Guest contribution by Jeremiah Traeger.
A little over a year ago, I accidentally went viral in support of trans people and in protest of the then-recent bathroom laws enforced in North Carolina. I wasn’t intending on spreading my hairy, fabulous, cross-dressing ass all across the internet. I simply saw a lot of toxic transphobia on my social media feeds, and I wanted an effective way to get rid of it without merely unfriending people and not educating them, so I took a photo of myself in a dress and posted it with some commentary. I imagine that I fit the profile of what a transphobe thinks a trans woman is, I’m hairy and otherwise fairly masculine, and if I fit that profile while wearing a dress I can confront their expectations head-on. If a conservative’s idea of a trans woman is Grigori Rasputin going to a cocktail party in drag, I could meet those expectations. I was hoping to merely spread it across my friends list and maybe my friends would share it, and if some bigots unfriended me, so be it. I didn’t expect it to get 61,000 reactions and 18,000 shares.
Anyone reading this likely already understands why policing which porcelain bowls I’m allowed to wave my wang over is a bad idea, so I have no reason to go into my post. But I learned a few things about how people change their minds, how to be a better ally, how the opposition functions, and which messages tend to get spread. It’s had a long time to settle, and I no longer get death threats from the event, so I am able to take the opportunity to look back and see what I have learned.
First off, I was surprised that it took off the way it did. I’m putting on zero faux humility when I say that the content of my post is absolutely nothing new. In terms of LGBTQ advocacy, it is basically the boilerplate position on why we think the government doesn’t need to police our junk. I arrived at this position from years of listening to the queer and trans community, how they are marginalized, and why this issue negatively affects them. I basically wrote out the equivalent of a book report summarizing the arguments with minimal editorializing. The only thing I added was a photo of me (which is, depending on your taste in homeless-looking grad students, a plus or a minus).
Having my face attached to this message upset me for a couple of reasons. It did affect me personally, because it was my face being spread around the internet. I’m not generally a fan of having attention called to me, save for some limited arenas like public speaking where I have control over the situation. The internet being the internet, it was out of my control practically within 12 hours. Who would see it? My boss? My coworkers? Random classmates? The checkout lady at the grocery store? It made me extremely uncomfortable to have what seemed like the world “peering in” on me. I shaved immediately so that I didn’t resemble the photo, and kept my head down at work the following week. To this day I still get uncomfortable looking at the post.
More importantly, I didn’t like that I was the one attached to this message. When it comes to LGBTQ rights, it is not my voice that needs to be elevated. I certainly have my own opinions and positions, and I will always fight vociferously on behalf of my friends who fall under the LGBTQ umbrella, but they are the ones we should be listening to. I probably would not have written that message without taking the time to hear out LGBTQ perspectives, and thoroughly understand their position. I already understand the gender-normative authoritarian bathroom police state viewpoint because that’s the world we live in, and it’s the mainstream narrative’s position. It’s not hard to come across a meme on your feed talking about “a man in a dress” if you’re an average American, and if you’re a trans person living in the south you already known the risks to your safety when you leave your home. Those of us on the side of the equality have our work cut out for us, because the overwhelming majority is uninformed, and they have more and more misinformation thrown at them every day. Meanwhile, many Americans may not know any trans people who are out to them, and they have yet to hear out the experiences of trans people.
When we look at ways to change peoples’ minds, humanizing ourselves to the oppositions appears to be one of the best ways to do it, and there’s science behind this. People with bigoted opinions may have plenty of preconceived notions of what a gay or trans person is (like Danny DeVito in a skirt), but when they meet one, talk face-to-face with them, and understand them as a human with needs just like everyone else, their position can rapidly shift. When my message is spread, it’s merely my opinion based on ethical principles and appeals to personal freedom and equality. These are fine positions, but they are abstract and divorced from the everyday life of a trans person. When a trans person talks about how they held their pee for hours and avoided the bathroom all day at work for fear of being outed by a coworker and subsequently fired, it’s a personal outcry that illustrates how they’ve been unfairly marginalized, to the point that their life may be at risk. One of these carries a lot more weight, and that’s the message we should be spreading.
To be clear, I have no interest in telling LGBTQ people that they must out themselves for the sake of equal rights, that is a personal decision that each of these people should consider for their self. Coming out does work, though, and is one of the reasons why the gay rights movement made such progress in recent years. The general population began to see them as normal, everyday people, and the culture shifted. It is why campaigns such as Openly Secular and #NormalizeAtheism have been started, so that people can see that atheists are normal, everyday, moral people. Think of how much more effective this post would have been if it was actually a trans person instead of me.
I think of Callie, who is the main author of this blog and one of my biggest motivators on this issue. She has given many talks and even has driven across the country to spread the messages of LGBTQ equality. When I think of people whose voices need to be elevated, I think of her. I’m just a cisgender heterosexual guy and the issue doesn’t personally affect me. By contrast, Callie’s bathroom use has in the past forced her to hold a pee for hours out of fear from danger. The conversation should be about trans people, not my opinion on bathrooms (which I find ironic since I’m spending XXX words making this point). It’s not my place to be a reference point on the issue. Had I known that my message would have spread so far, I may not have made the post at all.
When I think about the reception that I got, however, I change my mind. I received many private messages from trans people thanking me for the support. A lot were from trans women, who thanked me for spreading empathy and encouraging equality. In fact, of the nearly hundred Facebook messages I received, a vast majority were positive and supportive. For an issue that supposedly negatively impacts women, there were a lot of women (cis and trans) who thanked me for sticking up for trans rights.
