Measuring Progress and Pain

Leela G. ID Check

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Recently, while I walked past a group of teenagers, one called out to my back, “Oh my god—that’s a guy!” Her tone was hysterical, and elicited a similar response from her friends.

I ignored them. While unpleasant, this was nothing I hadn’t experienced before. Transphobia, and more specifically, transmisogyny, is a value of our culture, and something adolescents, I’ve witnessed, can bond around.

A few days later, I attended a meeting that included a “pronoun round”: Those present were invited to introduce themselves by their names and pronouns. Though trans people were invited there, this was not a particularly queer event, and it was evident that for many this was the first time they’d been asked to offer such information.

Gender identities in our culture, historically, have belonged to the state and the community. Individuals are assigned a binary gender identity, and then policed and graded on how well they enact that assignment. To those teenagers, I had failed. Assigned male, I was not being a man. Likewise, because they “recognized” that, I wasn’t succeeding as a woman either. As part of our society, they deemed themselves entitled to define my gender publicly, and ridicule the deviation they inferred in my expression.

As the pronoun round demonstrated, though, these practices are changing. “You tell me who you are, and I will listen,” these ceremonies say. I noticed some anxiety or bewilderment in a few of those who spoke that day. Had they failed at gender? Did we not know what to call them?

About seven or eight years ago I noticed heterosexual people, when talking about their significant others, using the word partner, rather than girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife. The gesture seemed egalitarian—a way to erase a privilege they felt shouldn’t exist. Heterosexuality shouldn’t be compulsory or “normal,” and non-heterosexual relationships shouldn’t be stigmatized, their choice said.

Acts like pronoun rounds communicate similar ideas regarding gender. Being cisgender is not “correct,” and being trans or gender non-conforming is not odd or confusing. Asking someone their pronouns or offering one’s own avoids misgendering, makes space for non-binary identities, and chips away at the idea that identities are something assigned or imposed, rather than a person’s integral self.

As I’m writing this, there have been 8 reported murders of trans women in the U.S. this year, and 11 reported trans youth suicides. These numbers are sadly not out of keeping with recent trends. The cissexist idea that cis people have the right to bully, harass and assault anyone trans or gender non-conforming makes life unsafe for all people who aren’t cisgender. Bullying and harassment underlies each of the youth suicides, and the transmisogynist violence in the murders is self-evident.

Observing these ideas evolve, and play across fields such as television comedy, public restrooms, women’s colleges, and murder reports has been alternately odd, inspiring, and infuriating. Progress is occurring I could never have envisioned when I was young, and yet the injustice could not feel more personal. The prejudice affecting young people—those specifically targeted by conservative religious groups—is the same that made living my identity when young an impossibility. That same prejudice is literally killing the most vulnerable among us—those specifically with intersecting marginalized identities—and our community seems to pay it little mind.

A recent article about Barnard, a women’s college on the verge of formalizing a policy to accept trans women applicants, revealed a campus where those supportive of such a measure spoke freely, and those opposed—those “uncomfortable” with trans women, and who perhaps didn’t see them as women at all—would not talk to reporters, and confided their worries only in private, for fear of seeming prejudiced.

Thinking about transphobia is like watching a fire slowly going out. Thinking about it for a trans person is like observing a fire that’s devoured one’s house, and killed one’s family members, being extinguished. One’s glad to see the danger ebb, but is mindful one’s house still contains a fire.

That meeting organizers would include a pronoun round and assume goodwill on the part of those asked to participate, and that students who wished to act on transphobic impulses at Barnard felt the need to publicly censor themselves—actions and attitudes that likely wouldn’t have been present perhaps even two years ago—demonstrate the stigma being on the wane. That teens burst into spontaneous harassment upon seeing me speaks to its continuing vibrancy.

Finding myself drawn to trans topics during my transition has meant concerning my mind with narratives of progress and death, narratives that feel like an ongoing novel—the only one I want to read at times, because only it reflects my trans identity, and resonates with the deep wounds of my past.

Leela Ginelle is a playwright and journalist living in Portland, Ore. You can write her at leela@pqmonthly.com.