Once more, Yoda’s wisdom applies in real life.
As is often the case on this blog, I’m talking about trans issues, but the same applies in many situations.
I was talking to a group of boys recently about stuff and, given that it was Trans Awareness Week, I brought up the topic of transgender people and how to be a decent human being when faced with one. I know. It’s hard to remember basic decency when you interact with someone whom you find hard to categorise. You feel like you’re being lied to, because your two-second first impression of them is going to be a completely accurate assessment of their entire personhood and if they are behaving in a manner contrary to that assessment, it is your right, no your duty, to put them right.
When did we get so arrogant? Speaking as a white British man, I am going to assume that this dates back to Empire and beyond, embodied in the attitude that drove us all around the planet killing, conquering and enslaving as we went. (There’s another story there: I was talking to a friend and it turned out that they had no idea of the part England played in developing the industry of slavery and laying the foundations of modern racism and the race divide that is still played out in public view in the USA and in a quiet, more English, way on these shores. But I digress.)
I asked my charges what they would do, in a public loo, if they were to meet someone who didn’t look like they had made the correct choice of which door to pass through. Most of them said that they’d pull out their Gender Police badge and politely inform the interloper that they were interloping and ask them to lope somewhere else. I’ll commend their honesty and confess that this was exactly the reaction I had expected. That is where I come in as an adult to teach the little darlings that this is a moment where we might express empathy for the other person. We can start by making an assumption that the person we meet has made a deliberate choice to use that loo and that they just want to use the loo in peace. We might also infer that said person has had a long and scary journey to get to where they’re going and really doesn’t need their day to be made harder or more scary by an ill-informed person.
First off, the public toilet is a public toilet. It is just as much a public space as the town square is. If I started walking around the town square telling people whom I thought was allowed there and who wasn’t, I would expect everyone to question my authority to make such pronouncements. I have, as an unspecific member of the public, no business whatsoever telling others who can or cannot be in the town square. Why, then, might I presume I have the right to make similar pronouncements just because I am in the gents’ loo? I guess we feel emboldened when in a single-sex space and we perceive that the single-sex nature of the space is being challenged by another person. I can see that. It doesn’t give us the right to police that space ourselves, though.
Secondly, we take on the arrogance of Empire when we decide that we have the right make a snap judgement about a person’s appearance then impose our idea of who they are onto them. As I said to my group, that person knows their own gender better than you do (aside: what does a Muslim look like?). What does it say about me, as a person, when I take action that just makes someone else’s day harder? What does it say about me that I can take this action with all the English kindness in my heart, basing my decision on the assumption that the poor dear just made a mistake at the door. What if we pause for a moment of empathy? That person just wants a wee in peace and, frankly, does it matter which door they went through? They need a wee. Let them wee and get on with your day whilst forwarding the same courtesy to that person.
Naturally, I got an apoplectic e-mail from one of the mothers that night. We have no trans kids in our group, so why am I suggesting that we be nice to trans people? Naturally, my line manager sided with the mother.
Underlying the complaint is the idea that we cannot mention transgender people without talking long and hard about sex and sexual reproduction, and it’s the top of the slippery slope that will see us giving condoms to ten-year-olds (we’re won’t). There is a perception that discussion of such topics is something that should be age-restricted, that any discussion about treating transgender people as people will focus more on sexual anatomy than it does on being a decent human being.
Looks like we prefer our fear of the unknown, and its consequent suffering. Just as long as the suffering is borne by someone else.