What’s So Funny About Understanding

Last night at the gym, a friend made a comment to me about transsexuals that struck me as symbolic of many folk’s fundamental lack of understanding. It was something to the effect of how odd or other transsexuals are, but it was made in a way that made clear odd was being used in the normative sense. And while I have heard and read very similar sentiments made in other venues about transgender people, I do not believe this lack of understanding and acceptance is unique to that particular group.

I sense that much of the negative reaction to transsexuals flows from some of the same emotions brought out by gay men (undermining notions of masculinity). Due to lack of knowledge, people assume that male to female transsexuals are all gay (by gay, I mean in the sense that as a born male they were attracted to men) and that their desire to become female is driven by their sexual attraction to men. But gender and sexuality are not inextricably linked. Gender is a social construct, while sexuality is more inherent.

The decision to undergo sexual reassignment surgery is based upon a deep-seated feeling of having been born with the wrong gender. Though many transsexuals, MTF and FTM, ultimately end up (post-surgery) in physical relationships that society would categorize as heterosexual, many others pursue romantic partnerships that would be considered homosexual. In other words, there is no one size fits all sexuality for either FTM or MTF transsexuals and the sexual act itself has little effect on one’s desire to change genders. If anything, many pre-operative transgenders view their genitalia as foreign objects that bring with them no pleasure.

But I’ve gotten somewhat sidetracked here, so let me try to reign this back in a bit.

The point I want to make here is that even in what passes for a relatively enlightened society, there is still an incredible amount of bias and negative stereotyping toward those categorized as other. It’s something that both confuses and troubles me. What I find confusing is people’s inability or unwillingness to try to understand the life experiences of others. I do not claim to know what it is like to be a black man or a FTM transsexual, simply because I believe that lived experience provides a much richer level of understanding than education can give. However, there is much to learn from others. That is why I have any sense at all for what life is like as anything other than an upper middle class white male. My life is so much richer for having been able to interact, and develop relationships, with such a varied group of people. I just cannot get my mind around the idea that a person would hermetically seal their life and refuse to engage with people unlike them.

This unwillingness to understand and value others is what I find so troubling. It has painful effects in our society and our politics. It is part of what allows political actors to divide and distract us from real issues. And ignorance often leads to hatred. One does not need to look far to find instances of prejudice or even criminal acts motivated by hate.

Promoting understanding will not eliminate hate from our society. But through understanding we can build stronger and healthier communities. Ones that welcome all people , regardless of color or sexuality or religion. And it will allow us, as a people, to focus on things that really do matter.


10 thoughts on “What’s So Funny About Understanding

  1. Thank you for such an enlightened and well put post. I am the wife of a MTF transsexual (pre-op) and have had to fight this battle more times than I can count. I don’t think you can fix this type of person because they don’t see anyone in the “other” category as human. By objectifying these people they can assure themselves that they are nothing like the “others” and can feel secure demoralizing them.

  2. I hope that you’re wrong. I really want to believe that over time there will be more acceptance and understanding. Not sure if you caught this piece on Deciblog (metal magazine blog) about a MTF singer. The comments are uniformly positive, though I don’t know how heavy a hand the site’s moderators used. Marissa benefits from being quite attractive, but I still think it shows that younger people are more inclined towards understanding. Or, I am just being hopelessly naive.

  3. I may be entirely wrong. I have a fairly negative outlook on the hope for society. 😛 I will definitely check that link out. I think hope does lie in people who are able to change and see minority groups like transsexuals as people not “other”. I agree that younger groups are more accepting and I hope that is trend that continues into their adulthood.

  4. I swing from optimism to misanthropy on a daily basis, or so it seems. Today I am in a hopeful mood!

    I’ve also engaged in other dialogues about transgender issues on a bodybuilding forum (of all places) and was heartened that a not insignificant number of people expressed support. We were in the minority, to be sure, but we were not overwhelmed.

    I’ve also noticed that women seem to be much more open-minded about this issue.

  5. “I’ve also noticed that women seem to be much more open-minded about this issue.”

