Embracing the “other” without understanding them

Recently when I told a woman that I write about LGBTQ issues, she told me a secret. (I’m going to refer to this woman as D.) There’s a transgender woman in D’s town who she doesn’t understand. What bothers D isn’t the woman’s gender identity; it is her appearance. Her wig is usually crooked, her clothing unkempt, and she often carries a five o’clock shadow.

She told me, “If that woman were sitting here, I wouldn’t know how to relate to her.” D takes pride in her appearance. She is well put-together, well-accessorized. I believe that it isn’t a matter of vanity for her; it is about self-respect.

D asked me about this transgender woman because, as a queer advocate, she thought I could help her understand what she needed to know in order to relate to this woman. And it’s a complicated situation.

Not being trans myself, I can only write/speak as an ally. I can tell her about the privilege of passing: of affording consistent quality hormones, cosmetic surgeries, quality clothing that provides a feminine shape, even better wigs. Or I can talk about the problem of believing people need to pass and how our society still thinks in binary instead of exploring the wonderful realm of fluidity.

But I think that the issue goes much deeper than what it means to be trans and to pass. To me, the questions D raise are: what do we owe people that we don’t understand, and how should we attempt to understand them?

There are norms in this country that we’re all supposed to subscribe to: light skin, thinness, healthy and able bodies, monogamy, marriage with kids, standards for femininity and masculinity. And anyone who breaks one of these norms becomes an “other.” Black people are “others.” Queer people are “others.” Fat people are “others.”

But what D brought up even goes deeper than these identity and lifestyle metrics. There is privilege in being articulate, socially confident, traditionally well-dressed and beautiful. And here, I need to confess my own judgmental tendencies. I’m inclined to thinking negatively about those who aren’t aesthetically pleasing or easy to talk to — my judgments rooted in my own fears of fitting in and being desirable. It’s poignant and sad that I can fight for the rights of those that I still might manage to look down upon.

Beyond fighting for basic rights (safety, health insurance, the ability to marry, etc) for all people, we all have to live and be in community together. And what’s the ultimate goal? To completely understand and respect each other? Agree with each other or simply tolerate our differences?

D was asking me how to understand this woman, and what I was thinking was much broader and somewhat bleak: I don’t think we’re ever going to understand and respect everyone else. I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of all our biases. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. I’m saying that our respect for each other shouldn’t be based on understanding each other.

There are different forms of respect. There’s the “I trust you to make decisions for me” type of respect we ideally want to give those in public office (#notmypresident) or who are our supervisors or mentors. There’s the respect we give friends and loved ones who we are proud of. And then, there’s a basic respect for each other’s humanity that doesn’t require affection. But perhaps this baseline respect requires not just tolerance, but some amount of desire to be in community with those who are not like us.

What I appreciated about D is that she was willing to admit what she didn’t understand and desired to educate herself about it. Why? Because she understood that we are all in community with each other.

I think the whole point of this post is my belief that as we educate ourselves the goal shouldn’t’ be to perfectly agree with each other or share all the same values. It is to recognize and live within the truth that even in our differences, we are no better than each other. And that might take some of us a lifetime to fully embrace. At least it will me.

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