Stakes is high: Playing catch up on trans issues

1358466670-transgender-rights-protest-at-the-observer-newspaper-offices_1734093Over at The Daily Banter, Oliver Willis would like everyone to calm down and be kinder to people who may not be up on trans issues. He writes:

In the last few months or so I’ve noticed that the issue of transgendered people* and how to discuss them and reference them has become more prevalent. This reached a peak with the revelation that Bradley Manning was now Chelsea Manning and there was a whole Media Discussion About How To Discuss This New Issue.

What has struck me a little wrong is the tone from many activists and such on the left towards the more mainstream culture on this.

I don’t think the majority of people understand transgender issues in the way that activists currently understand them.

(In an update on this post, Willis recognizes that “transgendered” is not the appropriate term.)

Well…duh. The majority of people never understand an issue the way activists understand it. Activists dedicate their lives to educating themselves on an issue. Most people come across the information in passing. 

What Willis is worried about is the tone of activists when they’re upset someone has failed to understand trans issues (which issues are never really specified). He goes on to say: “For many people this stuff is strange and new and they haven’t quite wrapped their heads around a lot of the real, serious issues it involves. And maybe some think that if others haven’t quite learned about it yet – because they learned about in their college or major city setting – too bad, and begin with the bashing…I don’t think we’re going to get very far and move along to the acceptance and equality we should be seeking.”

Perhaps Willis has been “bashed” for not being knowledgeable about trans issues. Perhaps he knows someone who has been “bashed” for not being knowledgeable about trans issues. Perhaps he’s seen someone on Twitter be “bashed” for not being knowledgeable about trans issues.

But what Willis sees as “bashing” is more likely the frustration of understanding that stakes is high and lives are on the line. When more than 40 percent of trans folks are attempting suicide, the trans community has a homelessness rate double that of the national average, and are disproportionately victims of violence, it’s a little difficult to educate with a smile. And even when you are lighthearted and comedic, like Avery Edison, you’re still misgendered and made to suffer abuses like being thrown into a men’s prison when your identification clearly reads female.

No one likes being yelled at, but most people don’t like yelling either. People yell because they’re not being heard. They yell to break through. They yell to save their lives.

And it’s not that I don’t think we could all stand to be a little more patient with people who are a different place in their education, as Vero advised us to do. None of us know everything and shouldn’t be quick to condemn another person for not knowing what we do know. But we also have to take into consideration why the frustration exists. We have to consider the source of the anger.

Maybe, for cis people who are having to consider trans people and issues for the first time, it may seem like it’s coming from nowhere and there’s an expectation that we all be more educated than we are. But trans people have been around. They’ve been teaching. They’ve been telling their stories. We haven’t been listening. That’s all that’s really being asked of us. Listen. It’s true there has been a mainstream breakthrough, as Willis alludes to, in recent months where trans issues have come fr0nt-and-center. Rather than getting on the defensive when asked to catch up, one could just…catch up. Because this isn’t just the past few months; it’s lifetimes worth of stories and information. We’re all just way behind.

Saeed Jones from Buzzfeed put it this way:

Recently, my editor-in-chief — arguing that I should try to be be a bit more understanding of people who don’t really “get it” — said, “Saeed, you’re three years ahead of most people when it comes to thinking about transgender issues.” But I’m not ahead. I’m late. We are all so late. And while we, as readers, writers, and citizens, either attempt to play catch up or come up with more excuses as to why respecting the lives and realities of transgender people is just so hard, transgender people themselves are paying the price for our tardiness.

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MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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