What Does It Mean to be an Ally? 

by Micah J. Fleck

I walk in some pretty indecipherable political circles these days– I care very much about progressive social promotion and science literacy, but I’m also not exactly a “progressive” by one’s modern standards of what a progressive must stand for and believe in. For instance, I have fiscally conservative views for the most part, and believe that less regulations on marketplaces tend to lead to greater opportunities and prosperity for all (though I make exceptions for forces of nature like climate change, which frankly don’t care about following classical economic rules, and advocate for green energy subsidies and caps on pollutants).

What this amounts to is the following: I actually relate to multiple different political outlooks and have no single circle of like-minded types with whom I can have conversations without ruffling at least a few feathers. Normally, this amounts to clashes of personal opinions regarding which mechanisms are the best for social change. And that’s fine– I can deal with honest debate. But one of the brick walls I continue to be run up against with my more conservative-leaning and libertarian friends is the issue of the transgender experience.

What I mean by this is not a mere disagreement on positive vs. negative rights regarding trans bathrooms; I literally run into people who feel that trans individuals are suffering from a mental disorder and deserve to have their self-identity belittled. For many of those who call themselves conservatives (and more ironically, libertarians), there is an apparent desire to not just personally disagree with the trans perspective, but deliberately and outwardly make a mockery of it.

This is, unfortunately, not a fringe belief, even in the early Twenty-First Century. A recent poll has revealed that a staggering 21% of Americans still believe that being trans makes one mentally ill. Think about this for a moment: the common argument against declaring trans rights as a serious civil rights issue is the citation that trans individuals make up single digits of the overall population, percentage-wise; but when nearly a quarter of the country believes the exact wrong thing about trans people themselves, the odds of a transgender American being discriminated against in everyday life go up dramatically. Who am I, as an ally, to buy into the argument that trans rights issues are “exaggerated” in the face of this data? Who are any of us? Fools, if we buy the lie, and unworthy of calling ourselves “allies” if we can just stay silent when we witness a friend or acquaintance perpetuating the ugliest of the preconceptions about our trans sisters and brothers.

Well, what about the “not so bad but still ignorant” views of trans people that are out there? Surely, we can forgive our “lovable bigot” friends and families for simply being ignorant, right? Well, the same poll that revealed the much-too-high number of Americans who saw transgenderism as a mental disorder revealed another cold truth: nearly 40% of Americans– double the number of those who see trans people as mentally ill– believe that transgenderism is “a choice.”

So we are faced with a grand total of ~60% of Americans who believe trans people are either one of two things: crazy or lying. This is the false dichotomy that the majority of our fellow Americans has dreamt up for themselves. And it’s terrifying.

I submit that as long as such utterly untrue beliefs about the mental states of trans individuals persist in such high percentages across this country, the only way we can call ourselves true allies of our trans friends, family members, lovers, spouses, children, etc., is to stand our ground and fight back against the falsehoods. It is not enough that we merely show support in certain venues, during certain days of the week, and within certain hours of the day; we must actively respond to any and all instances of ignorance and bigotry (even of the “soft” variety) that we come across.

How do we do it? Well, there are several ways in which one can make the argument in favor of the normalization and demystification of the trans experience– I intend on writing a series of articles doing just that. But for the time being, as a start, we must get it out of people’s heads that being trans is a delusion. For better or for worse, the “reasonable” transphobe’s argument amounts quite often to the appeal to “science” as his getaway car. We’ve all heard it at least once: “look, I’m not a bigot, but it’s just science!” Now, I’m going to write an entire piece addressing this claim from more that one angle, but for now I want to present the simplest argument: “science” is more than just biology. It also encompasses the fields of psychology and neuroscience. If one is going to appeal to scientific determination as a means to argue the “truth” of trans people’s mental states, then one must stay intellectually consistent and embrace the latest scientific findings and conclusions across all the scientific fields– otherwise, the person is picking and choosing what science to believe and what science to discard. The sure fire way to expose someone of doing this is to appeal to another scientific field that contradicts an anti-trans claim.

So let’s start with psychology. Here is what the official APA website’s most up-to-date (as of this writing) section on transgender mental health has to say on the matter:

 

“A psychological state is considered a mental disorder only if it causes significant distress or disability. Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling, which implies that identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder.”

 

This distinction is very important: simply being trans does not guarantee one will experience gender dysphoria; gender dysphoria and being trans are not one and the same. But furthermore, gender dysphoria itself isn’t a mental disorder, either, as “mental disorders” are colloquially seen as synonymous with delusion or worse. But dysphoria is not dysmorphia; there is no warped perception of one’s own body or reality occurring even in the minds of those who are afflicted by GD. Instead, these individuals merely feel out-of-sync with the world around them due to the clash of public perception of gender and the person’s traditionally “opposite” outward presentation. But that is where the issue of perception begins and ends, and its origin point is with the onlooker; not the trans person herself.

