I grew up in quite liberal, accepting environments. At one of the schools I went to for many years, the gay kids were the cool kids, not the outcasts. I later went to a women’s college, where there was a vibrant queer community. I also knew my family wouldn’t have a problem with my being gay. Yet it was still hard to come out. I only ever came out to my close friends in high school, and it took me over a year in college to come out more broadly and openly, and even then, it felt hard. The risk, for me, was very little.
So why was it still so hard? Because ‘liberal’ and ‘accepting’ do not mean that these environments were not still heteronormative.
No matter how nice everyone is, you are considered straight ‘until proven guilty’ – at least, that’s how I put it. Straight until proven Other. TV shows and movies at the time I was growing up had almost exclusively straight characters, and though this has improved a little bit in the last 10 years, it’s still largely the case. If there were gay characters, then the plot often focused on their gayness, rather than their humanity. It remains a big deal every time a celebrity comes out. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was an obvious choice for the military, and marriage equality was a pipe dream, beyond Vermont allowing civil unions. It was only a couple of years ago, when President Obama finally endorsed marriage equality, that it was finally no longer political suicide to support gay rights. Because being gay was that bad a thing to be.
My friends, family, and acquaintances’ niceness to me, and their not making my queerness a big deal or treating me differently for it, did not make up for the huge amount of internalized Other-ness. I heard the message loud and clear: being anything other than straight was weird and bad, to be sensationalized, rightfully making [straight] people uncomfortable. It was a message I heard not just from the media and our country’s laws, but from the idea that everyone must be straight unless they point it out themselves by coming out, and that it would be insulting to accidentally assume someone was gay when they were not. Insulting! I heard it also in the discomfort of straight friends who were afraid of being misperceived as gay if they did not conform appropriately to dominant gender roles, as if it were a bad thing.
Message received, message internalized.
It was many years before it even occurred to me to question why it was so hard, given the environments I was in. Being gay is so bad, of course it’s hard to reveal something so shameful – this is part of the message. With awareness, I came to be proud of my queerness. When you break one major societal rule because of who you are, you begin to see how bogus many of the others are. It is liberating, and I am grateful for my experiences.
Over the past year, as I began to question my gender and eventually come out as transgender, I have had to fight another slew of internalized messages. This time, I was not so sure how some of my friends and family would take the news when I came out. It was way scarier.
Today, I find myself having a somewhat parallel experience as a transgender person. So far, everyone I have come out to has been nice. So far, as far as I am aware, everyone is doing their best to get my pronouns right. No one has made a big deal about it. (Would that all trans* people be as lucky as I in this regard! Though it should be the norm.) And yet, I still feel isolated. I still feel ‘Other’. Because not only do I exist in a heteronormative environment, but a cisnormative one, too. Everyone is presumed to be cisgender, unless proven otherwise. It is considered insulting to misgender a cisgender person, because heaven forbid anyone accidentally insinuate that you are breaking gender expectations! Masculinity in women is considered ugly and undesirable (as if women should want nothing but to be desirable to men – hey heteronormative patriarchy!). Femininity in men is considered weak and hilarious, at best. So what does that make me, a man with so much femininity I have been mistaken for a woman my whole life, in the eyes of society? Presuming that I am even accepted as male? (Not that I’ve ever even been that feminine, beyond the world interpreting my body as female!) And I haven’t even begun to discuss the trans* narratives on TV and in the media!
Message received, message internalized.
I live in a society that tells me I should be grateful for anything anyone does for me, because, as someone who is queer and transgender, I deserve nothing. I live in a society that is beginning to tell me that it might be ok to be queer or maybe even trans*, as long as I assimilate, as long as I fit into the gender binary, as long as my relationships look as much like what’s expected and glorified in white suburbia as possible. I can begin to expect some amount of respect as a man only after I am perceived as a cisgender man. I am expected to brush off jokes making fun of femininity in men, to go along with the nearly daily comments and generalizations about body parts, such as how only women understand what it’s like to menstruate or have a vagina, and how all men have penises. These assumptions are so ingrained, we do not even think twice about them, and they render me and other trans* folks invisible. You would be astounded how often gendered assumptions like these play into everyday conversations, facebook posts, and news articles. There have been many times this year when a comment made me uncomfortable, and it took me several hours to figure out why – it’s that ingrained. As a transgender person, the message is clear: I’m not supposed to exist.
It is not enough to get my pronouns right.
If you get my pronouns right and continue to be nice to me, but do nothing to change your assumptions about gender, then I will continue to feel isolated. I will continue to exist as ‘Other’. If you truly want to support me and help me to feel welcome, you must examine these gendered assumptions, and try to stop making them. The times I feel most comfortable and supported are the times when someone else talks about ways to counter cisnormativity, without my prompting, and without it necessarily having anything to do with me. For example, friends of mine considering raising a child without presuming anything about that child’s gender, regardless of gential configuration, or cisgender friends posting about transgender rights and experiences on Facebook. Work to transform our culture into one where there isn’t this dynamic of ‘straight, cisgender people vs. weirdo other people we have to be nice to’, and instead it’s ‘we’re all here together, some of us are queer, some of us are straight, some of us are cis or trans* or anything else, and it truly doesn’t matter’. The only way to do that is to counter our ingrained hetero-cis-normativity, both within ourselves – because it’s not just me and my fellow queer and trans* friends who’ve internalized these messages! – and in the environments around us.