I was lounging in Boston’s Public Garden last week when two families with infants and young children sat down next to me. They were white and presumably cis, straight couples (confirmed by their conversation). While the kids watched the ducklings, the parents started telling birth stories – they were close enough and talking loud enough that I couldn’t help hearing every word.
One of the mom’s started telling the story of a friend named Alex. Alex is transgender, she explained, and the doctors said they were going to be a boy before they were born, but they were assigned female. Mom then explained that Alex doesn’t identify as male or female, which is part of why they use that name. Other mom asked a couple clarifying questions, commented on how interesting and cool people are, and the conversation moved on.
The language wasn’t all exactly what I’d use, and there were some pronoun moments talking about Alex’s past, but the conversation quickly pivoted to “they.” More importantly in my mind, the entire discussion treated Alex’s birth story as worth hearing not in some tokenizing, othering way. The story was shared because it was a good story, but not in a way that suggested Alex was a freak. Instead, this was a real person, a friend’s experience, and it was seen as cool, as something to share along with other interesting birth stories. It was also a story that fit into normal conversation, and conversation happening around children, some of whom were old enough to hear and possibly ask questions (though really they were distracted by the ducklings. So cute).
This is a new experience for me, to hear trans folks talked about in public in a way that’s not all about hate and bigotry. Until very recently, the only mention of trans folks I heard in public was hate speech thrown my way. Moving away from DC, a deeply transphobic city, and shifts in my presentation have had something to do with this changing in my life. But it’s very new for me to hear people talk about trans folks in public in a way that’s actually positive.
To be fair, I still hear some horrible things in public. I was riding the subway in NYC with a friend who’s a queer trans guy, when we overheard a conversation about “f*ggots and tr*nnies.” It took us a minute to figure out these folks were talking about F.I.T. students, not that we’d been clocked. But it still sucks to hear this speech on the subway.
It’s not that positive conversation has started to outweigh the negative, yet. But the fact that it’s happening in public enough for me to accidentally overhear confirms to me that we’re in the middle of a cultural shift. As trans and gender non-conforming folks gain more rights and protections, as more of us take the steps to tell our stories in public and come out to our friends, the world is shifting. There is violent, horrendous backlash, and it impacts those who are already most marginalized in our community. We need to hold this reality, too, and we need a lot more energy and resources from allies directed at changing it.
But the world is changing. It’s exciting to hear this reality in action when I’m just relaxing in a park.