Generation X and Trans Lives

So, I’m going to preface this thing I’m about to write by being as clear as I can be about this, so there’s no confusion or ambiguity on this score:

Trans women are women, trans men are men, trans non-binary folks are non-binary folks, and trans rights are human rights. I’m non-squishy on this. I know, like and care for too many trans people to feel otherwise, but even if I didn’t know, like and care for any trans people, I would like to think I would say the same, because the validity of their lives should not be dependent on whether I know them.

Moreover, and fully acknowledging my outsider status on this as a straight, cis man, it seems that any attempt to carve out trans people from queer culture runs smack into the fact that arguably there wouldn’t be a modern queer movement without Marsha P. Johnson throwing that shot glass (or brick, depending on who is telling the tale) at Stonewall. Trans people — and trans people of color — were present at the birth of the gay rights struggle in the United States. It’s their story as much as anyone else’s, as far as I can see. They can’t be separated out, nor should they be.

With that as preamble:

In the last year especially, I have noticed that a not-small number of my contemporaries, some who I like, some who I love, and some whose work has meant so much to me that I find it difficult to express my admiration for it in non-gushy terms, have settled themselves on an essentialist view of who gets to call themselves a man or a woman. Usually there’s some biological component to this, but however it gets put together in their heads, at the end of it is trans people being othered, and estranged from their proper identities.

And while one does not have to be in one’s mid-40s to mid-50s to have this essentialism as part of one’s worldview, I certainly notice it the most in that group of people — in Gen-Xers, that slice of the population curve that I’m part of. There are Gen-Xers who I otherwise find myself in alignment with in terms of issues of the rights of women, with (cis) gays and lesbians and with people of color, but then have a sharp break on matter of the rights and identities of trans people.

It might be that I notice this schism because I’m a Gen-Xer, and so statistically speaking more of the people I know are of my generation. But I don’t think it’s just that. I think it’s possible that — in very general terms — every group identified as a “generation” has a group that it, for whatever reason, still sees as an “other” in some significant way, and for cis Gen-X people, it’s trans people.

It’s certainly true enough that trans jokes other cultural othering were still acceptable in the media Gen-Xers grew up with: the plot of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, of all movies, hinged on it (as did the plot of Soapdish, pitched to a different demographic). The Crying Game relied on its protagonist being surprised at someone’s trans identity. There was the recurring gag of Chandler’s trans parent in Friends. These are the obvious examples, which is why I name them, but there are a whole bunch of other examples one can name.

This isn’t to excuse cis Gen-Xers denying trans identity as valid, nor is it to make a facile argument that Gen-X trans othering is the fault of popular culture. We can’t blame it all on Friends. There’s a lot going on in the culture, and how we have built our identities as people, that I’m not touching on here, primarily for brevity. But it is to make the point that even as Gen-X had (arguably, and depending heavily on political/social background) understood itself to be racially diverse, and (again arguably and depending on political/social background) made the cause of gay rights its own civil rights struggle, there was still a culture frontier — an other, for its cis members: Trans people.

Millennials seem to me to be far less likely to exclude trans people from their cohort, and from what I see of Generation Z to date, they simply assume gender identity is fluid to a greater or lesser degree. It’s the cis members of Generation X who, it seems, have to do the real work of digging into their own biases and assumptions about gender — and their own discomfort with trans identity — and make the effort to change a worldview that implicitly and explicitly on the outside of it.

And it is work for us — look, folks, I’m gonna be honest with you: I didn’t get to being able to say “trans rights are human rights” and actually meaning it without some real work and effort. As (just) two examples, fifteen years ago, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen what the big deal was with deadnaming people, and it literally wasn’t until I saw a friend on Twitter being taken to task for it that I understood that “tr***y” was an actual and genuine slur. I can’t think of a time when I was actively transphobic, but I certainly sucked in a lot of passive transphobia over the years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line some of it came out of me, too.

(If somehow you find something out there where I’ve been transphobic: sorry. There’s no excuse for it. I’m not going to say I’m a better person now, but I will say that I’ve done work on myself to do better. And if I fuck up now, well, Jesus. Call me on it, please, and I’ll keep trying to be better from here on out.)

Some time ago I talked about sexism and I made the observation that if one’s understanding of what sexism is stopped in the 1970s, the 21st century was gonna be a real rough ride. Well, guess what: If your understanding of what sex and gender mean is stuck at the turn of the century, 2020 is going to come for you, and it’s not going to be nice about it (2020 isn’t nice about anything). Understanding one’s own sexism, or racism, or homophobia, or transphobia, isn’t about reaching some plateau and getting to stop. You have to keep working at it.

