It’s that time of year when we are called to be still enough to reflect and express gratitude for all we have—even amid all that is troubling and not what we want, or perhaps, need it to be. These times we live in are, indeed, troubling and certainly not all that we want or need them to be.
And yet, the arc of human history reveals a paradoxical, but powerful truth: sometimes, our most difficult and trying times are precisely the times filled with the most promise and potential for meaningful and lasting change. It is also true that we humans, as a collective, seem to need for the call to seek transformative movement to become a nearly deafening roar so we may hear it.
In the din of revitalized racism, increased misogyny, classism, anti-LGBTQ sentiment and anti-transgender legalism; amid the cries of children and families in distress, food deserts, a planet in peril and willful capitalist neglect; in the shouts of mounting anti-immigrant nationalism—amid the droning of all the problems we face—the resounding call to measurable action is indeed roaring.
There are signs we, the people, are hearing the roaring call. There are even signs that we may be given to hope, inspired to reflect and empowered to act decisively and responsively for the world we desire.
It is hope-inducing to see eight openly transgender persons—especially transwomen and people of color—elected to positions of service at local and state levels. This we can celebrate, even as we acknowledge trans folks have always been serving in various and creative ways. It is significant that one of these persons, Danica Roem, has been elected to the House in Virginia. Yet, we also know from experience, that visibility is not necessarily (or always) a sign of acceptance—more, visibility is always fraught with risk and, often, danger. Visibility is, itself, an act of resistance; demands resilience, intelligence, and fortitude and carries responsibilities. We must remember this, even as we celebrate and hope. Our plight is not simple, nor is our ongoing intersectional work for an egalitarian justice.
It is all the nuance and complexity that makes it somewhat troubling, to me, for us to hear so many celebrating the idea that these persons have all been elected because they are transgender. I, for one, certainly hope not. I hope it is more than that.
Being allowed into spaces because we are transgender is not, itself, a meaningful or helpful goal. In fact, it simply perpetuates the ongoing trend of exoticism, exploitation, and commodifying consumerism of us—and our lives—we have endured for ages: the tension of being granted small spaces as entertaining personalities; curiosities to be consumed. Similarly, it adds to the threat. My hope—and, I think, a more meaningful goal—is that these trans persons have been accepted into these spaces, not because they are trans, but because being trans no longer excludes them. In such a case, their personhoods, gifts, talents, and contributions, as individual members of an interdependent collective, will be visible and honored. This is true, also, for all of us:
We will know we are seen and accepted as vibrant, valuable, contributive and necessary members of a diverse human community when we are given space and belonging not because we are trans, but rather, because being trans no longer excludes or prevents our being accepted and allowed to belong.
At the same time, the reality is that the movement to such a day—to a time when we are granted status as people of value, shaped and formed by our differences and our trans-ness—necessitates the presence of many among us who are willing to be exoticized and consumed, tokenized and exploited, visible and vulnerable. Given the overlapping and intersecting rings of our oppression, the closer one is to the jangling center where all those rings converge, the greater the vulnerability. And therein lies the trouble: the danger and the hope.
Sometimes, we are called to be willing to be seen as who folks think we are long enough to create an opening to be seen for who we actually are. And, isn’t this the core of all our human longing—to be seen long enough, perhaps deeply enough, for who we authentically are to be revealed in compassionate care, mutuality, and acceptance?
In my work, and in my travels, I encounter well-meaning people who too frequently ask: “can’t we all just be people?” My response is always twofold. Firstly, I too long for that day. Then, secondly, and most importantly, that day will not come as long as what defines being a person continues to be measured by the dominant narrative of a monolithic, universalized “person” of a particular socio-cultural invention.
That is to say, as long “people” are defined by being cisgender, predominantly male, heteronormative persons of white, Western European descent, with particular educations and particular economic statuses, then people who are not those “people” will continue to be “other” and be set to the margins. It is that simple.
At some point, if meaningful change is going to come, we as a culture must move from filtering through a personal experience accepted as a universal “norm” and begin to see that all of our social and cultural assumptions—and their systems—are based upon the perspectives, experiences, and goals of a small number of dominant-class persons. From there, we can begin to recognize the origins of these institutionalized assumptions and earnestly uncover the ways these narratives of human being-ness have been manipulated to privilege some and marginalize others. We need, also understand, collectively, that there are some people—very vocal and active people—who really do not want any meaningful change to occur. The truth is this is not so much about “us and them,” though on some significant levels that is true; it is more about learning that a society based upon egalitarian values is better for all of us.
Creating a society that deconstructs systems of privileging, provides for all its members, and works for the good of those who most need some measure of the good, will ultimately capture and care for all its members. Centering the forgotten assures we are all remembered.
In fact, when our embrace captures everyone, on the farthest reaches, there are no longer margins, and we are all re-membered into a more full, actualizing, and vibrant community. We can all be people when we realize and value, in practical ways, that there as many ways to be a human being as there are now, ever have been, or ever will be human beings—and, more, when we value and care for all people by seeing and acknowledging our inherent human value, we are all made more humane. When such a day comes, then the exclusionary factors of race, gender, class, national origin, and other attributes will no longer exclude any of us because we will have done away with the need for exclusionary, marginalizing, privileging systems.
There are small, daily signs the call to collaborative and sustained response is being heard above the cries for liberation and justice. There are signs the means of making meaningful change are coming. My hope is we will be grateful for the signs—grateful enough to hear the call, feel renewed, and be increasingly inspired to work together toward a day when we are all re-membered into a new, more just, more expansive human community.