Over the weekend, the UK’s Observer published an editorial about transgender people that crossed a bunch of lines. It’s not really worth repeating the things that the author wrote, but they included the sort of slurs that, if used against, say, black people or women, would make your eyes pop out. The Observer has since removed it, but it was full of “N-word” level stuff, with an editorial tone dripping with self-righteous, “if you don’t want to be called these things, stop being the way you are” privilege.
It was gross, in other words. I tweeted about it throughout the day on Sunday, when it ran, as I learned more about the author or different things occurred to me. Most of the rest of my tweets from that day were about football, which meant that I got some confused replies from people who follow me because they like when I make fun of Matt Schaub. I’m not transgender, and I don’t have any close friends or family who are, so why was I treating that editorial like it was personal? I am a dude who is straight and cisgender (that is, someone whose gender identity matches their biology) and who seems to have no stake in this fight.
Here’s why I take transgender issues personally…
Because I or someone I love might get cancer at some point, and a trans person who is capable of discovering the cure is otherwise occupied defending their right to exist.
I live in a world that needs leadership, and a smart, tireless trans person who should maybe be President is busy arguing that they deserve basic human respect.
I want to drive a fucking flying car someday, and the trans person who might invent it is stuck responding to Guardian editorials that treat them like they’re subhuman.
All of which is to say that this is about more than compassion. Compassion is important, and straight, white cisgender dudes like me ought to have a very strong sense of it, since everyone else tends to treat us pretty well (at least when compared to people from similar backgrounds who aren’t those things). If you’re a compassionate person, the fact that transgender people live under a constant threat of violence should stir you. The stories of the challenges even the more privileged trans people face when they come out should move you. The fear that accompanies the moment when they tell their story to the people they love should bring out your compassion. But it goes beyond compassion. Compassion is good, but compassion also means that it’s always someone else’s struggle.
But these fights aren’t anyone else’s struggle. They’re mine, too. They belong to all of us because the only way the world ever gets better is when people are able to use their talents to make better things for the rest of us to enjoy. And that doesn’t happen much when those talented people are busy fighting for their own survival.
There’s a part in The Autobiography of Malcolm X where he talks about a bookie named West Indian Archie, who kept all of the numbers in his head. In the book, he writes, “I’ve often reflected upon such black veteran numbers men as West Indian Archie. If they had lived in another kind of society, their exceptional mathematical talents might have been better used.” Not only are their fewer opportunities for trans people to do important work at a high level because of the bigotry that they already face, but when you have to spend so much of your time demanding basic dignity, it’s hard to have enough left afterward to do the other things that are worth doing. It’s relatively easy for a person like me to succeed, because nobody’s attacking me; I can spend all of my creative energy on whatever it is I’m interested in. Self-defense is not really a part of my life.
That’s not the way that it is for everybody, though. Trans people, this weekend, were reminded by a major, supposedly-progressive newspaper that a lot of people in the world saw them as undeserving of basic dignity as human beings, in no uncertain terms. Other people – women, people of color, gay people, people with disabilities – get those messages in more subtle ways every day, too, and use their energy pushing back against them. In another kind of society, they’d be able to focus on other things, and we would all benefit.
I know that I’m never going to cure cancer or discover a process that converts carbon emissions into funk-soul hits from the ’70s or whatever. But I can speak up when things like that Observer editorial go out into the world. That way, someone who’s exhausted from having to constantly assert that they have a right to exist can relax for a minute when they see that there are other people who have their backs, and go do whatever else it is that they want to do. That’s the world I want to live in.
Read more from Dan Solomon at DanSolomon.com.