Written by Emma Coady Södergren
My aunt’s closest friend quoted a statement one of her colleagues had made at work. Everybody around the table nod in approval, and a few agreeing “mhmmms” are heard. Everybody seems to agree that this is a valid question. I close my eyes and take a few breaths. I focus on the fact that some of my happiest times are with these people- my extended family and how loved I am.
I don’t know what my reaction had been if I was studying anything else other than Social Work at Ryerson. One of my aunts chirped in a moment later saying: “I think people are being way too politically correct nowadays.” More approval. My cousin spoke up saying: “This MAY be considered to be politically incorrect, but wouldn’t there be reason to consider transgendered people to be mentally ill?” I am shocked at how many people nodded in agreement. At this point, I am speechless. I put my face in my hands, and my aunt looks at me, waiting for me to speak up. I am a cisgendered female (a term that was coined as “way too politically correct and ridiculous” during the same night) so I cannot speak for the transgendered community. I cannot try to explain to these 25 people looking at me how life is being transgender. I do not know what reality is like for the transgender community and I do not believe there is one singular person on this earth that could account for the whole community.
The part I play in this matter is explaining how I feel about the words and phrases people use and why they have these attitudes and views about the transgender community. Just a minute earlier, the same woman and her husband were saying that they can not identify at all with these people, and have no idea what life must be like for them. How can they turn around a minute later and say that Caitlyn Jenner is doing it “wrong?” It is noteworthy that all of the bodies around this table are cisgendered, straight, white and highly educated. I feel everybody’s eyes on me and I take a long, deep breath. I ask them to explain to me why they feel that people are being too politically correct. My aunt continues to tell me she heard how a white man tried to participate in a meeting for the Ryerson Black Students Group and wasn’t allowed to join. She exclaimed: “If it was the other way around that would be called racism!” I try to argue that white culture does not have a history of oppression, murder, violence and slavery behind them and the need for a sense of community that is safe from prejudice is very important for black people. She counters it by saying: “Well, we’re Irish. They were discriminated against before.” A classic. I should have seen it coming.
I am not saying that all white people have never encountered discrimination. I know that people have, and still do. But trying to compare how Irish settlers were discriminated against for a period of time in Canada when settling is not comparable to the history of the Black community. Does being Irish still to this day limit you in your daily life? Does it limit what opportunities are presented to you? Again, all of my relatives have a post-secondary education and a stable source of income. Many have Masters, and a few have PhDs. I figure at this point, that no matter how much I advocate for what I believe in, I know that it is going to be met with dismissive comments. I feel my cheeks burning and I manage to say: “I do not agree with anything you’re saying, and I find it ignorant.” It’s quiet around the table now, and my grandmother breaks the silence by offering more pumpkin pie.
The quote about Caitlyn Jenner is something I think about almost everyday. Where does this so-called knowledge base and truth come from? Why was it so easily accepted? My family was exercising the power they have, seeing as they are exactly what Western society wants to see from its citizens. They are self-sufficient, hardworking, straight, white, productive people. They fit the mould, and therefore they are given the right to judge those who don’t. I believe it stems from fear. It stems from the rejection of what you do not understand. “Oh they must be mentally ill, because I cannot fathom what is going through their minds right now.” There seems to be a constant pursuit to understand and measure people, and when they cannot, the “others” are written off, in dismissive attitudes, language and behaviour as deviant people, almost as though they are considered to be aliens.
HOW does Caitlyn Jenner’s transition change your life? WHY do you feel the need to criticize it? I cannot understand these ways of thinking, and if I tried to this would end up being a 150-page essay. I guess I’ll leave it at this – I simply do not understand. Caitlyn’s decisions about her appearance and how she wanted to transition can only be understood by her. Nobody else, transgender or not, can explain her choices. It is an individual, personal matter and I believe in subjective experiences that cannot be touched by this categorised way of thinking. Caitlyn waited a long time to transition; a majority of her life will have been spent as a man. It must be an incredible feeling to be able to live your life finally as yourself after so many years, and I congratulate her. Her choice of having a “traditionally” feminine appearance is hers, and she is entitled to it. The fact that she looks younger than she is does not mean that she is doing it for publicity and money. How is this connection even made?
For me, the essence of femininity is that of being courageous, beautiful and strong. All three things I believe Jenner is. For many years now, women have been advocating for our rights and equality, protesting and making change. Acts that require resilience and courage, which I think Jenner is showing by coming out so late in life, and doing it in front of the whole world. As for beauty, I do not believe that there is a “right” kind of beauty. I do not believe in the objectification of women and the unrealistic body image we are fed daily, but women still have the choice to be beautiful in whatever way we want to. If Caitlyn strives towards this body image, let her do so. Who are you to say that her idea of empowerment is not correct? In regards to my cousin’s comment that perhaps she should be labelled “mentally ill” I disagree completely. For starters, what do you mean by “mentally ill?” Who are these people? What criteria do they possess in order for you to label them as such? When I picture living my life living in a body I do not identify with, it seems unbearable. It seems to me to be psychologically torturing. To live with this and survive proves to me that the transgender community are infinitely strong. Do not devalue their lives by labelling an entire community. You are stripping them from their rights to their own emotions and identity and deeming them unfit.
To all those who are close to me: Please be mindful of what you say. You are entitled to whatever opinion you have, but by throwing statements out there like that, you are exercising power over a group of people, and enforcing all the barriers they have against them. What you say at your Thanksgiving table may seem insignificant, but it is here that change starts.