Over the last few weeks I have seen three high profile figures mischaracterize and say harmful words about transgender people. President Donald Trump, Laci Green, and N.T. Wright. When the affected and hurt transgender people and their allies have expressed frustration, I have seen a demand for polite discourse used as a means to silence them. These are hurt voices that have fear and sadness and anger. And yes, I am angry. Their voices matter and need to be heard even if it makes people of privilege uncomfortable.
In the wake of Texas bathroom bill legislation and President Trump’s statements intending to bar transgender people from the military there has been an affect. It has been reported that the crisis lines at the Trevor Project more than doubled in calls from suffering transgender youth. My son has personally known the trauma of losing three friends to suicide who were either transgender or genderqueer. This year we are already up to 16 transgender people murdered. It is estimated that over 60% of transgender people are victims of sexual assault. The same study shows alarming rates of intimate partner violence against transgender people, higher homelessness rates and other things.
I could go on with proved statistic after proved statistic. This is a group of people who are at risk every day. They are being assaulted, bullied, intimidated, spoken about horribly, denied civil rights and so many other things. Every day they are marginalized.
Imagine for a moment that you are a teenager who is transgender. Imagine that you see a psychotherapist, you see some of the leading doctors in the field as they prescribe your medication. You are educated, informed, and you know more than most adults ever will about transgender. You have resources and valuable information. Now you have just imagined being my amazing kid and many like him.
Imagine that you see people like one of Time’s most influential people on the Internet, Laci Green, get it wrong and do so in a hurtful manner. You read about popular and well respected theologians like N.T Wright compare transgender youth to ancient gnostic who are deluded by adults and will one day have to face the regrets of coming out and being themselves. The president of the United States of America says you are a burden and an expense on America and the US military and not welcome. This is all wrong and you know it is wrong, but you also observe what happens when people speak up.
Decade after decade they have been denied a voice and a seat at the table of human rights and dignity. The voices that need to be heard are ignored as is your precious young voice. Looking for inspiration you have read the works of Doctor Maya Angelou. Even though you do not understand what it is to be black in America, you know oppression and the Letter From a Birmingham Jail rings true to you.
The young see the adults voice their frustrations. Accustomed to being ignored while people literally die and are assaulted and jam phone lines looking for a reason to live another day, it is hard to be polite. You and/or those you care about are being hurt and at risk as we speak. There is fear, hurt and sadness. Your yearning to be heard, to be loved, to make a difference and to be accepted is rarely met by society. So you speak out in the only language you know. The language of the caged bird that sings for freedom.
What did my son see? He saw his father, women of color and trans people removed from a table of discussion because they did not live up to the standards of Dan Finke’s Civility Pledge. A pledge they never signed up to was held up as the golden standard to be heard. They never got to be heard as to the harm done by Laci Green.My son also saw what happened when people voiced frustration about N.T. Wright’s gross mischaracterization of trans youth with the promise they will regret being trans later. He saw people never hear the hurt and the anger and the fear. They just saw bad manners and dismissed all they have to say.
If we are too outspoken in the media or at congressional hearings, we risk arrest or being called troublemakers. If we protest, we are not being civil. Here is the problem. The cis world rarely listens when the trans world is polite and they refuse to hear them when they are angry because it is not civil.
Look in your history books. The sad truth is that polite discourse did not end slavery in the US. Nice conversation did not get the suffragettes the rights they fought for. Civil rights came at a cost and people died. While they were dying, white mainline christians were questioning King’s motives and techniques and lack of politeness so much so he wrote a response while sitting in jail. Just shy of a year later, King would be murdered.
The oppressed already have to live under the impossible weight of the rules imposed on them by their oppressors. To have to meet the standards of the privileged to be heard is just wrong.
Should we try to have civil discourse when possible? Yes.
Are there times where we could be kinder to allies who get it wrong? Of course.
Should the voice of the oppressed who is denied civility and decency in their daily lives be denied ears to hear them because they do not meet your standard of civility and decency? No.
Behind their actions and my actions as a father is something good and beautiful that needs to be recognized. There is a yearning to be heard, to make a difference, to be recognized, to love and be loved.
When we who are cisgendered, straight, and white live our daily lives, we do not have the same experiences my son and countless other transgender people experience. I go to the men’s washroom without impunity. There is the ability to hold your loved one’s hand in public and even show affection without stares. We do not ever get asked by an ER doctor if the reason for our high blood pressure is because we are cisgender. There is no need for us to have to walk through the maze of gender markers and legal names to be recognized by our proper pronouns or name. Most of us do not turn on the news or read social media to hear public figures discuss us as if we are an issue. Not on the scale they do.
Not once have I been told I have to disclose that I am cis and straight to a potential lover and no one has ever tried to hurt me because I was cis and straight. If they did hurt me, they could not use shock at my gender identity and orientation as a legal defense.
When you have to live like this, anger is a valid emotion to have. It is healthy to express that anger. The anger needs to be heard. We do not get a more civil society by controlling the conversation of the hurt. We get a more civil society by listening to their hurts and understanding them.
Please throw out your pledges. Remove the veil of false security that polite discourse gives you. Stop seeing every statement of anger akin to othering or SJW’s silencing your rights to discuss. There is something we all need to hear.
When my son first came out, he was not always polite to me for how I would speak and what I would say. I sometimes wrote him off as disrespectful. The truth is that I was not listening and I was not understanding. I needed his angry and hurt voice to be raised so I could see him and understand him. That is the truth. If I were to hold him to a pledge, I would have hurt him more.
Hear the voices you ignore. They have something important to say. You need to listen. I need to listen.
The cost of civil discourse is sometimes the silencing of the suffering.