In May, Rolling Stone published an article about Laura Jane Grace. You may know her as Tom Gabel, the frontperson for the “aggro-political punk crew” Against Me! (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/the-secret-life-of-transgender-rocker-tom-gabel-20120531)
As journalist Josh Eells writes, Tom “has always known he was really a woman. Now he’s becoming one.”
Here’s Laura Jane talking about what led her to transition to life as a woman:
“The cliché [about gender dysmorphia] is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself. And it’s shitty, man. It’s really fucking shitty.”
… Even today, Gabel can’t look at his reflection in the mirror without being disgusted by the parts that look male: his Adam’s apple, his square jaw, his shoulders, his hips. Back [when he was a teenager], the only way he knew how to cope was to cross-dress: “Just the act of looking in the mirror while presenting femme is immediately calming,” he says.
As I read Grace’s (nee Gabel) story, I thought back to a scene in the movie The Visitor, in which an older white college professor befriends a younger immigrant couple when he finds they’ve been living in his pied-à-terre in the city. As I recall, when the younger man gets locked up in a detention center for lack of immigration papers, the professor visits him and says that he understands the young man’s situation.
While the details are blurry, that scene sticks with me because I felt the professor’s yearning to understand, his ability to feel for the younger man’s plight and the simultaneous truth that the professor didn’t really understand. Not because he didn’t care or wasn’t trying, but because the circumstances were simply inconceivable for a person of his identities, status and privilege.
Of course the professor could understand fear, anger and helplessness. As a widower, he had his own experience of these emotions. But could he really comprehend having had to flee your home and seek refuge in a country where everyday you live in fear of being caught–until the day you do, and then you wait in another, more acute fear, alone and without your loved one as you wait for your inevitable, imminent deportation?
I felt like the professor when I read Laura Jane Grace’s story. While I felt for her, I realized that I didn’t really get what she had been and was still going through: cocooned in the privilege of strong resonance between my sex and gender, unfathomable isn’t too strong a word to use, even as I feel sadness, pain, anger and joy at the love and acceptance she found in her closest relationships. (Highlights: Laura Jane’s bandmates plan “to start working out, so that if anyones messed with [her] they’d be able to throw down.” And Laura Jane’s wife Heather reacts to her partner’s disclosure with: “Of all the things you could have told me, that is the least worst” and a hug.)
As I write this, I can hear the protest: “But you do, Alison. You do get it,” offered as if I shouldn’t beat myself up for not being able to truly empathize with Laura Jane (empathy, as opposed to sympathy, meaning feeling with someone because you’ve gone through it yourself, rather than just for them from a safe distance). In the Olympics of compassion, empathy gets the gold, sympathy a distant silver, and pity is the disreputable bronze.
But I think we’re too quick to claim empathy, because we regard it as the most genuine and noble of the trio (as if there isn’t something noble in pity–consider the alternatives: feeling contempt or numbness). And in our claim to empathy, I think we actually demonstrate a lack of respect, consideration and humility. Yes, we are all human. And we are unique. And we identify and are identified as members of larger groups (women, men, transgender women, transgender men) that share experiences that aren’t necessarily exclusive, even while they are shaped for entire groups of us–not just uniquely for each individual.
Claiming that you get someone else’s experience, while it may be shorthand for support, can also be an act of appropriation. Saying that I totally understand Laura Jane’s fear, isolation and struggle requires that I erase what I don’t comprehend and fill in the incomprehensible with my own details, making her story about me and my need to be able to relate. Ironically, in the very act of trying to connect and relate, I make her conform to me.
Expending all of our energy trying to reconcile and own what other people say makes it hard for us to listen, recognize our own biases and engage people as who they are, rather than who we need them to be. What I advise folks in my workshops is to tap their “yes, and…” minds. In part, this means that you don’t have to agree with or get what everyone else is saying. You just have to allow for other perspectives, unfathomable as they may be to you, and accept that they are as valid and real as your own.