This piece is a guest post written by Kio and edited by Imani McPhaden
Recently the UU World published an article where the author rather deliberately outlines some of her critical learning moments and lessons with transgender folks. The article seemed to focus on specific nuances around language and the new language transgender folks have been sharing with one another and the world. As I read it, I was struck by the techniques used. Alternating some of the newer language and knowledge about gender with personal stories to highlight how that language looks in practice. It featured examples of gender faux pas and showed how those experiences could be opportunities for growth rather than an end of a relationship.
However maybe you have heard that there has been some backlash. Maybe you have read Alex Kapitan’s response and frustration that the author quoted per without context. Maybe you have read Imani McPhaden’s response highlighting just how big of a red flag this article is to trans folks. Maybe you have read CB Beal’s response which highlights how the language around gender has evolved more expansively than the article gives credit, and how a substantial amount of language used in the article is still quite harmful. Maybe you have read the official TRUUsT response which provides some calls to action. Maybe you have read the response from Black Lives of UU outlining some of the root issues of white supremacy demonstrated by the article. Maybe after reading some of these responses you are left feeling a little lost.
Sufficient time has passed at this point that the UU World has now offered an official apology as well! Everything must be resolved now. Besides, maybe there is still a part of you still wondering what the hubbub was all about? Why is it so important for every article about trans folks to be written by a trans person? I thought that it was important for cisgender folks not to rely on transgender people all the time to do all the educating. And now this article is an issue? What gives? People can still learn from this article, so what’s the big deal? Maybe you even kind of liked the article, was it really that bad?
In the apology the editor acknowledged that the article “hurt and alienate[d] trans and nonbinary people,” but does not mention how the article was harmful to cisgender folks. We always talk about how oppression hurts everyone but it might still be hard to notice exactly which parts of the article had a poor overall message. My goal is to help you notice those messages dear reader, to help outline where the core concepts went astray. I want to explain that even if the editor had replaced all the harmful language with perfect rhetoric the article is still flawed. Let’s expose the parts of the article that sound pretty good but are riddled with fallacies and other issues that could ultimately hurt transgender folks, and make cisgender folks worse allies. Even in the apologies of the UU World and the UUA I see signs of the exact same fallacies that are made in the original article. Hopefully, I can help you start to see them as well.
1. On the Issue of Comfort
Often the needs of transgender folks are framed as an issue of comfort or easing away pain. In the article, Alex Kapitan was quoted mostly around the topic of trans people’s pain. The editor of the UU World talked in his apology about how the article “caused pain.” In the UUA apology the president talks about the “harm and pain this article is causing.” The use of this framing device makes sense. Comfort is a very accessible concept. It is easy to understand that some folks are harmed by certain words and that allies should be striving to talk in a less harmful way in order for transgender folks to be more comfortable. However, it is a hasty generalization to assume that our “discomfort” is the only harm done. Sometimes when a transgender person gets misgendered it means they have to touch up their make-up to avoid violence in public. Sometimes if you use the wrong name in front of the wrong person, you might condemn a transgender person to be stalked and harassed. Sometimes when you publish a misguided article on a national platform, with language out of sync of the current evolution of language transgender folks use with one another, you illicit hours of unpaid labor and damage control from transgender authors, whom you should have paid in the first place to write for your publication.
On top of the material consequences for transgender folks the equivocation of the concept of “comfort” has further negative consequences. If we can simply summarize the trans experience as being about our comfort, then when someone is uncomfortable with our existence, an unaware spectator may judge those concerns as equal in weight. When trans folks might want to sit on a committee or lay lead a service, it might feel like an equal trade to say, “well you set boundaries with me because you didn’t want me to use this name, and I’m uncomfortable with you leading a service, so you should respect my boundaries back.” This is a false equivalence. When I ask you to use a different pronoun or word, I am still inviting you to be a part of the conversation. When folks are uncomfortable with trans people speaking for ourselves, that removes our access to making sure our needs are met. I have seen too many examples of trans folks getting torn from UU resources because of a cisgender person’s discomfort.
Furthermore, should any cisgender person attempt to summarize what they have learned about what is most acceptable for the transgender community in aggregate, this inherently perpetuates an ecological fallacy. You can collect the most accurate information of what is the current generally acceptable language, of what assumptions are generally safe to make, and you are still likely to meet a trans person who finds that language dysphoric, or scolds you for assuming. When a transgender person gets to talk from their own experience, cisgender people get the benefit of hearing a full range of nuance of how gender expression feeds into identity feeds into gender roles for that particular person. I’d love to read an article by a cisgender person talking about their own experience of their own gender any day of the week, rather than hear them talk about the “adventure” of friendship with transgender folks.
