[[ For the first time ever I am instituting a comment policy. This post contains things that plenty of people will find offensive, for good reason. It is in the public domain once I hit ‘publish’ and so I want to be clear about what kind of comments I am willing to entertain. Not that I get a lot- and I see them all before they are published- but this, again, may offend some folks. You are welcome to comment and ask me about my process or provide constructive criticism on my process, but I will not be publishing comments that are hateful towards me. I’ve had enough hate towards myself for what I did, I don’t need more. I also will not publish comments that commend me in some way- I’m not looking for that, and what I did was what any decent human being should be doing; I don’t need kudos for it. ]]
About a year ago I found out I was a TERF. That translates to “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” What it means is that I was a feminist who did not consider trans women (male -> female) as actual women. (Why this is a ‘radical’ position makes no sense to me, now that I am further down the road. It seems pretty un-radical. They have started calling TERFs “FARTS: Feminist-Appropriating Reactionary Transphobes” which is far more accurate.) And I was a TERF because I had one question, and it was this: “didn’t trans women benefit from all the good things about being seen as a male while also getting to have the space and freedom to look and act as women – and all the psychological benefits of that?” I was essentially asking, “don’t trans women get the best of both worlds without having to deal with the shit of either?”
The answer, of course, is no. Trans women are far more likely to be killed (especially trans women of color). Rather than having the benefits of the binary gender norms, they actually get the short end of the stick of both- neither men nor women accept them. Trans women are women, as I now understand. But they rarely get to be seen or treated that way.
I am not a trans educator (although I certainly sympathize and offer what support I can), so I don’t want to pretend to know everything. What I want to look at it what it took for me to change my understanding of this issue such that I could go from being an ignorant transphobe to being an educated trans supporter.
First and foremost, I changed because I was curios and I suspected that I was in the wrong. Or, at the very least, that I had something the wrong way around and I needed to understand it rather than remain ignorant. This, in fact, is a very vulnerable place to be and it is why change is a very intimate act. To say, if only to myself, that my ideas, position, or understanding of something might be wrong is a blow to the ego. It means we are imperfect, it means that our thinking or perspective may not be complete, and admitting that is a level of ego death. It is a psychologically frightening place to be, which is why a lot of people don’t go there.
After having the courage and awareness that I might be wrong, I had a safe place to go ask my questions. I was in a progressive women’s group on Facebook and I knew that I could ask my questions there and, even if I was seen as an idiot, I would be treated kindly and get a truthful answer. Perhaps because I am always after the truth it made it easier to look for and accept when they kindly said, “You’re wrong and here’s why.” The women in the group pointed me to articles about TERFs, explaining why they were not truly feminists. They connected me to trans and non-binary educators like Alok Vaid-Menon (who has some really beautiful things to say about men and their fear of themselves). Mostly they answered my questions without making me feel like an asshole. And because I didn’t feel like an asshole for being curious, I remained open to being wrong (which is when I truly felt like an asshole, once I understood it).
As I began to read things and listen to trans educators, I realized how wrong I had been. How little I had understood. How my privilege as a cis-gendered, white, middle-class woman had allowed me to choose blindness to the difficulties of trans women. Again, this took the ability to sit with my own psychological and emotional discomfort. I had to accept that I had been deeply wrong and purposefully ignorant- that’s a place where I seriously felt like an asshole, which isn’t fun to feel.
These are things most people don’t want to know about themselves, so they don’t do well with change. This is why change is such an intimate act- we must see parts of ourselves we do not like, do not wish to admit that we are. To see those things, to accept them, to choose to engage them and work on them- that’s big psychological work. It means we are getting down in the mud with the smallest, nastiest parts of ourselves and that’s hard work.
Once I was able to learn, understand, and sit with my discomfort I then had to let my new understanding lay the foundation for changing my feelings about it. Most of us make decisions from our feelings- despite what we might like to believe. You only need to look at the last American presidential election to see this at play- folks voted for someone they felt good about, even if he was obviously a liar and incapable of performing the job. The facts there were clear, but people were lead by their feelings. So, when it comes to change, you know it hasn’t happened if people still feel the same as they did before, even if they ‘understand’ things differently. As stated, this was the next step in my development- I let what I read and understood about trans women begin sway my feelings about them, their lives, and their place in feminism. This is also psychological work; work that a lot of people don’t want to do.
Of course, I came around to understanding that trans women are women and changing my feelings about them. I feel far less hard-hearted and defensive about trans women now. I welcome them into the feminist fold and I’m keeping an eye out to make sure they feel welcome wherever I am. I am glad to have a new understanding and to feel differently about trans women. [And I don’t want any kudos or applause for this; I did what any decent human being should do.]
Again, having said all this, change is really hard and very intimate. In order to change we must have safe places where it’s okay to be ignorant or ask stupid questions. We also have to grapple with our feelings and possibly change them when we’re given credible, new information. We have to entertain the possibility that we might be wrong. It’s very tricky and uncomfortable territory. So, when we hope that people will change, we might need to think about these factors. People are likely not going to change because they get yelled at in social media. They are likely not going to change because they have been given some well-researched articles (although this can help break some of the ground loose, sometimes). People are going to change when they can consider that maybe they’ve been wrong. People are going to change when they have places to ask questions that don’t make them feel like idiots or assholes. People are going to change when they begin to feel that they need to or when who they believe themselves to be no longer matches up with what they believe.
In the last couple of weeks, as I’ve learned to practice surrendering and letting go, over and over, I have been given a lot of grace and insight about my life. I’ve discovered some not pleasant things. Part of what I’ve been given is the space to see these unpleasant things and also the space to let myself imagine what might come next, what might be better, what might help me live as a better, more authentic person. Because I’ve not been in a great place for the last 14 months or so, and it’s worn me down to a point where I see that I need to change (the deliberate letting go is a good thing, and necessary to my health and growth). When I look at it objectively, it’s a lot of small changes in many places- a come-uppance. But I think it’s going to feel like a major overhaul, so I’m getting anxious about it. I’ve learned that I probably don’t need to share 100% of my thoughts and emotions about it all here, but if anything useful comes of these changes, I will share about it. If I can alleviate any suffering by sharing my wisdom, I am happy to do so.
Change isn’t always something we get a choice about. A lot of people had to change today because Life gave them some shitty news. I am lucky in that the changes I am about to grapple with are of my own choosing. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be any less impactful or intimate. Earlier today I sat on the couch at a friend’s house and looked at the full moon shining on the water. I felt the most surrendered, sad, and soft that I have in a long time (I had yet another good cry). And that’s due to the tenderizing I’ve received in the last couple of weeks. But it’s from that soft, intimate place that I feel most confident about making the changes I need to make.
I hope you’re well, fellow travelers. I hope you’re able to make changes, rather than having them forced on you. And I hope that you will take every chance you get to change yourself for the better.
With love and gratitude,
Joanna :: xoxo