Arguing over the terms of reform means trying to get people to understand complexity. It violates the old adage that in politics when you are explaining you are losing. Better to let the other side explain complex formulae while you line up behind an easily articulated view."Transphobia comes from ignorance. Cis people treat trans people badly because they just don't understand gender. If we take the time to educate them, it'll pay off in respect."
-- Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth
That's my impression of the premise behind most "trans 101" workshops, handouts, and books that I've seen. I think the premise is flawed, because asserting boundaries is incompatible with education. This is not to say that education is never necessary, just that exchange of ideas and boundary-setting shouldn't be intermingled freely, much as developing software and doing code review -- or writing a book and editing it -- are different activities. While I suspect what I'm about to say applies to other social power gradients besides just trans/cis, I'm going to focus here on "trans 101" education.
I believe education is extremely oversold as a means for effecting change. You cannot convince people that you are in possession of facts and truths (borrowing Rebecca Solnit's words) while you are educating them. And in the case of "trans 101" education, what we need to teach people is exactly that: that trans people are reliable narrators of our own life stories. But in order for us to teach people what they need to know, they have to believe it already! This is why the ubiquitous advice to "educate people before you get angry at them" is as ineffective as it is smarmy: you can't educate someone into treating you as a person.
"Trans 101" workshops, on the other hand, are situations where someone or a group of people (sometimes a trans person, sometimes a cis person, sometimes a mixed group) has volunteered to do the work of educating in a structured and planned way. This isn't like randomly telling people on the Internet that they should educate strangers for free -- there's a better return on investment, and it's not something people are coerced into doing.
In practice, though, most "trans 101" content I've seen, well-intentioned as it is, is fundamentally flawed. "Trans 101" materials often rely on infographics like various versions of the "Genderbread Person" diagram, and these pictures illustrate the fundamental flaws of the educational approach. Rather than embedding any version of that diagram in this post (bad publicity is still publicity, after all), I'll defer to an illustrated critique of the 'Genderbread Person' trope that articulates why all of the diagrams are reductive and misleading.
Rather than teaching cis people what sex is, or what gender is, or about the difference between gender identity, expression, and role (I can never remember what those all mean anyway), or what "performativity" means, you could save everybody a lot of time and set a boundary, specifically: "Everyone has the right to have their sex and gender, as self-defined at a given moment in time, recognized as valid. If you are a respectful person, you will respect that right and not cross a boundary by denying the validity of someone else's self-defined sex or gender." Here's how.
Tell, Don't AskA hidden assumption behind most "trans 101" content is that the educator's job is to persuade. It goes without saying in much trans 101 content that the speaker (if trans) is asking the audience for permission to be a person, or that the speaker (if cis) is trying to explain to the audience why they should treat trans people as people. No matter who's saying it, it's self-undermining. If you expect to be treated as a person, you don't ask for permission to be one.
"Meeting people where they are" is a commonly cited reason to tone down or simplify discussion of boundaries and self-determination in "trans 101" content. I think most people grasp the basic concept of boundaries, at least those who are old enough to have learned to not grab the other kids' toys and that you don't get to pull your mom's hair just because you want to. So if we "meet people where they are" on the common ground of boundaries, we'll share the understanding that boundaries are not negotiable and require no justification. Justifying a statement implies it's not a boundary -- it implies that you can negotiate or debate with me on whether or not I'm a person. Actually, I know more than you do about what my subjective experience is; your opinion isn't equally valid there.
I think the premise that "meeting people where they are" requires a great deal of explanation arises partially from the difficulty of functioning in a system where it's still not widely accepted that everyone gets to have bodily autonomy. Disability, children's rights, the right to an abortion, sexual assault, or consent to being assigned a sex/gender, are all examples where the conditional or contingent granting of bodily autonomy causes significant pain.
So stating boundaries isn't easy. But piling on the explanations and justifications doesn't help either. You don't take power by asking for permission. You don't demand respect by asking for permission. And there's no "please" in "I am a human being, and you had better treat me as one."
Eschew ObfuscationYou know those people who ask for a checklist, right? "Give me a list of words I should avoid using, so that I can be sure that no one will ever get mad at me again. If they get mad, I'll tell them you gave me the list and they should get mad at you instead." A lot of "trans 101" content panders to the desire to avoid doing hard interpersonal work yourself -- to formalize and automate empathy. Unfortunately, that is also self-defeating. Ideally, a "trans 101" talk should provide as few rules as possible, because checklists, flowcharts, and other rule-based approaches to respecting other people are just another site for people to exploit and search for loopholes.
The flowchart approach goes hand-in-hand with the peddling of various oversimplified models of sex and gender that have the supposed benefit from being different from the one that white American children were taught in elementary school in the fifties (that boys have a penis and grow up to be men, girls have a vagina and grow up to be women, and there's nobody else.) But trans people don't get oppressed because cis people don't sufficiently understand the nuances of sex and gender. Rather, cis people construct models of sex and gender that justify past oppression and make it easier for that oppression to continue. For example, teaching people that sex is "biological" and gender is in your mind doesn't make them any more likely to treat trans people as real people. We see this in the ongoing legislative attacks on trans people's right to use public accommodations: cis people who have learned that "gender identity" is self-determined while other people determine what your biological sex is have adapted to that knowledge by framing their hateful legislation in terms of "biological sex."
Remodeling sex and gender doesn't fix transphobia because a flawed model didn't cause it. You can't address fear with facts. Models are interesting and potentially useful to trans people, people who are questioning whether they're trans, and people who study science, culture, and the intersections between them. Everybody else really doesn't need to know.
Compare how pro-choice rhetoric fails when it revolves around enumerating reasons why someone should be allowed to have an abortion: what if you were a victim of rape or incest, or young, or sick, or you can't afford to raise a child, what if, indeed. What if nobody has the right to be in somebody else's body without that person's consent? You don't need a reason or an explanation for wanting to keep somebody else out of your body -- dwelling in your body is reason itself. Likewise, we don't need to furnish reasons or explanations for why you need to use the names and pronouns for someone that are theirs. We just need to say you must.
Know Your AudienceIn "The Culture of Coercion", I drew a line between people who relate to others through coercion and those who build relationships based on trust:
- A person operating on trust wants to be respectful, even if they don't always know how. These people are who "Trans 101" workshops try to reach. They are the majority. You don't need to give them reams of scientific evidence to convince them to be -- they decided to be respectful a long time ago. You don't have to bring reams of scientific evidence to convince them to respect. It muddies the waters when you do.
- A person who operates on coercion isn't really sold on that whole "everyone is human" concept. Workshops cannot persuade these people. If someone doesn't accept the reality of others' personal boundaries, no amount of evidence or civil discussion will change that. Firmer enforcement of those boundaries will, and an educational workshop is not the tool for enforcing those boundaries.
Education requires being really, really clear on who you're trying to reach. And unfortunately, even trust-based people are likely to try to game the system when given a flowchart on how to be respectful -- well-intentioned people still look for ways to avoid feeling like they did something wrong, because because narcissistic injury is uncomfortable. The only circumstance under which you can teach is when your audience wants to know what your boundaries are, so they can respect them. So tell them!
Against Education?I'm not really against education. Consciousness-raising, cognitive liberation, freeing your mind, getting woke, or whatever you want to call it is a prerequisite for organizing for change, especially when you're trans and are systematically denied language for describing who you are. But that is self-directed education, and I think that intentionally directing your education inwards -- in the company of like-minded people, with the goal of discovering the power you already have -- is the only way education changes the world.
In any case, education can't take place without boundaries -- classrooms have ground rules. Ask any teacher.
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