If you are on facebook (and what middle-aged mom isn’t, amirite?) then you have no doubt seen a whole bunch of people who have never heard of the ESPY awards before all of the sudden having very strong opinions about who does and who doesn’t deserve the Arthur Ashe Courage award. Like p.much everyone else, I also don’t follow the ESPY awards. So I don’t really have an opinion on whether Caitlyn Jenner should or should not have received the award. But I do have an opinion on the bravery of trans people. So I am going to talk about that instead.
You may have seen this coming through your facebook newsfeed. Several of my friends have posted it. You may have seen something similar. I’ve seen a few different variations on the theme. And it’s a pretty powerful message. On the top, you have a soldier, carrying an injured or fallen comrade to safety. On the bottom, you have a woman in a dress speaking into a microphone. Which one says bravery? If you’re any kind of American – and not a dirty, stinkin’ Commie – then it is obviously the top one. Right? But I have to wonder, why can’t they both be brave?
I mean, I obviously don’t know what it’s like to be trans. I’m not even sure that I’m a good ally to trans people, although I try to be. But I think I know bravery when I see it. And I think that bravery comes in all shapes and forms.
When I was a teenager a long time ago, I had a friend who was trans. She was the first trans person I had met, ever, and she was quite a bit older than me. We lived in a small town (those of you who lived there can probably guess who I’m talking about, although I’m not going to name names), and it was not a particularly progressive town, but I’d like to think that most people there had a live and let live kind of attitude.
My friend was a Vietnam Vet. She had been an engineer at some point in her life, and could fix anything. She was wonderfully generous with her time and talent. She was very open – she would answer any questions that I had about her transition, her operation, and her life both before and after transitioning. She had a dry sense of humor, but was so funny. She was incredibly kind.
I’d like to say that I was fully and outspokenly supportive of her right to live her life as she saw fit. I was enlightened. I was a liberal, damn it. That would be a great thing to be able to say, wouldn’t it? But I was also a kid and it was the 90’s. When I first heard that we had a transexual (as far as I knew, that was the proper term in the nineties) in the neighborhood, I was really curious about the “he-she” (obviously not the proper fucking term). I made the jokes, and I joined in the speculation, and I laughed along with everyone. After I met her, and as I got to know her, the jokes made me feel a little awkward and uncomfortable. I stopped joining in. I didn’t speak out. I mean even though I had been raised to live and let live, there was still this undercurrent that “it just ain’t right” that I wasn’t willing to examine too closely. I examine those kinds of thoughts a lot now – we have those same undercurrents about a lot of things in our society, forming our opinions without us even knowing it – but I didn’t think about it so much then. It wasn’t until something that happened later that made me finally stand up and say something.
I’ll get to that in a minute. I want to talk about bravery first.
Once I started hanging out with my friend, I noticed that a lot of people had an issue with it. Not the people close to me – not my close friends and family. But people in my extended circle. One person told me that my friend was actually a pedophile and that she only got a “sex change” so she could get closer to teenage girls. The implication was that I should watch myself because my friend was actually a sexual predator in a friendly female disguise. That one was easy to dismiss. My friend had told me what the surgery entailed, and that seemed like a pretty extreme step to take just to be able to get close to teenage girls. The warnings and the disdain really didn’t get to me. I felt pretty confident that nobody would fuck with me because nobody wanted to fuck with my dad and my uncles. But it did make me wonder, if people are talking about me like that just for hanging out with her, what are they actually saying to her? When we went to town together, I could feel the hostility directed at her. I could feel the looks, see the way people reacted physically by jerking their bodies away, hear the loudly “whispered” words and venom that people spewed her way. And I came to realize that just walking out her door was dangerous for her. Just going out to the grocery store held a level of risk for her that it didn’t hold for me. I mean, I always had the choice not to hang out with her if I didn’t want to put up with the stares and the whispers and the jokes. She didn’t have the choice not to be herself. And the fact that she did be herself – that she was herself so authentically and apologetically despite everything – that is bravery. You can’t tell me that it isn’t.
I learned a lot about her, and I learned a lot about trans issues through her. But I also learned a lot about myself. Because her bravery touched me so strongly and so deeply. And one of the big things I learned is that I could be brave too. Maybe not the way that she was, but in some small way I could be brave. I could say, “Those jokes aren’t funny.” I could say, “Please don’t talk about my friend like that.” I could do anything other than sitting in awkward silence and feeling ashamed of my inaction. So I did. And I do.
I invited her to my High School graduation. A lot of people had opinions on whether or not she belonged there. She came to me before the ceremony and asked me if I wanted her to leave because other people were uncomfortable. Let me emphasize that, she asked me if I wanted her to leave because other people were uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with what? With her presence there? Were they afraid they might catch trans like it was a disease? Of course I didn’t want her to leave. So when someone came by a couple of minutes later and loudly said, “Who invited the he-she,” I was finally able to reply (in my polite voice), “I invited her. Does anybody have a problem with that?”
Turns out nobody did have a problem with it after that. At least not where I could hear it.
I don’t know what happened to my friend. I moved out of town less than a year after graduation, and we lost touch. I heard from someone that she had passed away, but I don’t know for sure. I never got a chance to tell her that she was one of the bravest people I had ever met, and that she inspired bravery in me. So I’m telling you.
I often hear people say that our world is getting better. That racism, and bigotry, and homophobia, and sexism, and whatever happened a long time ago, but things are so much better now. Maybe. Things were pretty shitty for trans folks in 1995, and it wasn’t that long ago.
Trans folks were rioting for the ability to live their lives free from police harassment – in 1959 at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles, in 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, and in 1969 at Stonewall in New York where the modern gay rights movement was born. It wasn’t that long ago.
As recently as 1974, cross-dressing was a crime that you could be arrested for. It wasn’t that long ago.
In 1999, PFC Barry Winchell was killed by one of his fellow soldiers after a series of conflicts stemming from Winchell’s relationship with a trans woman. It wasn’t that long ago.
Employment protections didn’t extend to transgender Americans in federal occupations until 2010. It wasn’t that long ago.
In 2013, almost 200 trans folks died as a result of anti-transgender violence. Many more were assaulted – both physically and sexually. Many acts of anti-transgender violence go unreported. The trend is upwards. Early statistics for the first half of 2015 show that anti-transgender violence has increased 13% from the previous year. It wasn’t that long ago.
Last month wasn’t that long ago. Last week wasn’t that long ago. Today wasn’t that long ago.
Until trans people are able to go to the grocery store, or the mall, or to work without having to worry about the looks, or the whispers, or the jokes, or the discrimination, or the unspeakable violence that they encounter just for being trans, I will continue think they are brave.
Here, let me fix this for you: