Creating a safe space is necessary for any human, but when your right to be is part of the discussion, that safe space is a thing that takes a certain level of maintenance most folks don’t consider. As transgender women go, I have a certain amount of reckless abandon that raises eyebrows within my community: I take people on board, tell them my crazy life story without any real prompting… yeah one of those. Basically I’m really bad at small talk.
With that level of openness comes a certain risk, and I have had people say hurtful things to me both intentionally and accidentally on the basis that I’m transgender. Usually, it’s careless language: ‘born a man’ etc. Occasionally, it’s active questioning about how I feel and how that fits in with my gender, innocent or otherwise. There can also be comments that reference my childhood and how I didn’t internalise this or that. Rarely, it’s a careful attempt to exclude me from some aspect of womanhood they don’t see how I can have. The last part can happen even after knowing someone for a long time, particularly about body stuff – I mean, how often do you talk about periods, really? As in actually talk about them?
These aggressions come at me all the time on varying scales. They come at me from people I admire and respect; from friends. They hurt. But I invite a certain amount of discussion because I’m out, open, and prepared to discuss it. I also raise the issues myself without prompting, so I try to have a thick skin when someone says something. I need to be prepared to take the issue on, explain, and let them walk away at least feeling like the initial insult is forgotten.
Now, when I meet a new person, I wait for the insult. I wait for the ignorant comment, careless word choice, or open challenge. Nobody is exempt, as I’ve had it from cisgender and transgender friends alike. I’ve had it from strangers and family – though I should stress my family were very careful and good about taking the culture on board. Actually, most are very good about recognising my objections and taking it on board. But I still have to object. There is no safe exchange.
“I would rather deal with a series of microaggressions a day than have no conversation at all.”
None of this stops me from meeting new people. I’m a gregarious type of girl, and I pull people to me. I want the company; I like to share. I would rather deal with a series of microaggressions a day than have no conversation at all. I don’t self regulate very well without other people around me, so I find people and keep them close. Even though I know that eventually, I will have to calmly point out, explain, and forgive some slight or insult. I even try to forget about them, but I don’t.
When a person goes a particularly long time saying nothing upsetting, I get anxious. I can’t help it; the bomb’s going to drop and I don’t know when. Statistically it should have happened, and it hasn’t – does that mean it will be worse? Or maybe they will choose to walk away rather than say anything. That’s also happened. I can’t trust that they simply accept and are thoughtful enough to avoid the usual pitfalls.
Prolonged aggression of this kind changes a person. They start to behave as though they’re subtly under attack pretty much of the time. It’s an automatic mechanism, and it’s perfectly justified because they are under attack pretty much of the time. This happens in other contexts as well: sexism, racism, ageism… You name it and it happens. Being transgender is just another set of aggressions to add to the pile.
So what do we do? We can’t just be open and unguarded. The world around us doesn’t allow that, but there are occasionally people who don’t make mistakes or simply accept. They create a safe space for us just by accepting: using inclusive language, remaining thoughtful in their words, or just not worrying about it. Trusting those people as you get to know them is hard because of the anxiety surrounding microaggression: we’re ready for it to happen. Yellow alert. All neurons prepare for incoming strike. Except I don’t want to be that way, and I don’t think it’s healthy for us to go through our lives prepared for an emotional battering. It gets in the way of real exchanges and makes the ones we do have feel more dangerous than they are.
“I was waiting for her to somehow suggest that I couldn’t be part of that or understand her experience.”
I had an exchange about motherhood with a cisgender lady I met recently. It was a lovely discussion where we shared our feelings about it. We covered parents and what they’re like, the emotional struggles we faced, how we’re coming to terms with our situations. I found myself becoming wary, but the conversation was emotionally charged anyway so I figured that was it. But it wasn’t. I was waiting for her to somehow suggest that I couldn’t be part of that or understand her experience. To be fair, there are things about her experience I can’t understand simply for the fact that I’m not a mum – though I would give the world to be.
But she didn’t. The other shoe never dropped. She even went a step further and included me in a statement about women and their creative natures: we find a way to create and motherhood is only one of those ways. I was stunned. Nobody did that before, and I actually backed away from the conversation because I just didn’t know what to do. If there was going to be a backhand, a conversation on motherhood was going to be where it happened. There aren’t many topics that are more singularly feminine, and I was quite aware of my own shortcomings. I didn’t trust her acceptance, and I was proven wrong in the sweetest possible way.
This experience won’t stop me from being on alert at best, defensive at worst. I still don’t believe any exchange is safe by default, but it’s taught me that I need to learn to trust what people offer. Kindness is still kindness, even if people make mistakes. Acceptance is still important to accept even if the person has some weird ideas. It’s easy to reach a place where one doesn’t accept an extended hand. Even though there are good reasons to distrust, there are also good reasons to trust.