Because One of Us Has To Be, and I Know It’s Not Me.
It sucks being wrong. There’s not a person alive who enjoys it, I’d wager. No matter how enlightened we may strive to be, we all prefer the satisfying feeling of being correct while others are in error. It’s a harmful tendency, this desire to be right, and it hurts more than just the stubborn individuals who embrace this mindset. Lately, I see it directed at marginalized and at-risk communities, usually perpetrated by the folks who are already sitting pretty comfortably in control. Conservative legislators in Arkansas, for example, deciding which medical treatments should be available to transgender youth, simply because they (mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly straight, mostly males) have decided these treatments are wrong. I can’t see this group of folks responding well if told the way they live their lives is wrong, so much so that their rights are going to be legislated away, but the smug comfortableness with which they strip others of their rights is startling and disappointing.
I’ve been trying to imagine what this group of legislators would say if the tables were turned, and some government officials were trying to make something they hold dear illegal or inaccessible. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we were trying to make it illegal to take children to Church service. Religion, like medical care, is widely understood in this country to be something we citizens have a right to, so it’s pretty easy to picture that religious people would protest, saying it’s up to the parent to decide whether a child should be exposed to church. It’s a matter of personal freedom and personal choice, they’d say, and it is vast governmental overreach to write laws limiting or revoking these freedoms. And they’d be exactly right.
But they don’t see it when they are doing the exact same thing to a group they don’t care for and with whom they do not identify.
When I was a college student more than 25 years ago, I once tangled bike tires with another student while we were both riding the narrow bike path on campus. She fell down, and I almost did.
In college, I worked 30+ hours a week in order to be able to afford, with the assistance of my student loans, a small one room efficiency over a garage, behind my landlord’s house 6 blocks from campus. I didn’t own a car, so I rode my bike everywhere; the four miles from home to work, and the four miles back, to and from school, to and from the laundromat and grocery store. Temperatures in Tucson fluctuate wildly within the course of a day, so the warm clothes needed when biking to an 8 am class would be stuffed in my backpack atop heavy textbooks when I rode from campus to work. Yes, actual textbooks — these were the pre-digital days. My bike was the most valuable thing I owned, so any threat to it put my whole livelihood in jeopardy.
The bike routes at our university have since been widened and upgraded, to make room for the more than 30,000 students who matriculate each year. At the time, though, they were narrow strips, traveled by bikes, university vehicles, and pedestrians. Merging into and out of the flow of other bikes was a tricky proposition. One of us fumbled it, or both of us did, and my back tire connected with her front tire, and she went down. I nearly did too, and the adrenaline of almost-falling manifested itself not as relief or empathy, but as anger.
“Watch where you’re going!” I yelled down at her, craning my neck to see her on the ground behind me, even as I stabilized my bike and rode on. I didn’t stop. It might have been dicey to do so, with a sea of cyclists in motion all around me. Not that this was my reason for not stopping; I’m ashamed to say it didn’t even occur to me to try and stop. These days, I hope I’d go back to make sure she was okay. I’d help her up and apologize, and we’d probably spend a minute or two trying to make sense of what happened. “I’m sorry, did I get you there, or . . .” “I don’t know! Maybe it was me!”
But these days, I’m a mother. I’m middle aged, and have more patience and life experience than I did when I was twenty. I’ve also befriended myself more than I had in those days, when my anxiety took the form of always wanting to be correct so I could be above reproach. Back then, I had enough self-loathing going on without genuine mistakes to dislike myself for.
The girl with whom I collided looked startled and apologetic, sitting on the ground, still astride her bicycle, as I wheeled around to look down at her. The last thing she saw before I rode away was my angry, blaming face. I can still see hers, confused and apprehensive, mouth slightly open in surprise. If she said anything to me in reply, I didn’t hear it. I was gone in a flash, with a sense of self-righteous indignation.
What had she done to deserve that from me? At worst, nothing — the collision could have been completely my fault. At best, she was only to blame to the extent that I was. Maybe we’d both wobbled just enough to jointly cause the accident. I’d yelled at her, blamed her, for the simple reason that it had seemed like a zero sum game: either she had done something wrong or I had, and I didn’t much like being in the wrong.
This experience is what my mind flashed to, oddly, when I heard the Arkansas legislature had overridden the veto of its Governor to force into law the bill that strips transgender kids of the right to seek hormone treatments. It seems so deliberately and vindictively unkind, when being kind would only require fairness and the kind of “live and let live” attitude that we claim to prize in America. Land of the Free, right? Our freedoms, to hear us tell it, matter to us. But other people’s freedoms? Not as important.
I heard an interview with the Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, addressing why he thinks the legislature took what seems to me to be such a radically repressive position.
“Well,” he said, “there’s a sense that we are losing the traditional culture that we have, and there’s undue influence in having young people reconsider their gender, uh, by birth, and I think we need to rethink, as a party and as a nation, let’s give some more deference to the medical professionals.”
The reporter then played a soundbite from Dr, Joshua Safer, Executive Director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, who explained that it’s just wrong to claim that puberty blocking hormones have permanent effects.
“The point of puberty blockers,” Dr. Safer said, “is that they are a conservative option and they are reversible.” Far from radical, they are used in cisgender teens as well, to address certain cancers, adrenal problems, and with early onset puberty.
And yet, there are those who feel threatened by the idea that transgender teens have the right to treatments that help them feel more comfortable in their own bodies. That, as Governor Hutchinson describes, feels like “. . .losing the traditional culture we have.”
Here’s the thing. If your culture requires that people who are different from you suffer so you don’t have to face their differentness, then your culture sucks. If preventing folks from living as happily as they possibly can in the body they have is what it takes for you to feel like God’s in his kingdom and all’s right with the world, maybe you need a gut check on exactly what that God would do in your shoes. Last I checked, Jesus befriended the poor, the sex workers, the sick, the suffering and the outcasts. Last I checked, Jesus himself was vilified for daring to speak his own truth.
The reality is, we can retain the values that are important to some while caring about the happiness of others. Empathy, compassion, inclusion, tolerance — these qualities must walk hand-in-hand with freedom if we are to have the land of liberty we profess to want. I have the freedom to not attend church, and I exercise it happily, but I don’t have the freedom to take church away from those who want it, simply because it’s not part of my chosen culture. I don’t have that freedom and I wouldn’t want it, because it would make others less free. I’m here to live the freest, me-ist life I can before my time here is up, and guess what? So is every single one of us.
Short of physically harming another, people get to live as they need and want to live. People who don’t choose your way of life are not wrong, they are different, and differentness is a crucial element of a truly free society. Suppressions like the one recently perpetrated by the Arkansas legislature are unfortunately not rare in America. Arkansas state Rep. Deborah Ferguson, a Democrat, said of the law, “It is unfortunate that the makeup of our Legislature has changed to the extent that we are weaponizing religion to discriminate against this small minority.”
Unfortunate, scary, and morally wrong.