The Transgender Issue.
Excuse me? Issue? What issue?
This is in some part about science fiction, but really about my entire civilization, and touches on the choices we have facing us. I start with the so-called Transgender Issue because it exemplifies a problem I’ve been having with certain apparent contradictions.
As far as I’m concerned, the issue is not with trans people but with those who are ideologically opposed to them. The concerns they raise run counter to what I grew up expecting.*
I suppose none of this should surprise me, and from some quarters it doesn’t. I do wonder who made them arbiter of other people’s sense of self, but we’ve never had a shortage of the self-appointed in search of an issue to inflate their own sense of importance. But when I find people from my “clan”, so to speak, expressing fear and dismay and standing with those seeking to distance themselves somehow from people who are according to them too different to tolerate, I am saddened. A lesser sadness comes from those of my generation who seem somehow not to get the current eruption of respect demands. Dismissing it as “woke” (always in quotes, because that’s the way they make it clear they’re being sarcastic) and the language of snowflakes. A more perfect reversal of roles is difficult to imagine. It has become possible for people who have as groups been made to put up with dismissive reductions of agency for centuries to speak out and require regard which has always automatically been accorded the dominant group, and members of that self-assumed dominant group are offended. They don’t understand the rules, they don’t see why they should have to accommodate what seem to them to be petty requirements, they fail to acknowledge that a long history of indifference has brought them to a moment where the costs of disproportionate regard are coming due.
Two items of personal history. My parents named me with some care. Mark. Aside from its relative rarity when I was born, it seemed to them sufficiently self-contained to resist shortenings, nicknames, and other common assaults. My dad did not care for his name, even less for the nickname: Henry, Hank. They didn’t want people turning William to Bill (or, worse, Billy) or Charles to Chuck, or any of the rest. They did not count on the imaginative nastiness of kids, who simply called me other things rather than respect my name. By the time I graduated high school, I’d had enough. My name is Mark. Not Marcus, not Marky, not any of the rather tortured substitutions on hand. It was as if they had to own a piece of my identity. It chafed. Looking back, it seems rather small of me, but I became strident. I refused to answer to anything but my given name. I snapped at people I had to work with to stop distorting it. I made a bit of an ass of myself. Petty perhaps, but also indicative of a larger problem, namely that hierarchies disenfranchise people by first denying them their preferred self-identifiers. By such means we lose parts of ourselves, hand control over to others.
The second has to do with the common referents extant in my youth for anyone or any group that was supposed to be seen as inferior. I grew up in a linguistic sea of slurs, disenfranchisements, insults, and categorizing that was, I suppose, intended to maintain the barriers between people who someone thought should not mingle. The disturbing thing to me now is how utterly ordinary and “normal” this was. And anyone objecting was subject to censure, sometimes violently. You will be who and what we say you are. Because granting even the autonomy to name oneself and designate how one preferred to be seen in the world meant yielding authority. And once you give in on one thing, the rest is at risk of tumbling down.
What kind of a world would that be?
Well, the kind of world I wanted to live in.
Not specifically about matters of personal identity, but certainly a world where the kind of equality that was honored more romantically than actually really manifested. A world where you could be whoever and whatever you wish to be…as long as I can be what I am as well.
I got this more from science fiction than from history. History, after all, shows exactly the opposite to be the norm. Science fiction held out the possibility of changing that norm.
Well, now we’re here. And it seems a lot of people I thought wanted pretty much the same things are unwilling to accept that this is where all those wonderful changes would take us. They wanted all kinds of technological innovation, beautiful cities, starships, infrastructure solutions to energy and food and communications and better education.
Just, can we keep the social arrangements more or less the same?
Too many people who didn’t “fit” have been denied access for too long. Maybe we all assumed the boundaries would come down and we’d all gradually—what?—get used to each other? The assumption underlying that implies that we’re all pretty much exactly the same except for maybe some cosmetic differences. The fact that people are shocked that there was always more to it suggests—to me, at least—that we weren’t really paying attention.
Asking that we all respect each other’s self-identification choices is a pretty basic courtesy. The fact that it seems so difficult for some suggests the problems go deeper than simple courtesy can address.
A certain ideal kind of person wants to not be bothered with all that, wants to just be seen as who and what they are without having to introduce themselves that way. But also wants their assumptions about everyone else’s identity to go unquestioned and conform to expectations—without asking. This is privilege. And it may well be that some day we’ll get there, where that ideal person is basically everyone—including whatever extraterrestrials we may encounter. I find it curious that among my “clan” it has always been accepted, tacitly, that with aliens such respect would be axiomatic, but somehow when it comes to actual human beings there are occasions of fraught ill-ease. And it’s not so much that the idea isn’t acceptable—it’s just that, with the changes, some folks resent having to participate.
Everyone who ever misnamed me growing up quite plausibly did so as a joke. The problem was, I never found it funny, just disempowering. It was the presumption that made it insulting, more so than the actual alternate label. How much worse had the label itself been intended to hurt, to “keep me in my place”—which was pretty much the result if not the intention. And since it had no other utility than to make the labeler feel better or feel superior, then I suppose the intention was always there.
Given the problems some people seem to be having with something as simple as gendering, I suppose when faced with actual physiological morphology and people changing their bodies to match their Selves we should not be surprised at even greater discord. My question is, why? Over what? Isn’t knowing who we are one of the primary elements of being human, having agency, living in the world as a fully realized manifestation of what and who we are?
The future has arrived and people are complaining. Big surprise.
The shock comes from, I suppose, realizing that we never really knew who we are, much less who others might be. There’s comfort in the mask for some. Well, your discomfort should not diminish others.
For my part, while I have stumbled over old habits, I’ve faulted myself for the mistakes made in regards to others requesting respect. I do not begrudge them the demand for agency.
I have to ask, though, if we have this much trouble according respect to human beings, just how are we going to deal with honest to goodness actual aliens?
Too many of us, I feel, liked being tourists in this future, but never really wanted it.
That kind of makes me sad.
- John Varley’s work incorporated a very advanced level of, as we called it then, sex change. Samuel R. Delany featured it in his novel Trouble On Triton. That’s just off the top of my head. What I want to point out, though, is that I took this idea as an “of course!” concept. Why not? And as time passed and I knew more, the whole idea of trans simply did not bother me. The way it has subsequently manifested was not as I might have expected, but as one more possibility in the toolbox of humans making themselves as they wish in the world, it simply made sense.