“But psychology isn’t real science,” the transphobic critic might say. As much as this is already something akin to a fast-approaching no true Scotsman fallacy, let’s indulge this claim for a moment and dig into a field that is undeniably a hard science– even for the naysayer who might be resisting thus far. I’m referring, of course, to neuroscience.

Neuro researchers have been able to determine for some time now that men and women seem to possess, on average, distinct and recurring brain structures that are more or less exclusive to their gender. Does biological sex predetermine this? There are prominent naysayers in the scientific field today, such as Cordelia Fine and Victoria Pitts-Taylor, who argue that it does not, and that assuming so without digging deeper is not only unscientific, but prejudiced in its own right. While the neologism “neurosexism” is often cited as needlessly incendiary, it isn’t without merit. It is very unscientific to simply stop the inquiry after an initial finding only seems to confirm a preconception. And with the emergent discussion in neuroscience regarding brain plasticity’s potential susceptibility to external social experience, the book is far from closed on this.

Furthermore, there have been some exciting findings as of late regarding the brains of trans people: they, too, seem to possess their own unique brain structures. Since most trans people are, strictly biologically speaking, either one sex or the other, this would seem to put a pig hole in the assumption that men and women have the brains they do because they were simply born that way, predetermined by biology to think, feel, and perceive as strictly male or female. But despite this, when there are similarities seen to the more binary brains of men or women (and there are some), such similarities are aligned with the gender that the trans person identifies as. So when a trans woman calls herself a woman, her brain, unique in its own right, still has more traditionally female physicality than a cisgender man’s does.

How can this be? I think I have a good idea: what if factors other than mere biological predetermination are coming into play? What if one’s self-perception of gender truly is a result of social construction? What if brain plasticity (the ability for the brain to physically change yet still retain its solid qualities) has something to do with gender identity? Would this not line up with the scientific findings cited above? And would this not mean that a physical, tangible, scientific example of gender identity being tethered to one’s brain structure has been found?

Why does this matter? Must we cite scientific evidence of the reality of the trans experience in order to trust the sincerity of trans people themselves? Well, the truth is, we shouldn’t have to; but the numbers at the top of this article tell the story as to why we do. A great number of our fellow Americans still fail to understand that for trans people this is not a choice, preference, or delusion; it is the very identity of self. And that needs to be respected, delineated, and above all, protected. Protected from the bigotry and discrimination; protected from the rapes and murders; protected from the shortsighted legislation attempting to police where transgender people can go to relieve themselves. And as self-identified allies, this is not our time to pipe down or “let it slide” when yet another perpetuation of a falsehood slips by our ears or across our social media feeds. I believe that the mightiest weapon is the truth, and the best convoy for its application is the well-placed argument. Please, all of us allies, we must present our own arguments for the sake of truth, and for the protection of our trans loved ones. Hopefully some new truths were introduced to you today; place them well.

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The Curious Case of the Philadelphia Pride Flag

by Micah J. Fleck

In June, the city of Philadelphia raised a new LGBT pride flag featuring two new colors (black and brown) in order to recognize and highlight a particular subgroup in the broader LGBT community: gay and trans people of color. The initiative behind this addition, More Color More Pride, is led by black queer activist Amber Hikes for the purposes of drawing attention to what she sees as a type of in-group bigotry within the LGBT community against its black and trans members. The new colors, which frankly look pretty damn cool up against the traditional rainbow, are being reported as having caused a divide in the LGBT world. But I think in an ironic way the additions merely put a spotlight on a rift that was already there.

The divide in question is being seen between the white and black LGBT members, as well as between those who are cis and trans. Now while this is certainly not true across the board (broad brushes make sloppy paintings), it’s common enough for me to have come across it firsthand despite being a mere ally who doesn’t live every second of my life in the gay or trans stratosphere. I’ve even had a few conversations with people who are cis, white, and gay, and who seem to be deeply irritated by the change. Before weighing in on which arguments I actually find reasonable and which I do not, let’s establish first a quick history and purpose behind the flag as well as how ubiquitous the color additions actually are.

First of all, the flag itself in its original form. It was designed by gay activist and artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, and originally did have two more colors than its final rendition. Though they were removed simply because the particular shades were more expensive to obtain in cloth at the time. What the world ultimately saw was a flag that featured the following colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. And each color represented something abstract and elemental, yet experiential (i.e. an emotion, like joy, or a natural interaction, like sunlight). In this way, the flag ensured to encompass the human experience broadly enough that it would be as inclusive as possible. It is a flag for all—including those who are gay. Because underneath the surface we all share these elemental and positive desires.

