Lost in Trans-lation
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
Okay, so hypothetical situation:
Someone, let's say Arnold, is chatting to Mary, a transgender woman, about their life before they transitioned. Mary is fine with this conversation. Mary willingly entered into the conversation with Arnold because Mary doesn't mind discussing the person she was before becoming the person she is...
Then Sheila comes along and overhears the two having a civil discussion.
"So what was your name before you transitioned?" asks Arnold.
"Rob" says Mary, flashing a small smile.
In comes Sheila, her chest heaving with the indignity that two human beings seem to be connecting over something new and unexplored.
"You can't ask that question. It's disrespectful and ignorant!" she remarks. She's rueing the day this cisgendered heathen was ever born. In her eyes, his attempt at understanding the nature of being born into the wrong gendered body is a foul perversion.
In Sheila's mind he couldn't possibly understand the suffering members of her community go through. The struggles to be accepted for who they are and the triggering nature of his questions about her life before she became her.
Arnold, bless him, didn't know that the question he asked was offensive. Mary, love her, didn't find the question offensive at all, and appreciates Arnold's willingness to listen to her story. Sheila, Glob help her, feels genuinely hurt by the prospect of a cisgendered white man attempting to find common ground with one of her people.
Arnold now, not only feels alienated, but like he shouldn't ask anything about people who are different than he is. How can he possibly tell Mary that he finds her backstory fascinating, that he only has the ideas of what it is to be transgender fed to him through the media, which likes to sensationalise the transformation but not the person.
To Arnold, Mary represents a human connection that could go on to educate and elucidate the nature of what it is to see through the eyes of someone different. To Mary, Arnold represents a connection made with someone she would never expect to attempt to understand her. In her eyes cisgendered people are demons also looking to demonise her, but here was a flag of truce presenting itself and she is happy to help Arnold in his understanding.
Sheila is ignoring the benefits of this conversation to Mary. Sheila only cares about making sure Arnold knows how wrong he is. Arnold feels wrong. Mary feels like she can't correct Sheila because her heart's in the right place.
So, hypothetical question: who wins?
Mary and Arnold are happy discussing what they are. Arnold doesn't mean offence and Mary doesn't take offence. As soon as Sheila pipes up, they cease talking to each other. Arnold walks away and feels alienated from this potential new friend. Mary feels like she lost an ally and potential new friend.
Sheila takes offence because she feels the question is disrespectful. But... why exactly?
Well, Sheila didn't have an easy transition. When she was perceived as male, she was bullied for being too effeminate, for embracing her love of dance and being too close to her mother. Sheila was hounded by her father for not manning up, for not enjoying sports and for being a 'fairy'. So, naturally, Sheila grew tired of the questions 'so what were you born with a d or a v?' and 'When did you know you were gonna be a girl?'. Every question was another stinging barb, a reminder of someone she didn't want to remember. Sheila became bitter and decided that anyone outside of her own community was incapable of understanding.
With this resolution, Sheila became ignorant herself. Shut off to the views of others. Unable to see through the eyes of anyone who isn't one of her people. In doing so, she becomes the thing she despises. She gets angry at the mere indication of something that may or may not be transphobic. She fights every battle she can on social media. She attends trans rights rallies and tells those who are less militant that they are doing it wrong.
People aren't perfect. They don't all sing from the same hymn sheet, but it's only through a willingness to listen that we can better understand, befriend and enjoy those who live differently to us.
The only way to alleviate fear is to offer understanding. Practice what you preach. Don't be a Sheila. (no offence to lovely Sheilas)