Last month, along with a handful of fabulous activists I work with over at AbortionChat, I had the honor and privilege of attending the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference. The experience was incredible, allowing me to connect with wonderful, caring progressives. I watched brave people share personal stories of abuse and abortion, heard brilliant orators discuss conversions and their paths to compassion, and learned about everything from running a non-profit to using art as a method of social change.
However, I gathered my most important insights from a moment of personal shame. We wore nametags for the conference, and the organizers were thoughtful enough to allow us to specify our own pronouns. I scrawled a little “He/Him” beneath the “Alex.” I spent the weekend meeting “Hers” and “Zirs” and, at one point, a very sweet “They.” They had a name that is traditionally associated with the feminine side in the gender binary, and I slipped and referred to them as a “she.” They gave me a look that was halfway between offended and condescending. I backtracked immediately, apologized, and corrected myself. Despite being very friendly with my comrades, they didn’t really speak to me again for the rest of the conference.
When I first sat down to write about that incident, I intended to discuss how they were wrong, how they should have recognized the sincerity of my apology, how they must have been used to the mistake, how if they ever wanted to win over the unenlightened, they would need to ease up and present a more forgiving face. I thought that I would be encouraging compassion in taking a stand like that one.
Then I tried to write the story that way. It took more time than I care to admit. It remains the most rewritten, effort-driven passage of this entire article, possibly of the whole of my writing for The Body is Not An Apology. I have never been afraid to criticize any community, movement, or individual, but I always strive to represent with accuracy and to never, ever punch down. I wanted to criticize this individual for not forgiving me and, in the time it took me to represent their story, I found that I couldn’t possibly do so. I didn’t know their narrative well enough, and more importantly, it wasn’t their responsibility to forgive me. Had I written that story as I’d originally intended, it would have meant erasure of their emotional experience in that moment — a moment in which they stood in the presence of someone who was ostensibly there to support them, and that person failed.
Activist spaces are supposed to safe. Inclusiveness is essential, but not always practiced. The instinct towards defensiveness is understandable. What is new is too often difficult to understand and therefore too often frightening. My moment in misgendering this individual was not a showcase of their lack of understanding but an indication of my past conditioning and what I still need to learn. If truly being inclusive is my goal, my job is not to criticize someone for refusing to create a learning, compassionate moment, but to address the issue within myself.
These are the lessons we must take into account when attempting to create safe, inclusive spaces. There is no one narrative, and that simple fact deserves honoring. I find that the key is empathy for the individual. When I am presented with a gender identity that is outside of the realm of my experience, I must respect it as I demand respect of my own differences outside of the cultural norm.
My favorite way to explain this concept is to discuss the phenomenon of the Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist (TERF). When I was introduced to the term on Twitter, it was in the context of a handful of people who took it upon themselves to treat trans individuals as outsiders to their chosen gender. TERFs see trans women as intruders seeking to co-opt the struggles of “real women.” They allege that trans woman desire to infect the movement with patriarchal reach and to indulge a lustful yearning to get into the ladies’ room of whatever Planet Fitness they happen to be working out in. Trans men are too often looked at as some kind of traitors, leaving the glory of womanhood behind to join the enemy.
TERFs make up a specific section of the feminist movement, and they are certainly not indicative of the greater community. But they serve as an instructive example because the entire mess could be cleared up with a little respect for the individual. If one were to simply respect the sanctity of another’s body —a tenet that feminism supports above almost any other — and allow a person to define that body on their own terms, exclusion would not be an issue.
As a Latino growing up in the suburbs in the South, I walked through a lot of nice neighborhoods afraid that the wrong person would think that I didn’t belong. I’ve gotten a lot of long looks and short twitches from some older white folks. I don’t need too much imagination to comprehend what it’s like to walk into certain spaces and fear for one’s safety, to wish one could be treated with the same surface-level cordiality given to everyone who happens to be a part of the dominant culture. When a woman explains to me why walking at night can be scary, I should be able to get why it is and why it shouldn’t be. When a trans person explains that who they are as a person should not be questioned, I can dig it.
And when a young activist is misgendered at a conference — a venue with gender-neutral bathrooms and beaucoup vegan options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — I can understand how it feels to have the old programming of another person, newer and less embroiled in your own personal ordeals, remind you of your otherness.
As far as my error was concerned, I apologized and meant it. Since then, I’ve made an active effort to not repeat the error, and I’ve succeeded. Whether those actions are enough is up to the slighted person. My imperative is to learn from that experience, not use my own to garner empathy. One person’s pain is never the same as that of another; racial experiences do not equate to gender-based ones, which are inherently different from those surrounding sexual orientation or disability status. But our own experiences in otherness can certainly inform our treatment of our friends and allies. And they should.[Headline image: The photograph features two people smiling, one with an arm around the other. The person on the left has short black hair and brown skin and is wearing an orange shirt. The person on the right has short black hair and brown skin and is wearing a white shirt.]