The other day I went to a workshop so that I could learn something new. Us shrinks do this frequently because we don’t already know everything. This workshop, entitled, Can We Talk, was held at the Gay Alliance of Rochester. It promised to teach me about transgender issues. I learned about transgender issues. I also learned that I, too, needed to come out of the closet.
I’m no stranger to trans clients. I’ve worked with a few because I work with everybody (except kids and people who don’t speak English, that is), but, by no means, can I call myself an expert. I was eager to learn.
We started with a brief lecture on Trans 101: what it is, what it’s not, and all the myths and misconceptions that abound. Then we formed two concentric circles. Eight trans people, in splendid variety, sat in the middle, with a dozen therapist types listening on the outside. The trans people stated how they were trans, what pronouns they prefer, how out they were, and all the mistakes therapists have made with them in the past. There were a lot of mistakes therapists had made.
Then, after a break, we switched places, with the therapists in the middle. We were supposed to talk about our reactions to hearing these trans people and of earlier encounters.
What was my reaction?
Utter, abject terror.
I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, offending someone, making a mistake, committing a social faux pas. I was wondering if I could get away with not saying anything.
The other therapists went on and on, decrying the fact that there was so little training on the subject. Some therapists in the group said they would never work with a trans person because there wasn’t enough training and they felt incompetent. They would leave this for the specialists. They spend a good five to ten minutes talking about how we need to have more workshops like this.
I was like, right, get on with it, then; but don’t ask me to speak.
Here’s some relevant things you should know about me. I’m a heterosexual white male, approaching sixty. In the workshop I learned I was cisgendered, meaning I identify with the gender assigned to me at birth. A few years ago, I didn’t even know there was a choice. My preferred pronouns are he, his, and him; although, I wouldn’t object to they. If you used she, I might be confused, but not offended. I draw the line at it.
I’m what everyone thinks of when they think of the people who have it easy in this country. They’re right, except for one thing. In my sixty years we have seen one group after another rise up and assert their rightful claim to be accepted as fully human. In every case, we learned about the injustices they have suffered at our hands, us heterosexual, cisgendered, white males, and how we continue to offend. We’ve had preconceptions to challenge and privileges to concede. Many of us heterosexual, cisgendered, white males have been told we are wrong so much that we are on the defensive.
Why are we on the defensive? Some of us are on the defensive because we are bigoted pricks who refuse to learn anything. But, I think most of us are on the defensive simply because we want to do better and don’t trust ourselves to keep up with all the changes. We’re on the defensive because of that terror I was speaking of.
It was then that I realized something. I was in the closet. I don’t mean that I have secretly been transgendered and didn’t want to tell anyone about it. I mean, I have been a heterosexual, cisgendered, white male and didn’t want anyone to notice that it mattered. I’ve been bigoted in ways that I didn’t know were possible. I’ve been ignorant and didn’t want my bone-headed, tone-deaf, tactless blunders to reveal what a dope I am. I needed to come out of the closet and admit the truth.
Coming out of the closet can free me to be honest and engage authentically with others. It means that I may make mistakes and offend. Sometimes I can’t help it. But, it also means that, when I do, they are available for correction. It means that I welcome the chance to work with any transgendered person, or, for that matter, anyone who is not a heterosexual, cisgendered, white male, if you will have me. If you understand that I have my closet, too; and need an extraordinary degree of safety, or bravery, to emerge.