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Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn

One thing that’s always stuck with me was an anonymous post online of someone saying, “I wonder how my favorite celebrities would treat me if they knew I was trans.”

It’s stuck with me, because I think we all wonder that at some point or another. I’ve wondered that- I’ve thought all about my favorite celebrities and if I’ve never heard directly about what they feel about transgender people, what they might think about the subject. It’s hard to tell- everyone comes from different backgrounds, but a particular background, it doesn’t guarantee the “typical” way of thinking from said background.

It’s because of this thought, I wondered particularly about Neil Patrick Harris. A household name, an amazing actor, a fabulous singer, a man with a handsome husband and two beautiful children that grace the internet with their clever family Halloween costumes every year. A man who recently starred in the Broadway show, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. The show itself was about a genderqueer rock singer who undergoes a botched sex changes operation so she can marry a man to escape from East Germany.

“ON LIVE TV, HE USED THE TRANSPHOBIC SLUR, “TRANNY” MULTIPLE TIMES. IN THE WEEKS FOLLOWING, HE TWEETED OUT HIS APOLOGY.”

A few years before he starred as the character, Neil found himself at the center of a controversy. On live TV, he used the transphobic slur, “tranny” multiple times. In the weeks following, he tweeted out his apology. There were many angry headlines regarding his use of the slur, many lashing out at him for doing so.

I then went on to read the transcript of an interview with him that was done in early 2015. Of course in it, they discussed Hedwig. As the interview was a few years after the slur controversy, I looked through the interview, curious to see if he’d learned anything about transgender people.

What I found was he said he felt like a fraud on stage as Hedwig. He felt awkward and was completely unsure of how to carry himself. He said that’s “the last thing you want to be projecting as a transgendered (sic) woman who is confident in herself.” While he not only seemed subscribed to the general public’s thought that Hedwig is a trans woman, (A thought I believed myself, until I found out one of the writers of the show said that Hedwig is indeed genderqueer, not a man, but not a woman in identity.) but he still seemed to have things to learn about the transgender community.

“I STILL CRINGE WHEN I REMEMBER IT BEING A BIG DEAL FOR ME WHEN I MET A TRANS GIRL FOR THE FIRST TIME.”

Keeping that in mind, I began to ponder about transphobia of varying degrees around the world. We hear it every day in the news, on social media, and even as we walk down the street. However, I think back to when I was younger before I knew what transgender was, or even that I myself was transgender. I used the slur “tranny”, I used “transvestite” and “drag queen” interchangeably, and even associated those things with being gay. I still cringe when I remember it being a big deal for me when I met a trans girl for the first time. I met her at the mall, and she was clearly in the early stages of transitioning. But to me, it was like finding Waldo- something I didn’t see every day, but knew existed. My friends had similar reactions and views.

I look at myself back then and how I am now. I watched my friends grow and change, the vast majority of them learning what transgender is, and coming to support the trans community. If we can change, if we can learn about what transgender is, what are proper terms and how to speak respectfully, then couldn’t Neil and other people that just don’t seem to “know” be able to eventually do the same?

My thoughts left me with the questions, “What should we define as transphobic from hate and malicious intent, and what’s transphobic purely from miseducation? Where do we draw the line? Can a line even be drawn?”

In Neil’s case in particular, I’m not sure how he’s learning about being transgender, or if there is a substantial way in his life for him to learn, but it’s clear from his apology and his cleaned up speech in later interviews, that he is on his way to bettering his knowledge, and at least is aware of the fact that he was using transphobic language and hurt people. That being said, there are still those who are blatantly transphobic. After Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair announcing her chosen name, Chris Brown posted on his official Instagram page a meme that dead-named her, and complained about how she was making headlines, but something else that was news worthy wasn’t. Kylie Jenner, clearly furious, replied to his post, saying, “That’s not very nice to say about a friend’s dad!” From Brown, there was no apology, and his post was clear in intent. However, the question from that still rings- could he be educated properly about being transgender? Could he learn to not be hateful?

