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.