The difference between dumb and mean

Sam Smith

One thing that I have known hardly anything about are those who use trans to describe their gender or sexuality. In fact, if I know anyone in these categories I don’t know it.

Thus, I was interested when I stumbled upon Piers Morgan interviewing 29 year old transgender advocate Janet Mock who has recently written a memoir, Redefining Realness. It seemed to me an informative interview.

Others, however, did not see it that way. The Twitter and other responses were so strongly antagonistic towards Morgan that he had Mock back to explain what the problem was.

What fascinated me about some of these responses was that they seemed a metaphor for what is wrong with our political and cultural discussion these days. It is as though both conservatives and liberals view their viewpoints as fundamentalist theology and if you don’t see things their way, you’re going to hell. And it’s not just about philosophy, it is about using the right language and not making descriptive errors that are considered offensive.

Mock was, in fact, quite reasonable compared to some of her enthusiasts. At one point there was this exchange:

Morgan: Why have I been vilified for being transparently supportive of you? I don’t get it!

Janet Mock: Being offensive and being kind are not mutually exclusive things. We can be good people but be ignorant. It’s about understanding.

But for others there were the purportedly outrageous mistakes that Morgan had made. For example, Robin Abcarian wrote in the LA Times: “Many in the trans community took issue with Morgan’s description of Mock as ‘a boy until she turned 18’ and his focus on how she revealed her gender identity to her boyfriend.”

Of course, if you belong to a subculture representing roughly 3% of the overall population it is not likely that the other 97% will be as well informed as you would like them to be. This doesn’t mean they’re mean… many or most are just ignorant. The best approach in this situation is not scold or berate but to explain. I’ve frequently been in political positions supported by not much more than 3%, so I have some sense of the problem.

Further, as a reporter, I know that asking dumb questions can be a good way of getting better explanations from people. And how an interviewee felt about their gender back when they were a teenager is not irrelevant. It helps to tell the story.

But today’s liberal culture seems to have developed an almost gated approach to acceptable attitudes, values, details and even questions that can quickly put the untrained and uninformed in harm’s way.

I grew up as one of six children so I learned early that this doesn’t work too well. And along the way some things reinforced this view. I remember, for example, flying to my son’s New England university next to a man from North Carolina whose son was on the same campus. I asked him how his son was liking Brown and he responded with something like, “Well he’s never had to deal with those liberals before. but he’s learning.”

I had never thought about the difference between someone like that man’s son and mine. The southern teen had not picked his upbringing but apparently now had chosen another course, suggesting that he was looking in new places. How much harder that could be, I thought, than what my own son faced.

I also think about Martin Luther King’s advice to his staff that they should remember that, if successful, the people they were fighting today should eventually become their friends.

And I am reminded of my Puerto Rican nephew who, as an ESPN sportscaster some years back, had to do play by play broadcasts heard in all Latin American countries. One of the problems: carefully avoiding slang that might be acceptable in one country but not in another.

Diversity is not as simple as it may seem. For example, using the right language is probably not at the top of the list of things that will subdue the brutality experienced by many of in the trans community. The wrong language of the mean is not the cause of their problems, but a reflection of it. Treat people nice and language will follow.

And it is strange that those who talk so much about diversity can close the door quickly on one of the consequences of that diversity: namely, the more diverse our relationships are,, the harder it is to know enough about others, the feelings and language they prefer, and what annoys them. Given all the humans raised throughout history in a monoculture, is it really odd that some the stories of a multicultural America are not known by everyone?

And it is an America where things can change pretty fast. As I was writing this piece, Facebook came out with a list of over 50 gender and sexual terms folks can use on its pages to describe themselves, such as agender, androgyne/androgynous, bigender, cis, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, gender questioning, gender variant, genderqueer, intersex, male to female/mtf, neither, neutrois, non-binary, pangender, transgender, trans man, trans woman, trans female, trans male, trans person, and two-spirit.

As I read this list, I felt like I had drifted out of cultural reality and was trapped in a Common Core test. Why couldn’t Facebook have just told people to describe themselves anyway they wanted rather than giving them precisely defined choices of the sort increasingly prevalent in the data obsessed and legalistic tyranny of our time.

