My wife and I were having a conversation last night about pronouns and trans-folks, which is pretty much to say that she was rightfully flaying me over my admitted difficulty with mastering the words–she accused me of being stubborn, a bit tone-deaf, and–this is the kicker–too comfortable in my white male privilege. We’ll forget, in this argument, that opening a dialogue with one of the great conversation-ending tropes of our time–the accusation of “white male privilege” is counter-productive, pretty much saying, “We’re going to have this conversation now but let’s get this one thing clear: anything you say, think, feel, or experience on even the basest sensory level is inherently invalid and probably offensive.”
I give her a break on this because we’ve been together nearly 30 years, raised two children together, and remain best friends. I suspect that, on her part, this is a largely charitable endeavor. As for me, I think she’s perfect. In this case, her perfection is her ability to excise the worst of what I am, impale it on the tip of a knife, and hold it up in my face like a piece of fetid, rotten flesh. Not to be mean (usually), but because she loves me and expects better. That’s a lot to live up to, but I try. We all need someone to lean on. We all want somebody to love. And we all need someone to shove our bullshit back in our faces from time to time. It’s good when that all comes from the same person.
Now, during the midst of this conversation/evisceration, my lovely wife hit me with a compelling quote from the actor Elliot Page who, when last I heard, was known as Ellen Page. “My joy is real, but it is also fragile. The truth is, despite feeling profoundly happy right now and knowing how much privilege I carry, I am also scared….” It is a powerful and vulnerable statement worth reading in full. That said, the depth of it didn’t really strike me until I encountered a Facebook post leading to an article on an unfamiliar website called ” ThePostMillenial.com” in which a writer, Nicole Russell, of Texas, posits “Mass Acceptance of Elliot Page’s Gender Transition is Dangerous Whimsy.” Having no concept of the venue’s editorial tone and target audience, and no familiarity with the writer (whose resume, on closer inspection, leans heavily towards right-leading publications–nothing wrong with that, but it is important to know what audience a writer is aiming for, and which editorial perspectives intersect with a writer’s tone and context), I opened the page and dug in.
The article was about what I expected: reactionary and hyperbolic responses to how Page’s orientation, presentation and, basically, general person-hood represented another broad step towards cultural decay, the breakdown of civilization, and quite possibly the end of the world as we know it. The usual stuff, painted in a tone of dismissiveness common to the saved, when addressing sinners. There was a bit of complaining about how Page’s personal life inconveniences people “outside Hollywood” who, presumably, are now forced to reckon with the idea that not everyone is just like them, and then a massive leap to proclaim that Page “erases all women” but especially lesbians. Predictably, Ms. Russell digs out a jab about “the mainstream media” before descending into horror, looking to shock readers with references to ” surgically-replaced genitalia” and brings it all home with a reminder that the last time a culture embraced gender fluidity and non-binary sexuality was in the Roman Empire, and we all know what happened to them!
While I pause to convey my great admiration of the heroic Ms. Russell for her Captain Marvel-esque role as the protector of womanhood, femininity and pretty much all lesbians everywhere (except for the ones who wear pants and act like we expect boys to act, it wasn’t really her tired conservative screed that caught my attention. It was the freakshow of human spume that had collected around the comments section beneath the link to this story on Facebook. I’d cut and pasted the worst of the lot–the profane accusations of attention-seeking and mental illness, the smirking masterworks of wit like “i’ll stick to what I know, a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock.” And then the inevitable accusations of “parents forcing their kids to change gender on a whim.” I never fail to be astounded by how much fear and contempt is channeled just by the idea that someone in the world, someone they will never encounter and who has no effect on their lives.
It might be humorous were it not for the power that these trembling, shallow-minded individuals wield. Not all of them are apocalypse monkeys hiding in their basement waiting for the return of Jesus–though mostly under-educated and restrained by their reliance on social media for news of the world, too many of them are employers, teachers, co-workers, and politicians. They are also the people who have perpetrated an epidemic of usually random violence and murder against gay and trans folks across the nation.
Nevertheless, I have to learn from them. I’m forced to inspect my own reactions and behaviors and I find myself coming up short, most of the time. I don’t feel like it is my place to judge the sociological implications on a grand scale. That is to say: I’m unsuited to declare that a slim minority of non-binary people are bringing about the downfall of western values, even if I did believe that. It is certainly not my place to impose my own values on the intimate lives of others.
I have deep misgivings about inter-sectionalism as a guiding philosophy or political entity, because I feel that it leads to tribalism, crushes communication, and is inherently divisive–not to mention dehumanizing in many cases; but that’s a philosophcial debate about modes of thougjht. When it comes down to living, breathing, human individuals, who the hell am I to tell anyone who they are, what they feel, how they present themselves, and who they love?
I sometimes resent the awkwardness of non-traditional pro-nouns, particularly employing collective pronouns in place of singular–but that really says more about my shortcomings, doesn’t it? Remember that bit above where my wife said I was stubborn? Yup. Wah, wah, wah. In the end, it’s just about words, and it’s an easy way to be respectful of other humans. I’ll do my best to remember what folks like to be called and hope they don’t skewer me when I get confused and say “They? Who else was there? Wait! Ohhhh. I get it.” That’s where my white privilege pays off: people expect me to be grumpy and offensive, so expectations are low.
But seriously, if that’s the biggest sacrifice I have to make, sign me up. Like all moments of historical sea change, activists feel momentum and clamor for more change and faster, while those on the outside often struggle to adjust to what can feel like destabilizing uncertainty. Too often both sides channel their experience–righteous impatience on one side, insecurity about one’s place in a new world on the other–into anger. The popularity of the term “cancel” doesn’t help, tapping into a profound existential terror. If I speak up about my difficulty doing the right thing, Were I to voice my uncertainty of my place in the wrong company, I would risk scorn and accusations of resenting loss of my white male privilege, for example, while someone else could be accused of being “politically correct” or some other demeaning buzzword. It’s a pointless cycle
What is lost is this: political correctness is defined by the New Universe Dictionary as “Just not being a dick to people because you can.” If someone wants to be seen as one thing or another, who the hell cares? If Ellen wants or needs to be Elliot, and you’re the kind of person who keeps calling them “Her” then you’re rude, cruel, and worst of all petty. In a world thigh deep in hate and anger, why do we waste energy twisting our gutchies into a knot over this small crap?
And, finally, there is this: in these sorts of posts, I have a rule about editing. I write once-through, no rough drafts beyond the occasional lifting from comments I’ve scribbled on Facebook posts of website comment sections (so I can say, as I wrote yesterday in the New York Times–or not) for elaboration. I often end up someplace different than where I expected to be and sometimes I had no idea where I was going from the beginning. I note this with extra irony today, as I reread what I’ve written over the past hour and realize: this post is too much about me. I got my story prompt from Elliot Page & Nicole Russell, but that turned out to be unintentional bait and switch. It’s all about me. My reactions. My thoughts. My condemnations. My bandy-legged effort to be a better person. Isn’t that part of the same continuum I’m condemning? Isn’t my leg snagged in the same trap?