"I just want to be accepted and loved for who I am, like anyone else. It shouldn’t matter what gender I am. In the same way that it shouldn’t matter how old I am, or the colour of my skin, or my religion, or my economic status, or my political beliefs, or any of the other ways people can be oppressed.
Canada used to be known as a tolerant nation, but in the same way as we were admired as peacekeepers, in recent years we have been slipping. Perhaps many of us have become too complacent, too invested in maintaining our wealth in the face of the disturbing deterioration of the health of our world. To be tolerant requires empathy. The ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to try to understand, and then to act on that understanding.
Us trans people want others to have empathy for us, to tolerate our differences, and to give us the same opportunities as anyone else. This seems to be an unusually difficult thing to achieve, as we who have been struggling to get equal protection from discrimination under the Saskatchewan Code of Human Rights have found. It’s unfair. We get discriminated against in ways that are now viewed as unacceptable for other groups. Employers discriminate against us in ways that they used to discriminate against women. We’re challenged for using public washrooms, like the ‘whites only’ policies of the past. Our access to health care is restricted as it used to be for the economically disadvantaged. We feel uniquely deserving of consideration.
I remember a discussion about health care with a group of transgender people where one woman said that she needed Sask Health to pay for her to have breast enhancement. Her breasts were the size of an average woman’s. When I pointed out that other women didn’t get coverage for this service, she insisted that we should be entitled, because we are trans. We have to be careful what we ask for, or other people will think we only care about ourselves.
I feel empathy is a two way street. If I want empathy from others, I must have empathy for them as well. And I must have perspective. Many in our society still think it’s alright to discriminate against transgender people, in ways they would no longer dream of doing against other groups. Yet women and some racial and ethnic groups are still denied equal opportunities and pay in employment. We’re not the only ones. If we want others to respect us, and to be responsible in the ways they behave toward us, we must also be responsible.
When I tried to live as a man, I thought I was a very empathetic and responsible person. Since coming out as female, and allowing parts of my character that had been suppressed to blossom, I have realized that unknown to me at the time, my behaviour as a man was not always as kind as I believed. It’s very easy to see defects in others and be unable to see them in yourself. I’ve become more social, more interested in people, and more prone to talk about what I see and feel. Writing my thoughts down in public spaces, such as the internet, I’ve become increasingly aware of the responsibility that I have to express myself very clearly, and to be empathetic about how my words might be perceived by others.
My increased awareness has not come about by superior female empathetic mental powers, but by making stupid blunders. For example, I recently had surgery at the Brassard Clinic in Montreal. The first night waiting for my surgery I shared a room with a wonderful woman who had just had her surgery, and was having a difficult time with pain and nausea. The next day, after my surgery, she was moved to the recovery clinic, and a hilariously vivacious trans man took her place. We had so much fun together and even got in trouble for talking too much. I posted about it in my Facebook status, and concluded: “The girl was nice, but she was suffering, so it's a good change to have someone more upbeat as a roomie.” However I forgot that we had become Facebook friends. She commented on my post, “Sorry I was not more upbeat. Now that I am at the recovery centre they are giving me the right level of medication and now that I feel very little pain as a result, I feel much happier.” I felt awful. Why didn’t I think about her, and what she might feel before I posted? When I went to the recovery clinic and saw her I apologized, and she said it was OK, but I could see she had been hurt.
A recent incident in Saskatoon showed how someone who was sure they were right, and who had little empathy for people who didn’t agree with him caused great damage within the queer community. The organizer of a drag show, a fundraiser for good queer causes, titled the event using a word considered by many to be a slur and term of abuse. He justified the choice on the basis of freedom of artistic expression. He felt he could use it as a term reclaimed by many in the drag community. He called his show “Trailer Trash Trannies", and was publicly scornful of those who challenged his disrespect.He and his supporters, counting on the disempowerment of transgender people in our society, had to back down when trans* activists from all over the country rallied, and the organizers were served with notice of legal action.
In the triumph of victory some in the trans* community showed little empathy for this person, a person who at heart is a supporter of transgender people, and may even feel himself, as a drag performer, to be in some degree transgender. It’s very easy to be critical of others. Yet, in our struggle for acceptance I think we have a responsibility to be empathetic.
I have been a feminist since my youth, and now that I have come out as a woman feminism has become even more important to me. In a recent initiative to start a dialogue between feminists and trans women, it was requested that I contact a Saskatchewan feminist group of which I am a member, but one trans person responded immediately to say we should keep out the TERFs. This sounded like a disrespectful way to refer to feminists who might wish to have dialogue with us. Many feminists are concerned about how some male-to-female transgender people are unaware of how they continue to employ male privilege and make other women uncomfortable. Many feminists are also uncomfortable about how the very definition of women is broken down, and their struggle is weakened if people who have lived most of their lives as men, and have male biology can simply claim to be women and have that claim legally recognized. Women who were identified as such from birth because of their biology are not allowed by patriarchal society to escape their oppression so simply.
Some feminists consider the term TERF to be a derogatory term. Even though TERF, which stands for Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists is a term coined by radical feminists in 2008, not all radical feminists, nor those who find some of their arguments persuasive are such hurtful haters of transwomen as many of those who embrace the term. So I think we have to be careful, if we want to enter into respectful dialogue, how we label people.
Just as we who are trans* don’t like others deciding how we should be labelled, we should respect the wishes of others. Even when it appears to us misguided or ignorant. A good case is the use of the word cis. Cis is a very useful term in the context of gender studies, trans activism and transfeminism. It is a respectful shorthand to refer to people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender ‘normal’ people, in common usage. However the use of the word ‘normal’ implies that we who are different, are not normal, that we’re some kind of freaks. Hence the word cis. However, in my encounters with radical feminists, I’ve found that many of them consider ‘cis’ to be objectionable. And it’s true that some transactivists direct the term at individuals in a way that could be considered a slur, in the same way as the term TERF is sometimes used. While it’s easy to scoff at such a misunderstanding of a useful word, I think that here, too, we should have empathy, and be respectful. We should be responsible in our use of language and never label people with terms to which they might object, without their permission.
In the words of what I think is one of the greatest Christian sayings, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In our struggle for acceptance and equality we have a responsibility to remember that every person has their own personal struggle, and that in a truly just society no one can be left out."