CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
For anyone who may have missed it, the Oscar-nominated actor Elliot Page, star of The Umbrella Academy and Juno, came out as transgender in a beautifully written public statement yesterday. The responses to the above tweet are pretty predictable; you’ll find a bunch of support from people all over the world, but you don’t have to scroll too far to see some transphobic and misogynistic bullshit. There is no room in our society for bigotry of any kind, and those people can and should fuck off. All of that said, I am a straight, white, cis-gendered male, and there are certainly plenty of people all over the internet better placed to write about what Page’s statement and the responses to it mean for the trans community. Instead, I want to talk about a specific reaction I see every time a story about someone transitioning comes up: “why does it matter what people call you?” or “who cares what pronouns people use?”
Growing up, we learned a lot of rules for how to interact with society in a polite and respectful way. We say “please” and “thank you,” we hold doors for people when they might be struggling to carry something, we make room on the bus for older folks to sit down. There are a lot of rules, and new rules pop up pretty frequently. We learn them, and we try to abide by them because one of the most basic parts of living in a society is trying not to make it hard for other people to live there too. In order for a society to exist peacefully, we have to make sure that everyone has the same opportunity to participate in it.
The philosopher Nancy Fraser gave a lecture at Stanford University in 1996 entitled, Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation as part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. In it, she says that when “[...] patterns of disrespect and disesteem are institutionalized, for example, in law, social welfare, medicine, public education, and/or the social practices and group mores that structure everyday interaction, they impede parity of participation[.]” It is one of my favorite quotes, and I love it because it explains in a succinct way what actual damage is done by treating marginalized groups disrespectfully. When everyone else has decided that it’s fine to call a person something that they feel disrespected by, they won’t feel welcome in that space anymore. That is what marginalization is.
I understand that it can be frustrating to get called out when you mean well. It can feel embarrassing when you are corrected for using someone’s deadname or the wrong pronouns. I also understand that if you don’t know any trans people you may not have a frame of reference for how they experience the world, and it can feel overwhelming to have to keep up with what the rules and norms are when it isn’t something you have to think about frequently. I just want to encourage you to handle those things with grace. It’s fine to ask if you don’t know how to address someone, so long as you’re doing it in good faith. It’s fine to be wrong if you learn from it. At the end of the day we all just want to live our lives in peace, and that can be really difficult to do when everyone else has decided that respecting your identity just isn’t that important to them. Affording someone the most basic human decency is easy, it costs you nothing, and it makes it easier for marginalized people to live in our society.