This week we saw, in all its painful glory, the arrest of Justin Bieber. As is the nature of the Internet a number of memes and jokes quickly started making the rounds. One of the most troubling to me is one that shows Bieber side by side with Miley Cyrus. The implication being that they may be the same person, or that it would be funny if Bieber was trans. Once more trans women are made out to be jokes. On the surface one might be tempted to say, “well, it’s only a joke.” The problem is that it is not a joke. It is one more microaggression that adds to the very real challenges and microaggessions that trans women deal with on a daily basis. The giggles or laughter at a trans woman who doesn’t meet what society expect women to be, or all thy can see is “a man in a dress”. These ideas are entrenched in popular culture.
Most recently we have seen the problems with media reporting on trans women get some attention as a result of the recent Grantland article – which is only the most recent article that outed a trans woman without consent – and likely contributed to Dr. V. taking her own life. There was the outing of Lucy Meadows, a teacher in the UK who was viciously attacked by a writer who used all of the horrific, negative and inaccurate stereotypes about trans women and took her own life.
While the public, vitriolic outings of Dr. V. and Lucy Meadows not likely the only reason they took their own lives, they were, as stated in the coroner’s report on Meadows’ death states, they were significant factors.
Most trans women, even in cities that like to see themselves as progressive face Microaggressions and discrimination on a daily basis. For many trans women going about their daily lives involves multiple aggressions each day. Sometimes these aggressions are small – the microaggression, the intentional misgendering that may or may not be corrected immediately or overhearing anti-trans or anti-LGBT statements that may or may not be directed toward the individual. More serious aggressions could include, for example, negative comments about one’s voice, unsolicited opinions on how to ‘improve’ one’s appearance or presentation (one’s gender expression), and being challenged when trying to use the washroom appropriate to one’s gender.
There are some forms of aggression that have become part of the subtext of North American culture and vary depending on where one lives, but are present to some degree across North America. We often hear them repeated by various media outlets. The most common one making the rounds at the moment is that trans women are men who are trying to ‘invade’ women’s washrooms and change rooms so that we can be voyeurs or sexual predators. There was a recent column the Toronto Star that ran with this and when called on it tried to justify the column by stating that because it was a column the requirements for fact checking were reduced or even non-existent. Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission wrote an excellent letter to the editor to correct the misrepresentation in the column.
Sometimes aggressions come from within the trans community itself. These may be perceived or real aggressions. Either way they are real to the person who is experiencing them. One of the most common aggressions is when trans people say to others, “there is only one way to be trans” or, “you’re not doing it right.” Another common one is the judgment that if one doesn’t fully transition from male to female, including vaginoplasty, one is not really a woman. I have been on the receiving end of these comments more than once in various trans communities.
These are but a few examples of the sorts of aggressions that trans people, and trans women in particular, face in their lives. These get compounded when they are also part of other oppressed groups. Other groups include, but are not limited to, having a disability, having a mental illness or mental health problem, being a person of colour, and living in poverty. In these cases the intersections of oppression add to the difficulties the person faces.
When one is constantly facing these aggressions they become a drain on one’s energy and often impact on a person’s self esteem. Add to these the struggles trans people, and trans women in particular, often face in finding employment, obtaining adequate health care, and finding adequate support the drain often becomes too much. It becomes very easy to fall into a depression, to not want to even get out of bed in the morning. Eventually, if the stress doesn’t ease, the reserves of energy get to the point where there is a sense of not having the energy to keep struggling. The idea of taking one’s own life looks like a very viable option, after all it would provide permanent relief from the struggles.
I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg in this post on the various ways aggressions and microaggressions suck the life out of someone. The question that must be addressed is how we, and I include everyone in this, trans and cis, can be supportive to those who are struggling.
First and foremost listen. This means letting the person get everything off their chest. Just having someone listen to one’s concerns can go a long way towards healing. The feelings and the hurts are no longer contained within, they are let out, and they are vocalized to another human being.
Second, affirm what they are feeling is real and natural for where they are at in their life. It is critical to avoid being dismissive of their situation. Pointing out someone else who is in a worse situation often sends the message that one shouldn’t be feeling down. After all there are people in worse situations so therefore one shouldn’t be feeling down or upset.
Third, speak up when witnessing a microaggression or aggression. Often the person in the situation who is facing these does not have the energy to stand up for themselves. I know in my own experience there are times where my response is along the lines of, “oh fuck. Not another one to deal with.” When I experience a situation directed at me. Having to constantly respond is also a drain on one’s energy.
These two things will go a long way to helping a person get through a rough patch. Sometimes rough patches may be very close together. When this is the case it is important to just be a friend and be there for the person. It may be draining of energy to be providing support for someone. It is easy to take the emotional burden onto oneself, indeed it is often difficult not to. Ideally one should be able to then go and shed that burden in a healthy way. It is important to have one’s own support systems and self-care techniques when providing ongoing support for a friend, or when in a more formal support relationship.
Thanks to Aoife and a post on her blog, Aoifeschatology, for refreshing my memory on some details and information I refer to in this post. Aiofe has written a number of posts in response to the Grantland article and I highly recommend reading them.