Victims of Bullying Don’t Need To Change, Bullies Do

Re-published at The Huffington Post

Recently I had PTK surgery on my eye to fix recurrent corneal abrasions due to an underlying condition. A day later I had my post-op appointment, and everything went exceedingly well. Since I still couldn’t drive yet, my husband Matt had to bring me and our youngest son Charlie decided to tag along. After my post-op appointment (which was out of town, took an hour longer than we expected, and we were all starving afterwards), Charlie asked if we could go to IHOP for brunch. It was just Matt, me, and Charlie since our older son Jack was in the mountains with friends for spring break, and our daughter Kate was spending her spring break in driving school.

So, we went with intentions of having a nice, relaxing, casual brunch, just the three of us – a rare special occasion. Besides, successful eye surgery was something to celebrate, considering my extreme phobia of anything coming remotely close to my eyes.

After we got seated and placed our drink orders, Matt and Charlie needed to head to the bathroom. Now, Matt is a regular ole’ stereotypical, cishet, white male. Typically doesn’t encounter any issues on the way to or from, or inside of public bathrooms. Our 11-year-old Charlie, though, has had female gender expression since the age of 2.5, and we have supported that. In third grade, Charlie heard the story of CJ, of Lori Duron’s blog and book, Raising My Rainbow, and proclaimed that he was also “gender creative.” Charlie began testing the waters by wearing non-typical “boys” accessories to school like multiple strands of sparkly, colored Mardi Gras beads.

By fourth grade, Charlie was carrying a glittery “girls” backpack, toting Lisa Frank notebooks, and shimmery pink & purple pencil pouches. That summer, Charlie ventured into the territory of wearing “girls” shoes, and shortly after, wearing all “girls” clothing from the tween girls clothing store Justice – Just For Girls!

During fifth grade at age 11, Charlie came out as “genderqueer” and told us he feels neither male nor female, but something else altogether. Though he doesn’t right now want to change his gender or become female, he admittedly errs on the side of feminine gender expression, sort of like a Native American two-spirit, I suppose. In his own words, Charlie explained, “It’s as if God took one girl, one boy, and mashed them all up together to make one ME.” When asked, “Do you feel more like a boy or more like a girl?” Charlie invariably answers,  “I feel more like just a person.At the time that Charlie told us he was genderqueer, he also told us that he prefers going by they/them pronouns. 

So this day in IHOP, Charlie was wearing their typical outfit: pink & teal “girls” sneakers, bright pink Justice sweatpants, plain T-shirt, and giant pink floral headband to accommodate their longer growing hair.

When Matt & Charlie walked past one of many tables of 4, from one booth there arose wild laughter,  and someone at the table loudly shouted, “OH, HE’S GAY!!” This was followed by more wild laughter, and one person practically falling out of the seat with laughter.  Matt and Charlie ignored and kept walking. Matt admitted he wasn’t sure what to do, because he is rarely in this situation. I see and hear it all the time, though, because I’m simply with Charlie more. 

There was a time when I used to keep walking and ignore it too, but I learned that that’s not always best.

Because when we ignore harassment we give it permission to exist.

I now prefer stopping, facing the people, and calmly relaying, “We heard you. Why would you say that? Why would you make fun of or laugh at another human being?” Charlie actually prefers this response, and also has used it on their own as well. It’s beyond time to start holding people accountable for being bigots. I’ve found that, particularly in this current political and social climate where 45 has set the precedent for abusive language being acceptable, we should and we must counter these ignorant engagements.

Just to set the record straight, you cannot say, “Well, if you don’t want people making fun of you, then don’t dress that way in public to begin with.”

There is a term for that. It’s called “victim-blaming.”

We don’t get to make fun of or harass someone, and then when they get upset, tell them it’s their fault.

Any time someone defaults to questioning or criticizing what a victim should’ve or could’ve done differently to prevent something harmful done to them, then they, too, are participating in this unfortunate socially acceptable culture of victim-blaming, and it simply has to end.

Bullying is never the target’s fault. The responsibility for bullying and its after-effects invariably belongs to the bully.

People who are in any way “different” do not need to change in order to avoid being bullied. Change is always and without a doubt the burden of the bully.

Largely, when harassment, bullying, or even violent crimes like rape happen, our society likes to point out what is wrong with the victim rather than recognizing that the real problem lies with the bully/attacker and their own choices to harass, verbally abuse, or attack in the first place.

A lot of times, my son gets the “he’s just too sensitive” comment, or, “he’s got to learn to toughen up in the real world.”

