Saturday, April 22, 2017

Dear Loved Ones of Trans People: It's Not About You

I wanted to talk about a terrible Guardian article.  This was written by the ex-spouse of a trans woman, and is titled "A letter to... my transgender husband: Why did it have to be all about you?"  This comes right on the heels of that ridiculous thinkpiece by a woman insisting her child is not trans (insinuating that trans people are encouraging tomboys to transition).  I'm not going to talk about these cases individually, but I wanted to put something out there:

Cis people really, really love making our transitions about them.

And then get really angry--or, more appropriately, whiny--when we don't follow suit.

Let me tell a bit of my own story.  I came out at 18 years old.  The first three people that I told were my mom, my dad, and my boyfriend at the time, in that order.  And all three of them ostensibly supported me while making very little effort to... well, actually support me.  Constant misgendering (something I still experience from my parents--I don't keep in contact with my ex, but I assume he does as well--ten years later, calling me "she" even with an appearance that any stranger on the street would assume to be male).

After I broke up with my ex, I found a post from him on a video game forum where he was going on about what a huge ego deflation it was to find out that his very first girlfriend had turned out to be a man, as if it was somehow his love had been so faulty that it singlehandedly caused me to renounce womanhood.  The thing was, I spent an irrationally long time trying to make that relationship work after coming out, telling myself over and over again things about how he just needed time to learn how to handle it, if there was no chance of him understanding he would break up with me instead of jagging me around for months, right?

When it comes to romantic relationships, there's this popular perception out there that trans people come out to our partners and then ruin everything for our own selfish desires, like how dare we seek to end a particular form of misery in our lives if our partners don't like it.  The author of the Guardian letter makes a big deal about how she asked for time to come to terms with everything, but her transgender spouse "refused," even though it was a decision "affecting both of them."  While I would never say that somebody's transition didn't affect their loved ones, this is an extremely one-sided account of how transition works in a transphobic society.

Trans people don't just realize we're trans and immediately steamroll over our relationships.  The reality is that trans people--since we grow up understanding through the media that being trans is awful, weird, deviant, and sinister--have historically been highly likely to put off telling loved ones in order to preserve those relationships.  For many of us, we learn as children to just shut up about those feelings, and start building lives as if they don't exist, digging a hole of obligations and attachments that are harder and harder to get out of or modify with each passing year.  This, by the way, is why allowing kids to experiment with their gender identities is so important; if a child knows they are trans, and have constant medical and social barriers erected to discourage them at all points in their lives that transition is only a last resort for the truly, absolutely miserable, they bury those feelings and dig that aforementioned hole.

There is a not-insignificant number of trans people--especially but not limited to older trans women--who are so invested in preserving the relationships they've built during those closeted times that they either suppress their feelings, painfully, for years, or they resort to living double lives, with or without their partners' knowledge.  I know people whose spouses know full well they would prefer to be living as women, but are so uncomfortable with the idea that they work out a compromise, like "You can present as a woman in designated places, provided I never see you."

We put up with cis people's melodrama all the time.  I could shower in cis people tears over how allegedly mean we are, yet it is perfectly socially acceptable for them to be incredibly cruel to us.

And to reiterate:  I'm not saying it's not hard for their spouses.  I'm not even saying that it's somehow single-handedly a spouse's fault if somebody puts off transition, as there are many people creating this hellish structure.  I'm saying that, despite all the indignance and whining and pouting, most of the time any compromise made, cis people require more concession on the part of the trans person than they are willing to give.  In fact, the trans person may have been making concessions long before even telling their partner by choosing to pretend they were not trans for years, maybe decades.

Related note:  Every time somebody publishes another garbage article about how selfish trans people are with our poor helpless spouses, it is also culpable in encouraging trans people to stay miserable and in the closet, which contributes to more spouses being blindsided with the issue.

My personal experience with this, though, is mostly regarding parents, who are also highly likely to be melodramatic about their child's transition, even while trying to play the part of a supportive parent.  I see highly supportive parents more and more (an extreme relief for me), and I by no means expect immediate perfection, but there are so many things I wish I had asserted when I first came out to my parents.  I made a lot of concessions, and my silence and my tolerance of their misgivings early on is probably a part of why they put me in danger of being outed whenever we are out together in public.  I'd tell myself it was just a question of my appearance, that once I got on hormones it would be different, because I'd look so male they wouldn't be able to misgender me if they tried.  This naïveté seems silly to me now, but at the time I was really banking on my future beard and voice to try making things work out better.

