There’s nothing like a guilty conscience to motivate you into activism. My decision, years before I came out as transgender, to “do something” about the ignorance and prejudice from lesbians and feminists towards the trans community in general, and trans women in particular, was largely motivated by a realisation of my own ignorance and prejudice.
A few years back, I lost a trans woman friend, a very good friend. She’s the one, if you’ve been following my blog for a while, that I met at my very first lesbian event, the one who quickly discovered the event had a “women born women only” policy, something neither she nor I had ever heard of or could quite comprehend.
I was totally on her side – too timid back then to protest very loudly but certainly confident enough to say in discussions “I don’t agree with this”. But some “older and wiser” lesbians took me to one side and painstakingly explained all the politics and issues that I had been unaware of, trying to convince me that my attitudes were naïve and problematic and unfeminist. They inferred I was “junior” in this space and should defer to them. I slowly lapsed into a long silence, in which I listened a lot and said very little on the subject.
What I was failing to tell anyone was that my seeking out lesbian spaces had come about as a result not of my sexual orientation (I had been out as bi for many years) but my need for a community where it was acceptable to be gender variant, where I could live outside of the prescribed gender roles of heteronormative society. All that prejudiced stuff people said about trans women – about male gaze, male energy, male behaviours, male socialisation – was uncomfortable to hear when I had long known my trans women friends showed far more typically female socialisation patterns than I. It was me that had that male gaze, male energy, male attitudes, male socialisation, and it shamed me, forced me deeper into the closet about my gender identity.
My friend never protested the trans exclusionary policy; like many trans women she was too busy surviving constant street harassment, stones thrown at her windows and the inherent unsafety of being a visible trans woman to be confident enough to argue with unaccepting and prejudiced people. But their lack of acceptance, the discovery that she was barred from yet another potentially supportive space and community, hurt her deeply.
We remained friends for a long time, and I watched her crumble, watched her PTSD worsen, watched her emotional wellbeing deteriorate. I started to question whether she had done the right thing – surely, if transition was right for her, she should be happy? I blamed her mental health on her transition, and refused to see the truth, which was that her mental health was a direct result of the oppressive and abusive way she was treated by the people around her. The lesbian feminist community, me included, had a hand in that oppression, and a shared responsibility for her poor mental health.
As a therapist, I understand there is a very clear correlation between mental wellbeing and social support, which is why on average LGBT folks have poorer mental health than cis/het folks, and why over time the mental health of LGB folks (with the B lagging sadly behind) has improved significantly alongside changes in societal attitudes.
How much easier, though, to place the illness as a symptom of the person themselves rather than place some responsibility on their social situation. How much easier to infantilise and pathologise trans women instead of standing in awe of their courage to be themselves in a hostile world.
The crunch came when I could no longer bear to hear her sorrow that she was so unaccepted, so unloved for who she was. I remembered, some time before, a prejudiced lesbian I knew saying “trans women are socialised as men, and like all men they expect us to look after their emotional needs”. These words started to influence my thinking. It was the ultimate get-out; I didn’t have to care about this human being because her neediness was not, after all, because society was being shit to her but because of her male sense of entitlement, her expectation, nay, demand, that I listen to her problems as if it was my job. As a good feminist it was my responsibility to be less caring.
I can honestly say without a shadow of doubt that my problem in this instance was not “caring too much” but understanding too little, but it’s a neat excuse for people with little empathy to lower their already low standards.
I pulled away from her, and we eventually lost touch. Despite my buying into a “tragic trans” narrative for her, the next time I saw her she was supremely happy – she had found love and built herself a more reliable community. She deserved love – now I look back, I see that she had looked after my emotional needs far better than I had looked after hers – she had been a good friend, she had cooked for me, given me a spare room to escape to through bad times, cuddled me when I was low, listened to my fears and worries and never once called me on my prejudices and mistaken beliefs about transgender people. In fact, I was the male-typical “what about me?” person in that relationship. She deserved a whole lot better.
I’ve never spoken about how much I let her down. It’s only now that I can see some people responding in similar ways to me that I fully understand the impact of my prejudice. I now also understand that I couldn’t bear to hear her sorrow because it was a foreshadowing of my own.
It’s a simple equation – trans people’s wellbeing depends on the full acceptance of wider society – non-acceptance is in and of itself the source of transgender oppression.