This is the intended symbol of the flag—inclusivity and humanity, no matter who you are. It’s a positive message, and had it been universally upheld for its values within the LGBT community, I seriously doubt there would even be an issue in the first place. But the reality is that many gay communities and events have been known to segregate themselves based on race, gender, class, or citizenship across the country—from Phoenix to Virginia to Philadelphia, and beyond. And this has been a thing for some time, dating back at least the 80s when lesbian majorities would keep blacks and men out of their gay bars, which were often the only places of refuge at the time, even if they too were part of the gay community. There’s also the ongoing problem of mainstream pride movements such as the Human Rights Campaign being accused of things like excluding conservatives or not investing any real money into trans-specific causes.

And the greater reality is that despite the more all-encompassing title of “pride” it now bears, this movement was originally just known as “gay pride,” which has caused confusion even among some of the modern gay activists I spoke to on this topic regarding how welcome trans people really are in it. “It’s gender, not orientation,” one woman in the movement explained to me; “Maybe they don’t belong in this movement and should have their own.” Apparently ‘separate but equal’ is back in fashion, at least for some in the gay community who can’t seem to wrap their heads around non-heteronormative genders being just as in need of pride representation as non-heteronormative sexual preferences.

Now of course there is indeed a trans rights movement all of its own—it even has its own flag of badass colors! But the point is that the pride movement at large has grown into something bigger and more encompassing than what it was when it began. And that’s absolutely okay. The entire point of pride parades, etc. is to show that one does not need to feel ashamed or marginalized for being oneself. To celebrate one’s humanity and social worth, regardless of what prejudices or discriminations are unfairly hoisted upon one’s very existence. Do trans members of society not qualify for that? Are they seriously not welcome in the pride movement simply because their plight is due to social clashes with their gender rather than who they are naturally sexually attracted to? Aren’t both of these things equally worthy of delineating a self-identity?

And what of the racism in particular that is seen in the LGBT community? It seems to permeate into the subconscious of so many LGBT people to the point where it causes exclusionary friendship and dating habits, according to some reports. And even if that itself isn’t as blatant or intentional as it could be, it comes back around to the principle that failing to provide welcome to others in the same rights crisis is akin to denying them refuge. Why in the world would human beings do this to each other?

Which brings us to the final piece of evidence in favor of the inclusion of the additional stripes to the Philadelphia flag: the murders of trans women of color that occur every year in the double digits and beyond. This has been called an epidemic by trans advocates, and whether or not one wants to go that far with the rhetoric, it’s hard to see it as anything other than targeting  of a specific demographic when one takes into account the very small percentage of trans individuals alive today in the U.S.: 0.3% of the total population. Now take that number and slice it even thinner by focusing not just on trans females, but trans females who are black. Why in the world are so many of them dying per year if their murders are just random occurrence and not specifically because of who and what they are? Why does the LGBT community, even in patches, seem disinterested in helping raise awareness about this group, and as a result take steps toward humanizing them? Protecting them?

This, the compilation of all the previous points, is the strongest case I have found for why the added colors were deemed necessary by the activists led by Amber Hikes. There is evidence that the LGBT community isn’t as inclusive as the flag supposedly represents, and for the specific demographics being ostracized, perhaps a visual cue or reminder that they matter too is needed—especially in Philadelphia, where we’ve already established this sort of exclusion goes on. From the perspective of someone in the position of Hikes, Philadelphia in particular needed a wake up call. It is, after all, just a local flag in Philadelphia; it’s not yet been accepted as the official worldwide flag. Who knows if it will, but even the fact that the flag was changed in an unofficial way in a single city has already caused an uproar with many gay activists. Considering the evidence put forth… Why?

The arguments against the additional colors vary, but the most reasonable one to my eye is the one that aims to preserve the legacy of what the flag was originally about. As it stands right now, the new flag’s colors do not seem to have an elemental meaning to them; they simply are the colors, and nothing more. Which makes the flag about race, now, and this is something Gilbert Baker was clearly trying to transcend. However, perhaps that transcending was, like many ideal things, a bit premature. After all, the LGBT community is still struggling with racism and transphobia, and the response from within to these additions do seem to confirm that a subconscious desire to exclude exists. What I can understand is the initial pushback to the idea at the conceptual stage, and for conceptual reasons; what I have a harder time wrapping my head around is the outright anger and division that has been occurring since the change was already made. What good does it do to literally say “you can’t add your colors to our flag… Because you’re welcome?” It becomes a contradictory rhetoric that seems more concerned with undoing an inclusive visual than taking genuinely inclusive action. And the latter is all the added colors were ever really after.

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