This would be a thing my parents would low-key discourage for almost a decade, telling me I needed to be patient.  When I finally did make an appointment with a gender therapist, my father sternly lectured at me about how I needed to learn to wait for things because I was "always jumping into things."  This was after almost seven years of waiting, of having to hear the same people whine that it was too hard to call me the right  name--a name which itself was a concession, which I adopted from a nickname they literally gave me as a child, one I hated by the way--or the right pronouns.

Finally I went to therapy anyway, got on hormones, and this has caused me lasting relief I would not have gotten any other way.  Relief that could have come years earlier, were I not constantly being patient with and making sacrifices for the cis people in my life.

To my dad's credit, he did help me finish the therapy once I had started and my therapist abruptly increased the per-session cost.  I don't believe I have terrible parents by any means.  I certainly have friends who for all intents and purposes just don't have parents anymore, so in that respect I am extremely lucky and grateful.

But by waiting to transition, I gave up years of social development that could have (who am I kidding: would have) saved me around eight years (factoring in when I came out and when I transitioned) of being uncomfortable in my own skin, being emotionally unstable, having low self-confidence, and being stressed out, the same things my parents and school forced me into therapy for as a child, things that mostly went away after transition that were not going to be solved by a chat with a school counselor.  And I can think of so many bad things that would not have happened and so many milestones I would have reached sooner if I had sought out transition sooner.

And while this was all happening, my parents used the typical melodramatic language about how they were "mourning" the "loss" of their "daughter," how they'd "never get to see me in a wedding dress" (I was openly disinterested in marriage since I was a teenager); basically, they lost a shred of their ability to live vicariously through me and because of that this was all so very hard and they couldn't possibly use language to describe me that was respectful or understand things that are quite frankly obvious to anybody with a modicum of understanding of trans issues.

I don't have patience anymore for the idea that our transitions are markedly difficult for our cis loved ones while we're supposed to tolerate them treating us like trash.

My pity for cis people on this subject is extremely limited.  A cis person looks at a trans person who decides to transition despite the pleas of their spouse, their children, or their parents as "selfish."  I envy them for their resolve and, although I know it's not popular to say it, their courage.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

How To Have A Trans-Friendly Restroom

With bathrooms being one of the big hot buttons now (like it always has been) I wanted to bring up my own standards for what makes a trans friendly bathroom (partially inspired by a couple restaurants and bars whose stories are told here).  What follows are things that stick out to me as being common issues that make restrooms less safe or welcoming for transgender people, things that aren't necessarily brought up in the big media lowdowns on the subject.

Of course, not all trans people will agree with me on all these points (in particular, a number of trans men and trans women are decidedly not on "Team Gender Neutral," and those who are occasionally sneer at single-gender signs that have a trans symbol on them), so you should consult with local trans folks when you can.

Make sure your staff--all of them--are on the same page and understand that your restrooms are trans friendly.

A few years ago our local Pride wound up a huge cluster because although they had a policy on the books that was trans friendly, not all of their staff were explicitly told about this, leading to security asking people to use different bathrooms.  Even if you run a venue that you personally would expect a trans inclusive policy to be obvious, keep in mind that basically every single community out there--including lesbian and gay communities--have been pretty bad at this in the past, and there is a very vocal minority of people who are extremely transphobic.  So make sure they know so that any policies are actually followed.

Get signage that isn't insulting and shows inclusion.

The vast majority of bathrooms just say "men" and "women," maybe with some "person in dress" or "person in pants" images.  I am on team "go gender neutral," but there are other issues that my prevent you from going that route (based on legal issues and the structure of your building).  One of my personal favorite ways of handling restrooms--especially if you absolutely can't make your restrooms neutral--is to label them with easily-understood "men" and "women" signs with a transgender symbol included to indicate that you should use whichever one you're comfortable with (our local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and a local Goodwill go this route).

If you do have gender-neutral restrooms, phrases like "all gender" and "gender neutral" are better than "unisex" (although honestly I wouldn't be bothered by the latter).

I hate when gender neutral restrooms are labeled "family."  Hate it.