Is it still important to learn how language about gender is evolving? Absolutely. Are there still instances where cisgender people can help one another learn? Without a doubt. But whenever possible, if you want an article about transgender folks, then you should let a transgender person speak for themself. We want cisgender folks to speak up for us when we are not around, but as CB Beal said, “we’re right over here.” We will know which concepts are most important to our safety. We will know when to advocate for which language. We will challenge the reader to understand the core concepts and not just the surface level language and grammar. Which leads me to the second issue the article exhibited.
2. On the Issue of Privileged Accessibility
The editor of UU World wrote in his apology, “My intent was to model, through a personal essay about one family’s experience, ways for the majority of our readers to engage respectfully with trans and nonbinary people.” Before the editor wrote this apology, I actually expected that the reasoning was something along these lines. This sounds like a well reasoned strategy, however even this explanation reveals a common fallacy made by folks with privilege. It can be extremely tempting to believe “since I know what information helped me learn about oppression I do not experience, I must be best suited to quickly get other privileged folks up to speed.” Unfortunately this line of reasoning exhibits the Ludic Fallacy: the belief that the outcomes of non-regulated random occurrences can be easily encapsulated and explained. This kind of fallacy fails to acknowledge unknown unknowns.
The crucial part missing when a cisgender person assumes they are best suited to help other cisgender people learn about trans oppression is that the cisgender person assumes those around them all started from the same starting place of ignorance. The lesson that finally got through to one person might not be the same concept that another person is grappling with to understand. Where one might be having trouble updating pronouns, another might be having trouble phasing “dude” out of their vocabulary. Where one maybe have trouble understanding why someone with stubble in a dress is a woman, someone else might have trouble understanding why someone different who has stubble in a dress is a man.
Yes, when a transgender person writes an article, they may expect more from a cisgender reader than that person is ready to learn. The transgender person may attempt to make the article as accessible as possible and still miss the mark for some readers. However, when you let transgender folks address the issues as we see them, then you let us set the bar where we want it. We will know which group of people we want to educate, and where we want to set our expectations. If you are a cisgender person and you notice a friend who is struggling to meet those expectations, or you find that you yourself might be falling short, this is when I would want a cisgender ally or co-conspirator to jump in and help educate. You might still mess up, but I’d rather my cisgender friends try to help in this way, than for them to write an article filled with misinformation published on a national scale.
There are so many ways cisgender people can catch up if they feel lost in the conversation about transgender issues. You can ask your minister, or write to the UUA who will hopefully point a searcher to the resources they need, or you can reach out to TRUUsT. When you ask a cisgender person to “model, through a personal essay about one family’s experience, ways for the majority of [UU World] readers to engage respectfully with trans and nonbinary people” this will inherently fall short of the expectations of transgender and nonbinary people, and the editor was told as much beforehand. The editor not only had bad impact, the intent was rotten from the start.
Relatedly, the current article will inherently fall short when it comes to the needs of trans folks of color because I don’t have that perspective. Here is a list of organizations collecting and trying to raise up stories from trans UUs of color as I understand it. Black Lives of UU (BLUU), the Commission on Institutional Change, the Transforming Hearts Collective, and finally please read this article by Imani McPhaden. I am confident, had the UU World done its due diligence, this is the article that would have and should have ended up in the 2019 Spring edition of UU World.
As trans folks, we will know how much to disclose about our lives. We will know how much to keep to ourselves. And we will know who we want to talk to in our wider communities. We will push those around us to be the best ally and accomplice they can be. While articles written by folks with privilege can often feel like they are encouraging people to simply feel like the best ally while doing the minimum work required. That is not restorative, that is neglectful.
3. On the Issue of Growth
There has been a concerning trend recently, not just from this UU World situation, but also with UUA blog posts. This trend is that when I see a post that suggests some next steps Unitarian Universalism can take as an organization to be the radically inclusive religion we want it to be, I do not see steps that apply directly to me as a trans person. The suggestions made are often suggestions of how allies can be better allies, rather than addressing the diversity of their readership. This would be a fallacy of composition: assuming that since a majority of the readership are cisgender, that the suggested steps for cisgender folks can also apply to any transgender readers. The message this sends me is that the ways the Unitarian Universalist organization is interested in growing, does not include my growth as a trans person.
For example, if you read the apologies written by the UUA and the UU World Editor, at no point does either apology acknowledge that the person reading these apologies might be transgender and might be currently hurting. Clearly both apologies acknowledge that trans people were hurt, but neither address trans people as a part of the readership. In the UU World apology, the editor lists ways the UU World will commit to addressing the concerns of transgender folks. He mentions adding sensitivity readers and that the magazine will “redouble [their] efforts to commission essays, reporting, and artwork from trans and nonbinary people, and from a wider set of contributors from marginalized communities” but then does not provide any instruction for how to become a sensitivity reader, or who to contact if you are a transgender artist or writer. Ultimately, both apologies end up looking like well written articles, written by cisgender folks, that ultimately deny transgender folks our own agency of how we interact with the publication—the same exact issue the original article had!
