I learned just recently that a post over at Huffington Post Queer Voices took a poor view of a lot of the news and commentary that The Advocate had been publishing in its transgender section. In particular, and in full disclosure of my motivation, the HuffPo article cited much of my commentary on recent trans events. Since I’ve started writing in such a large forum, I’ve come to expect differing views of all kinds in response. I’ve also received abuse, been accused of abusing my privilege, ignorance of the facts, erasure, and numerous other faults. Despite the aloof reactions that you see coming from many who engage in the public arena, it’s often a front. Sometimes these comments hurt, offend, or even make you blind raging mad, but to stay out of the comments section is the first and foremost rule of being a writer these days. Never, ever get into it with some people online; it’s a losing proposition, especially when they aren’t arguing in good faith.
Good faith was not the case in this particular instance. The writer, Dana Beyer, a notable transgender activist, either selectively chose her articles or fails to recognize the fundamental flaw in her argument. She claims, by citing several articles, that there is a sense of learned helplessness in the trans community, and uses articles to say that they portray a world where trans people are “always the victim, are always suffering, and deserve pity, rather than liberty.” I’m afraid she could not be further from the truth. Firstly, one can easily go through any LGBT website and find story after story that is nothing but gloom and doom. Yet,in order to do that, one would have to deliberately ignore the ones where there are positive affirmations and celebrations of success of not only individuals, but of the furthering of our rights. There is a term called selection bias, where one deliberately picks and chooses the information to achieve their conclusion. It’s an intellectually dishonest way of making an argument.
Second, and most important, the accusation of learned helplessness is mistaken. The sense of learned helplessness comes from receiving setback after setback so that one simply gives up and quits trying. It’s fatalism. Why try? Nothing good can come of making the effort, so why bother? The problem with that argument is that any reading of these articles gives no indication of that. All of the articles cited make the effort to say, “No, we do not accept the status quo.” While Beyer makes the correct statement that this year has been a great year for transgender rights, that does not mean that we cannot continue to be displeased with the current state of things. At one point she even makes the argument that “we shouldn’t be constantly complaining about it.” That statement shows more of a sense of learned helplessness than saying that half-measures of legislative trickery are fine, accepting that transgender people will take a backseat to telling our own stories in Hollywood, that we should just accept that rights don’t move fast enough “by the standards of those who are accustomed to obtaining everything they want when they want it,” or that we should excuse transphobic comments because the fascists are coming.
Every article she cites shows that trans people are continuing to fight for themselves. Yes, there are times when we go too far in our rhetoric or turn against well-intentioned but misguided allies, but it is by far not a sense of learned helplessness. Being told to accept that things are adversarial and that change takes time is something that is called out all the time, even in some of these articles cited, but to be told that we should just accept it is entirely counterproductive. Being told there are bigger issues out there is something every minority, whether by race, gender, or sexuality, has been told in order to placate the concerns of the majority, even when those concerns intersect. Even parts of these minority communities have been told to sit down and be quiet and be happy with the progress that is being made by others when the progress has been uneven. The best example was when many gay rights organizations — Empire State Pride Agenda, for one — closed shop once same-sex marriage was achieved, saying “we won, time to go home,” which ignored the dozens of other issues that gay and bi men face, not to mention lesbians and trans people.
Beyer goes on to say you can’t have it both ways — that you can’t argue that this has been a great year for trans people but that everything is horrible for us. That’s a false dichotomy of the first order. You can be making amazing strides forward but still want to call out where that progress is lacking or not occurring at all. The world is always in an imperfect state, and no matter how good it gets, it can always get better. Rights and equality are not measured by points and goals; just ask black people. Every few years someone proclaims racism is over in America and black people simply look at them like they are out of their mind. Yes, things are remarkably better for black people than 50 or 60 years ago, but they are nowhere near where they should be. Should they sit back and accept that things are getting better slowly but surely? That protesting for their rights and calling out instances of discrimination shows a sense of learned helplessness? That they should be happy with what progress they have made? That’s not learned helplessness, that’s acquiescence.
So no, not just The Advocate but no LGBT publication, feminist website, or minority activist is going to quit complaining, quit calling attention to issues, or stop rocking the boat because there have been a few victories. To think calling attention to the issues that remain is learned helplessness is completely wrong. As long as you are still fighting, you’re not helpless.
AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian living in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.