The authenticity gap: Are trans people really ‘real’?
January 6, 2015 § 16 Comments
It’s far enough into January that most of us have had time to break the usual New Year’s resolutions, if we bother to make them at all. But for all the cis (non-trans) people reading this, I have a challenge for you – one that would actually make a real difference.
Do you genuinely believe that trans people are as authentic, as real, as you are?
Maybe that seems like an odd question to ask. I’m not the first trans person to say that 2014 felt like a transformative year for trans rights: greater public awareness, more mainstream support, a broader understanding of what it is to be trans, and of why it’s wrong to discriminate against us. Laverne Cox was all the rage, Janet Mock’s debut book achieved critical and commercial success, and here in the UK our most prominent children’s channel broadcast a programme made by trans kids, aimed at kids, explaining trans issues.
With that, I was going to write this as a somewhat academic essay – looking at the inroads we’ve made versus a lack of basic understanding – the assumptions that still hamper a full acceptance of trans people’s realities. But then the past week and a half happened.
Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. Eylül Cansın’s suicide. The brutal attack on Samantha Hulsey and her partner – and the subsequent refusal of the police to investigate that attack under hate crime legislation.
They are not the only trans people who’ve died, been attacked, been treated as less than fully human in this time frame – but these are the stories I’ve seen shared and shared and shared, in grief and in outrage, by trans people that I know. And what I wanted to say changed – into this:
Despite the progress that’s been made, there still feels like there’s a crucial lack of understanding, of support, when it comes to broader questions of trans acceptance – and that lack feels like gap between the unquestioned authenticity of a cis person, and the often-debated, often-disbelieved authenticity of a trans person.
Authenticity – the unwavering acceptance that someone’s life, someone’s self, is the real thing. That the basic facts and details of someone’s existence are true.
We have passive support from those who accept trans rights as part of a general liberal mindset – the ‘I may not agree or understand, but it’s their right to do as they see fit’. We might well have well-meaning support from those who care about human rights, who don’t want others to suffer – the ‘I can’t imagine how hard it must be, and it’s just not kind to discriminate’.
But both of those approaches lack the foundational, unswerving belief that trans people are truly the equal in veracity to cis people. Far, far too often, even with those who putatively support trans people, there is an acceptance that our lives are up for debate. These debates are not usually framed as being about our existence, naturally – but make no mistake: a debate about whether it’s valid to support trans people, about whether it’s valid to believe that we’re sinful, about whether trans people are really the genders/sexes we say that we are is a debate about our existence.
Don’t get me wrong – we need open, considered, diverse debates about gender and sex. What is gender? What is sex? How do they come about? How and why do beliefs about them change? How has society arrived at its various beliefs, and why? How can we change things to make for a more just future? All of this is vital.
What’s not needed are debates that delegitimize, insult and disbelieve trans people. We do not need cis people eager to play devil’s advocate and indulge in such harmful ‘debates’ when real trans people are suffering and dying.
It’s not up for debate that it was wrong for Leelah Alcorn’s parents to privilege their woefully ignorant theoretical beliefs about trans existence over the life of their actual trans daughter.
It’s not up for debate that the constant disbelief, hostility and undermining of trans legitimacy that runs rampant thoughout contemporary society created the world described thus by Eylül Cansın: “I couldn’t because people did not let me. I couldn’t work, I wanted to do stuff, I couldn’t… You get me? They impeded with me many times; they made me suffer a lot.”
It’s not up for debate that the idea that trans women are not really women (and trans men are not really men, other trans people are just making it up) led to Samantha Hulsey’s would-be-killer claiming that she had ‘defrauded’ him simply by existing.
Maybe a trans person’s truth is not your truth. Maybe their way of knowing who they are is not the same as yours (although it might well be). Maybe this one particular trans person over here is radically different from you – though this other trans person over here might prove remarkably similar. What, at the end of the day, does it matter?
Truth is not a finite resource. Neither is empathy.
We need concrete action, going forward: an end to ‘conversion therapy’, proper support for trans victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, proper care for homeless trans people, a joined-up activism that understands and acts on the many other oppressions trans people face.
But, to achieve that, we need a change in attitudes. Some people are already there. Some people are changing. But until full and total belief in trans people’s lived truth is a popular position, we need to keep asking:
Do you really believe that a trans person is as authentically human, as truthful about themselves, as deserving of belief, protection and respect as you are?
And if not – what are you going to do to get to that place of belief?