Which can be fucking tiring, you know? Now I get why so many people who were 20 or 30 years older than I was would tell me proudly that they marched with MLK or protested in the 60s: Because it was a way of saying “here’s my resume, I’m on the side of angels.” But the 60s were the 60s, and now is now. The fight’s not the same and sooner or later, generationally speaking, there’s always something to trip over.

I will tell you how it makes me feel seeing people in my age cohort — people I like, people I love, and people whose work I respect and admire — trip over trans rights and identity: It makes me feel old. It makes me feel like my generation has joined all the other generations who had a blind spot in their vision of who gets to be “really real” in the culture. And just as Gen-X looked at older generations and thought smugly to themselves “well, we’ll just wait for them to die off, and that problem will be solved,” now we’re the generation that younger generations will look at, shrug off, and wait to be launched into eternity.

And, yes, #NotAllGen-Xers, but you know what? Enough of us Gen-Xers to be noticable. The Gen-Xers I like, love and admire who are struggling (to charitably put it) with trans issues are all over the board. Some are rich, some are not. Some are educated, others aren’t. Some are famous, some are known only to friends and family. Some are white and some are people of color. Some, I think, might eventually get it. And some of them, well, won’t — either just because, or because eventually too much of one’s identity is tied up into their position on trans identity, and there’s no easy way back from that.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of Millennials or Gen-Z folk to do anything about Gen-Xers who trip over trans issues or who can’t or won’t listen. Those Gen-Xers (usually) aren’t your parents; you don’t owe them that service. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the Gen-Xers who are better about trans issues either — but I do think there might be a better chance that the former might listen to the latter better than to anyone else, when it comes time to talk about these things. Because it’s often easier to listen to friends and to members of one’s own cohort, with whom you otherwise have things in common, and some lived experience.

So I come back again to the issue of the Gen-Xers who I like, and who I love, and whose work I honor, who resist the idea that trans women are women, and that trans men are men, and that trans lives are valid as they are. They’re wrong about that, and if it turns out they will listen to me say that — and then explain why, as patiently and with as much kindness as I can provide, to the extent that I as a cis, straight man can — then I will count myself lucky to be able to tell them, and to hope that they will think about what I have to say. It’s not my responsibility, but I remember the times when friends, with patience and kindness, explained to me how and why I was wrong on something important. It helped me then. Maybe I can pay that forward.

Until that time, and again: Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Trans non-binary folks are non-binary folks. Trans rights are human rights.

Five Things: June 11, 2020

Here’s today’s big news! In five convenient bits!

I got a haircut: Which I recognize is not big news for everyone else, but which feel significant for me, since it’s the first one I’ve gotten since the quarantine started. I went to my usual person, whose salon was recently re-opened. She was taking things seriously, since no walk-ins were allowed, the stylist stations were reconfigured to put distance between then, and she and I wore masks the entire time (at one point I held up my mask as she trimmed around my ears). So, not the way it was before, but something workable for the way things are now. I wouldn’t have protested to get a haircut, but I am glad to have had one now. I feel slightly more myself.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admits to a flub: Namely, he shouldn’t have been at that now-infamous Trump photo op at the church, you know, the one they gassed all those peaceful protestors to get. And quite obviously he’s correct about that; he should not have been there, and he was basically used (or allowed himself to be used) by Trump for Trump’s own purposes. At this point the military seems to have pretty much served notice to Trump that they don’t want to play a part of his intimidation games any more, although what that means as a practical matter is up in the air, as far as I can tell; Trump is, for better or worse (hint: worse), still commander-in-chief. But maybe it’s gotten through even his thick skull that he’s messed up with the generals and their forces.

COVID cases up: in lots of states, not surprisingly tied to the “opening up” of those states from the quarantine, although it’s not uniform — Ohio seems to be doing all right, although officials here still warn that it’s early days yet. Some people will tell you this surge is due to more testing, but the actual experts themselves tell us it’s not just that. So keep on wearing your masks, folks, and all that other stuff you should be doing. And if you are going to protest, do it for racial justice, not for haircuts.

Today’s “Huh, not what I was expecting, but okay” news: The country band Lady Antebellum is changing its name to “Lady A,” because it turns out “antebellum” has racist connotations that have become too much to ignore these days. Admittedly this is not “NASCAR ditching Confederate flags”-level of change (I’m still amazed about that, I have to tell you), but it’s not chicken feed, either. If one wants to be cranky about it, one may note that “Lady A” is still inextricably linked to the band’s previous name, pretty much like “KFC” is still Kentucky Fried Chicken even though it’s formally known just by the letters now. But take progress as it happens, I suppose. Wikipedia’s updated, in any event.

Meanwhile, speaking of NASCAR, this dipshit. I don’t expect he’ll be much missed.

