Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Matter of Opinion?

An online acquaintance recently made the comment that she thought it was selfish for parents to transition (meaning, to change their gender). She felt that the experience of having, say, a father "become" a woman would be so traumatic for the child that it trumped any suffering the father might feel while living a lie as a man.

You can probably tell from my choice of language that I don't buy this argument. While I can only imagine what it would be like to experience this as a child, I find Noelle Howey's book, Dress Codes, to be a good argument for the possibility that being able to be true to one's self, to be a whole parent rather than a broken one, can in fact improve the parent-child relationship. Howey writes about the distant, angry relationship she and her father had while she was a child, and contrasts this to the closer and happier relationship they have now that her father has become a woman. Howey is glad that her father "came out." And I find her experience very telling; it suggests that it is the quality of the relationship between parent and child that is of utmost importance, not the difficulties that arise but the ability to work through those difficulties.

In cases like this - and in cases of gay/lesbian parents - people always feel sorry for the kids. Generally, even tolerant, well-educated people have concerns that the world will be tougher on these kids, that they'll have to endure teasing. And what fascinates me is that this response suggests that the solution for such problems is an individual one rather than a societal one: l/g/b/t people should not have kids. That way, children will never have to go through the agony of being teased for having parents who are "different." Rarely do I see people respond as if they themselves share some responsibility for the way society treats its members who don't conform. Never have I seen such people reflect: "Hmmm...What can I do to raise my child to be an ally rather than an enemy of children whose parents are l/g/b/t?" (While some object to making analogies between race and sexual orientation, I think the analogy is especially apt here: can you imagine suggesting that people of color not have children to avoid exposing such children to racism?!)

I think we all know that no matter what we do, kids are going to tease each other for perceived differences. I only know anecdotally what it's like to have l/g/b/t parents. But I do know many adult children of l/g/b/t parents who love their parents, who are glad that they are who they are, and who know that the things they went through in childhood made them stronger, more compassionate, more principled people. We can't protect our children from life's hard knocks, nor should we want to, really, given how important these experiences are for their growth and development. That may sound pat, but as I look back over the worst experiences that I faced as a child - including being completely ostracized and targeted by bullies in third grade to the extent that I had to switch schools - I both wish I hadn't had to endure that and am simultaneously glad for having had that experience teach me what it's like to be left out. I think I am a better person because of it: I learned to be content with my own company, I learned to quickly suss out - and value - my true friends as opposed to my fair-weather ones, and I learned to include other people and not seek to make myself feel powerful by excluding them. Those are important life lessons that I learned at an early age and never forgot, and they have served me well.

So I feel that, to some extent, contrary to my online friend's assumptions, difficult childhood experiences can actually turn out to be positive ones. But in addition to this, I also perceive a danger in determining for someone else what level of suffering one must put up with "for the children." Someone who feels like a woman trapped in a male body (or vice versa) is having an acute, agonizing experience that those of us who do not feel this way simply cannot understand. Depression - to the point of suicide! - is common among l/g/b/t people who feel that they cannot come out, that their lives will be over if they do (because their friends and loved ones will leave them), that they are trapped. The testimonies of l/g/b/t people about the freedom that comes along with coming out all point to the fact that coming out is necessary if one is to survive.

Finally, while I appreciate that this is not the intent, for someone who is uneducated about trans issues to say that "transitioning while one has children is selfish" smacks of transphobia. It assumes, first, that the speaker has an understanding of what this experience is like, that the result of transitioning will always be traumatic for the child, that the result of transitioning will mean the end of the parents' marriage (I can think of several examples in which this is not the case), that the suffering of the tg person is something that can be dealt with in ways other than transitioning, that the speaker is in a position to determine for someone else what level of suffering is acceptable and how it should be dealt with. And second, it places the responsibility for education entirely on the tg person. In what other situation would it be ok for someone completely outside of a situation to determine what the best course of action would be? Is it ok to proclaim, for example, that all people with AIDS should be celibate? That all people in bad marriages should stay in them rather than divorce? That all women should stay home full-time with their kids? Haven't arguments been made in each case that any other action would be "selfish?" And haven't we liberals and feminists objected to them every time? Further, haven't we also been consistent in arguing that it is our responsibility to make society a place where people are not oppressed on the basis of ability, sexual orientation, gender orientation, etc.?

So, for me, finally, it comes down to this: I really don't believe that we are all "entitled to our own opinions." We are certainly assured of free speech (well, for the time being, anyway). But that doesn't guarantee us the right to have an opinion about anything without having first educated ourselves about it. In fact, I think we have an obligation to educate ourselves about that which we do not understand before we form an opinion about it - which means that we should really try to prevent the jury from coming back until we've had time to study and reflect on an issue.

And if you've made it this far and would like to read further on the subject, check out Dress Codes for a child's perspective, and Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders for a first-person account of transitioning and the impact on an individual and on a marriage. See also Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors for a discussion of what it's like to live in society when one's biological gender and one's unaltered physical appearance do not match.


Anonymous said...

Right on babe. mo

Anonymous said...

This hit the nail on the head. Coming from a mother who came out later on in life (I was nine), this blog is entirely true to my real life experiences. My mother is an amazing lady, but she just was living a lie. She went through depression, health issues, emotional problems, until finally she came out as a lesbian. Being in fourth-fifth grade, I was more embarrased of my haircut than my mother's sexual identity. From an early age I realized that she needed this for her, and because of it she was a better mother to me. I would not give up my past for anything. It has made me that much more open and experienced and knowledgable of the world that we live in, and if I learned anything from my mother's experience it's that no one else has the right to tell you who you are.
I think you bring up a great point when you say that instead of people teaching the next generation to at least be tolerant, they fall back on the 'norm' of critism and pity. Wake up! If the world is going to change, it's not going to happen sitting on our asses and waiting for someone else to do it. If you feel so much pity for those children, get up and do something constructive. That's all for now, but don't you worry, you haven't heard the last of me...