First of all, my son IS tough. Charlie is tough enough to persist in wearing “girls” clothes and a headband with giant pink flowers to school every single day, despite the taunting that happens, and Charlie is tough enough to persist in wanting to live authentically rather than wanting to live merely please others. Others may not be aware, but it takes balls of frickin’ steel to be that brave in 5th grade – and I don’t know how much “tougher” it gets than that.

Charlie's signature headband

Charlie, warming up their cheeks for a choral concert, wearing their signature pink floral headband.

Further, statements like, “he is just too sensitive,” are classic victim-blaming statements. When people make comments like this, they are excusing the bully’s behavior by indicating that there is some type of shortcoming in the victim, and it implies that the victim’s reaction is somehow neither normal nor natural.

Saying that someone who is “different,” or of a marginalized group needs to “toughen up” or “man up” may actually be the worst possible thing that we can say about the victim of bullying, because it minimizes what they have experienced; it mutes their narrative. And we must begin listening to the narratives of “different” people, because they are here to change the world for the better.

Also, we can’t just tell these victims of harassment or bullying to simply “get over it. Childhood and teenage bullying is not something a person can just happen to “forget” one day. We have the research to know that harassment and bullying have significant consequences and lasting impacts that go with people into adulthood.

Again, the victim of bullying does not need to change, the bully does.

So, instead of perpetuating the cycle of victim blaming, how about we start being better role models for our children, and teaching them not to make fun of, harass, attack, or bully other people to begin with?

Are you, as an adult or a parent, making fun of others’ physical appearances, demeanors, or abilities in front of your child? The overweight woman pushing a cart out of the grocery store that you just made a snarky comment about with your child in the backseat, listening? The mumbling you did at the old man driving slowly in front of you, trying your patience? The group of tattered looking teens standing around that you just called “punks?” The flamboyant boy in pink sweatpants you just called “gay?” As if there was something wrong with being gay in the first place? Do your kids or your relatives hear you talk like this? Think about that.

Indeed there are certain life skills we can teach victims of harassment and bullying to learn like resilience, assertiveness, perseverance, and self-confidence. But lacking these skills, or not having mastered them yet are not reasons to excuse the bullying and harassment at all.

Instead, we need to focus on teaching bullies how to take responsibility for their own actions. This has got to start at home, but we know the reality; that doesn’t always happen. Therefore, it must happen, and must be reinforced in the community, in school, and in various public or private social situations. Don’t be a bystander. Be a part of the village and stand up to bullying and harassment whenever you see it or hear it.

All people, but especially those who are somehow “different” or marginalized, must have the freedom to move about in this world without fear of being attacked or bullied.

Today, I Grieve

Tuesday, April 11, 2017. This morning I was the invited guest lecturer for an NC State Abnormal Psychology undergraduate class from 8:30-9:45 am. It has been on my calendar for months, and I was looking forward to it very much. An old friend I went to college with is working on her Ph.D. and teaching classes at NCSU. She asked me to present on the topic of gender identity. Overall it went well. Especially considering the circumstances.

Also, this morning, we lost our fur baby Athena. At approximately 9:35 am, while I was doing my lecture, she was euthanized at our vet’s office with my husband Matt by her side, as she licked his hand the whole time until she passed out.  Athena was our 12 year-old dog that we had for 12 years, a mixture of pitt bull and Jack Russell Terrier, (plus a few other unidentifiable breeds). Our vet was fond of calling her a “Heinz-57; a little bit of everything.” We know that mom was the pitbull mix, though, and dad was the Jack Russell Terrier. And somehow they mated. Imagine that.

I am absolutely lost over the loss of this dog. I mean, we knew it was coming because of 1.) her age, and 2.) a tumor she had growing near or in her spleen which distended her belly. This sudden development was spotted about 2 months ago. The veterinarian who was checking her out called and told us they were concerned about her belly and wanted to do an x-ray. We agreed to that. They called back later and said it looked like something was there, near her stomach, but they needed to keep her overnight so she could empty her bowels and they could get a second, clearer image. We agreed to that as well. As the night went on, though, I just wanted my baby girl back home resting comfortably.

I’ve been down this road before with senior animals, and sometimes more information is not necessarily better.

They called us the next day after the 2nd x-ray, and said the image was a bit clearer and less obstructed than the first one, but they still couldn’t quite tell what we were dealing with. This time, they said they wanted to do an ultrasound, which was going to be a lot more money than we had already spent on the exam, vaccinations, x-rays, boarding, bath & nail trim. They said they would need to call in an ultrsasound tech and she had her own rates (which amounted to something like $1500.)  We turned that down, because we didn’t have the money, and we really just wanted our dog back after 2 1/2 days. And also, what good would an ultrasound do? It wouldn’t fix anything. If anything at all, it would show the doctor where the tumor was specifically located, but that would still mean exploratory surgery and nothing definite.

