Transgender Community Seeks Dialogue to Break Barriers

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A crowd participates in a Rally Against Hate, organized by members of New York's Lesbian-Gay-Transgender-Bisexual community, on May 20, 2013 in New York City.
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Has someone ever asked you an awkward question that turned into a teachable moment? Something about your race, religion, or gender that seemed offensive, but you knew wasn't coming from malice?

For Thomas Page McBee, managing editor of Policy Mic, and Jennifer Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College, those awkward questions have been posed over and over again to them throughout their lives and focus around their identity as transgendered individuals.

Conversations about their gender identities, according to McBee and Boyland, have become so common that it's gone from a collection of awkward, teachable moments to a much more open, cultural dialogue, particularly among people younger than themselves.

They say these questions are posed to learn more about the individual or an entire group of people that are sometimes referred to simply as "other."

While the questions can be uncomfortable, eventually enough people begin to have real dialogues and deeper conversations about how one's identity is and isn't related to that one thing that most people see—and a whole group of people eventually become accepted, not as sidelined as "other," but just part of the whole group of us.

"Increasingly, it's young people who can get their mind around it, and who can get their mind around the larger issue of identity and the search for self," says Boylan. "I think to some degree, it's also that young people are growing up in a different era. They're growing up in era where there are more stories that are public, there are more trans people in the public eye. But it's kind of a hard call to make of who's going to 'get it' and who's not going to 'get it.'"

Today, Boylan says acceptance of transgender people comes on a case-by-case basis. Her own mother, whom she describes as a conservative 90-year-old Evangelical Christian, understood right away.

"She got it instantly," says Boylan. "She said, 'Love will prevail and I would never turn my back on my child.' Some other people, including gay and lesbian allies, weren't necessarily as quick on the draw as my conservative mother."

McBee echoes Boylan's comments, saying that while mainstream media has struggled to tell the stories of transgender people, younger people have had more exposure to the trans community because of social media and new media platforms.

"If you're getting only one story from mainstream or legacy media outlets, I think that approach has always been more about interrogating trans folks or otherwise trying to understand us in a way that assumes that there's something very different about us," says McBee. 

While the media shift has allowed for new narratives and portrayals of the transgender community, Boylan also says that today's broader acceptance of trans people comes as a result of time.

"It feels to me as if we're actually at a tipping point," she says. "For decades now, I think trans people have been defined by others and we've often been defined by people who want to exploit us or see us as some sort of experimental version of a human being. Now I think we're beginning to control the discourse for ourselves and tell our own stories, which is a nice change."

Boylan adds that the larger LGBT movement in the U.S. has helped to change things for the transgender community.

"One effect of the marriage equality movement has been a change in the way we speak about gay men and lesbians in this country," she says. "We've moved from a discussion of gay sex, in terms of how straight people think of gay people, to a conversation about love. The narrative is now who is for love and who is against love."

Though the dialogue around the gay and lesbian community has become more humanized and assisted the trans movement, Boylan says there is still a great deal of room for improvement when it comes to the broader dialogue specific to the trans community.

"For transgender people, to some degree, the conversation has been about surgery, endocrinologists, and transitions," she says. "What we are approaching, I hope, is a time where that's not the conversation. [Instead] when we talk about trans people we talk about freedom of identity and freedom of self. We're slowly, at least I hope, moving away from pictures of before and after, and discussions of the medical profession."

"That means, I hope, that trans people are being seen as more familiar and more human," adds Boylan.

McBee says that awkward and at times inappropriate comments or questions can sometimes open up a dialogue that helps to drive the narrative away from more primitive conversations about transitioning. 

"One really strange thing for me about being trans is other people's need to understand my psychological process around my own body," he says. "I don't really need to understand other people's psychological processes, I just sort of accept at face value that your body is your body."

McBee says that when people ask him specific questions about his body he provides answers as an individual.

"I usually just talk about myself as an individual person, with an individual body, having an individual experience," he says. "I usually turn the question around to them and ask them how they feel about their bodies—that usually does the trick pretty quickly."

Boylan echoes McBee's comments, saying that individuals do not need to know everything about a person in order to treat them with passion and respect.

"We're at this wonderful point in our culture—things really are changing," adds Boylan. "Culturally, we're at a moment where the world looks really different."