The other evening I did something usually considered unwise: I read the comments on a video by a transgender person on Facebook. This is usually something to be avoided by anyone, especially if you are gender diverse. What might seem almost worse, I even responded to some of the less than helpful contributions! However the exercise proved helpful in a number of ways and has deepened my sense of how we are all travelling together. (The video 'What it means to be transgender' was by writer and military veteran Charlotte Clymer, speaking out about coming out and transitioning, and was on the UK's Channel 4 News: more information here)...
Five words beginning with 'e' came to mind in doing what I did. The first is simply how extraordinary the effect of a transgender contribution can make upon people. What a torrent of expression is released, both good, bad, and quite bewildering (well that is a good word to cover ,many things!). It appears that we transgender people are indeed lightning conductors for all kinds of reactions, so much of which has little or nothing with what is said or done. Such an irony is present here. For it is hard to feel that gender is not problematic in our society when such a response is met!
Broadly speaking, four main areas of reaction seemed to be forthcoming, each of them filled with considerable passion. Of the first of these typical responses, enlightenment was clearly neither a quality or desired capacity for many. Indeed, it is astonishing how very belligerent and obdurately defensive some are in our western society today. Not helped by the negative 'echo chambers ' of today's social media, there is so much testiness which just needs a simple word to explode. For such people, little seems to assist. There is sheer bigotry; much hiding behind fundamentalist views of religion, assumed 'science' and 'nature'.; and evidence of brutal(ised) hearts and minds. Truly, prayer may be the only way to cast out such aggression and the pain which comes from within them.
For others, education is clearly the major problem. This is a happier thought, as some might, perhaps often kicking and screaming, be enabled to learn. Rejecting Charlotte Clymer's finely constructed, powerful, testimony is not a good sign, but sometimes reactions are strongest when truth has begun get under one's skin. Clinging to prejudged views and half-received or out-of-date 'science' cannot last for ever however, if there is to be (self)credibility among such people. This is why trans visibility is so important, alongside the support which is required. Huge confusion, lack of understanding and misunderstanding, exists about gender identity and journeys and what the best science actually says The idea of mental illness is still widespread, whilst the flourishing lives of most gender diverse people are ignored or disregarded.
Channel 4's educative sharing of Charlotte Clymer's witness certainly annoyed many others whose problem seems to be empathy. This is manifest in various ways. For some, there is a lack of imagination, or ability to identify with 'the other'. Like the unenlighted group, there are a set of walls to be vocally and vigorously maintained. This leads to quite ridiculous statements, including the sarcastic affirmations that if transgender identity is real, then they themselves believe themselves to be such as an attack helicopter, Winston Churchill, or a horse. It is another example of our society's MeToo-ism which hates any attention being diverted away from the self. Thus there appears to be no reflection on what transition involves, including the need to prove who you are, never mind the ludicrous idea that they could actually live as the items or figures suggested as parallels. Others complain about transgender issues being mentioned at all, or as a distraction from other pressing concerns such as climate change, homelessness, or poverty. This is partly deliberate misdirection in some cases, but also shows no appreciation of the disproportionate levels of homelessness, poverty, and other social ills, among gender diverse people. The idea of intersectional solidarity is certainly not much advanced. Rather, most of the empathy lacking group seem simply to wish people to be quiet about their needs. This extends even in the circumstances of someone's own national US President is leading a crusade against transgender people - something they themselves would presumably not acquiesce to if their own self-interest was at stake.
All of the above might confirm why reading Facebook comments on transgender contributions is usually to be actively discouraged, at the risk of psychological violence which has nothing to do with the actual subjects. In a particularly contemplative spirit, as I was, my encounter did indeed thus confirm my suspicions. There are some whom it is impossible to engage with; but some whom education may help; and others whom finding ways to connect (perhaps through the sharing of experience and common cause) may also bear fruit. Most happily though was to be reminded of a further quarter of commentating people, filled with encouragement - full of encouragement of Charlotte and other gender diverse people, and full of the encouragement Charlotte had given them. For it is indeed possible to look at a more than half empty glass if we dwell on social media comments by the clumsy and emotionally struggling, as well as the real trolls. Yet the truth is that there are many of us, and many of our wonderful allies, shining bright despite all of this, and shedding light in the worst of that darkness. That is the gift Charlotte Clymer, like others, continues to give to our world.
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: