Monday, February 4, 2013
Almost inevitably, in one class each semester, there comes a time when I have to read about myself in a textbook. Last semester it was my Abnormal Psychology class when it discussed Gender Identity Disorder. The semester before that it was the "Third Sex and Hinduism" chapter in my Comparative Religion class. Before that it was my Human Sexuality class. And every damn time it makes me extremely uncomfortable because the position of the textbooks are always cis authors writing about trans people for the benefit of cis readers. Not once does it ever seem like the publishers, editors, or writers acknowledge that trans people might be reading their text book. Never is it suggested to the reader than trans people may be in their classroom. Never is it suggested that the reader has more than likely interacted with multiple trans people and never even realised it. The discussion always hovers around genitals and medical issues rather than the implications of a society that highly values cisgender identities over transgender ones. It is almost always "othering" by constantly assuming that the reader is cis and has absolutely no idea what it must be like to be uncomfortable with their gender or physical sex. The text almost always uses problematic language in some form or another, whether it uses outdated terminology, misgendering pronouns and names, reveals or prefers birth names over prefered, or overly simplistic definitions.
I know this is an experience that every "outsider" group has had to endure. There was once a time when gay people were only written about by heterosexuals. There was once a time when people of color were only written about by white people. Every minority group at some time in history has been faced with two uncomfortable choices: either fight against the privileged group's views of your group or silently allow those views to go unchallenged and accepted as true.
How hard is it for someone who is writing about a minority group to which they do not belong to at least run the work by someone of that group? I and many other trans folk would be more than happy to look over, comment on, and correct any problematic issues on any work that involves trans identities. Whether it's a movie, a television show, a textbook, a news article, a documentary, or anything else that attempts to "explain" trans people, you are inevitably going to other us unless you involve us in the process. I'm not sure if it's laziness or cissexual privilege that makes cis writers believe they know everything they need to know in order to write about trans people. Perhaps it's a combination of the two. One thing I know for sure is I am sick and tired of feeling like a mythical creature in my own classroom. I should not need to come out just to ensure my classmates don't have a problematic view of trans people. I should not wish to hurl my textbook across the room whenever I read about people like me. I should not feel so alienated and uncomfortable about the discussions in my class about trans people that my professor asks me after class if I'm upset. These are basic rights that should be extended to every student and sadly that is not the case.
My suggestions? Use the writings and experiences of trans people to explain what it's like to be transgender. Do not assume that everyone in your classroom is cisgender. If possible, have a trans person talk to the class, preferably someone who is not a student in your classroom. Show positive examples of trans people in the media and ASK A TRANS PERSON to tell you what those positive examples are. Suggest the notion that, being 1 to 3 percent of the population, many classmates may be trans. Remind students that trans people don't "look like" or "act like" anything. And above all, your trans students should not feel like unicorns or ambassadors just because they are members of a smaller demographic. Of course, the ultimate solution will only come about when trans people are allowed to write about their own experiences and are published in respected spheres of academia. We need more trans writers, trans teachers, trans psychologists, trans film makers, trans producers, trans publishers, and every other sphere of influence out there that often remains off-limits to minorities. Until we become the leaders in the discussion about trans identities there will always be misconceptions and well-meaning but hurtful representations. This is a battle cry not just to my trans sisters and brothers out there, but to every poorly represented group out there. Until we take charge and change the way we are discussed, we will always be viewed as an outsider.