Last year during grad school, I saw a public health classmate on the bus and we got into a conversation about her professional interests. She told me that she was interested in transgender health issues. I asked her, “Transgender people have special health needs?”
“Yes. They are less likely to get jobs that have health insurance. Sometimes they are less likely to get hired period and sometimes they experience discrimination with healthcare providers.”
Even though I asked the question, “Which group within the transgender community suffers the most?” to which she replied, “Usually male to female,” I honestly was not convinced. I had so many questions. However, I did not want to ask any questions because I did not want make her feel that I was insensitive or not understanding. Instead, I asked my friend Casey, who is gay (a fact that reveals another misconception had which is that gender identity and sexuality are the same, which they are not). One of my most telling questions was, “Why can’t transgender be transgender at home, but pretend to be [cis] at work?” My thought process behind this which was problematic was that being transgender cannot possibly be as bad as it is to be black. At least feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body is something you can hide.
Boy was I wrong. However, when my friend and one of his friends, who is also black, told me, “No, that’s stressful,” I was still not convinced. It was not until, I saw this special on OWN about a transgender girl (biologically assigned as male at birth, but identifies as a female):
I realized that being trans was not something you turn off and on.
I still had many questions, this time more of the questions were empathetic, “If I didn’t think that being gay, being depressed, or having some other more metaphysical disadvantage is not a choice, why did I think that being transgender was a choice?” “It’s great that Jazz has supportive parents, but what about transgender individuals who don’t have supportive parents? What about low income transgender people?”
Some of my questions and thoughts still revealed my less empathetic state as a privileged person. For example, “Jazz thinks that she’s a girl because she doesn’t want hairy legs and loves pink. Plenty of women have hairy legs (me included) and don’t like pink. In fact, pink is exponentially more popular among young girls now than it was in the 1970s.”
I also learned so much more about the struggles of being transgendered: 1) Transgendered homeless people are often not a allowed in homeless shelters because since they are separated by gender, the managers of the shelters do not know where to place them. 2) Transgendered people are more likely to commit suicide 3) Transgendered people experience more violence.
The most important part is that my ignorance turning into knowledge revealed an important lesson to me. I always ask myself why my dad (the white, conservative one) and his sister (“my racist aunt”) fail to realize how calling Trayvon Martin a thug is racist. The answer to that question is the same answer to the question about why I did could not (for the longest time) empathize with transgender people. Because I don’t have to. This is the definition of privilege. Privilege puts us in a position where we, if we choose, do not have to empathize with oppressed people. It definitely hurts that they feel that they don’t have to show empathy to me. But what about the transgender teen who committed suicide because her parents did not understand? Even when the girl died. he mother posted online that her son died while getting hit by a truck, refusing to speak of the child the way that she wanted to be referred to and refusing to admit what really happened. What about Sandra Laing, a coloured/colored South African woman who was born to two white parents in a racist apartheid South Africa? What about the Korean student who was adopted by two white parents who year after year refused a Korean neighbor’s invitation to go to annual Korean cultural festivals? Those parents are really not empathetic to the struggles of their children. I have one un-empathetic parent and one (mostly) empathetic parent. Imagine those who have two unsympathetic and un-empathetic parents. Parents who do not take their children’s identity development seriously. I don’t think would be helpful to tell someone who is going through my experience. That would be the opposite of empathetic. But this is something I have to tell myself.