A Little Too Close to Home
I flew home from Orlando last Sunday. The flight was delayed and the boarding area was packed. We were flying on an A330, a wide-body usually reserved for international flights. As I stood in line to board, a transgender woman came pushing through the crowd, pulling a wheelchair stacked with an assortment of pink and purple bags, including a Hello Kitty backpack that looked as though it had been drug through the Amazon.
The trans woman demanded to board early, and wheelchair in hand, somehow managed to board with the wheelchair passengers. When she was forced to consolidate her bags at the end of the jet way, she huffed and puffed and blocked the door as she dramatically stuffed her bags into one another until they resembled a misshapen Russian doll.
My fellow traveler looked to be in her 40s, with short black hair, a heavy beard showing through her makeup, and a barrel-chested frame, which she had chosen to squeeze into a tight mini-dress. As she boarded, the flight attendants exchanged amused glances. She turned right and headed to her coach seat while I turned left into first class.
As I sank into my cozy pod by the window, I thanked my lucky stars that I was not like her. The flight attendants made a few remarks about her that were lacking in generosity, then one turned to me and respectfully asked if I would like a pre-departure drink. They were clueless I was transgender. I thought again, “I am so fortunate I am nothing like her.”
But I am – like her. We are both transgender women. And we are both human.
I have my fair share of transphobia. I do not like to encounter trans women who, in my opinion, reflect poorly on our community. Truth be told, I do not have much of an issue not identifying with an able-bodied passenger who demands early boarding and complains when she is expected to follow the rules that apply to everyone. That’s just rude. But of course that was not the main thing bothering me. I was primarily reacting to the way she looked. She looked like the kind of picture a right-wing bigot puts on social media to justify HB-2. “Do you want this person in the bathroom with your daughter?”
As you can imagine, by the time my flight arrived in Charlotte I was in full reflection mode. Who did I think I was? How could I think I was better than this woman? So, I waited for her to get off the plane and struck up a conversation, right? No, I did not. Because on that particular day, I just did not have it in me.
I do not turn down any speaking engagements about transgender issues, whatever the venue. I am a strong woman, and I can blaze a trail with resources not available to other transgender individuals. I can take it. It is my calling. And yet…
When I have lunch with someone from my old world, I watch as they look around, afraid it will be obvious they are having lunch with a social pariah. Every week I still get letters, blog comments, and Facebook messages telling me I am an abomination. At almost every church presentation there is at least one pejorative question I am required to handle with grace.
I am tired and weary, and sometimes I do not have it in me to reach out to steady the journey of another. And that is the grace I needed to give myself on that particular day. Another day I will find the strength to reach out, but on that Sunday, I just didn’t have it.
On my connecting flight to Denver I prayed a simple prayer. “Lord, strengthen me toward generosity when my own transphobia hits too close to home.”
And so it goes.
8 thoughts on “A Little Too Close to Home”
I think this is something we all do. With everybody. The good stuff is realizing what we are doing and asking for the strength to be better. I’m grateful for your honesty.
Paula, thank you for sharing your spiritual journey, with its joys and challenges. Always honest, always inspiring.
I have been reading bell hooks on the subject of classism. She looks at it from the pov of race and relays how surprised she was to see an African American person of a different class participate in the suppression/oppression of lower class African American people like herself (not to call you an oppressor – just illustrating hook’s premise). However, I think of class as I read your post. You and the woman on the plane were in two different classes (literally).
Class is another divide we are challenged to cross. It operates more surreptitiously than race/sexuality/gender id and is the hardest to overcome in our late capitalist ‘hyper reality’ where literally everything (and everyone) are valued according to commodity. Classism is the almost unbreakable warp to the weft of the fabric of division in our country.
What has your experience been? Would you say coming out as transgender has affected your class status? Or has that remained relatively the same even as so many other things have changed?
Jennifer, I believe you are right on target. I believe this is an issue of classism, and the truth is that except as it relates to evangelicals, I have NOT lost most of my privilege.
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Thanks for keeping it real and honest as you share your thoughts. Some days are diamonds and some days are stone. We all have them.
In my some of my classes, we discuss issues related to your experience. We talk about studies on prejudices, implicit bias, and framing. People who do research in these areas will do things like create a newspaper stories where the race of a victim, perpetrator, and police officer vary or not be mentioned. The participants will be told to read several stories and be told (falsely) that the study is about memory or something besides prejudice. Later, they are given background questions to answer about their race and experience and be tested in a way that hides the true purpose of the study. What the findings suggest is that most people have biases. If the race, for example, of the perpetrator is not mentioned, people (white and black) the likelihood of the participant to recall the perpetrator’s race as being black is increased. To varying degrees, we humans have built in biases.
Have you ever taken the online Harvard Implicit Bias test? Its an interesting, free study you can find via google. The tests uses pictures of people and words and asks you to associate them. You end up with a score about the degree to which you have an implicit bias. The explanation of how the test is designed is revealed at the end. You may have seen it or even taken it.
What some studies on these topics conclude is that one big difference is how people deal with their biases. Some people challenge their biases. They think about the assumptions they are making. Other people, it seems, simply accept their biases as being accurate.
As a species, we generalize. It is what we have done over the eons to survive. I tend to believe (and I haven’t read studies on this) that those who challenge their assumptions can reduce their biases. Studies do show that people can modify their behavior which is certainly important when doing something like hiring a person for a job or trying to end the cycle of passing along biases, stereotypes, and prejudices to the next generation.
I am not surprised that being a member of a group or even identifying with a group would not free a person from biases about some members of that group or the group as a whole. You’ve often written about the tribe mentality and the need to define an enemy. It seems like the “enemy” we hate the most is often the “enemy” who is slightly different or who is perceived to damage the image of the group. Our biases probably develop early in life and are reinforced by the media, role models, friends, and by some selected experiences. As I become elderly (maybe I’m there already), my prejudices about the elderly probably won’t go away. They may even intensify.
Thanks again for illustrating your struggle with a human truth. An individual’s honest reflections can be more meaningful than the scientific studies and may complement the dryer, more systematic approach. Powerful writings make us pause to consider our own prejudices is the only way I can think of to combat them.
I’ve failed in my efforts here to combat the stereotype of the long-winded professor. I have to give more thought about the value of editing.
No edit needed here Mark. You are right on the money. I have taken the Harvard Implicit Bias test. Quite eye opening.
Paula, thank you so much your honesty in sharing this. May God continue to richly bless you and your ministry.