Cisgender People and Our Mistreatment of Transgender Individuals

This particular ramble includes examples of transphobia, violence against transgender individuals, and talk of suicide.

Recently I’ve seen a few videos made by a woman I know while she was still presenting as male. It’s interesting: there is an awkwardness to her mannerisms, an affectation that is so painfully obvious. Here is a woman–I think to myself as I watch her talk to others–pretending to be a man. Clearly.

Except it’s not so clear, is it? Hindsight is 20/20. I met her after she decided to be public about her real identity as a woman. So, viewing these past videos, I have a reasonable amount of background knowledge and expectations, and I see the exceptions to what I already know.

We–and by “we” I mean myself and other cisgender indivdiuals–are afflicted by blindness. And it is easy, and seems right, to go back and say “I would have known” or even “I did know” about a transgender friend or acquaintance’s identity. It sounds good, it makes us feel like better allies. We’re more aware than those other people.

We need to stop that. Because typically we don’t know. We see what we want to see, and thanks to the wonders of privilege what we want to see is often what society expects.

I have another friend whom I did know in person. He came out to me as transgender a while ago, and as I look back on my interactions with him throughout the years I think, well, it makes sense. But really, there was no point at which I actually stopped and thought, “Well, he’s a guy.”

The problem when cisgender individuals say we knew about a transgender person’s identity, we discount their efforts. Transgender folks put up a facade for their own personal benefit and safety. They might not even know they’re doing it. There’s a reason some come to it as more of a sudden revelation than a certainty they’ve known all their lives.

But that facade takes a toll. It kills. Transgender people have an alarmingly high suicide rate. They are dying by inches because the personal cost of them coming out to the public is phenomenally high. And while you might think that saying “Oh, I kind of knew” sounds comforting and affirming, consider it may actually sound like you realized the staggering amount of suffering they had and decided the status quo of your relationship was just fine.

And maybe that’s true. Maybe we, my cisgender readers and I, make just such a judgment on occasion. That’s a hard truth to consider. Consider it anyway.

Then there’s the issue of “pronouns”, or what it really is: basic human decency. I’ve seen plenty of well-meaning cisgender people–and in the past I myself have been guilty of–misgendering a transgender person. And there are a lot of mental and conversational gymnastics we will try to use to excuse it. “It’s difficult” or “I get confused” are two of the worst. Imagine, if you will, that I’m speaking to you and at random intervals in the conversation I reach up and backhand you across the face. And when you look shocked or get angry I just say, “I’m sorry, it’s hard for me too. I get confused sometimes. Sometimes I forget hitting you hurts.”

Our transgender friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers have already paid enough in mental well-being and personal effort to make us comfortable. If it takes us more personal effort to use the right pronouns and to pay attention to what they say, then we put in the effortFull stop. If we do screw up, stop, apologize, do not attempt to make excuses, move on, and never do it again.

I’ll see you tomorrow.