Transgender and Respect in Today’s Future of Neo-Diversity
“Back in my day…” there was no respectful language for transgender people.
Posted January 23, 2018
“The future is not coming, it is here and now.”
I make that proclamation in all my lectures on neo-diversity. Why? Just one example is that when I was growing up, there was no respectful language that could be used to refer to transgender persons. There was no respectful language trans-people could use about themselves and none that non-trans people could use to refer to trans-people.
Yet now, for many today, the word “transgender” is a generally understood term of reference (1). But there is even more to that future we are already living in than language.
Our Spring-2018 semester just started. Right at the beginning, over the weekend before there had been any class meetings, I received two emails from two different transgender students. Each young person was letting me know they were in gender-identity-transition. Each was alerting me to the pronouns they would like me to use to refer to them in class. Yes, two transgender students felt it ok and reasonable to reveal themselves to me so that I could be respectful when we were in interaction with each other. How could this be?
Well, turns out nothing in our American psychology has been so profound, challenging and important, as discounted peoples pushing through, and defeating, America’s too many intergroup bigotries. And that fight against bigotry continues on many, and newer, fronts every day; consider #MeToo; #TimesUp; #womensmarch2018.
The successes of those fights to defeat intergroup bigotry in America has led our nation (and most college and university campuses) to a new interpersonal situation; neo-diversity. Neo-diversity is this now-future in which each of us has some occasion to encounter and interact with, on equal footing, a person or persons who are not like us on some group dimension (gender-identity, religion, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.). Neo-diversity is the future we are already living on the campus of North Carolina State University where I teach, and in America writ large.
Neo-diversity is a wrinkle in time (2) in the fabric of America. For the fact that we are already living in the future, neo-diversity social change is hard on our individual psychology. You see human psychology is designed to comprehend most things in a straight-line, keep it simple fashion. Yet neo-diversity social change has been occurring in multiple and multidimensional ways, simultaneously. Taking the fabric of America and folding, wrinkling many social dimensions into each other so that each change touches and connects to all the others; that is neo-diversity. And that is a challenge to our cognitive-economic system (3) which pushes us to process information by keeping it simple.
But we should not panic. We cannot afford to panic. We must be and we are stronger than that as Americans. The question is not how do we go backwards to when we did not have to concern ourselves with respecting people not like us.
Look, in this wrinkle in time, I too, a highly educated and black man, have also had to learn how to interact in this new interpersonal world of neo-diversity. Two years ago, I met with a new student diversity group on campus, Diversity and Inclusion AdVenture Experience (D.I.V.E). These young people had twisted my arm to have me become their faculty advisor. So, after teaching class one day, they had me on campus, on a Wednesday evening at 6:30…yes, 6:30 in the EVENING!
Anyway… to start the meeting with the group’s Executive Board, as per typical for meetings I have attended with students, the President said we’ll do introductions. Not as per my typical experience, she said, “…give your name, year, major and your pronouns.”
“…and your pronouns?”
At the time, I was 65 years old. “Back in my day…” no one talked about preferred pronouns. But I listened to learn this new protocol. Each student followed the set up ending by specifying the pronouns each preferred to have used when someone was referring to them in conversation. Even though everybody knew who I was, at my turn, I then did the same, including, with a little stumbling, I specified my pronouns. I stumbled because in my upbringing, "...back in my day..." there was no conversation about transgender people and preferred pronouns.
“Documenting Light” (4) is a novel about the developing romance between a self-described “…nonbinary, feminine, trans-person” and a self-described “…regular old trans dude.” In their novel, E. E. Ottman observes that the intergroup histories we are taught are incomplete by intention; incomplete on purpose. They write:
“What gets taught at anything lower than a three-hundred-level college course is very political. You were never taught queer history because there are people with a vested interest in you not learning queer history. But the same can be said for race history—of all sorts—and most gender history too, not to mention disability history. We don’t learn it, not because historians don’t study it but because the people who make the decision about what goes into history textbooks aren’t fans.”
I stumbled in specifying my preferred pronouns because I was unprepared by any formal teaching for this moment. Prepared or not, I was living a neo-diversity, learning moment. That is the challenge of already living in the future. To continue to live the good life America provides to so many of us, we must learn how to interact with people “not like me” with respect. And we must stand against bigotry. As Mrs. Which puts it in “A Wrinkle in Time,” (2) "There will no longer be so many pleasant things to look at if responsible people do not do something about the unpleasant ones"
And so, I was impressed to be in the presence of young people who were striving to live well by respecting others; striving to respect people “not like me.” They seemed to understand and accept that the future is not coming, it is here and now.
In the case of the students who emailed me at this beginning of the Spring-2018 semester, I responded telling each how much I appreciated their communication to me. I thanked each of these young people. I asked each to discreetly introduce themselves to me on the first day of class so that I could make sure to be able to identify each by sight and use the appropriate pronouns.
I know each is very vulnerable right now. Sadly, I know too that because of the challenge of this wrinkle in time, each will encounter disrespect from some. But not in my classrooms. Hear me loud and clear when I say, trust that I will protect each in every way I can inside and outside of my classrooms on our campus. #TransgenderAlly
In that evening meeting of students on my campus, you see, I learned. And I was pleased to be with and see young people who were making a point of learning to navigate their own 21st Century social interactions with respect at the forefront of their approach. Taking that approach to respect all the neo-diversity in America is important for all of us because our humanity and fulfilling the American dream of a “more perfect union” depends on how we treat the dignity of other human beings.
1. “Gender Revolution,” National Geographic (2017, January) (Special Issue, whole).
2. L'Engle, Madeleine (1962). A Wrinkle in Time, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
3. Mischel, W. (1979). On the interface of cognition and personality: Beyond the person-situation debate. American Psychologist, 34, 740-754.
4. Ottman, E.E. (2016). Documenting light. Green Bay, WI: Brain Mill Press. You will find my review of this novel here: https://oied.ncsu.edu/home/2016/11/10/transgender-in-the-light-of-our-humanity-book-review/