Now, we’ve always been happy with this vet. It’s the same one we’ve been using for the past 6 years, and she’s been really good to us – holds checks for weeks at a time if necessary, etc. But this time, we were talking to a younger, new vet tech who we were unfamiliar with. She was making us feel a little guilty, pushing the ultrasound, and refusing to prescribe Athena her Temaril-P (which she takes for a severe skin allergy that flares up her whole body, and is the only medicine that helps) unless we got the ultrasound.

So, we took her for a second opinion. I did some research and found a local vet that was VERY highly recommended, especially for people who don’t have tons of money to spend for procedures. This vet was very down-to-earth, no sugar-coating, told it like it was, very friendly, very blunt, and very understanding. He concurred that it was a tumor, but said it seemed to be her spleen instead of her stomach. He said that was his best guess as a veterinarian who has seen this condition many times in his 35 years of practice.

He told us it was a “ticking time bomb” to rupture. But, then again, he also said “she might live for years with it and have no issues.” It was a toss-up. He also said that he would’ve never ordered x-rays in the first place, because they don’t show much of anything. He said he might’ve gone straight to ultrasound first, but he said he’s seen a lot of this specific condition in dogs, and this is how it was presenting and looking to him. He also had no problem prescribing us the Temaril-P, for her comfort.

He said that if it were to rupture, the signs we should look for would be sudden loss of appetite and refusal to eat for several days, gums would turn very pale, and she would become weak and lethargic. He said at that point, he would recommend getting her in to be put down, because surgery at her age may not be worth the risks. But at the time they saw her, both vets agreed that Athena was not appearing to be in any pain or discomfort. So we decided to just let her be and hope for the best.

We couldn’t afford surgery to address the issue, but even if we could’ve afforded it, we didn’t want to subject a senior dog to invasive surgery. We once went down that road with an elderly cat. The surgery only worsened his quality of life, drew out his pain and suffering, and he ended up dying 2 weeks later despite the surgery that was supposed to save him. I feel horrible for the 2 weeks of hell we put him through after that surgery. We said we’d never do that again to an old animal.

We watched Athena diligently for 2 months for any abnormal signs. She was absolutely fine until yesterday. First I noticed she begged for a treat, I gave her one, and then she refused to eat it. Then my husband saw her throw up in the back yard. Several times. He said there was nothing there – just bile, and lots of it. That was concerning. Then the more we talked we realized she didn’t touch her breakfast that morning. She wasn’t exactly acting weak or lethargic, though, and her gums still looked perfectly fine. But then she didn’t eat her dinner, either. And when we tried to give her the Temaril-P wrapped up in a tiny piece of cheese (her absolute favorite treat), she sniffed it and walked away. That was a first.

The last sign we noticed yesterday was her attempting to dig out of the back yard. When I saw that, I just knew. She knew it was time, and she was looking to get out and find a place away from us to be her final resting spot. Wild animals and family pets are all known to do this. So, we were thinking the worst at this point, but it was late and she followed us up the stairs for bed with no problems, and jumped up onto our bed as usual, curled up, and went to sleep. She looked so peaceful sleeping.

By morning, she was 10 times worse. She was extremely lethargic. Matt checked her gums with a flashlight and said, “Oh no.” I looked too. They were definitely pale. We stayed there and rubbed her as usual in the morning, but she barely moved. We had to hurry downstairs for a quick breakfast. When she didn’t even get up to bound down the stairs with us like every single morning for the past 12 years, we knew it was time. Crying throughout this whole ordeal, we decided to quickly come up with a plan. I had to be at NCSU by 8:00 for this lecture. But Matt was going to drive me, because I don’t do parking at NCSU, especially not while stressed or rushed. And Kate had to go to class at her driving school, where she also had to be at 8:00. But we now needed to get Athena to the vet as soon as they opened at 8:00, because we didn’t want her to suffer any longer. We knew this condition that she most likely had could cause her to go into shock before dying and could be long and painful.

We woke up Jack & Kate and got them up-to-date. We asked if they wanted to go ahead and say their good-byes. They did. They were very thankful for this time, even though it was crazy early in the morning. Charlie was at my parents’ house, though. So Matt called my mom and she told Charlie. From what she reported back, it sounded like Charlie did cry a bit, but also busied themself with other things and distractions and was fine for other parts of the morning.