With each article written by a cisgender person, with each apology a cisgender person writes, with each blog post with action items mostly relevant to cisgender readers, cisgender folks are getting an opportunity to grow and learn how to be a better ally. In the cases of Susan Frederick-Gray and the UU World Editor, they are essentially paid to spend time on apologies and personal growth with the understanding that this personal growth helps make the UU Organization better. Meanwhile, if the UU World had published an article by a transgender person, even if that article had flaws and had alienated most of the cisgender readership, that trans person would have been paid to learn how to articulate their lived experience to people who do not share that experience. Seeing that kind of investment in transgender growth would have really made my heart sing. Instead, there have been some nice sounding words from cisgender folks, without really acknowledging the transgender folks who might be reading.
To be clear, I do not want any cisgender folks to tell me or my transgender friends what they think we can do better as transgender folks to make cisgender folks more comfortable. I am not interested in negative consequences for cisgender folks who make mistakes. I am not interested in an apology for the oversights within the apology. Personally, I consider the incident as resolved as it’s going to be, and the BLUU response gives some fantastic suggestions of what next steps that affirm transgender agency looks like. My goal is to provide insight into my thought process and reaction as a transgender person.
4. On the Issue of Privacy
I help to moderate a gender discussion group where I live. In this group we have a set of ten (10) working agreements that we go over for every meeting. One of said working agreements we call “Chatham House Rules” which means “Feel free to share what you learned here, just not who you learned it from.” We then further clarify what this means by saying, “If you were to share a piece of information to a ‘Dear Abby’ column, and the person you are talking about could recognize herself or himself or themselves within the article, then you are sharing too much information.” The UU World article flagrantly breaks this rule and could put people in danger.
The whole point of using false names is to keep people’s identities private. The article’s author reveals her own real name, and then talks about a specific relative, and a partner that relative had in a specific year. If a person can identify themself in an article, which this person surely can with the information provided, then it is possible for others to identify this person. Outing someone as trans can cost us our life. Outing someone as trans can mean a neighbor harasses us and throws trash in our lawn. Outing someone as trans can get us evicted. For this article, it would take one bad actor who reads UU media to search and find this person and potentially make their life significantly harder.
These are the things that I get worried about in UU spaces. Not that a congregation will take months to learn the name that I use with my friends. Not that cisgender elders learning about gender can feel “awkward.” But that when shit hits the fan, the UUs around me will feel ill equipped to actually protect me. I worry that if I start doing the work of educating people about gender in UU spaces, someone will inadvertently out me to exactly the wrong person. And over and over again, the UU community proves to me that my worries are warranted. I’ve seen no less than three (3) trans folks get pushed away from UU spaces because shit hit the fan, and nobody was there to help clean up. I’ve heard stories from countless trans folks who feel disengaged from UU community unable to fully articulate which part made them so averse to the religion.
Maybe this article didn’t threaten a trans person, but it did put at least one trans person at more risk. Maybe this article taught some cisgender folks some new language, but it also taught cisgender folks a mindset that makes it difficult to protect us in the future. Maybe this article wasn’t trying to speak for transgender people, but it sure took up space that an article by a transgender person could have taken up. Maybe the editor and the UUA have grown thanks to this experience, but to me it looks like people feeling proud they closed the barn door after the horse escaped.
The UU World response certainly sounds nice, but my concern is that if the people in charge are still holding onto these fallacies how will they use the new policies to hurt transgender folks further. Will they only feature articles by trans folks that match the UU World bias? Will they have one “special” issue of the UU World that has articles all written by transgender authors and then pay them all less since it’s not an “official” issue of UU World? Is there a number of transgender authors that feels like too many to be within the pages of an issue of the published magazine? How high can the editor go before he starts getting uncomfortable? Is ten (10) too many? How about five (5)? What about five (5) every issue for a whole year?
My concern about the original article and the response is not only about the harm it has done for transgender folks, it’s also about how low the bar is set. Alex warned the UU World where we had set the bar, and the UU World missed. It is not enough to merely meet our previous bar after you tried and failed. You had a canary in the coal mine, you ignored them, and now expect us to be content and sated with your eulogy. Believe what we tell you the first time you cowards. You sure did build a mighty fine protective moat of “sensitivity readers.” Now show transgender folks which side of the moat we’re on.