A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about my efforts to better understand gender issues, especially as they relate to gender diversity and non-binary identities. As I explained in the post, my efforts have been inspired by my teenage son, who identifies as genderqueer. These issues are extremely important to them and I very much want to be informed and supportive. Our discussions have been challenging but, for the most part, positive.
But we’ve hit a bit of a wall, at least this week.
It turns out that I got a lot of terminology wrong in my first post. According to Enzo, some of my wording was “a little strange.” Again, they recognize that I’m still learning and cut me some slack. But we ran into a significant snag in a conversation about cisgender people. As I’ve gotten deeper into this, I’ve noticed a fair amount of derogatory remarks made about cisgender people by genderqueer people, especially on Tumblr. I told Enzo that those remarks felt hurtful and counterproductive to the cause. Their pushback was immediate and strong. Enzo feels that there is no such thing as discrimination against cisgender people; that it is impossible to discriminate against people–cisgender, white or male– who are in a position of privilege. For a cisgender person to be offended by remarks made about them by genderqueer people, they explained, is the same as a white person complaining about reverse racism. I’ve heard this argument before and I get it, kind of. Enzo went on to say that as long as someone is benefitting from societal privilege, as cisgender people do, then they are complicit in the oppression of others. Ouch. That was a tough one so swallow. I’m willing to accept that as a white, cisgender person, I enjoy a level of privilege that I’m probably not even aware of. I wish to God I knew how to rectify that. And I’m certain that some cisgender people are horrifically transphobic and hateful. I don’t doubt that for a second, But my follow-up question to Enzo was this: How does disparaging any group contribute to meaningful dialogue or elevate understanding? At this point, Enzo lost patience with me. They said that this “love everyone, equality for all” attitude is the stock response from cisgender people and that it is very offensive to the genderqueer community because it dismisses their oppression and robs them of their right to voice their opposition. I didn’t have a clue how to respond to that. I felt shutdown, frozen and a little bitch slapped.
Enzo does not feel that genderqueer people should forever be put in the position to educate the rest of us as to the issues they deal with or to explain what their gender identities mean to them personally. They have a point. As a friend recently noted, cisgender people don’t spend a lot of time discussing what their experience is like. Enzo feels that if cisgender people want a better understanding of gender issues, then they should be proactive and educate themselves. I totally get it. But my only concern is that without the inclusion of dialogue, there is a risk of misinformation.
To be fair, the language around this issue gets very confusing and complicated. In our case, the fact that this is a conversation between a mom and her teenager adds another level of challenge. There is inherent difficulty in that dynamic, no matter how strong or weak the relationship may be. As I write this, I am deciphering these exchanges as best I understand them. They’re intricate and, at times, heated. I’ll be the first to admit that there could be a margin of error in my comprehension and subsequent reflections here. I do have to give Enzo props. They can be quite eloquent on the subject. The other night we had dinner with some dear friends. They asked Enzo questions similar to ones I’ve asked in the past. Enzo was poised, articulate and patient. I was in awe of Enzo and I was in awe of our friends. It was an amazingly graceful discussion.
I think the right course of action, for now anyway, is to rely more heavily on sources other than Enzo. A few friends have suggested that I check out Kate Bornstein, a trans activist, performance artist and author. She is apparently quite skilled at breaking down gender diversity in a way that is heartfelt, humorous and accessible. I have a couple of her books on hold at the library. I’m also thinking about going to Gender Odyssey, which is an “annual international conference focused on the needs and interests of transgender and gender non-conforming people.” It’s held every summer here in Seattle. Enzo has voiced reservations about Gender Odyssey because of its inclusion of a controversial “truscum” group at last year’s conference. As best as I understand it, “truscum” refers to trans people who reject the idea of the non-binary and who don’t recognize genderqueer as a valid gender identity.
So this is where we are right now. I’m weary and a little disheartened. My intentions are genuine, yet I feel like I’m walking a shaky line. I’m learning that unskilled inquiry can be just as offensive as flat out ignorance. This leaves me unclear as to how, or even if to proceed. As a mom, I want to understand where my kid is coming from and to increase my awareness so that I’m a more informed and compassionate ally, not just for Enzo but for all genderqueer people. It feels like the right thing to do. But lately it seems that the effort itself is an affront. I’m not sure of what questions to ask or how to engage in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the problem. If I continue to flail around, I’ll surely drown the both of us.
I’ve found a couple of helpful posts to pass along:
The Top 19 Things People Always Ask a Trans* Person