“PEOPLE CAN BE SO DEAD-SET IN THEIR WAYS OF THINKING, THAT ANYTHING OUTSIDE OF THEIR BUBBLE IS TERRIFYING AND CAN’T EXIST.”

People hate groups for many reasons- maybe they were raised alongside a constant adult presence who instilled that hate in them. Maybe they were told about certain people in a shallow and hateful light from those around them, and they went along with the idea. Maybe they know all about a certain group and still hate them out of pure disagreement. Whatever the reason, we try to work towards education and open discussion to minimize the hate in the world. It’s tough sometimes, though, to get the word out there and find ways to get people to consider what they haven’t before. People can be so dead-set in their ways of thinking, that anything outside of their bubble is terrifying and can’t exist.

So what can we do? My suggestion is to start in a place where many don’t think to start- ourselves. You’re likely asking, “Bailey, what the hell are you talking about? Who knows more about being transgender using proper terms like those in the trans community?” I hate to tell you, but the statements above about blind hate, pointless discrimination, and people being unwilling to think that there’s a different world outside their own point of view apply to us as well. The truth is, there’s more hate in our own community than initially meets the eye.

I have repeatedly seen so many in our own community get angry and upset over someone not knowing certain things. I’ve even seen people in our own community get targeted by others of our community for not knowing certain things! We’re supposed to be working together, not further sectioning ourselves.

One main issue that needs to be worked out is communication and trying to look past our own perspective. We often forget how different our views can be when it comes to declaring what is and what isn’t transphobic. There is no way we can make everyone think the same way, and as frustrating as that can be, we need to try to learn how to have a creative discussion and not immediately peg each other, (or anyone outside the community with different views) as “transphobic”. If we can get ourselves together, we can have a stronger influence on those outside who oppose us.

“IT’S NOT GOING TO BE EASY IN PRACTICE, BUT IF WE KEEP TRYING TO LEARN TO COMMUNICATE IT WON’T BE SO HARD IN TIME.”

It’s not going to be easy in practice, but if we keep trying to learn to communicate it won’t be so hard in time. With that said, my advice is: if you see someone in our community post or hear them talk in a way relating to being transgender that might not be wise, say something. But don’t jump in with, “OHMYGAWDYOURESOTRANSPHOBICHOWCOULDYOU!!!!” or anything of that nature. Maybe start by asking why they feel that way about whatever topic it is they’re discussing. Maybe ask them what their point of view is on a subject matter before agreeing or disagreeing. Engage in polite debate, but don’t antagonize someone from the word “go”!

At the same time, if you’re approached about something you’re saying/posting, don’t get furious, scream obscenities at them and demand that they stop trying to censor you. Again, engage in polite debate about the topic. Try to open your mind to someone else’s identity or where they’re coming from. (After all, your own identity and story isn’t something that can be understood fully by anyone else but you. It’s the same for the rest of the people in the world.) Try to hear out the other person’s point of view first, and- this is the hardest part, I’ll admit- consider the idea of you being wrong. Maybe try to identify and openly acknowledge the spots where you both agree. Putting focus on the agreement can make the other person’s view feel a little less unknown and strange.

Ultimately, agree to disagree. In the end, you likely won’t change each other’s views, but the best you can do is hear each other out. Who knows- you may feel a change in your perspective!

“YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE COMPLETELY WITH THE NEXT PERSON, BUT DON’T LIVE LIFE THINKING THAT YOUR IDEAS ARE THE ONLY WAY TO THINK.”

You don’t have to agree completely with the next person, but don’t live life thinking that your ideas are the only way to think. Like I’ve said, we can’t all think the same way, but we should try to accept the idea that people think differently. Instead of deciding your views are always and completely right, think of how the next person could easily feel that way too. Who are either of you to decide who is correct?

If we can educate our own community on communication and understanding, we can take on the world with an example of how listening and learning can better an issue.

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