“On The First Day Of School, Nothing Happened”

The American Prospect:

“In Loveland, Colorado — population 61,000, 92 percent white and heavily evangelical Christian — Michelle didn’t know what to expect when she began to work with the school to facilitate her daughter’s transition from a boy to a girl. At first, it was difficult. The school “freaked out when I told them,” Michelle says. “When we started with M.J.’s transition, I was envisioning riots.” And so Michelle became an advocate for transgender people — those who identify as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. Michelle organized trainings for the faculty and staff and prepared “cheat sheets” in case any of their students asked prying questions.

But on the first day of school, nothing happened. No flood of calls, no angry protests, and no bullying. Michelle was “happy and shocked” that M.J.’s classmates seemed to get it. When one student made a mocking comment to another using M.J.’s former name, one eighth-grade boy dismissed him with a simple insight. “That person doesn’t even exist anymore,” he said. “You’re talking about somebody who’s imaginary.” (…)

Many would view the politically red heart of the country as a harsh, unwelcoming, and vaguely dangerous place for the transgender community. When we think of states like Nebraska and Wyoming, we don’t think of M.J. — we think of people like Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard, both killed in vicious, nationally publicized hate crimes. But the truth of the matter is far more interesting, inspiring, and instructive. Away from the coasts and the urban havens, a vibrant transgender-rights movement is slowly emerging across the mountain and plains states. Through increased visibility, community building, legislative outreach, and face-to-face public education in churches, schools, and neighborhoods, trans people are building a foundation for equality in some of the nation’s most conservative regions. (…)

Without doubt, trans people in the mountain and plains states face harsh realities: employment discrimination, obstacles to health care, violence, and few community resources. But even in the reddest of states, successes like M.J.’s are not unique. Moreover, these stories presage even broader long-term change. For each local success or modest legislative action, the effect is the same — laying the foundation for greater victories tomorrow. After all, as Mike Thompson, the executive director of Equality Utah explains, “If you can convert people in the reddest of states, then you can convert people anywhere.””

That an eighth grader can transition without incident in a heavily evangelical town is a wonderful thing, and it gives me hope that simple humanity might actually triumph in the long run, Proposition 8 or no Proposition 8. On the other hand, there are still altogether too many stories like this (h/t):

“Memphis police identified the body of transgender woman Duanna Johnson lying in the street near Hollywood and Staten Avenue early this morning.

Police believe Johnson was shot some time before midnight on Sunday. No suspects are in custody at this time.

Johnson was the victim of a Memphis police brutality case this summer when a video of former officer Bridges McRae beating her in a jail holding area was released to the media.

The video led to the eventual firing of McRae and Officer James Swain.”

Here’s hoping more people find it in their heart to act like M.J.’s classmates, and not like the Memphis police. This is an issue that we can all take direct action on. My sense is that a lot of people don’t know much about transgender issues unless they are transgender themselves, or know someone who is. This means that a lot of the burden of educating people falls on transmen and transwomen themselves. And that’s unfair in itself, and doubly unfair since the process of coming out as transgender is often quite tough enough without having to assume the responsibility of educating one’s fellow citizens.

Luckily, those of us who are not transgender can help to remove some of the extra burden of ignorance by stepping up to the plate and educating ourselves and others. Even more luckily, there’s a really pleasant way to start: by reading Jenny Boylan’s excellent memoir, She’s Not There. It’s a good enough book that I’d recommend it even if there were no civic reason to do so. Jenny Boylan is a wonderful writer: funny, generous, perceptive, insightful, and deeply, deeply sane.

If you know someone who doesn’t get transgender issues, or if you are such a person yourself, or if you just want to curl up with a really interesting book, it’s worth a read. And, as I said, educating ourselves about transgender issues is really worth doing. Try to imagine what it would be like to inform your friends, your co-workers, your everyone that you were planning to switch genders. Imagine the side-splitting (ha ha) jokes that some of them might tell, the possible uproar about bathrooms, the people who are suddenly uncomfortable around you even though they’ve known you for ages, and never knowing in advance who will react well and who will react badly.

Now try to imagine what a difference it would make if some of the people around you already understood something about what you were going through. We can all do our part to make that just a little more likely.

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