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.
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