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.