I’m going to a talk at NYU tomorrow night about Transgender issues. As a Queer activist, I’m guilty of often forgetting the end of the LGBT alphabet. Sometimes I have a “me first” attitude—let’s secure my equal rights as a lesbian, and then we’ll get to the transgendered among us. Although I’m very open about my sexuality with family, friends and colleagues, I seldom say I’m a lesbian or a queer. Aside from the unfortunate, vaguely disease-like sound of the name, “lesbian” is far down on the totem pole of my story. Due to my outward appearance, I’m also able to control that story, i.e. unless you watch me walk (so I’m told), you can’t tell I’m gay.
This has caused frustration at times, as when I walked into Austin’s Rainbow Cattle Co. to two-step with a lovely stranger only to be asked, “You do know this is a gay bar, right?” Although it makes dating harder, at least I get to own my narrative. My trans sisters and brothers have less control, and not necessarily because of outward appearances. The gender binary is even more culturally loaded than the false gay/straight divide. A brief example to explain why…
As a publicist, I work with many reporters. Talking shop with co-workers includes, naturally, sharing stories about journalists-their profiles, their quirks.
This one falls asleep in interviews (so be sure to invert your pyramid early). That one picks scabs. He is a funny, gifted writer. She slept with your client.
Such talk laid bare smacks of gossip and makes me uncomfortable, save for the compliments, yet this is how we relate to one another; this is how we process information. This is reality.
Clearly, the water cooler is tough no matter what your story, because more often than not, people feed on the negative, the strange, the culturally acceptable (notice the woman in my example is noted for her sexuality). This is like rain on your wedding day for the transgendered–not ironic, just craptastic. When I first heard about CNET journalist Ina Fried, I was told, in the same sentence, she used to be Ian Fried. This story was repeated constantly until eventually I started to repeat it myself. Ina’s identity as a writer rode shotgun; we stole the keys. I eventually discovered that Ina is talented, crafting flavorful reads in a sea of typically snooze-worthy tech writing. In fact, Ina is about to return from the Vancouver Olympics after a triumphant two weeks of wonderful storytelling. She makes software sing even in duller settings, yet we snicker about pronouns.
Without intention, out of cultural habit, I once reduced Ina to a single letter, T. This, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains below, is the danger of the single story. Stereotypes are dangerous because they are “incomplete.” Telling a single story “robs people of dignity.” I hope you will make time to watch this video. I humbly suggest that the moral of her brilliant story is not to censor, but to shine.
Include unexpected authors and stories on your reading lists, especially if you teach, and we teach every time we communicate. Shake up the white male cannon, but don’t negate the value of those words, the beauty of Shakespeare. Write your personal stories, lest someone else write them for you. Report multiple facets of people and places. Attend talks on subjects you know little about. Advocate. Do whatever is in your power to shift power, to change the story. Start by watching this clip.