Also, if you don't have neutral restrooms, can you not try and get "creative" with your signs?  Most of these rely on either some sort of constructed gender role or garment, or--even worse--a set of genitals.  A friend of mine and I were baffled one day to find a restroom that had the genders "olive" and "pimiento."  We literally had to ask the bartender what on earth restrooms we were supposed to use.  "Oh. Because you put pimientos in olives."  Gross.  Not to be outdone, my roommate found a worse one:
This isn't just insulting to trans people, but it's crude and insulting to other people, too.

Oh, once a long time ago I watched some TV special on cool bathrooms (yeah, that's the kind of person I am) and it went into a club bathroom that color-coded its bathrooms... but not in expected colors, so people were constantly walking into the wrong one, and it was supposed to be all cute and social and funny, and they even had this weird thing where there would be visual contact between the men's and women's restrooms (a slit above the sink, a weird window in a stall) and although I'm sure cis people don't really think about this sort of thing, that's a great way to get a trans person humiliated, beaten up, or worse.

Don't try to make "the trans restroom," and if you have three restrooms, don't police their use.

Again, I'm on Team Gender Neutral, and wish that all-gender restrooms were a widely available thing, but since they're not in wide use, I should mention that the last thing you should try doing is making a men's room, a women's room, and a "transgender" room.  This both has the potential to invalidate trans men and trans women and creates an environment where people can get outed very readily.  And it's not that trans men and women never want gender neutral restrooms (not all of us pass well, not all of us consider ourselves "binary," etc.), but forcing trans men and women to use gender neutral restrooms when we qualify as "men" or "women" is insulting and invalidating.

Avoid keys.

I get it, maybe your gas station or whatnot is constantly trashed and you need at least something to keep people from destroying it, but if possible avoid locking your restrooms.

If you must lock your restrooms, try to set it up so that people don't need to seek out or interact with a staff member to acquire it.  Try to avoid making it necessary for people to contact somebody over a bathroom at all.  I used to have to specify a "men's 8" when getting bowling rental shoes and having to do the same for a bathroom key or some other amenity would have been at least a dozen times more awkward than that.

Also, obey the same rules above regarding signage.  Don't be quirky at the expense of sensitivity.

Invest in good dividers.

One of the ridiculous things about bathrooms in the United States is that we tend to design bathrooms with massive gaps, leading to a lot of opportunities to see each other.  I can remember times when kids practically crawled into my stall with me, or peeked over the wall, or did a potty dance while seemingly pushing their whole eyeball into the crack between the door and stall.

Nobody likes these.  They're absurd.  But for trans people they're even more anxiety-inducing, for more reasons than you'd think.

For me it was never just the looming threat of somebody seeing my crotch that made these so unsafe.  When I used to bind my chest, I needed to take regular breaks to avoid hurting myself, and would regularly use bathrooms for this purpose.  I've given myself testosterone shots there in a pinch.  And having to do these things in an environment where people can see into the stall with ease is aggravating and makes me not want to go there.

Replace broken locks.

Lock issues are the bane of my bathroom existence.

Recently I went to a reasonably fancy sushi establishment only to find my worst nightmare:  There was one massive stall, with the toilet in the corner furthest from the door, and the lock was off-kilter and impossible to keep locked.  Basically, if somebody came in needing to use that stall, it would be difficult to see that I was in there and I wouldn't be able to reach the door to hold it closed.  And where I'm at, I could feel comfortable saying there's somebody in there, and even if somebody were to walk in I probably wouldn't be outed, but the same can't be said for every trans person.  Maybe somebody has a voice that will out them and is uncomfortable speaking, or is taking a rest from a binder without their shirt on, or the person coming in just flat out doesn't hear them.

And it's a cheap fix, too.  Practically any door can have a lock stuck on the inside for a couple bucks, so why do so many businesses just leave their doors with broken locks?

Replace missing doors.

Why do I even need to mention this?  There's a big disparity here, too, because when I was a woman I never saw businesses in the middle of goddamn downtown that neglected to replace missing doors on bathroom stalls, but as a man I've been places that had like four stalls and none of them with doors.  One time in an extreme emergency pre-testosterone I had to use one of those and it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life, and it was a packed restroom, too.  Ugh.


Anyway, these are just some suggestions for things to do and look for, and this is of course in combination with paying attention to overall accessibility.