Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Robert Byrd and Me

In case you don't know who the late Robert Byrd was, he was a US Senator from West Virginia, who in the early part of his life was a segregationist and a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan. In later life he renounced his racist views. (It is interesting to note that he was also pro-choice and opposed to same-sex marriage.)

He became known as someone who completely changed his views on race and was willing to admit that he had been wrong. I do not know why this is so noteworthy. Most of us have to admit we were wrong at one time or another, and if it is so very unusual for a racist to change his mind, then this country is in big trouble. But anyway. A few months ago, one of my favorite bloggers happened to write a piece in which he quoted Robert Byrd:
I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory tramped in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.
 Believe it or not, this post is not about race. It's about bigotry. When I read that quote, something about it reminded me of the transphobic things I've heard people say. I think it's the desperation and the overblown rhetoric. It's the idea of this beautiful, sacred thing which is in danger of being polluted by creatures who aren't really human.

It also reminds me of the things I used to believe about trans people, before I realized I was trans. I rarely said these things out loud. Fortunately, I am pretty sure that I never posted anything transphobic on the Internet. But I bought into the idea that trans people were delusional, that they had no right to live the way they wanted to live.Trans people were unacceptable to me, the same way that black people were unacceptable to Robert Byrd. They couldn't be allowed to just prance around and do whatever they felt like. They were sick.

Of course, the difference between Robert Byrd and me is that, as far as I know, Byrd never discovered he was black. (Perhaps that makes his change of heart more admirable - if it was sincere.) I'm not going to go into details here about my realization and my change of heart, which was very real. Instead I'm going to tell this story:

After I came out to myself as trans, my first question was, "Now what?" I didn't think there was anything I could do about it. If I came out as trans I would lose my job. I was certain of that. A couple months later, an HR person came around to train us on the company's anti-discrimination policy, and he mentioned that gender identity was included. This was a complete surprise to me. I had never imagined such a thing was possible. It opened up a new world. I felt safe.

I had been working at that job for seven years. My supervisor and co-workers liked me and respected me. And yet I was absolutely convinced that if I told them I was not who they thought I was, all that would vanish. We had been through a lot together - but it wouldn't matter. I admired my supervisor - but he would not admire me if he knew I was trans. He would no longer respect me if he knew I was trans. The only thing that would permit me to keep my job was a few words in the company policy manual. I knew that for a fact. Because the same way that Robert Byrd refused to serve alongside a black person, no one wants to work with a trans person. (Or associate with a trans person in any way.) Because trans people have no right to exist. They're not admirable or respectable. They are the complete opposite.They are "degraded."

Well. You will want to know how this story ends. By some odd coincidence, my supervisor transferred to a different department right before my name change became official and I announced it to my colleagues. I never had any conversations with him on this subject. My new supervisor was completely professional about it all. I got laid off a year after coming out. I honestly believe that my being trans had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, it has been extremely difficult for me to find work since then. If people who had known me for years couldn't be expected to tolerate my transgender, how could people who were meeting me for the first time tolerate it?

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