Lately, you can’t go online or turn on the TV without reading an article or hearing about the transgender population. And what a great thing that is. It’s about time there is an open, serious discussion about this community – of which I admittedly know very little about – in order to educate and inform the global community – that is probably as ignorant as I am on the subject.
A few months ago, before Caitlyn Jenner was formally introduced to the world, I spoke at several high schools about my novels and the writing process in general and had the pleasure of meeting with members of several Gay Straight Alliance groups. As someone who graduated high school way back in the early ‘80s, a time when very few adults – let alone students – were emerging from their closets to declare their sexual orientation, it was inspiring to meet teenagers who are fearless and so confident in themselves that they willingly joined a group with the word “gay” in the title.
Color me surprised when I realized that t I completely ignored the last letter of the LGBT community and was shocked to discover that several transgender teenagers were also part of these groups. Was it because I’m a gay-man-of-a-certain-age? Had I spent too much time writing books about vampires? Did I think the “T” stood for “Transylvania”? (And yes, my mind has also gone directly to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and if yours hasn’t, get thee to Youtube asap!)
Anyway, despite my initial surprise, we all had a great time meeting one other. The kids wanted to know what it was like growing up gay in the “olden times” and how my “coming out” and subsequent journey into adulthood influenced my writing and I was happy to share my story. I was quite interested to hear how they handle being gay, lesbian, and bisexual in today’s modern world and found it heartwarming that many of the groups’ members are straight and part of the group to support their friends and do their part to ensure that high school is a safe haven for all students.
I must admit, however, that I was really fascinated by what the transgender students had to say. They didn’t believe me at first when I told them that they were the first transgender people – that I was aware of – that I had a conversation with, but it is the truth. I’m not sheltered, just from the suburbs. In any event, I learned quite a bit about their issues, their struggles, and their courage, and I am better informed because of it. Ironically, the one issue I still have a little bit of trouble with is a semantic one. I’m not always sure what to call them.
Now before you call me supremely ignorant, I understand the proper use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ as pronouns when identifying a transgendered person. But it can become more complicated. One of the students told me ‘it’ is a pronoun option and with apologies to those who refer to themselves that way, I cannot bring myself to call a person an ‘it’, I personally find it disrespectful.
The other choice is ‘they’. And here’s where it gets tricky. I completely understand that we, as a society, are label-centric, but there’s a reason we are. It simplifies things and creates order out of chaos. So regardless if you agree with labeling – him, her, mom, dad – it is the norm and a habit and habits are hard to break.
I found out recently that the teenage niece of a very close friend of mine is an advocate for the transgender community – intelligent, articulate, poised – and transgender herself. Actually, that should be himself. Except it isn’t. This person doesn’t identify as either male or female, but something in between, something that is part combination and part new creation. Take away the emotional reaction to such a comment and the hard-to-let-go-of traditional beliefs we all harbor about gender identity and this makes perfect sense because each and every one of us possess masculine and feminine qualities. Simple, right? So it shouldn’t bother me that this person uses the pronoun ‘they’ to describe herself. Or himself? Or . . .
To be completely honest, when I first heard about this, I immediately rebelled against the idea as being dumb, irrational, and just plain wrong. How open-minded of me! Once I got over my stupidity, I realized this is a perfectly appropriate choice. It may irk the writer in me to use the plural pronoun to describe a single person, but if ‘they’ describes the state of mind of a transgender person who am I to argue? Or disagree? Or, most reprehensibly, to judge?
I’ve actually done a lot of thinking on this subject and I think another factor in my reluctance to call a ‘him’ or a ‘her’ a ‘they” is my own homosexuality. I proudly identify as a gay man. I get the humor of it, but I really do bristle when members inside and outside the gay community use ‘she’ or ‘her’ to describe a man because I consider it derogatory. I’m old enough to have lived through a time when name-calling was accepted and I won’t tolerate it. So now when I hear a transgender man describe himself as ‘they’ I get a little angry. No, you’re a man, be proud of it. But then I have to remind myself that that’s my own journey, one that is specific to me, and no one else. So if the ‘they’ fits, wear it.
I think the most important thing to remember is that we are all the same and that we are all transitioning. Some of us are moving from one gender to the other. And some of us are moving from one state of mind to another.
Say good-bye to ignorance, because understanding is really the new black.