Because of incredibly awesome people in my life, everything was able to happen in an orderly manner this morning, despite the major upset. My parents had Charlie over to spend the night last night and were serving as a safe & comforting buffer this morning, keeping Charlie updated but also distracted so they wouldn’t get too depressed. Our oldest son, Jack got up at the crack of dawn on his spring break to drive his little sister Kate to driving school at 8am. He did this so that my husband, Matt could take Athena to the vet right when they opened at 8. And my dear friend and fellow LTYM writer, Beth, answered a last-minute, desperate Facebook plea to give me a ride to NCSU so I could do the lecture for my friend Betty-Shannon’s Abnormal Psychology undergrad class.

Conversation with Beth on the way there was a very welcome distraction from the chaos, along with seeing Betty-Shannon for the first time since our Meredith College days, and who also treated me to an awesome Port City Java mocha shake.

Tomorrow I have my eye surgery. I have a condition called Epithelial Basement Membrane Dystrophy. This is a disease of the cornea that essentially causes it to erode, and you have spontaneous reoccurring (and very painful!) corneal abrasions. Sometimes you haven’t done anything at all to aggravate your eye. Sometimes all it takes is the action of opening your eyelids after a long night of sleep and suddenly – rrriiippppp! The cells of your cornea rip apart and adhere to the top eyelid so that when your eyelid performs the simple motion of opening, it tears off a layer of cells along with it. Again, very painful. Often excruciating, because we have more nerve endings in our eyes than we do in our very sensitive fingertips. And unpredictable – you never know when it will happen next. I’ve had three episodes in less than one year right now, which is why we’re doing the surgery.

The surgery I’m having is called PTK (Photo Therapeutic Keratectomy). This is where the eye surgeon will scrape off my cornea, and replace it with a new artificial cornea, made from amniotic fluid. Aside from being terrified of having this procedure done while I’m awake and scared mercilessly (despite Valium), I’m also worried about the fact that I will now need glasses due to astigmatism.  So this is coming up tomorrow, I’m very nervous, and my dog was going to be my nurse, as she always has been whenever I’m recovering from surgery.

Athena would always get in bed with me and lay her warm body up against whatever part of me had been through surgery – my back, my shoulders, my wrist, my fingers. She always knew when I was going to have leg bone pain before I knew, and would get under the covers and put her body under or between my legs, providing comforting warmth.

I can’t find the words to say how much I love that dog, and how much I will miss her and already do. Walking into the house just now and not being greeted in the doorway by her wagging tail, sniffing nose, and presentation of her rear-end – begging for a scratch – was empty and jarring. It was a reminder of all the things that are going to come over the next few days and serve as fresh reminders of things I didn’t know I was going to miss.

Jack’s leaving soon for a trip to the mountains for his spring break. It’s the first trip for multiple nights he’s taken without mom & dad. I’m not ready for this. Kate begins driving on the road today after driver’s ed class. I’m not ready for this. Charlie’s coming home soon and may be the most upset of all of us – Athena was Charlie’s only dog growing up and they had a pretty special bond. Jack & Kate got to say their goodbyes this morning when we had a hunch this was it. Charlie did not. Charlie will need lots of comfort. I’m not ready for this. Eye surgery is tomorrow. I’m nervous and scared, and I won’t have my “nurse” at home afterwards. I’m not ready for this, either.

12:00 pm: Jack just left for the mountains. My heart literally ached to watch him leave as I *gently* reminded him, “Send pictures when you can! Text me when you can!” He was happy to go, and I’m glad he had the distraction. He has been looking forward to this trip for about 2 months. First spring break trip with friends! (And one parent chaperone.)

12:45 pm: Charlie is home now. They have placed a yellow dandelion on Athena’s wrapped up body. I can hear them out there on the back deck right now, sobbing, and it’s breaking my heart even more. They just said through tears, “Athena, I’m so sorry for that time I kicked you out of my room! And I wish I had never yelled at you for chewing up my ear buds!” Heartbreaking.

2:00 pm: I drove out to the middle of nowhere in a car with no air-conditioning on a hot day to pick up Kate from driver’s ed. She was fine until we got home to the neighborhood. As we got closer to the house, she lost it, and so did I. Again. She asked for alone time with Athena’s body, wrapped up in the heavy duty black plastic bags they put them in. I can hear her sobbing like never before. She on the ground next to Athena, talking to her, but I can’t understand what she’s saying. Poor thing. And she has to go our driving with her instructor in two hours.

