Compassion Combats Ignorance: Allies and Angels

In the summer of 2015, at a family event I was attending, a family member brought up a recent debate over the right of transgender people to use their bathroom of choice. She said she didn’t understand why transgender people were so unhappy about identifying with their birth gender; she added how much she loves being a woman and takes pride in her gender identity. It only took a few minutes of conversation for us to understand she didn’t know what being transgender meant, and it only took a short time after that to help her understand transgender identity and to shift her attitude on the subject. Her ignorance was much of the problem.

Such ignorance regarding gender identity is not uncommon. Transgender identity tends to make many cisgender people uncomfortable–even once they hear the definition. As with my family member, transgender identity might not make sense to them. Doesn’t everyone identify with their birth gender? Female body parts, female brain, right? The idea that it doesn’t always work that way, that something they had once assumed was a universal truth was false for an estimated 1.4 million people in the United States as of 2016,[1] can be disorienting and alarming. These emotions may be experienced by cisgender heterosexual people who don’t understand transgender identity. Moreover, in another way, individuals who do not identify with their birth sex may have difficulty recognizing at first how the word “transgender” may apply to them.

Allies and Angels
Allies and Angels by Terri and Vince Cook. alliesandangels.com

Resources such as Terri and Vince Cook’s Allies & Angels: A Memoir of Our Family’s Transition are invaluable to helping those who are even the slightest bit perplexed, uncomfortable, or confused by transgender experiences. The book, which followed the Cook family supporting their son, Drew, through his transition, holds very little back from the reader in honestly communicating everything about their lives. They are open about trials and victories alike, challenges from outside, Drew’s personal struggles, and those within their family. But most importantly, they are honest about their learning process.

While much of the book reads like a memoir, it frequently breaks from their family’s narrative to explain things they learned through their experience. The style could be characterized as a conversational textbook. For example, in the chapter “Converging on the Truth,” the authors conclude by explaining the intricacies of sexual and gender identity. Frequently, anyone who identifies as non-heterosexual and non-cisgender usually gets lumped into one umbrella group defined by not aligning with these two identities. They explain that they see four elements to sexual and gender identity: sex (biological organs), gender identity (how you define your gender), gender expression (to what societal norms you present your gender), and sexual orientation (to whom and how you are sexually attracted to others).[2] None of these are fixed or determined by any other element, meaning there are millions of unique combinations that may make up a single person’s sexual and gender identity. The Cooks take the time to explain each one to the reader, speaking to them directly using “you” language.

000
A diagram of the differences between sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation included in Allies and Angels. Courtesy of the Q Center.

The Cooks also make certain to explain that this book is not meant to present a singular transgender experience or sole resource for people and families going through their own transitions. Drew’s experience is unique to him, and while there may be many similarities to others’ experiences in finding their identities, others’ stories may be very different. There is no singular “transgender experience,” but they hope, by telling their story, to invite the reader to be humbled and learn to build a bridge of understanding and affirm to people that they are not alone in their fears, questions, and emotions, whether they be transgender themselves, supporting someone in transition, or someone who wants to learn to be a better ally.

I, personally, am not transgender. I don’t know anyone that is openly transgender to me. I would be lying if I hadn’t asked some of the same questions the Cooks did over the course of their journey and hadn’t thought or said things I wish I hadn’t in retrospect. I haven’t always been the best ally I could be. The Cooks address allies directly in their conclusion, telling them fear and ignorance are natural and understandable, but not an excuse. They explain:

And so we’ve shared our fears, hoping it will be a step toward ending both the real and imagined things we fear. It is frightening and uncomfortable to be so vulnerable, but we, as parents, are getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Transgender people and other marginalized groups have been unjustly uncomfortable for far too long.[3]

They ask for the compassion to understand that the discomfort a non-transgender person has experienced regarding transgender people will never compare to the fears, confusion, and discomfort experienced by transgender individuals. They implore the reader to remember that when becoming an ally.

The authors’ honesty and openness about their transition is a gift to the reader, who can learn compassion and empathy through their experience. The humility to listen, learn, and respect the experiences, journeys, and identities of those you meet is essential to supporting groups being oppressed because of ignorance.

 

[1] Bill Chappell, “1.4 Million Americans Identify as Transgender in America, Study Says,” NPR, June 30, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/06/30/484253324/1-4-million-adults-identify-as-transgender-in-america-study-says

[2] Terri and Vince Cook, Allies and Angels: A Memoir of Our Family’s Transition (Marcellus, NY: Hallowed Birch Publishing, 2013), 88-95.

[3] Cook, Allies and Angels, 191.

4 thoughts on “Compassion Combats Ignorance: Allies and Angels

  1. It is important to be honest about your learning process when talking about understanding issues facing transgender people. I think there is more awareness thanks to people like Laverne Cox, but cisgender people generally are not very understanding. People don’t understand issues overnight. When people are honest about how they came to understand and that it is a process, it makes it more likely that others will be able to do the same.

  2. I really liked the chapter we read for class and hope to find time to read the whole book at some point. Unlike you, I do know transgender people and people who fall throughout the gender spectrum, but I still catch myself making assumptions about people’s genders more often than I’d like to admit (which I am very aware sounds hypocritical after my post about heteronormativity). It’s something I am actively working on, but I still need to get better. I definitely agree with you that books like this one can help cisgender people like me understand better, get rid of previous assumptions, and be better allies.

  3. The idea of uncomfortable is something I have struggled with throughout my life, and it has only been in the last few years that I have begun to realize (just as they state) that my friends who are part of these marginalized communities are far more uncomfortable in society at points then I will ever be. I found that having friends that were open and willing to talk to me about their experiences has dramatically shifted my views and I found that it was me that needed to change my perceptions and opinions rather than trying to change the people or ostracize around me. I still struggle at times, and this book actually offered a lot of answers to my questions that hopefully will help me to continue to become a better ally in the future.

  4. I found myself very stuck on a beginning sentence here, where you stated that your family member’s “ignorance was much of the problem”. I agree, that ignorance surrounding this subject is the main issue. People tend to not be as willing to confront and accept what they don’t understand. The thought also occurred to me that perhaps we shouldn’t use the term “ignorance” when addressing the people that have a lack of understanding surrounding the topic. It may not be a term that will push many people to respond positively to learning more about the topic. Perhaps instead we should simply refer to it as a “lack of information” or something of that sort.

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