Lorimer Shenher’s latest book is This One Looks Like A Boy: My Gender Journey to Life as a Man.
I exist in two worlds.
I know what you’re thinking: As a transgender man, hasn’t my entire life centred around two conflicting realities, male and female? Well, yes. But that isn’t what I’m talking about.
For many years, I secretly identified as part of a marginalized community, although I held a place as part of the dominant culture. This has caused me to reflect on what it means to be an ally to those who need one.
The role of ally is not a straightforward one. Having an affinity for a cause is a good starting point, but it’s just that. In my previous work as a white settler scholar exploring the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, my learning curve was steep and I’m sure I made mistakes.
I feel disturbed by what I see, not only in the LGBTQ community. Allies at first keen to support a minority group – maybe even carry a placard – scatter, overcome by their own fragility the moment the group they champion shows anger or expresses concern over any patronization. Allyship only extending as far as their own understanding, not beyond. Empathy flagging, or even absent from either camp.
Indigenous peoples in Canada have long understood this uneasy relationship with allies keen to “help” the Native cause, only to take over, speaking for them rather than standing quietly and proudly beside them.
But as I seek allies to support my transgender community, I find myself less concerned with how “perfect” an ally is. What matters more to me is that they show up, because we desperately need them.
On March 31, we observe International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event celebrating the courage and diversity of transgender people while raising awareness of the discrimination and violence many still experience in their daily lives. A dual purpose, really.
For years, this day displayed less celebration and more in memoriam as we remembered those transgender people – largely women of colour – murdered all around the world over the previous year. The list is long; each story of senseless, unnecessary violence achingly sad.
None of these stories ever surprises me. I read The World According to Garp as a young adult – John Irving’s cast of oddballs and misfits, including a trans former pro football player named Roberta Muldoon, always resonated with me. I watched films such as The Silence of the Lambs, The Crying Game and Boys Don’t Cry in the nineties – I saw only a bleak future ahead. I excitedly followed the career of Los Angeles Times sports reporter Christine Daniels as they came out as a transgender woman in 2007. I hoped to learn of more positive outcomes for trans people. I wondered if I, too, could find acceptance and peace and still maintain my livelihood – a common concern for transgender people. I grieved when Christine Daniels abruptly announced a return to their male identity, Mike Penner, in 2008 and then died by suicide a year later.
These have been the messages and narratives most familiar to trans people: that to transition is to become a lonely, tragic figure cast out by everyone in your life.
I came out as a transgender man in late 2015, after more than 50 years living as a woman. A combination of unbearable emotional strife around my gender of birth, coupled with a more welcoming social and political climate, propelled me past my fears and into living more authentically. I feel reborn and I’ve never been happier.
Unfortunately, those heady days of what Time Magazine, in a 2014 cover piece, called “The Transgender Tipping Point” were short lived. Backlashes against all identity-based conversation, coupled with the global rise of populism and religious extremism, have stalled transgender people’s attempts at recognition, validation and acceptance by the mainstream. Every other marginalized population similarly shares this backslide.
I have never attended a Transgender Day of Remembrance. I have never marched in a Pride Parade. The irony isn’t lost on me, but while I appreciate the empowerment inherent in gathering with my people, it has never felt useful to me to preach to the choir. Likely, this is my own internalized transphobia. What I do know is we need powerful allies unashamed to stand with us every other day. We can’t change attitudes all by ourselves.
I write this as a call to allyship, but in doing so, I also have to acknowledge that the role of ally is complicated. To those trying to navigate it, it can feel as if it is covered with landmines, with precious few places to take safe steps.
But we, the marginalized, need the dominant to stand with us, in support and in love.
More than two dozen transgender people were murdered in the United States in 2018, many of them women of colour. In Canada, trans murders are rare, but hatred on the basis of gender identity remains deeply concerning. We are at a crisis point very similar to what the gay community experienced in the 1980s: villainized by many, most prospective allies frightened of being labelled as queer simply for supporting trans people.
This year, American actor Don Cheadle stood with us, wearing a T-shirt reading “PROTECT TRANS KIDS” on air as host of Saturday Night Live. Mr. Cheadle is the first cisgender heterosexual person who has stood with us who doesn’t, to my knowledge, have a trans family member. Actor Patricia Arquette and NBA player Reggie Bullock each have transgender sisters who died tragically. Both use their status as public figures to tirelessly raise awareness of anti-trans violence.
Many of our non-trans friends and families – those of us fortunate enough to have families that haven’t abandoned us – politely endure our sharing of LGBTQ content or activism on social media, but precious few pass it on or comment. Some might even cringe inwardly, but won’t unfollow us because that would offend their liberal sensibilities. It’s as though they accept that we’re trans, but do they have to be so darned transgender about it?
We need you. We live in a country where a columnist of a major national newspaper publicly expresses hatred toward transgender people and their parents. We live in a country where a university professor’s transphobic and misogynist rantings propel him to faux intellectual demagoguery.
We live in a country where several members of Parliament and candidates for that office have openly vowed to repeal Bill C-16 – passed in 2017 to include gender identity and expression as protected categories in Canada’s human-rights code. Forty MPs and 11 senators voted against this legislation enshrining the human right of protection under the law to human beings such as me.
The polarization of right and left, men and women, whites and people of colour, devout and non-believers, LGBTQ and cisgender heterosexuals leaves little space for thoughtful exploration or the sharing of common ground. Increasingly fragile allies and incensed minority groups grapple over air time and power. I find myself exploring the strained relationship between the marginalized and their – our – dominant culture (read: white, settler, cisgender, heterosexual) allies.
I have lived as both. As a middle-class white person, I have enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – tremendous privilege. Knowing I would lose a great deal of that privilege formed a large part of my angst around my gender transition. Only someone with privilege has the luxury of choosing whether to drop that cloak or continue wearing it.
When it comes to marginalized communities’ current criticisms of imperfect allies, I can see both sides. I’ve lived with duality for 50 years, debating whether I should leap from a place of safety to transition and feel better, or remain miserable, but protected from those who would harm people such as me.
The struggle for human rights is filled with the language of war – words such as fight, battle, conquer, defeat, alliance – directed at our perceived enemies, those who would deny our existing human rights or bar us from the protections we seek. Our borders and lands are built on the outcomes and scars of war, of occupation.
The world of the well-meaning ally in 2019 is fraught with the risk of misunderstood motives, overstepping, being asked to “check your privilege.” For this year’s International Transgender Day of Visibility, I’ll settle for even a few more imperfect allies speaking up for us and our right to simply exist. In time, we can teach them it isn’t about them.