A Lesson In Compassion

Credit: Adam Brunckhorst

The other day I was at a departmental happy hour, and found myself standing around in a group of folks from my department who were talking about gendered styles of pants. Bootcut pants, apparently, are different shapes for men’s vs. women’s designs. Instead of chipping in as someone who’s actually worn both, as someone with direct experience with masculine vs. feminine body shapes, I remained silent. I knew this was a conversation where trans* people’s experiences weren’t supposed to exist or be relevant, despite the fact that I was standing right there. The complete invisibilization of my identity was not intentional or malicious so far as I could tell – it’s just the reality we live in, a reality that demands we conform to it, even if it’s impossible. I didn’t feel comfortable pointing this out to the group, one outsider against many insiders, so I just waited for this part of the conversation to blow over.

Then, someone put a wiffleball down one guy’s shirt (“That’s not ice! someone yelled!” Sometimes grad students like to relive their undergrad experiences). He started to bring it to his chest, started to jokingly say something like “I’ve always wondered what it’s like to have boobs” and without pause I walked away, unnoticed, no longer willing to subject myself to my own erasure.

Even when I am standing right there, openly going through transition, openly challenging dominant conceptions of gender, my identity is ignored and invisible while it is simultaneously basically made into a joke.

This kind of situation is so frustrating and painful for me. It makes me want to yell and scream: DO YOU SEE ME? I’M STANDING RIGHT HERE IN FRONT OF YOU. I EXIST. It makes me wonder why this is so hard for people, even though I know why: we’re taught not to look. We’re taught to make fun. We’re taught rigid, narrow ways of being, and to ignore or ridicule all those who fall outside.

It’s this very kind of situation that has led me to examine what lessons *I’ve* been taught. Who am I not seeing? Who do I inadvertently ignore, even when they’re standing right in front of me? How can I help to lift others’ burden of declaring their existence in circumstances when I am in a dominant position? This is what I wished I had done in my workshop at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference when people of color had to stand up for themselves and say that their experiences were being left out.

Something that I really struggle with is when I screw up. When I fail to help lift the burden for others, I turn all of that anger I have about my own identity’s erasure on myself. I’m just as bad as the people I’m frustrated with, I think to myself. I fall into paralyzing shame and guilt, and it can take time for me to dig out from under it. This is not good, nor productive. But the internal and the external anger is connected. If I can forgive those who oppress me, then I can forgive myself for being oppressive, forgiveness being distinct from absolution.

I was recently at a Quaker conference where I participated in a workshop on telling stories for racial justice. Among the lessons I encountered there was one of compassion for white people who are struggling to resist our collective racist training. Compassion. I was reluctant to embrace this idea. I have too often encountered white people who think that their guilt about being white is somehow more painful than what it’s like to actually be oppressed, and I want to avoid being like this at all costs. But in my avoidance, I lost all compassion for myself. That guilt is a real feeling. There is real pain in our disconnection from one another.

It was this concept that shifted everything for me: We are taught racism without our consent.

This is not absolution. This is not an excuse. This is our reality. The same forces that make it so hard for my fellow grad students at happy hour to truly see me when I am standing right in front of them also make it hard for me to see all of the places in myself where I have internalized racism and dominance. This training is everywhere, and resisting it is hard and takes time. It’s systemic.

I am learning to direct my anger at the system more than at individuals acting out their training. I am learning that my responsibility as a white person is not to be perfect, but to keep learning, to keep working to resist my training and to help others do the same.

This new found compassion allowed me to walk away from that happy hour conversation with a little less hurt and a little more self respect than I would have had this happened a month or two ago. It is easier to take it less personally. In this compassion I find strength, and a greater ability to live authentically.

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2 Responses to A Lesson In Compassion

  1. Seth says:

    I think a lot of aware cis folks think that the most respectful way to deal with transitioning folks is to treat them as if they’ve always been the sex they’re currently presenting. Interesting to know you find that alienating.

    • It’s a little more complicated than that, Seth. I do want people to treat me as though I have always been male, because even though it took me a while to realize it, that is what is true for me. This does not preclude being respectful of my experiences as a transgender person, nor does it preclude acknowledging that I am transgender. It does beg the question: What does it mean to treat me as someone who is male?

      What I find alienating is when people who have never met me before presume that I am a cisgender man, and therefore have male socialization, which I don’t. I find it alienating when people behave as if male and female are the only genders that exist, that our anatomy unequivocally determines our gender, and that the existence of trans* people is somehow irrelevant in nearly every conversation. When a guy puts a ball down his shirt and jokes about having boobs, it’s turning my very real experience of being a transman into a joke, while also operating on the assumption that trans* people don’t exist – the joke is funny because the idea is that men will never know what it’s like to have boobs, when some men actually *do* know what it’s like – transmen. In that sense, while I didn’t want anyone to then turn to me and outright ask about my experiences with my body, I did feel erased. I was standing right there as a direct counterexample to what makes that joke funny, and my experience remained invisible. I find that incredibly alienating and disrespectful.

      I hope that clears things up a little.

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