It’s now 3:25 pm and we just held a funeral for Athena. Since Jack is not here, Matt, me, Kate, and Charlie stood and held hands in a circle around Athena and said our good-byes and sweet memories of her. We even had a few laughs over some of her quirks. We had lots of sobbing. We said a prayer and then buried her in the grave Matt dug, in the shady spot beside the fence where she loved to rest whenever we worked or hung out in the yard. She would dig up the earth in that one spot and find a cool layer of soil to rest on. That was Athena’s spot.

We threw in some yellow weed flowers that Charlie picked, so they “wouldn’t blow away” is what Charlie said. We also dropped in a few of her favorite dog treats, and then Matt had the idea to throw in all the balled up tissues we just used blowing our noses and crying salty tears. That sounds crazy, but one of Athena’s favorite things was rifling through the trash to find used tissues. She would retrieve them from the trash, tear them apart to shreds, and leave a huge mess for us to clean. Nothing stopped her from this behavior. Even when we tried putting the trash cans up high and out of her reach – she still somehow ended up getting them. We were always getting on her case about that, so what better way to release her than to bury her with some of her favorite things.

Matt is covering her now with the dirt. I can’t watch that part. I guess like how I can’t ever watch the lowering of caskets into the ground at funerals. It’s just too much.

Everyone is about to be scattered again. Kate has to go driving for two hours, Matt has to attend a work meeting, Jack is in the mountains, Charlie is ready for a diversion into video games. But for now, I’m home. I will rest and do nothing productive for the rest of the day, and I will grieve. And I hope tomorrow will bring at least a tiny bit of ease from this massive crying headache, and the general brokenheartedness I’m sure to be feeling for a long time.

These are the last few pictures I have of Athena. The first one Matt sent me at work last week while Athena was sunning on the deck in the afternoon. You can see her distended belly 😦

Athena sunning

This next one is a photo of what mornings in the Sirois household look like. Athena, up on the bed with Scratchy, trying to wake up Daddy for food. This was taken in February, 2017, before the tumor was found.

Athena morning

This picture is one is pretty old. It’s from when Athena was younger (about 7 or so years ago) and loved to play frisbee. How she loved that torn up, nasty, ragged, tattered, slobbery frisbee. I hope there’s a huge green field in heaven with tons of frisbees just for you, baby girl.

Athena frisbee

And finally, this photo of Athena is 2 years old, but reflects how she looked most recently. I love it because this is the face I always woke up to in the morning. I’m sure going to miss that face and the kisses that came with it in the morning. Rest well, sweet girl. Flights of angels.

Athena bed

 

Are Trans Women Really Women? Why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Answer Matters

Ah, semantics. If ever there was a case for the importance of words and their intended, assumed, or literal meanings, it is this story. In case you haven’t yet heard, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a world-renowned, award-winning Nigerian author and feminist, was recently interviewed by Cathy Newman for the UK’s Channel 4 News and asked if she thought trans women were really women. Specifically, Ms. Newman asked, “…does it matter how you’ve arrived at being a woman – I mean, for example, if you’re a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman? Are you any less of a real woman?” In short, Adichie’s answer was, “My feeling is trans women are trans women.”

Notice she didn’t say, “trans women are women.” (If you want to hear just the quote in question, skip to approx. the 2:44 mark).

Adichie went on to explain how if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with all the privileges the world freely gives to men, and then you “sort of switch gender,” she says, “it’s difficult for me to accept that we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman.” She ends this section of the interview with, “What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”

I actually agree with her somewhat on that last point, but perhaps if Adichie were to take some time to sit and hear trans people’s narratives, she could understand why not explicitly acknowledging that trans women do fall under the larger category of women, everyone might be better off.

There’s certainly a long way to go, but we do currently have lots of credible gender identity studies, research, and literature. While the larger concept of gender itself is a social construct that changes between cultures and over time, credible sources all confirm that gender identity is innate, and present in the brain (not the genitals). We also know that there may possibly be other contributing factors like the amount of testosterone exposure the fetus receives during the mother’s pregnancy. Another facet that keeps reappearing in gender literature is that gender identity is pretty unchangeable – meaning once someone realizes they are different from the gender they were assigned at birth, they don’t tend to flip flop or change their mind. Further, research shows that most people who do transition (which can be a lifelong process) do not ever go back to their gender assigned at birth.

Of course, there’s always that small handful of people who do, for varying reasons, transition twice. But largely, one doesn’t simply “switch” gender, as Adichie alludes. It’s not a trade off like clothing at a consignment store. Rather, trans people transition into the gender expression that aligns with their authentic gender identity, the one they have (typically) known their entire life. There is no confusion about this. Most transgender adults will tell you they knew all their life, but were forced to hide that part of themselves, and/or faking the role of cisgender male or female, out of fear. Or because they were made to feel bad or wrong about who they were or how they expressed themselves.

