit of the doubt? Who is telling the people who harass us, “hold on now, fellow transphobes, we don’t need to be hostile to those who don’t share our views, let’s hang back and patiently wait for them to come around”? No one. They’re expected to inflict, and we’re expected to endure – so they continue to inflict, and we continue to endure. We’re told to wait for the world to decide to stop hating us. But really, it’s hard not to rock a boat full of people who are already attacking us.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
This entry was posted in Awareness building, History, Rhetoric, Transphobia and prejudice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Does the public need more time to learn about transgender people?

  1. Ana Alise says:

    I commend your work young lady. You are very articulate in expressing the reality of being a trans woman. I have searched endlessly to put together a team of doctors to assist my transition. The government is not really supportive the Democrats say I can get the necessary surgeries but did nothing to remove numerous road blocks and the Republicans are trying to roll back even the false perceptions the Democrats roll out before every election cycle.

  2. Daryl says:

    We are currently trying to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity among the protected classes. During the public comments session at each city council meeting supporters stand up and present facts and tell their personal stories of facing discrimination here. The opponents stand up and call us pedophiles, predators, etc. They invoke the myth that some pre-op trans woman is going to rape their daughters or grandmothers in a ladies room. It is so painful. And this goes on and on. Nobody EVER calls them out on their homophobia/transphobia. Other than the tiny LGTBQ community here. And who listens to us?

  3. Lee Anne Leland says:

    The haters do read up on us. Unfortunately what they read is propaganda BS put out by right wing zealots who need to instill fear in order to consolidate their power. And along with Hispanics, Moslems and Blacks we are the “other” that their followers are taught to fear. Hell. 95% of climatologists warn about man-made global warning and still they deny it exists. We face a long uphill struggle to claim our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But claim it we will.

  4. Renee Thomas says:

    “What is human? An ability to reason? To imagine? To love or grieve? If so, we are more human than any human ever will be. Who we are is less relevant than what we are, and what we are is different from them …
    … Killing is easy (for Sapiens) when you can feel nothing.”

  5. You should know; reflect; and Thank people like myself who are living their authentic
    female life in 2017. Who went public as “trans’ in 1987 and founded gender support
    groups. So for 30 years in the Philadelphia area, lived and worked as transsexuals, both pre-op and post-op. Legally transitioned and accepted in housing as women. Facebook contains many successful transwomen, who are just living their life; after paying the price to conform to binary expectations. Yes there is a price!…work. Arrive, be seen, and contribute to the education of the public. I can not speak to “everyday” trans or non-binary people. Every person has to earn their own acceptance by openingly sharing their honest lives and blending into society. I marched in 1995 in Washington DC; timing for marching is over! Did you miss it? too bad. Now just live your public life as the best reason for society to accept us!

  6. Susan Stryker’s note on her essay — We’re “queering the binaries” and this seems germane even from 1994.

    Susan Stryker — “My Words To Victor Frankenstein Above The Village of Chamonix” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp 227-254, (Philadelphia: Gordon & Breach Science Publishers, 1994).

    Notes:

    2) The currrent meaning of the term “transgender” is a matter of some debate. The word was originally coined as a noun in the 1970’s by people who resisted categorization as either transvestites or transsexuals, and who used the term to describe their own identity. Unlike transsexuals, but like transvestites, transgenders do not seek surgical alteration of their bodies but do habitually wear clothing the represents a gender other than the one to which they were assigned at birth. Unlike transvestites but like transsexuals, however, transgenders do not alter the vestimentary coding of their gender only episodically or primarily for sexual gratification; rather they consistently and publicly express an ongoing commitment to their claimed gender identities through the same visual representational strategies used by others to signify that gender. The logic underlying this terminology reflects the widespread tendency to construe “gender” as the socio-cultural manifestation of material “sex.” Thus, while transsexuals express their identities through a physical change of embodiment, transgenders do so through a non-corporeal change in public gender expression [presentation] that is nevertheless more complex than a simple change of clothes.

    This essay uses “transgender” in a more recent sense, however, than its original one. That is, I use it here as an umbrella term that refers to all identities or practices that cross over, cut across, move between, or otherwise, queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries. The term includes, but is not limited to, transsexuality, heterosexual transvestism, gay, drag, butch lesbianism, and such non-European identities as the Native American berdache or the Indian Hijra. Like “queer,” “transgender” may also be used as a verb or as an adjective. In this essay, transsexuality is considered to be a culturally and historically specific transgender practice/identity through which a transgendered subject enters into a relationship with medical, psychotherapeutic, and juridical institutions in order to gain access to certain hormonal and surgical technologies for enacting and embodying itself.

    • Jessica Porter says:

      The current politically correct term is transgender. “Transsexual” has become more related to those such as crossdressers etc:. “Transgender” people are people who live their life as the gender they feel is correct. I’m a transgender woman. 24/7 365. I don’t do it for a sexual reason. I feel more comfortable and sane as the female I am.

      • Abby Jones says:

        Thank you for this. I am so sick of being called a transsexual. I’m pretty asexual, actually.

      • Daryl says:

        If transgendered folks are only those who are living as a gender different from the one assigned at birth, how to describe folks who know down deep who they are but have not and maybe cannot transition and live as their authentic selves?

      • New term, I expect it to catch on —

        Sans Gender . . . We’re alienated by the stereo-types for both options in the hetero-fascist dyad. For the record, because it’s illustrative, we’re also sans sexual.

        Susan Stryker’s note 2. (supra) has some authority inasmuch as it draws from use of the terms in gender anomalous communities, and in their published works.

        As a sans gendered person 24/7-365 1/4, I feel neither comfortable, nor “sane” (onlogically unresolved). I do, however, feel militant about the whole issue.

  7. Allison says:

    I don’t think it’s time people need. It’s motivation. More to the point, it’s being forced to deal with trans people.

    White people in the USA have known about and seen black people in their everyday lives for centuries, but it wasn’t until the “long hot summers” that they felt motivated to move over a little bit and not put their hobnailed boots so heavily on black people’s necks. And their acceptance of black people has been grudging at best.

    Same for gay people. It wasn’t until gay people got in straight people’s faces, and especially when as a result of AIDS they started getting confronted with people who they knew (in their families, celebrities, etc.) turning out to be gay (“Silence = death”) that you got so many people seeing them as human.

    It won’t be until cis people are confronted with trans people, especially trans people like me who can’t pass, in their daily lives and are forced to at least pretend that we’re human that we’ll see much change. But by then nobody will need educating because they’ll already know.

  8. Diana Lynn Langton says:

    I’ve been transitioned for a long long time… so what…. scrap the labeling and help each other. The haters don’t care if we call ourselves gremlins. Wake up. They hate us because we exist. If some folks accept you, or love you, or can’t tell your history… hot jets…. a lot of people do the best they can and still catch hell everywhere they go. Don’t tell me they need to pay their dues… some places don’t collect dues… unless you mean leaving the planet. Sheesh.

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