Listening to Learn

To be honest, when I came out, I never envisioned myself becoming any sort of activist. I never even envisioned myself living openly as trans. For those who knew me early on into my transition, they might tell you that I never really identified myself as trans or queer unless there was a concern about problems arising. Otherwise, I made it clear that I wanted to be seen as fully female. Even though I never really understood privilege at that point, I knew enough internally to recognize that living as a woman put me at a slight advantage socially over living as a queer trans woman. There was privilege in that understanding - and, much like when I first came to an understanding of what transgender was, I just didn’t have a word for it until it all began to fall into place.

Privilege is a funny word - for many of us, we don’t realize we have it until it’s gone.

I certainly didn’t. I still remember going to the mechanic - the same one I had used for years - after my transition. All of the sudden, the normal itemized list of needed fixes needed to be ‘mansplained’ to me rather than simply handed to me. I remember the first night I stepped back through the doors of an Evangelical church, and realizing that I might not be welcome there. I remember walking back through those doors several weeks later on Sunday mornings, realizing that I would never be able to fully be a part of community at the place where I met and had a life-changing encounter with God because of my identity. Privilege for me in that was simply being able to worship God wherever and however I wanted to. I knew I belonged to something bigger than myself - even though my faith was nowhere near as authentic as it is now - simply because I fit into the “norm” of what everyone expected. If you were to have asked me before if I felt like it was privilege for that to be my reality I would have told you no. It was just something I did. Privilege isn’t often realized until it’s gone.

So when we see the news this week and accusations of white privilege start being thrown around, it’s important to note that most of the people who live with privilege don’t realize that what you’re talking about is them. They don’t see it as privilege - it simply is. Being able to jog through your neighborhood without worrying about being killed is just normal life for you - in fact, it’s a painful exercise that you feel like you have to do to lose those extra 10 pounds so you can fit into the designer dress that you bought last year because you aren’t “privileged enough” to just go out and buy another one this year. The reality of privilege is that it’s often taken for granted until it’s challenged or gone.

“But Ellie, what do we do about that?” you might ask.

“I can’t help the way I’m born! Why are you calling me out and persecuting me - making me feel uncomfortable - because of something that I have no control over?”

I used to hate being called out like that. Being made uncomfortable. When we see the world through that lens, our discomfort can often be seen and taken as persecution - but let me assure you: it’s not. I used to see things like affirmative action as a means to diminish my ability to succeed in life. It used to make me think that I, as a cisgender straight married male, was the one who was oppressed. That somehow allowing someone else to have rights would take away from my own ability to exist in the world. I get it, I really do - but as I often remind people, “when we know better, we are called to do better.” (Paraphrased from Maya Angelou)

So what do we do with it?

There’s a LOT of anger floating around social media right now. For me, it’s reminiscent of what God says to Cain after he kills Abel: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10, NKJV) The riots and unrest we are seeing; the pain in the eyes of the people marching through our streets - they are the cries of the blood that has for too long felt the sting of oppression and racism. The reality of life without privilege. It’s easy to try and shut it out - but to do so is the spiritual equivalent of a child sticking their fingers in their ears and signing out loud to try and drown out the things they don’t want to hear. Doing so might relieve your pain for a brief moment, but it doesn’t change anything. The cries are still there - and the pain has intensified.

I realize that in writing this I am woefully inadequate to talk about the systems of injustice that my black friends experience. People have wondered how I went from a conservative Evangelical Republican to where I am now - and here it is: there was a point when I began to realize how much suffering there was in the world, I couldn’t ignore it. When I began to understand the pain because I was experiencing it myself, I couldn’t help but speak out. I began to hear what so many conservatives were convinced was true about the trans community - even though much of it was scare tactics that instilled fear that my very existence meant that they had to hide their daughters and wives. When I ask to be a part of women's’ events, the question that often gets asked is how they can ensure safety in the restrooms. I have to actively work - and in many cases, I have to go out of my way to use a restroom before arriving to the event and just hold it until I can find another one on my way home. Privilege. Who knew that the act of being able to use a bathroom without fear of intimidation, attack, or accusation could be privilege - but for me, it’s a privilege I no longer have. I talk at times to my friends about how I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use the local city pool - because even an accusation of me using the bathroom in their locker room could destroy my life.

But this isn’t about me, though I’ve rattled on enough about myself. It’s about privilege. The privilege that you have but may not realize. Perhaps you read through what I shared and are beginning to realize things about the trans experience that you never knew. You never thought about the fear that strikes my heart when I need to go to the bathroom. The pain that I feel knowing that there are some church communities who will never accept me fully into their family. It’s my reality. And by reading my story, you’ve learned something. Perhaps it will change the way you approach the subject of trans rights. Of bathroom bills. Of how trans people are seen in your church community. That’s what knowledge does. That’s what listening does.

This is why I urge you, in the midst of the pain that is screaming from our communities right now, perhaps the call is to listen.

Not to respond in anger. Not to claim that your discomfort is some sort of persecution. Listen to the reality that my black friends are sharing. The stories that they tell. Because chances are, when we begin to truly recognize the pain that we never knew was there - pain that comes with things that we tend to just take for granted - we can begin the path of healing.

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