Trans women seem to receive the brunt of the worst discrimination. The reason why is a post for another day, but because of the discrimination trans women feel in particular, that’s who I’m talking about in this post.

While some trans women take daily hormones and undergo multiple procedures such as breast augmentation, facial feminization, vocal feminization, hip and butt implants, and even genital surgery, some trans people may only opt to have one procedure done like breast augmentation, or “top surgery,” and some trans people don’t have any surgeries at all. None of this is any of our business unless they freely offer the information first. And we must realize that being transgender is not about sex changes or “dressing up” in the first place. It is an innate, extreme awareness of self that manifests itself, often, as soon as a child can verbally express wants and needs.

There are hundreds of other cultures and religions around the globe that have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or more genders. Many other cultures and religions hold these people in the absolute highest regard. Transphobia is a mostly modern, western phenomenon, though it does permeate other pockets of the world as well.

So, why am I, a cishet (cisgender/heterosexual) female, familiar with this? Because I try to be an advocate for marginalized groups. I started out learning how to be an advocate for my youngest of three children. When he was only 2.5 years old, my son very seriously asked me while playing princess dress up, “Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts, right?” This child was always confident in his gender expression, which was almost exclusively stereotypical female.

I started doing research to try and understand what was going on, but back in 2008, there was definitely not the amount of info available that we have now. We didn’t know if our child was transgender or something else. But we decided to let him be free to express himself however he liked, as long as he wasn’t physically threatening or hurting anyone. By 4th grade Charlie identified as “gender creative,” still completely preferred stereotypical girls things, and was unable to genuinely relate to his cis male peers.

Charlie is now 11 and identifies as genderqueer and non-binary, and prefers “they/them” pronouns. This means that Charlie falls under the larger umbrella term of “transgender.” Charlie is not at this point sexually identifying, which is a whole separate, unrelated piece of a person’s comprehensive makeup. (Again, that’s a post for another day). Charlie feels neither male nor female, but some combination of each. Sometimes Charlie switches back to he/him/his pronouns, but if pressed to answer, “do you feel more male or female?” Charlie will always answer, “I feel more like just a person.” But Charlie’s gender expression is a lot more stereotypical feminine than masculine, from clothing and accessories, to toys and games, to activities, interests, and friends.

As an affirming family, you have to be on board for any outcome. Our child may stay non-binary, genderqueer forever, but may also transition. Charlie may decide they are agender or even cisgender after all. So, parents like us try to prepare as best as we can, and we fight a difficult fight, especially in places like North Carolina – where the NCGA has a supermajority of members who are notoriously anti-LGBTQ+, and push bills that allow cities to discriminate.

Advocacy is a life-long commitment, and one thing I can say for sure is that I’m not finished learning yet; I’m only just beginning. One of the first and most important rules we learn for being an ally or advocate is that we need to have an understanding that the oppressed (or marginalized) group must have the right to their own narrative, and to have it heard without question.

This is pretty much the universal understanding for advocates of any marginalized group. For example, if I’m advocating for “Black Lives Matter,” I cannot, as a white woman, ever claim to know, embody, or fully comprehend the experience of a black woman. As a white woman, whether or not I’m an advocate, it wouldn’t be my place to chime into the Black Lives Matter dialogue with an opinion like, “I think we are a colorblind society.” As white people, we are the majority, and it’s not our place to dismiss the narrative of oppressed people. We shouldn’t say things like that any more than we’d say, “I’m not racist; I have black friends! I love black people!” I might have and love my black friends, but that in no way makes me an ally or and advocate to their oppressed community. That just makes me a person with black friends.

In short, those who suffer from oppression must be the guiding voices for how we discuss the issues that directly affect them, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, as well-meaning as Adichie was in her interview and follow-up clarification statement, she was speaking for an experience that is not her own. She was speaking over transgender voices, which happens an awful lot to our trans community in general. Adichie is a cis woman speaking on the experiences of trans women. That alone is problematic. Even more, she lost an opportunity to give power to actual trans women, particularly, trans women of color, like Laverne Cox, Raquel Willis, Janet Mock, Isis King, and so many others. As cis women, we can’t just dismiss trans women’s narratives. Sometimes, we need to just STFU and let trans women speak for themselves. Honestly, many of them are trying to weigh in on the feminist narrative right now, but are being dismissed, specifically because of their bodies.

Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Isis King 1

Trans Women in Media: Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Isis King. Image: Getty

This leads to another one of the problems with this story, which is that Adichie took such a strong stance – even going so far as to clarify her original comments – without talking to a trans woman in the first place. Trans people are rightly upset that Adichie spoke about something she doesn’t have firsthand experience with. Could she at least have acknowledged that she has cis privilege and is speaking from that extremely normative point of view? Could it be that her normative gender worldview is obscuring her ability to see her own privilege in that regard? And that this is informing her lens and, now, the lenses of others?

In her clarification statement on Facebook, Adichie said the impulse to say that trans women are women just like women born female are women feels “disingenuous” and comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream. She then assumed the intent that by making trans issues mainstream, “we might reduce the many oppressions they experience.” She maintained her stance from the interview, “that trans women are trans women, that they are people who, having been born male, benefited from the privileges that the world affords men, and that we should not say that the experience of women born female is the same as the experience of trans women.”

This part is problematic for a few reasons.

Obviously, America’s western perception of male privilege is not the only perception. Depending on where you are in the world, you may indeed enjoy male privilege from birth. In some countries, merely having a penis show up in utero on an ultrasound means you will be spared sex-selective abortion; you will be born and then you will live. It can mean that as an infant and toddler you will thrive off of twice the nourishment and nutrition as someone born without a penis. It can mean that you won’t endure the extreme torture of female genital mutilation and the ensuing life-long trauma. You can safely assume you won’t be sold to a sex trafficker at age five, but instead will be allowed to go to school where you’ll learn to read and write. Your marriage won’t be arranged and you won’t be bound to someone twice your age when you’re only eight years old. And so on, and so forth.

But here in America, things are a bit different. Sure, trans women may never experience things like a monthly period, unwanted pregnancy worries, or having to birth a baby conceived in rape. (I just found out that they can breastfeed, though, so they can experience being shamed for public breast feeding). We can all agree that periods and unwanted pregnancies are not part of the trans woman’s narrative. But these things are not necessarily a part of every cis woman’s narrative, either. Does that make them less of a woman? If they are intersex? If she’s a cis woman but has differences of biology, a sex chromosome abnormality, never got her period, or can’t get pregnant? If she can’t or doesn’t want to breastfeed?

The fact that many cis women don’t have these typical “universals” of womanhood does not make them less of a woman, or “othered.” We don’t exclude them from the female narrative. To do so would be to serve the patriarchy, and as feminists, we strive not to do that. However, when we exclude trans women from the female narrative, we are invariably setting out to do the work of the patriarchy.

Also, the phrase Adichie uses, “women born female” is flat out transphobic speech, because trans women are “born female” too, even if their genitalia on the outside doesn’t match. Also, we shouldn’t trivialize women’s narratives by dialing them down to a phrase like “born female” or “born male.” As we know there are many different mutations in genetics and sex biology is not always binary. Reducing women to “born female” or “born male” is a crude disservice to our collective feminist struggle, which by its very nature is intersectional.

I would also argue that it’s fair to say trans women typically don’t benefit from any male privilege. People seem to assume that trans women (assigned male at birth) are socialized as males and therefore get to enjoy some of the privileges of being male, even if only for a short while. But the thing is, at least here in America, you are only afforded these privileges if you follow the status quo of prescribed masculinity, and there’s pretty strong evidence that most trans women do not. (Or if they do, they’re faking it for their own protection.)

Trans women, who know they are female from very early in life, are not socialized as males, regardless of how hard a parent may try and force that label. Young trans girls assigned male at birth are treated more like freaks, and are often quickly escorted into the closet by fearful family members. And while closeted trans women are sometimes afforded the privileges that come with being perceived as male, more often than not, what they are actually experiencing is bombardment from the same subtle and overtly disturbing messages that all women receive.

I won’t argue that people totally treat and handle boy babies very differently than the way they treat and handle girl babies. We tend to play harder, more active, and roughhouse more with toddler boys. We tend to play more socially sensitive, gentler, and less competitively with toddler girls. This I know from personal experience, having one of each. But people generally have no memory of these differences in being handled – or of any privileges that might be afforded them during those very early ages.

An assigned male who knows he’s really a girl, however, tends to know from a very early age that things are somehow non-congruent. He realizes that his toys are not what he wants to play with, and the world he takes in all around him is treating him in a way that feels foreign. Indirect messages through media and elsewhere, and ingrained cultural messages are picked up on even though they may not be specifically directed at any one person.

When this assigned male starts expressing his true gender, that of female, he is more often than not shamed. He receives the message at a very young age that he is a he; that he is shameful, bad, or even disgusting for insinuating otherwise. He learns this at one of the most important psychosocial developmental stages in life, when very young and forming the sense of autonomy versus shame and doubt. (According to prominent 20th century developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, children who successfully complete this stage feel secure and confident, while those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.)