Twitter plans to ask you if you’ve actually read the article you’re about to retweet: Which is delightful, actually, even if it will send some people in a rage as an extra step is inserted between them and their performative tweeting. Personally I do try to read everything I retweet, although I can’t pretend that I haven’t from time to time retweeted something on the basis of the headline alone, especially if I’ve read a different news story about the same event elsewhere. But as a general rule, yes, I’ve read what I’m retweeting. Seems the least one can do, weird that some people won’t even do that.

The Big Idea: John P. Murphy

The creative advantages to anger: Are there any at all, ever? John P. Murphy says… perhaps! And explains how they were put to work in his novel Red Noise.

JOHN P. MURPHY:

Red Noise is about anger. I wrote it in 2017, at a time when a lot of us were angry for good reasons. Maybe it’s fitting that it’s coming out when we’re angry again for very good reasons.

We’re conditioned to be wary of anger, even afraid of it. But it’s not just an often healthy emotion, it’s a vital one. I’m not enough of a student of history to definitively state this or that without putting my foot in it, but it seems to me that a lot of progress in our world only happened after people got good and mad about injustice. I have to have faith that the anger we’re all experiencing right now rocks this country good and hard, and paves the way for real change. We owe so much to people who came before us who got angry enough to disregard their own convenience and even safety. But because many of us are so uncomfortable with anger, we don’t like to talk about it, don’t often look directly at the emotion itself and think about it. I didn’t want to either, but in writing Red Noise, I realized I had to.

My book is in the tradition of a number of movies and books going back to Dashiell Hammett’s noir classics Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Those works inspired the director Akira Kurosawa to write and direct a samurai film, Yojimbo, which was in turn remade into a Western by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. Then it was back to gangsters with Last Man Standing and Bruce Willis. It’s had many other iterations. The plots vary, but boil down to this: a nameless protagonist comes to town and finds that town driven into the dirt by fighting gangs, and so this hero, a trickster, pretends to join them as a way of taking them all down. And, of course, does.

It’s common when writing genre stories to talk of being in conversation with what has gone before. It’s a little odd to find oneself in conversation with a single plot. I thought a long time about what lies behind events like these. It’s one thing to read it or watch it, because that goes by so quickly. But writing something new in that vein means answering hard questions: What can drive rivals to hate each other so much they’d rather turn Station 35 into a two-for-one funeral than give an inch? What might push someone who jealously guards her privacy to take a look at such a miserable place and decide to put her life on the line to try and fix it, for strangers? There are many powerful emotions that make people put their lives at risk for others, but this is a job uniquely suited to righteous anger. No matter how cool or jaded the protagonist, without that core it just doesn’t work.

I did a lot of reading and viewing, trying to find my way into this story. Cowboy Bebop; Romeo and Juliet; Sanjuro; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; The Count of Monte Cristo. I read David Morrell’s First Blood, the source for the first Rambo movie (it’s a lot more subtle and interesting than the film, by the way). All of them were fueled by anger in some way, all different. Sublimated, frustrated, betrayed, furious. Anger drives decisions that drive plots.

It is also notorious for driving bad decisions, though, and I was determined to show a competent protagonist. More than that, I refused to believe that being angry was truly inconsistent with being smart. I found a study in my reading that intrigued me: it suggested that anger can actually lead to better decisions. People experiencing anger when they’re trying to come to a decision, it seemed, don’t wait as long, they don’t compromise as much, and they are happier with their decisions later. All together, my reading helped me understand better how this primal emotion drove my plot too, how it helped and hurt the decisions people make, and it helped me see that central anger motive with all its many facets and dangers for the characters.

From the protagonist’s perspective, the story is about being clever and resourceful. But for the gangs and the crooked cops, it’s about being manipulated into self-destruction. And they’d be justifiably angry about that, wouldn’t they? I found I needed more characters. In particular, I introduced a pair of gangsters, Screwball and Ditz, to help me distill those thoughts in a different way from the protagonist. Their journey wound up disrupting how I originally thought about how things had to play out. More than that, I realized that I was wrong about where the tension was coming from. The reader isn’t worried that this badass might lose the fight; we’re afraid of her losing the fire. We’re afraid she’ll stop caring.

Writing this book with anger in mind was useful to me, but sobering too. It made me question why I found these stories so appealing, why in 2017 I needed to write about corruption being pulled apart at the seams. God knows we’ve all found that it’s possible to get tired of being angry. Why add to the pile?

What I realized, after first reading so many stories about anger and then writing one, is that we need the practice. We need to see it through in miniature, get a little taste of a small win. Living out anger on the page doesn’t lessen the fire: it stokes it.

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Red Noise: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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