Part of the problem growing up in an all-white, all-cisgender, all straight environment is that it impacts you as you begin to escape from that narrow-minded cocoon and start to live a more diverse life.
Even going to college, for me, was still an extension of that insulation. There was no interaction with anyone who was different. There were Black students, but not many. There were a few suspected gay students and teachers, but those could presumptively be counted on one hand. There were what we called “tomboys” and “sissies,” but they existed on the far outskirts of what was ostensibly called the normal parameter. Freaks rather than authentic.
Then, when I escaped that world with a one-way ticket out of the lily-white suburbs to Washington, D.C., I had a rude awakening. Suddenly, being Black, being gay, being “different” was the new reality. I recall being afraid of Black people at night, out gay people at work, drag queens in bars, and transgender people on subways. I can cite an “I know where I was” when I began experiencing these realities for the first time in my life.
Even becoming an openly gay man did not entirely wipe away the bigotry from my mind and the smirk on my face when I would see someone that I thought was a freak — the word a residue that hung over from the final blights of growing up in that narrow-minded cocoon. I still looked in horror at anyone who was transgender, still belittled drag queens, and still scoffed at men who wore dresses.
My lifelong best friend, who lives in Seattle, was with me during two experiences when our behavior was abominable and on which I look back in horror, sorrow, and immense regret about my actions. Twenty years ago, during two outings together, I literally dragged him to gay bars with embarrassing and shameful outcomes.
Once in New York and after a day of drinking, we went to a gay bar and met a large drag queen. I left him alone with her while I went and tried to pick up a guy, as was my wont. But at the time, I thought it was hysterical that I left him to talk to a “freak.” The next day, we laughed about her, made fun of her, and snidely cast aspersions on her appearance. We were unconscionably nasty, speaking as if we were so much better than she was.
Then once in South Beach, after getting him drunk as the only way to get him to a gay bar so I could get laid, he spotted a beautiful Hispanic woman. She was. She was also transgender, and I knew it, and he didn’t. What better way to “embarrass” him again than to have him get acquainted with her, which he did. They both seemed happy. He’s a very good-looking guy, and she was a gorgeous woman. When I peered over my shoulder later and saw that things were getting heavy, I went over to him and whispered in his ear, “She’s a man.” He looked in horror, ran out of the bar, and was livid at me for the rest of the trip.
And I’ve been livid with myself for the rest of my life. What a pathetic excuse for a person I used to be.
It pains me to write about these stories. I have tears in my eyes. We both know now that what we did was wrong, but what’s wrong is that that behavior still happens today, and that’s not just sad, not just inexcusable, but it’s also fatally dangerous.
When Elliot Page was introduced, I found his Instagram post to be one of the most straightforward, forthright, and frightening pieces about coming to terms with who you are. He was brutally honest when he said, “My joy is real, but it is also fragile. … I am also scared. The discrimination towards trans people is rife, insidious and cruel, resulting in horrific consequences."
He is sorrowfully right. Forty transgender and gender-nonconforming people have died by violence so far this year in the U.S., and just this past weekend, one of my favorite actresses, Laverne Cox, and a friend were attacked by an anti-transgender assailant in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park. Hearing about this attack hit like a gut punch, because it doesn’t matter who you are, the hate is still so prevalent.
What hurts further was the death of a Miami transgender woman, Skylar Heath, which is being investigated as a homicide. She was not famous and not so lucky. She was killed. And adding insult to lethal injury, she was misgendered and deadnamed in an obituary. This just proves there are people who just don’t care and refuse to take the time to understand what being transgender means. The community is still being wrongly marginalized.
It was heartening to hear President-elect Joe Biden become the first to mention the word “transgender” in his victory speech and vow to be an advocate for trans people during the next four years. We know all too well that this will be an about-face from what we’ve seen during the last four years — ignorance, bigotry, and hate (there’s no other word for it) from the Trump administration toward this community that is still fragile — a fitting word that Page wisely used.
The transgender community seems to be at a precipice, where people like Page, Cox, and, while she has her faults, Caitlyn Jenner have gradually put a more accepting face on being your authentic self. Similarly, basketball star Dwyane Wade’s vocal support for his daughter speaks volumes to those macho guys who remain one of the last bastions of detestation toward transgender people. With Page’s announcement, hopefully more minds will change, particularly with the younger and next generation, so that the fragility Page feels will someday be nonexistent.
While I proudly write for this incredible news outlet, I can admit that as a man approaching his late 50s, I too am still learning about the transgender community. I’ve read books, watched an untold number of documentaries, and reached out to some folks to help me better understand what it takes — which, when you get right down to it, is courage — to be your authentic self. Just because I’m a firebrand and cheerleader writer for the LGBTQ+ community does not mean I am an expert or the most knowledgeable when it comes to each of the letters of our acronym.
T is the fourth letter, and at times transgender people may feel that they are fourth in the pecking order of what is important for LGBTQ+ people. That might be heartlessly true in society and should matter to each of us. Whether it’s LGBTQ+ or +QTBGL, we’re all in this together, and we need to faithfully understand what each of those letters means so no one ever has to feel fragile but rather emboldened because we stand together and have empathy for each other.
Many of you may live in all-white, all-straight neighborhoods or areas of the country where a transgender person exists only on TV, but you can’t be sure of that. Today’s cocoons still exist, but with radiant butterflies trapped within. Undoubtedly, someone within your environment is feeling enormously pained, inauthentic, and dejected because they don’t see a path to being their authentic selves. When they hear about Elliot, there is likely a mix of pride and heartache because they feel so far away from the reality of Elliot, who is far removed from their suffocating, shackled cocoon.
To all those who feel hopeless, preyed upon, laughed at, and brittlely fragile, we are with you, and at least for me, I’m doing my utmost best to love, appreciate and better understand you. T will no longer be an afterthought.
John Casey is editor at large of The Advocate.