After this succinct message is received quickly by young children, it is then reinforced out in the community and in school for the rest of their childhood. Activities become gender segregated (athletic teams, choirs/choruses, clubs, youth service organizations, sex-selective beauty pageants and scholarships programs, to name a few). Cognitive schemas are reinforced through gender stereotypes, and the ever present cisgender, heteronormative family model.

This cultural aspect of our society is certainly something that takes away epic proportions of male privilege for trans girls.

In addition to being an important feminist, Adichie is also renowned for having campaigned for LGBT rights in her native Nigeria, but she admits herself that it is possible for a person to be both generally supportive of LGBT rights and transphobic at the same time. Indeed many advocates and allies to the LGBTQ+ community are woefully underskilled in appreciating the needs of trans people. The “T” part of the LGBTQ+ label may be the least understood and the least represented. And we can’t really advocate properly for something if we don’t fully understand it. Should we therefore conclude that Adichie is really only a powerful voice for feminism and LGB rights?

In her clarifying statement, which honestly, seemed to make things worse, she said, “Perhaps I should have said trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and all are women. Except that ‘cis’ is not an organic part of my vocabulary. And would probably not be understood by a majority of people.”

To that, I can only say that as a 42-year-old woman, ‘cis’ was not an organic part of my vocabulary, either. But that’s the thing about language – it’s always evolving, and it’s our job to keep up with it, especially if we care to stay relevant and carry on conversations with future generations.

As for the “would probably not be understood by a majority of people” part of the comment, this is exactly why we have google at our fingertips. More importantly, though, that’s where Adichie – a public figure with international audiences and a platform that can sway entire nations, who also claims to stand up for the rights of transgender people – should really take a moment to do some research on words like “cis” before speaking to English (and other) audiences, and then educate her readers and listeners. What a powerful tool that could be.

Next she said, “Because saying ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ acknowledges that there is a distinction between women born female and women who transition…” This part is problematic because 1.) not all trans women are 40-something, transitioning after a half-lifetime of enjoying male privilege, and 2.) all trans women are “born female,” because gender identity is in the brain, not the genitals. We can say “assigned male at birth” when referring to trans women. But the crux of the problem lies within using language like “women born female” and “women who transition.”

Adichie rightly states that “girls are socialised in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning.” But perhaps she does not realize that basically the exact same thing can be said about trans women who are taught, very early, that their feminine gender expression is wrong, shameful, inappropriate, and needs to be hidden.

Words and language are so important. Every time we use language like “women born women” and “women born male;” or when we call a trans woman a “man,” we are perpetuating transphobia whether we realize it or not. Every time we make a comment dehumanizing trans women as non-females, we contribute to a decades-old cycle of violence towards trans women – a cycle that begins with wrong assumptions and transphobic language, verbal abuse, physical violence and, ultimately, all too often, murder. And when trans women are killed, a complete erasure of trans women frequently occurs.

A cisgender voice (whether that’s the officer at the crime scene, or an author as respected as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) does not and cannot decide who has suffered enough discrimination, harassment, inequity, exclusion, or other patriarchal injustices to earn the feminist stamp of approval. Feminism at its core is about all women in our assorted colors and shapes, with our variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. If we’re going to recruit people to the fold and work together as women to further our cause, we don’t get to call for solidarity to people we have dehumanized or erased.

We need to see femaleness and womanhood in its natural, non-binary state, and advocate for it as such. If we cis women exclude trans women from the narrative, how are we any better than the men who incarcerate women inside their cis male definition of womanhood? And what are we doing to our daughters – whether assigned female or male at birth? For those who are continuously fed lies that gender is unequivocally binary and absolutely determined by the appearance of genitals, are ultimately way more at risk to face anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-destruction, and attempted suicide. Others may find themselves kicked out of their retrograde families who demand they either conform (to outdated notions of the gender binary), or leave. Some opt to run away and end up on the streets rather than staying in toxic or abusive relationships.

Current research proves that trans kids who are allowed to transition young – particularly transgender girls – are as well-adjusted as their cisgender peers. With this type of knowledge, it would be a much better service for people like Adichie to use their voices to educate their huge audience of supporters. They could speak or write about why we ought to include trans women in the feminist movement instead of emphasizing the experiences that make trans women different from cis women. We need to stop having debates for and about trans women, and simply give them the platform and elevation they need to speak for themselves – after all, they are quite capable.

Republished on The Huffington Post

 

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Republished on The Huffington Post 

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Republished at The Huffington Post

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