The frightening baptism by fire that transgender children, and their parents, are going through today is horrifying, but it is also what it will take to enable the country to transform its understanding of gender identity and expression.
For every action there is a reaction. Anita Bryant created more straight allies than we ever could have on our own. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is doing the same.
One point six million Americans, age 13 and over, identify as transgender, with the number of young people doubling in recent years. The overreaction by torch and pitchfork-carrying Republican legislators and governors to restrict the rights of these youngsters doesn’t surprise me. As I was told by a bishop in Detroit in 1974 when I came out publicly, “We weren’t prepared to respond to you. You were ahead of your time.” I believe the same could be said about the children who are transgender. “We weren’t prepared to respond to you.” Whose fault is that?
People such as me got cocky about the rapid, positive changes to the lives of gay men and lesbians that we’ve witnessed in the past 50 years. Our acronym of LGBT grew to include a “Q” for “queer,” another “Q” for “questioning,” an “I” for “Intersex,” and an “A” for “asexual.” It’s possible that someone somewhere will add an “NB” for “non-binary.”
And, why not? But each time we add letters without doing the necessary work to educate our own community and the general public, we create confusion and fear. We hear “But, is ‘queer’ and ‘gender queer’ the same thing? Is it ‘bisexuality?’ Or is that what ‘sexually fluid’ means? When I say ‘transgender,’ does that include ‘cross-dressers,’ transsexuals who choose not to have surgery, and young people who say they are ‘non-binary?’ Is ‘Intersex a separate category? Some people add the ‘I’ to the acronym, but not the ‘Q.’ And where does ‘Asexuality’ fit in? Are asexuals oppressed?”
When I say “people such as me,” I’m talking about gay men and women who came out 30, 40, and 50 years ago, and have worked hard to understand and support all of the sexual and gender minorities who are stepping forward, asking for our attention and a remedy to their oppression. We worked very hard at educating heterosexual family members, colleagues at work, and fellow worshipers about what it was like growing up gay or lesbian. Have we done the same hard work with the issue of being transgender?
With my background in sexuality education, I’m able to understand what’s happening to our acronym and why, but most straight and gay people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s don’t understand it. For them, the acronym has become silly, ridiculous even. And they have a hundred understandable questions that haven’t been properly answered.
“Why do people who had a penis yesterday now want to pee in the women’s room?”
“How is it that my daughter now needs to swim against a person who a few months ago was the best male athlete in the pool? Now that they take estrogen, they want to compete against girls.”
“How does a 6-year-old girl know for sure she’s really a boy in the wrong body? They come to school dressed as a boy. What do I tell my children who are confused?”
Since the 1950s, our community has done an outstanding job communicating clearly what it means to be “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual.” Nearly every extended family has in them a self-affirmed gay, lesbian, or bisexual member. After all of that time, most heterosexuals in the United States are no longer afraid of gay people. They have a personal reference point for understanding what it means to be gay. “Gay” represents people who are caring, hard-working, talented, and kind. They’re outstanding parents, and they’re very service-oriented and compassionate.
Regrettably, the same is not said for people who identify as transgender because we haven’t done our homework. For some people, transgender people are “freaks.” Ignorance is the parent of fear. Fear is the parent of hatred.
We hear, “I get that some people need to change their body to match their soul, but I don’t get any of the rest of it, and I’m concerned that children are being negatively impacted.”
We haven’t properly prepared people on transgender issues, nor have we kept pace with all of the developments represented by the acronym LGBTQQIANB. I’m not excusing the Republican legislators who are using the transgender issue to rile up their voting base. It’s calculated and orchestrated, and it sadly takes advantage of young people who don’t identify with the sex assigned to them at birth. I’m explaining why they get away with it. Their poorly sexuality-educated constituents are easy picking for outrage, money, and votes.
We thought that simply by adding more letters to our powerful, successful train, the issues would be understood and accepted by everyone. That foolish thinking is what made it easy for Republicans to rattle the nerves of the uninformed. The battle for humane treatment for every person represented by our acronym is far from over. We just got some cold water thrown in our faces by people who feel that their way of being in the world is changing against their will, and they’ve had enough. So, they’re passing bill after bill targeting transgender youth.
“We may not be able to do anything about gay marriage, but we sure can stop children from being confused about sexuality and gender. We just won’t talk about it. And we’ll shield them from anyone who tries.”
Given the press coverage on transgender youth, we have a great opportunity now to explain to the average American all of the permutations of gender identity and gender expression. Some people are understandably confused. We need to respond to them with as much patience, love, clarity and conviction as we did when we told our stories about being gay.
Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.