    I think this is because so many men are stigmatized for any ounce of femininity. In our society men are supposed to be big strong guys who show no emotion or weakness. Sympathizing with a person who wants to change gender is a hard concept for men who have fought gender stereotyping their whole lives. Women on the other hand are allowed to wear guys clothes, cut their hair short, and pretty much be as asexual as they please. I think women see more fluidity in gender because of this and are more flexible with gender views.

  6. So true. And the few times in my life that I have come across a woman who was intolerant about such things I was thrown for such a loop.

    I have noticed a change in men’s views about masculinity, though, over the years. The men’s movement, though somewhat misunderstood, has really challenged the post-Industrial Revolution notions of what it means to be a man. It’s connected men to their feelings and to their bodies, aside from simply their genitalia. They’ve also tried to dispel the idea that men’s value lies only in their work. There is still a lot of work remaining, but I see a lot of men more involved emotionally in their relationships and identifying themselves in ways that do not depend on their occupation.

  7. Great post. Generally, I think the “ambiguous dislike the other” has to do with our innate sense of self-preservation. Humans do, because we are animals, rely on habits, cues, and an informal array of sensory data to develop an internal IFF. Things that don’t fit within an established framework are unpredictable and therefore potentially threatening.

    While I would imagine that cultural constructs are at work here as well, I think the deep seated unease that people feel when confronted by the alien is best explained by an anciently-sourced generalized fear of the unknown. Obviously, our sentience allows us to control and carve out exceptions but exceptions are just that.

    To no small degree, I think it also explains why children are more accepting than adults. Children generally have less understanding and personal fear of death at the same time they’re developing an understanding of the world around them. Without the history and overlay of habits and experiences, children may be curious but less fearful or prejudicial.

    Finally with regards to the discussion on male versus female acceptance, I agree that culture is the root of the difference but disagree that it comes from a history of gender stereotyping. After all, in the strictest terms, men are arguably just as stereotyped, though admittedly less detrimentally.

    My speculation is that it’s a direct result of the Women’s Liberation movement of the mid-late 20th century. The movement, which sought to break social/cultural limits on acceptable female behavior, did something else on the road to gender empowerment. It made it culturally okay for women to question, discuss, and choose a path for themselves, even if those paths weren’t consequence free. A woman could newly choose to be career oriented, she could choose to be a housewife. She could choose to have children or not. She could be political, outspoken, or masculine. Though the individual choices might not be universally accepted, the open conversation or debate and ability to make a choice became much more widely accepted.

    Men don’t have that, gender roles are culturally prescribed and perhaps just as inflexible as they were decades ago. Teaching and nursing remain female dominated professions. Stay at home dads and military husbands are increasing in number but still culturally adrift.

    If a woman decides to have an abortion to focus on her career, she isn’t necessarily ostracized for the decision, in fact some will applaud it. Should a father leave a pregnant woman, encouraging the same for the same reason, I’m stumped to think of someplace he wouldn’t be considered a selfish, cad.

    Society tells men, you can be anything you want, provided it’s still masculine and ambitious. While iniquitous cultural remnants still exist, by and large, today’s women are told you can be anything you want, provided it’s what you want.

    What’s even more interesting, I think, is that – at least anecdotally – clearly defined gender roles for men are as supported by men as they are by women. It sounds strange to say, but we might be a healthier society if we saw a Men’s Liberation movement this century.

  8. Excellent points. I had not given much thought to the role of the Women’s Liberation Movement, but that makes a lot of sense.

    I do disagree with you a bit about children, though. I think part of the reason why they are more accepting is that they have not been inculturated to society’s biases yet (maybe that is a different way of saying what you wrote, though). I find that children, in my work with them, are very instinctual, like animals. And time spent in society only works to strip away instinct and replace it with not only reason, but also biases and prejudices. After all, prejudice really is a learned behavior.

    • That’s fair, the bit about children was sort of a general speculation at why the young are by and large more accepting of people and behaviors their parents might find revolting, whether that be infamously unhygienic behaviors or accepting two dads as just as valid as a mommy and daddy.

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