I recently watched a video clip of a school board meeting during which the voice of a lone advocate for the rights of transgendered students was drowned out by the pious singing of “Jesus Loves Me” by hundreds of opponents. As I watched, I flashed back to standing in the back of a junior high auditorium in my hometown in 1999, as hundreds of my fellow townsfolk gathered to address the menace of possibly not discriminating against gay people. I remember the signs, the hands to Heaven, the self-righteousness. I remember recognizing people. I could imagine how that woman felt — surrounded by a roiling mass of hate, fear, and ignorance.
All of a sudden, it seems like the national consciousness has focused on the rights of transgendered individuals, and, unfortunately for such individuals, their pleas for decency appear, at times, overshadowed by our cultural prudishness, uncomfortableness with our bodies, bodily functions, and any expression of maleness or femaleness outside a narrowly conceived boundary. It’s heartening to witness the President and his administration coming down on the side of tolerance, compassion, and common sense. It’s a challenge, though, because the biggest challenge for transgendered individuals is the same challenge faced by gay and lesbian folks: being believed.
At the heart of all opposition to gay rights, whether it’s military service, marriage, adoption, employment, housing, or public accommodations, is the notion that homosexuality is a choice. That, somehow, us gay folk could change if we really wanted to. If we wanted it bad enough. If we prayed enough. If we were religious enough. And, when none of those things worked, we just proved to those that would deny us our full humanity the depth of our immorality, perversion, and worthlessness. For some, they simply could not believe that we love who we love and, like them, have no control over it.
Now the same folks must accept that some people born of one gender identify with another gender. That some men feel, with every fiber of their being, that they are a woman. That some women, in every part of their soul, feel as though they are a man. And, for some, this culminates in surgery to permanently change their sexual appearance. For other, for a myriad reasons, the changes are less radical but every bit as fundamental. It’s not a whim. It’s not a passing fancy. And, maybe it’s not the norm, but it’s their normal.
The new challenge is to convince enough — not all, but enough — fair-minded Americans that transgendered individuals are telling the truth. They aren’t degenerates. They aren’t evidence of the devil. They aren’t unnatural. They aren’t the result of a President opponents hate because, truth be told, they feel his skin color is a disqualifying characteristic. They only want what others take for granted: to be heard, to be respected, to be treated fairly. To be believed.
Back in 1999, as I stood in the back of the gymnasium, I watched as my old martial arts instructor joined the throng, and I watched as one of the attorneys in the firm I worked for took to the stage to explain legal tactics to deny local civil rights protections to gay people. Undoubtedly, the crowd contained other friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. I couldn’t help but wonder then: what if I could just go up and say, “It’s me. The person you like. The person you respect. Why can’t you believe that this is who I am and that there isn’t anything wrong with me?” I know it probably wouldn’t have made any difference, and that’s the most traumatizing aspect of it all: to know yourself but not be believed.