The ones that meant the most to me were from parents of trans children. When many of us who try to be allies have these conversations, we often have a picture in our head of what we think a “typical” trans person is. We think of a white adult woman, assigned male at birth. We often don’t think of the children who are trans as well, and how their can affect their access to society. We don’t think of how the other children they grow up with will treat them for being “different”. The common conservative cry against giving trans people restroom access is to “think of the children”, but apparently they don’t think this through when the conservative position actively harms the children they are claiming to protect.
Speaking of the conservative position, I did get a small handful of negative messages. One of these came from a fireman (warning: violence, transphobia):
It’s funny getting death threats from someone who has sworn an oath as a life-saving public servant, as per his affiliation at the Houston Fire Department.
This is my favorite one for two reasons. One is because he’s claimed that every biologist thinks trans people don’t exist. A quick Google search brought up Julia Serano, Joan Roughgarden, Rebecca Allison, and Ben Barres, all of them trans people who work in some field of biology or medicine. I also find this message humorous because the person told me he hoped I wasn’t getting a medical degree. I laugh, because my parents are doctors, and they were very proud of me for making my post.
I also got messages from people who clearly didn’t read my post. They saw me in a dress, and they saw words next to my dress, but didn’t actually address the words that I said. To be clear, there are often two reasons people support bathroom bills: because they think trans people are perverts, and because they’re afraid of a cis man pretending to be a woman, sneaking into the bathroom, and attacking someone. I focused on the latter, and I addressed how bathroom bills would solve absolutely none of the problems raised. Plenty of people told me they weren’t afraid of trans people (something they thought I was talking about), but that they were afraid of actual men pretending to be women (the exact topic I addressed). I’m pretty certain I’m on the right side of the issue, and the ignorance on the other side of the issue to the point that they completely ignored what I said was a pretty large validation.
(End transphobic and violent content)
There were, however some people who disagreed with me that weren’t just spewing ignorance and hatred everywhere. There were women who messaged me out of what seemed like genuine concern and fear of being attacked in a bathroom. One woman even messaged me telling me that she had been assaulted by a man in a bathroom before, so this issue hits very close to home for her.
Obviously being sexually assaulted is a common occurrence and a valid fear for women. I have no interest in invalidating that concern for someone else. Trans people obviously aren’t the problem, but there’s an important point to be made about assault in general.
For these women, I thanked them for reaching out to me. I made it clear to them that it’s perfectly ok to be cautious in their day-to-day lives, and that more people need to recognize that women live in fear of being assaulted regularly. Their concerns come from a real place. I then shared with them the fears that trans people go through regularly every day, their elevated rates of assault and homelessness they risk, and how laws like these would put them at even more risk. I finally shared with them how few assaults actually occur in places like public bathrooms.
They seem surprised that I took the time out of my day to gently reply to them. It’s a delicate subject for them, and it’s important that I approach it with empathy and compassion. We talked about the solutions to the problem, and by the end of our talks they were very happy to have conversed with me, and recognized the problems that trans women face. I introduced them to Callie, who is a trans woman who is more informed than me and can empathize with these women even more than I can. Callie later got back to me telling me she had great conversations.
In the wake of the election, I have had a lot of a lot of thoughts and conversations about how we can effectively change minds. While many people have a very, very long way to go, I don’t think anyone is completely hopeless in changing their mind. I don’t think giving bigots like Tomi Lahren or Milo Yiannopoulos platforms to millions of people is effective, especially if you as a host aren’t going to push back or challenge them on their bigotry, but I think one-on-one personal conversation is invaluable.
While trans women aren’t really a threat to these women, there is a nugget of valid concern of being attacked. It was important for me to validate some of these concerns for them, show that I understood them, and then explain why blocking trans peoples’ access to society was not going to solve those problems and would in fact make things worse. And I made headway.
I’m very sensitive to the idea that addressing a bigoted or harmful viewpoint within the arena of conversation can appear to validate that perspective as something worthy of debate. I don’t ever want to give that impression to someone. And I am not in the business of telling people how they must behave to their oppressors. However, there are many empathetic people who are on the receiving end of a lot of misinformation, and don’t recognize the harm they may be supporting. There are a lot of ignorant misinformed people who are receptive to conversation and who genuinely want to act in the best possible manner. I realize that this is difficult to do for many people, and I’m coming from a place of privilege when I write this. And I recognize that sometimes we need to make the judgment call between risking the validation of something harmful and cutting off a potential ally. But as a skeptic I cannot accept that any one individual is 100% incapable of changing their minds. I know people who escaped cults, and I know people who switched from virulent homophobes to ardent gay rights supporters. Even I have shed some pretty harmful attitudes that completely shifted as a result of productive conversations with those who matter a great deal to me. Perhaps we can take the time on occasion to call someone in, instead of calling them out.
Going viral was surprising, exhausting, and anxiety-inducing, but I learned a lot from it. I didn’t particularly enjoy the thought that a poor-quality photo of me was being peered on from tens of thousands of computer screens around the world. I also really didn’t like that a cis male was being spread around as a voice on behalf of trans people. But, regardless of the fact that it wasn’t a perfect event, it was a chance to change hearts and minds. Would I have done it again? I would have changed a few things. I would have phrased a few things differently. I would have included a message pushing people listening to queer and trans voices, maybe including a link to this blog’s podcast. I would have asked my trans friends to look it over and make sure it was the best it could be. But, as things on the internet go, they’re very difficult to control. This turned out fairly well, all things considered. Based on the people I ended up supporting, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Oh, and dresses are comfortable as fuck!