Competing Ideologies

As a Deaf psychologist, I spend a lot of time reflecting upon how best to work with members of marginalized communities of all types.  Some of my clients are Deaf, some identify as trans*, and some are both.  And within both of those communities, similar tension exists around the issue of what it means to claim that particular cultural label. 

For many younger trans* individuals, gender is a fluid, socially constructed idea, not a biological one.  Those who identify as genderqueer or genderfluid often resist any form of binary gendered label.  Men can wear dresses and still be male.  Women can walk around in combat boots and red lipstick.  An individual can be male sometimes and female at other times or even a third gender that consists of a blend of both.  Indeed, turning traditional ideas about gender on end is one of the goals of the movement.  Under this philosophy, those who wish for a complete physical and social transformation are, in essence, supporting the status quo: a status quo that many gender non-conforming people find oppressive and hurtful.  Those who used to be oppressed have, post-transition, joined the enemy camp, so to speak.

On the other hand, many transgender individuals who have suffered silently for years are desperately happy to be able, finally, to walk down the street without fear.  Attracting unwanted attention may have previously resulted in discrimination, harassment, pain, or violence.  For those individuals, being able to access transition services in order to feel at home in their bodies and in the world has been a tremendous blessing.  And so the tension continues, between competing ways of viewing one’s own relationship to the social justice movement at large.

Similarly, within the Deaf community, there has long raged a debate about whether choosing a surgical intervention to improve one’s hearing is simply an accommodation to a world that does not sign, or if it represents victory of the oppressors.  Hearing people, by and large, view deafness as a sensory deficit to be remedied in any way possible.  Deaf culture views deafness as a unique way of existing within the world.  Deaf culture revolves around fluency in American Sign Language and an appreciation for Deaf art, history, and society.  For those who value Deaf culture the way that any other minority group values its own culture, choosing to get a cochlear implant as an adult is considered submitting to the oppressive tyranny of the majority.  Why cut one’s head open when there is nothing inherently wrong with being Deaf?

For other Deaf adults, a cochlear implant is simply a tool, much like a hearing aid.  It improves ones hearing, potentially, but it does not alter identity as a Deaf adult.  And so the tension continues to exist.  For both groups, the stakes feel high, for the opposing choice seeks to negate the one that each individual has made.  I wonder, however, if this is perhaps how movements advance.  All social justice movements thrive on tension and change.  Each subgroup forces the other to articulate their stance more clearly, to explain it to others, and to attempt, at least politically, to find common ground.

Contributed by Dr. Mel Whalen

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International Day of Social Justice

Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, BelgiumSo how was your International Day of Social Justice? Ahh, what’s that you say? Never heard of it? Okay…let’s see if we can get you up to speed here. After all, in celebrating it we renew our focus on the idea that, as the United Nations puts it, “social development and social justice are indispensable for the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among nations….” Certainly a worthy idea, so let’s take a quick look.

There is an entity called the International Labor Organization (ILO) that actually has its roots in the treaty that ended the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles. Now given the fact that the world had just fought what was, at least up until that point, the most blood-soaked and resource consuming war ever known, and given that all this came about because of concentrated power in a few inflexible minds; the Great Powers decided a more democratic rethink was perhaps in order. It was agreed that true peace can only exist if there is a climate of social justice and that would mean guiding the world toward a system that was far more inclusive than many had seen before.

It was indeed a lofty ideal and they did such a bang-up job of implementing it that, 20 yearsThe_Big_Four,_Paris_peace_conference later, another planet wide conflagration would rage out of control. Yet maybe that’s what happens when the ideas are broader than those trying to implement them. Versailles was simply the beginning of a social evolution that they started and continues to this day. Now I doubt they understood the full magnitude and reach of their work as somehow I have trouble picturing David Lloyd George and straight-laced Woodrow Wilson pounding the table and demanding a clear path for a future Christine Jorgenson to do the first M to F transition. But their declared spirit of social justice did exactly that and it is the spirit of that ideal that needs to carry on.

This writer is just one beneficiary of it. I’m one transwoman knocking around in a much larger but still inclusive society. I am still very much in transition and yet when I arrived for jury duty the other day, no one so much as batted an eye. I took my place among all the other “choral whiners”, belting out such ballads as “other fish to fry today” and of course the ever popular “it’s cold out why am I here?” blues. I wasn’t selected to sit on a jury that day but I did go up to the window and ask to edit the M/F designation on the sheet they had me fill out. The woman at the window looked at me and said, “Oh don’t worry about it.” Now that, dear reader, is the spirit of social justice. I am one person, from one group, and I am proof that as society grows ever more inclusive, respect for human worth grows with it.

Balanced_scale_of_JusticeNow of course, the job is a long way for done especially when we look globally. So in the hope of keeping this evolution alive, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared that, starting in 2009, February 20th will annually be celebrated as the World Day of Social Justice. It is the common folk everywhere that have shouldered the burdens to attain it while also reaping the benefits of it, so why not commemorate and celebrate? Embodied in this little known day, are the spirits of Gandhi and Dr. King. Indeed, the whole ongoing and bone jarring drive toward equality for women, gays and the transgender found footing because of social justice. It is the driving force that created the world wide climate that ended apartheid in South Africa and made it possible for a very brave woman named Aung San Suu Kyi to stand up to a military dictatorship in Myanmar, formally Burma, and win the Nobel Peace Prize in the process.

It is a shame that this really big day receives so little notice and especially by the common folk it was designed to further the most. After all, it was a healthy respect, if not an outright fear, of the common folk that motivated the ideas’ founders in the first place. No doubt it has something to do with a complete lack of any vested commercial interests that starves the day for any air time. Nobody has made it a day to frolic in the beer suds and pound down piles of tasty, if unhealthy, eats. But ya know???? If that’s all it takes…maybe grabbing a beer, buns, and brats ain’t all that bad an idea….

The Holidays are Here…

The holidays are stressful for most, but even more so for gender-variant people and their families who face a wide array of additional stressors this time of year. The build-up of family obligations, the traditions, and regular family drama would be enough for anyone to handle before adding in tensions over anticipated reactions from others (if you have disclosed or will do so soon) and anxiety over secret-keeping (if you have not).

Reduce excess stress as much as possible, and allow the holidays to be memorable in a good and positive way.

Plan Ahead.

  • Make a decision about being “out” to each family member before you visit.
  • If you will be out of town and away from your everyday support network, find local LGBT resources prior to any travel.
  • If you do plan to disclose to your family over the holidays, have your support ready.
  • Make alternate plans if the situation becomes difficult at home.

Expectations Revisited

  • Don’t assume you know how someone will react to news of your gender identity. Projecting your fears and uncertainties onto someone else won’t help anyone.
  • Your family’s reaction to you may not be because (or not only because) you are transgender. Their own hectic holiday schedules and life stressors may cause them to act differently than they would under less stressful conditions.
  • Disclosing one’s gender identity, like life, is a continuous process. You may have to “come out” or disclose many times, in a variety of ways, and under a wide range of circumstances.
  • Be patient. It took you time to come to terms with who you are; allow your family and friends the time they need to adjust.
  • If being with family is too difficult, create your own holiday gathering with friends and loved ones and blend new and old holiday traditions together. 

The Visit.

  • Reassure family members that you are still the same person they have always known.
  • If you are partnered or if you have children, be sensitive to their needs as well as your own.
  • Remember to affirm yourself.
  • Realize that you don’t need your family’s approval.