Last week, I got hit by two shitty “trans people are fakers” jokes within two days, from two different people I care about.
On Wednesday, I had lunch with a cis former coworker. It was our first time hanging out outside of work. At one point, I mentioned going to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference last year and how there was an ice cream shop in downtown Philadelphia called Big Gay Ice Cream. She started laughing and asked, “What if there were Big Trans Ice Cream?” I started laughing too, because it sounded like a delightful idea and I was imagining light blue, pink, and white ice cream blended together in a cone. Then she said, “It’s really mayonnaise!”
I was like, “Ew, what the fuck?” She seemed to take it as disgust at the idea of eating mayonnaise on a cone, not shock and disgust at a joke implying that trans people were like mayonnaise pretending to be ice cream. I didn’t feel like making a big scene, so I didn’t say anything, and we moved on with the conversation.
The next day, I hung out with my sister. At one point when we were joking around, she started talking about how her name was Ed the Turtle now, or something. I don’t even know. She and I are both weirdos. I asked if that was a Dr. Seuss reference, and she said no. (I was thinking of Yertle the Turtle.) She explained, “Well, you’re a man, so I’m Ed the Turtle.”
I stiffened up. This wasn’t something I could just let go. She seemed to start realizing something was wrong as I said, “You know my being trans isn’t the same as your saying you’re a turtle, right?” She apologized profusely, and we moved on. But the joke has still stuck with me. Later on that day, she referred to me as “her” during a conversation. I was too tired at that point to correct her, so I didn’t say anything.
The thing is, I would never describe either of these people as transphobes. My former coworker later asked me what coming out to my parents was like and listened compassionately as I told her what a clusterfuck my family was. (I’m realizing now that this is a standard Shitty Cis Question to ask, but I didn’t view it that way at the time, especially since she told me about her own experience coming out as queer to her parents afterward. It seemed like we were trading experiences, not like she was saying, “So tell me about your awful, dramatic trans life.”) She’s still friends with some people from my current workplace, and when I told her I was trans and to not tell any of them, her reaction was, “Of course I won’t.” I wouldn’t ever describe her as a shitty person who hated trans people.
Meanwhile, my sister has done her best to use the right pronouns for me after using different ones for literally her whole life. I wouldn’t say she hated trans people either. For me, the issue here is much more complicated than certain toxic social justice circles might have you believe. I’m not going to call either of these people transphobes and cut them out of my life. I can’t just “call out” these people and stop seeing them. I love my sister. I like my former coworker. But I don’t know what to do about their remarks. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with cis people.
I don’t know what to do with the obvious implicit bias in these jokes. I don’t know what to do with the underlying message that trans people are putting on some kind of mask, that my saying I’m a guy is the same as someone selling mayonnaise and calling it ice cream or my sister saying she’s a turtle because it’s funny. I don’t know how I would ever have this conversation with them. I don’t even know how to process what they said and why they said it. If I go on a social justice website, the answer will probably be that it’s because they’re transphobic, and what makes them transphobic is that they are cis in a society that systematically oppresses trans people, and they’ve been implanted with transphobic bias by said society. I don’t know if the answer is as simple as that, though.
I do agree that these jokes are transphobic. I don’t want to imply that because they’re generally good people, the jokes aren’t that bad and they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. But I think it’s oversimplifying to just call them transphobic and leave it at that. If they’re transphobic, I’m transphobic too. I’ve also been raised in a society that systematically oppresses trans people and has imbued me with implicit bias. I’ve said transphobic things. I’ve accidentally misgendered other trans people. And as Sam Dylan Finch writes, “What they don’t tell you about being transgender is that sometimes, the transphobe is you.” My internalized transphobia is a doozy, and sometimes I’m just as transphobic to myself as other people are to me. Sometimes I’m worse, and my cis friends are kinder to me than I am to myself. I don’t want to get out of my transphobia scot-free just because I’m trans myself.
I think sometimes this kind of rhetoric from social justice communities can be harmful. These ideas are why binary trans people are able to say that genderqueer people don’t belong in the community and that other binary people aren’t feminine or masculine enough and then be all like, “But how is it transphobic to say that? They’re not really trans, and I’m trans myself!” Being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t mean I can’t be shitty to people within that group, or other identity groups I don’t belong to. Being marginalized does not excuse someone from or make them incapable of acting like a shitty person. I think that social justice rhetoric improves conversations around issues in a lot of ways, but it fails us in other ways.
Additionally, social justice sites will often say that when someone is being called out, the focus shouldn’t be on how they’re such a good person, and they would never mean to do this, and they don’t have a single transphobic bone in their body. The focus, they say, should be on their actions. And I agree with that. If someone says something shitty to me, I really don’t give a damn how good of a person they are.
But I think that in practice, social justice communities can careen too far in the other direction and start going the Your Fave is Problematic route and act like some negative remarks mean that a person is inherently bad and should never be supported. And I don’t know what to do with that either. On the one hand, I think callout posts are absolutely warranted when someone is making death threats or encouraging other people to harm marginalized people. But I don’t think those things are the same as someone accidentally misgendering me or making a shitty joke about trans people. If everyone who had ever said something problematic got called out and cut off from the community, we’d all be living as hermits. I’d rather that those people just own up to what they did and apologize and move on.
But how are they supposed to do that when I don’t even have the energy to address what they said? If I called out all of the transphobic things I ever heard, I wouldn’t have any emotional energy left. This part is where my anxiety starts kicking in, because I worry that I’m committing microaggressions myself and no one is telling me. I could have accidentally said something racist to a black friend or something sexist to a female relative or something ableist to a blind customer. How am I supposed to know that I’ve never unwittingly hurt someone I care about?
I just don’t know. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with cis people, or straight people, or neurotypical people. Sometimes I don’t even know what to do with myself. We’re all human, and human beings are never going to be perfect, and there are always going to be new and interesting ways for people to be shitty to each other. I just hope we can all apologize and own up to what we did when someone calls us out, and we’ll try to be kind to each other, and we’ll try to be kind to ourselves. After all, I don’t want my sister or my former coworker (now my friend) to spend any time beating themselves up. I care about them too much.
I realized upon finishing this that I may have been influenced by the piece I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People. Go and give it a read if you can handle reading an intense writing about racism right now. It’s really good.