Meanwhile, there are other words we don’t understand well at all. We have already paid quite a price by not making an adequate distinction between the ignorant and the mean. Groups that were once much more pro-liberal have drifted to the right, witness the recent Volkswagon worker vote in Tennessee. And we always have had fundamentalist Christians in America, but there was a time when we called many of them New Deal Democrats.

To live successfully in a diverse culture we have to learn how to inform, convince, and convert rather than scold and condemn. And it is useful to remember that liberals comprise a bloc only about seven times the size of the trans population. They could use some more supporters even if they misspeak at times.

So when a Piers Morgan doesn’t say the right thing, help him, don’t ball him out.

Ironically, at the end of this incident, I felt far more kindly toward Morgan, of whom I have never been all that fond, and a bit pissed off at the very group I was supposed to feel sorry for.

But I got over it and thought that if Janet Mock can’t help Pierce Morgan, maybe I can. Here’s some of what I found.

From the Women’s Resource Center, University of Colorado, Denver:

• Transgender means that the person does not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Gender, which is the social norm of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ differs from biological sex, which is generally thought of as ‘male’ or ‘female.’ A transgender person might, for example, be born a female (with female genitalia) but gender – identify as a man.

• Transsexual refers to a person whose biological sex at birth does not match their identity; this is different from transgender because a transgender person may desire to change their gender identity but not their sexual anatomy. While a person who undergoes hormone therapy and/or surgery to change their physical sex would be considered transsexual, not all transsexual individuals choose to change themselves physically.

• An intersex person is born with ambiguous sexual anatomy, making it incorrect to define them as either ‘male’ or ‘female. ’ Scholars estimate that up t o 1.7 % of births are intersexed. Many doctors will choose a sex assignment for the child at birth, but sometimes parents choose to raise their child as gender neutral. Other times the individual does not realize they are intersex ed until later in life.

• A person may also identify as ‘gender variant,’ meaning they might not identify as either gender. This term could also mean that they identify with one gender but perform traits usually associated with the other.

• None of these terms have anything to do with sexual orientation.

How can I be a supportive ally to the trans and intersex community?

• Don’t assume you can tell if someone is intersexed or trans.

• Don’t assume that you know what someone’s sexual orientation is based on their appearance or their gender identity.

• Use inclusive, affirming, non-assuming and non- udgmental language.

• Use the pronouns of the gender they feel themselves to be. This is a sign of respect and support. “Do you have a pronoun preference ?”

• Respect the confidentiality of anyone who comes “ out ” to you. You can ask the person if they are “out” to everyone: “Is there anyone with whom you prefer I not share this information?”

• Never try to tell a person what ‘category’ they fit into. Allow the person to identify themselves, in their own language and in their own time. Remember, it is their process of self-discovery and self – identification.

From Transgender Law:

An estimated 2 to 5% of the population is transgender (i.e., experience some degree of gender dysphoria). The number of people who identify as transsexual and undergo sex-resassignment is smaller.

Recent statistics from the Netherlands indicate that about 1 in 12,000 natal males undergo sex-reassignment and about 1 in 34,000 natal females.

From the Anti Violence Project

Nearly 6,500 responded to this questionnaire. Here are some highlights relating to the violence faced by transgender and gender non‐conforming people.

· 19% have experienced domestic violence at the hands of a family member because of their transgender identity or gender non‐conformity

· Of those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non‐conformity while in grades K ‐ 12, 78% experienced harassment, 31% experienced harassment from teachers or staff, 35% experienced physical assault, 5% were physically assaulted by teachers or staff

6% were expelled for their gender identity/expression Workplace violence

50% have experienced harassment by someone at work

7% have been physically assaulted on the job

8% of transgender and gender non ‐ conforming people report having been physically attacked or assaulted in doctor’s offices, buses, government agencies, retail stores, and other public venues

Of those who presented identification (when it was required in the ordinary course of life) that did not match their gender identity/expression, 15% were asked to leave and 3% were attacked or assaulted Police

29% of transgender and gender non ‐ conforming people reported being harassed or treated disrespectfully by police officers


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