‘Honest dialogue is the route to trans acceptance’

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As an American transgender woman living in New York City, I wade into the UK debate on cancel culture and freedom of speech with some trepidation. It’s acrimonious and nasty but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. I’m an optimist and have been ever since I realized I am transgender in 2018 and came out in all areas of my life in 2019 while working at Goldman Sachs. My experience is uniquely mine, and my views are my own. The transgender and gender non-conforming community is vast and experiences myriad.

Since leaving Goldman 16 months ago, I have spent my time speaking on LGBTQ issues, mentoring trans people and serving on non-profits that work to improve the lives of queer people. While my focus is decidedly domestic, I try to stay abreast of the issues facing transgender people around the world. Living in the US, I’m no stranger to transphobia. My country is socially and politically bifurcated. In the Northeast and on the West Coast, trans rights are largely protected by law, we are accepted by those around us and some, but not all, have opportunities to prosper.

Inland America is mostly an alternative reality. State laws restrict gender affirming healthcare for youth, bathroom access in schools and transgender youth participation in sports. Politicians from these states feel emboldened to condemn transgenderism, repeating lies about gender affirming care and suggesting transgender people are miscreants, looking to prey on the cisgender, or non-transgender, population. In both our countries, I see unprecedented cruelness from politicians using transgender people as a winning political issue to curry favour with their conservative bases. What’s the end game for these heartless individuals?

We need cisgender people to be part of the discussion and not frightened of being slapped down at every turn

Starting with children and then moving on to adults, they seem to want to make it as difficult as possible to physically transition and perhaps at some point convince society that transgenderism is a form of mental illness.

I have news for this callous lot. It’s not going to work in either the UK or US. We’ve been around for centuries and despite efforts to erase us, our numbers are growing. In both of our countries, about one in 200 adults identify as transgender, but in the US, that percentage nearly triples for youth aged 13-17. When these young people are old enough to vote, they will make a difference at the ballot box.

The public invective on transgenderism is harsh on both sides of the Atlantic but the terminology is slightly different. While we do hear the phrase “cancel culture” in the US, a more common expression that conservative politicians throw around here is “the woke mob”, meaning a group of individuals who are hypervigilant to any comments or signs of discrimination.

There seems to be a belief that the vehemence of the woke mob, particularly on transgender issues, impinges on people’s ability to freely state their views because they will be attacked and harassed if they say anything even mildly critical. Is this really a free speech question though? Many of the same people who complain about being bullied continue to freely and publicly state their transphobic views. Graham Norton recently suggested this whole issue is more about accountability than freedom of speech. I couldn’t agree more.

But, before I get to that, let me state unequivocally that in my opinion, it’s both uncalled for and counterproductive for transgender people and allies to harass or threaten the wellbeing of others, even if they publicly malign us. It’s hardly newsworthy that somebody my age finds the discourse on social media uncivil and my calling for it to become more courteous is highly unlikely to make any difference. But I’m trying to bridge a yawning gap, and this is one important piece. Harassment of others is counterproductive to our cause since it doesn’t win people over. Telling our stories does because it’s a lot harder to hate somebody when you know something about them.

The woke mob can be intimidating, even to me when I hold views outside the conventional norm on controversial topics. But we should welcome honest dialogue on topics such as transgender sports, gender affirming care and transphobia because it’s an opportunity to educate, which in turn, is a path toward wider trans acceptance.

Cisgender people still far outnumber us, and we need them to be part of the conversation and not frightened of being slapped down at every turn as they sometimes are in the US and UK. I welcome wide participation in these discussions if participants approach them with kindness. I have no patience for maliciousness and it’s easy for me to recognize the difference between the two. When we see evidence of maliciousness on social media and in mainstream media, particularly if they are espoused by public figures, we need to counter it. This must continue because the other side hopes that by the force of repeating untruths about trans people, it can turn more of the public against us.

Back to accountability and civility. I believe the more senior the public figure, the bigger responsibility they have in weighing the potential power of their words. And, when it comes to public comments on transgender people, this can be literally a matter of life or death.

Just because there is not a one-to-one causation does not mean anti-trans comments by prominent people don’t hurt. They lead to ostracism, bullying, physical harm and sometimes even death. Indeed, the UK’s own Home Office says that rising hate crimes against trans people may be partly due to comments by UK politicians.

Let me finish by talking about my transgender experience and what it has taught me. I’ve been told by many transphobes that I will never be a woman. It’s true I will never menstruate or give birth to a child, and there will be times when I look more male than I’d like. I’ve never said I am physically identical to a cisgender woman. I can’t do anything about some of these differences, but if people focus only on them, they miss the point entirely.

Sure, I want to look attractive in a feminine way, but cisgender people place too much emphasis on our external transition when it is the internal that really matters. Since I have transitioned, by far my most meaningful experiences have been when I am accepted by a group of women.

If you hate us or want to lock us up for being mentally ill, then keep your distance. I’ll keep mine as well

I recently gave a talk in which I said I will spend the rest of my life learning what it means to be a woman, but I’ll die with my mission incomplete. What I mean by that is it’s the striving to reach far off termini and relishing all the points along the way that infuse life with meaning. I’m gynophilic, and I firmly believe my attraction to all that is feminine is a high form of tribute to the beauty of womanhood. I am not a threat to anybody.

If you hate us or want to lock us up for being mentally ill, then just keep your distance. I’ll keep mine as well. In the end, I just want to be accepted, but I’ll settle for a chance to spend my life without regularly encountering hostility. Come to think of it, isn’t that what most every human being wants and deserves?