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What if we could no longer tell who's gay, lesbian or transgender

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriJul 16, 2015 | 15:54

What if we could no longer tell who's gay, lesbian or transgender

One of the central tenets, if it can be called that, of anti-LGBT bullying is the difference in behaviour that marks them out. Gay male or transteens who are effeminate are especially susceptible to harassment. (This is not nearly true for gay female youngsters if they are butch, since being a man, as we all know, is so much better than being feminine.)

Supporters of the LGBT cause are at pains to explain to the haters how people are people and that they should not be categorised on the lines of gender or sexuality. But such is our deep-rooted understanding of gender roles that crossing this bridge begins with a distinct disadvantage: a lack of empathy.

How does one grow empathy? What can one do to make our children learn that what they consider as different is as deserving of respect and acceptance? Are there certain barometres that we need to tick before we can reach halfway and then call upon the other side to meet us there?

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage last night. She spoke for 20 minutes on stage, addressing a number of issues that have come to the fore since her very public coming out. She expressed gratitude for her opportunities, a privilege she acknowledged is denied many trans people. She also, good-humouredly, took on those who have been making jokes at her expense, saying that as a former athlete, she can take anything on the chin, but what about the many trans youth who may not have that kind of training in shit-detection?

Watching her say those inspiring things is a joy in itself, but there is another dimension to Jenner's coming out. I have written earlier about how her privilege extends to her ability to "pass", in that Jenner does actually look like a cis woman due to her gender reassignment process. She does not need to deal with the added burden of not looking like a woman, whatever we understand looking like one to mean.

Watching her on stage yesterday, I was forced to concede the other side of this debate. With her lush hair and slender physique, Jenner can actually surprise anyone in a room full of people who, if they were living in a cave, may not know about her trans status. She comes across as genuinely - and here is the word - traditionally beautiful, so that it would be very difficult to gauge her once-male status.

And I wondered: is that a necessarily bad thing? I don't mean in terms of her personal life but in terms of using her services for the betterment of the trans community? I remember a friend remark after watching Brokeback Mountain that if Ennis del Mar, played to rugged perfection by Heath Ledger, could be gay, anyone could be gay. My friend was straight, of course, but he had obviously imagined gay people to be like something, and when someone as doughty and - here it is again - manly as Ennis could be gay, perhaps, he thought, any man - his definition of man - could be gay.

The truth is, even when the LGBT crowd wins support there is a tendency among some supporters to look upon us as poor dears. The way we walk or talk or gesticulate is sought to be explained away as reasons over which we have little control and, ergo, needs to be accepted. That is good enough, of course, but it cannot, I would reckon, be called genuine empathy.

Only when people see things in their own image, when they are able to elide difference as it were, can real empathy emerge. And while it would be great if we could look upon others not through the lens of ourselves, I don't think we are there just yet. For LGBTs who live this difference it can be especially difficult to reach out to the straights who are more than comfortable in their skin.

I, therefore, think that Jenner makes an ideal advocate. Looking like she does, she can induce the same sort of reaction among the non-LGBTs about what it means to be trans as the fictive Ennis del Mar did among the straight crowd. I am not in the least suggesting that the struggles of those who do not pass, in the case of trans, or are not straight-acting in the case of gay people, are any the lesser. But I do think that perceptions truly change only when we see ourselves, to whatever little extent, in others, and not just when we tap their shoulders to give them strength to deal with their difference. That latter bit is great too but it does not jolt us the way sameness, any tiny sliver of it, can.

This is, I am fully aware, a somewhat dubious position to take. Most of our, and I mean LGBT, politics is built on accentuating our difference, in claiming it with pride and joy. But we LGBTs can agree that the very edge of our politics - one that we hold dear in order that we may ultimately build a world that reflects our reality - must necessarily also make us insular. There is no harm if we send out icons like Jenner and del Mar, who can occupy the middle ground of what it means to be a woman and a man respectively, to represent us as we look to change perceptions of those who are at the other end of the bridge.

Last updated: July 16, 2015 | 15:54
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