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We Need to Give Up Transphobia

My name is Nico Lang, and I used to be transphobic. I never thought about myself that way. I thought that my emotions were normal and valid, feeling justified in my passive disgust for trans bodies.
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Portrait of a young man making a stop gesture
Portrait of a young man making a stop gesture

Trigger warning: Transphobia. A lot of transphobia.

A month ago my friend Todd Clayton came out as a recovering transphobe in an incisive Huffington Post blog post, "The Queer Community Has to Stop Being Transphobic." In the piece Clayton details his personal journey toward transgender acceptance, explaining how a speech by Matrix co-director Lana Wachowski, an out trans woman, opened his eyes to the quiet bigotry in his own life. Clayton hadn't openly attacked trans people or worked against their freedoms; he was transphobic in ways that a lot of cisgender members of the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities are: insensitive and dismissive, not realizing the ways in which trans lives and struggles intersect with our own.

When he asked me to read the piece, I told him that his experience is common among cisgender people in the LGB community. In fact, I've made a similar journey. I told Todd that if he ever published his piece, I would come out with my own story. This is that story. It's not easy to tell. I've been holding on to it for a while, keeping it secret and safe. But it can't stay secret anymore.

My name is Nico Lang, and I used to be transphobic.

I never thought about myself that way. I thought that my emotions were normal and valid, feeling justified in my passive disgust for trans bodies. The first time I heard about trans people was when my father talked about seeing The Crying Game in the theater and observing the way the audience convulsed with shock when the heroine's "secret" was revealed. My father claimed that people walked out or threw up when confronted with the image of transness or a life that didn't fit their binary concept of gender.

I was a teenager. The gender binary was all I knew. Like Patty Hearst, I grew to love my captivity. I identified with my oppressors, working to uphold that marginalization in my own life.

When I met a trans person for the first time, I didn't think my emotions were hatred, but they had to show on my face. For the purposes of this essay, her name was Megan, and she was one of the oddest characters I'd ever met, the kind of person you never forget. Megan claimed to be a vampire who drinks blood; she also told us stories of being a general's wife and getting married in Egypt, as if she were a real-life Orlando or Candide. She wanted to believe that she leads a life that is too big to comprehend.

I thought she was pathetic. Rather than looking at her identity as a natural defense mechanism suited for life in a conservative Cincinnati that would always see her as an outsider, I refused to understand her. I didn't try. My friend told me that Megan had been kicked out of her home and most schools she'd attended. This should have helped me be more compassionate, but my heart couldn't open to let her in. I still think about her sometimes. I don't know if she even knows that I have anything to be sorry for, but I want to apologize anyway.

Like all hate, I held on to it and secretly nurtured it in my refusal to believe that there was anything wrong with the way I felt. On my first day in "Human Sexuality" in college, we watched a video about transitioning, one that included thorough, graphic images of sex reassignment surgery. Just as the doctor discussed creating a vagina out of the shaft of a penis, I checked out. I went for a drink of water. I milled around the halls, checking fake text messages. I didn't even have a texting service at that time. I just couldn't go back in there. This wasn't what I'd signed up for.

I wasn't sorry yet, but I started to feel the void where remorse was supposed to be, the same one I felt when I saw Transamerica and turned away during its brief flash of nudity. I couldn't look at her, just like a part of me couldn't comprehend the identity of a trans masculine classmate of mine. When a friend showed me what trans masculine bodies looked like (from a coffee-table book of Loren Cameron's work that he owned), I almost couldn't believe it. These are my actual words: "But they look so normal." It would be years before I learned to regret those words. I wish I could go back in time and punch that person in the face.

I wish there had been a moment when I looked at my behavior and realized that I needed to change, but life isn't like that. There isn't always a moment; there are a million moments when you are made accountable to your lack of compassion and openness to the experiences of others, and that part of you will always still be there, nagging and pulling. Sometimes hate stays the same way it did before, and sometimes it lives on in racism, sexism and homophobia. Sometimes it just takes a nap.

My hate was always secretly directed inward. From an early age I identified as female, and it was years before my parents could get me to put on a pair of jeans. I wanted to wear dresses. I settled for sweatpants. Most kids were obsessed with Barney or Chuck E. Cheese; I wanted to be like Jane Fonda, in her spandex and matching headband, commanding a room of women to be their best selves while protesting the war in Vietnam, winning Oscars and being married to an eccentric billionaire. Many of us grew up secretly believing that we could have it all. I knew I could. Jane told me so.

My father has the same name as I do, and I didn't want his name, just like I didn't want his maleness. I went by the name "Nicky." When my parents resisted, I started spelling it in increasingly elaborate and stripperesque ways, like "Nicki," "Nickie," "Nikki" and "NICKEE*." I dotted it with hearts, wrote it in pink and shellacked it with glitter. Some kids have to come out; I was barely ever in.

For a long time my parents let it slide. This was at the height of my brother Jonathan's illness, and my mother's days were too filled with breathing tubes, doctor's visits and press appearances to pay attention to anything else. My brother was born with a condition that they didn't have a name for. Basically, his insides swelled until they couldn't anymore. It was like his brain was trying to push its way out.

They didn't name my gender variance either. They figured that if they didn't pay attention to it, the problem would go away, like a car alarm or a Jehovah's Witness at the door. My father expected that I would grow to only love the things he did; he expected me to give up Barbies for G.I. Joes and tea time for football, the sport he so loved. He just wanted us to be playing on the same team. He didn't expect to see me in dresses.

As a culture, when we see a man in a dress, we do one of two things: We laugh, or we beat it out of him. We do that in different ways. One day after work my parents caught me playing Cinderella at daycare, and they didn't hit me or punish me. They didn't throw me out on the street or pawn me off on a religiously conservative relative. They just showed me that playing Cinderella isn't an option; it isn't what boys do. I was never taught that it is OK to be a woman, or that it is OK to be myself. I was told that boys aren't princesses; they rescue them.

They didn't realize that one day I would need to rescue myself.

Hating yourself is easy. I found a million outlets to hate myself. I had Jesus, who was nailed to a cross because I wasn't good enough. I had the locker room, which helped me learn to hate my body, on top of hating my soul. I had the guys who would wait outside my precalculus class to stare at me as I walked by, treating my queerness as a spectacle. I had the uncle who stopped talking to me when I came out and would only direct questions or statements to me through my mother. He didn't hate me for being a socialist or wanting to tear down his capitalist patriarchy because of my political beliefs or any interesting reason. He hated me for the same boring reasons as everyone else. He hated me without even knowing why.

Boring or not, hate sticks. And low-simmering hate is particularly dangerous, because it's easy to ignore. Hate becomes a pattern, and you learn to hate for the same stupid reasons as everyone else. You hate without even knowing why, not recognizing that hate is a reflection of yourself.

You don't choose to give up hate one day and wash your hands of it forever; the feelings stick with you, and they take lifetimes to cleanse. It's not enough to simply not hate people, and you don't get a pat on the back for looking at Lana Wachowski and saying, "Oh, I accept you now. Here's an award. Go us!" You have to actively work to include trans people in your lives and spaces, accept a callout when you get it wrong and educate yourself to be better. You have to be accountable to yourself.

As Virginia Mamey Mollenkott argues, "It is vital for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals to recognize our movement as basically a transgender movement." Mollenott tells us that it's not just about homosexuality but about being queer -- or different from the norm. Our struggle is about gender. She writes, "The fact that the most effeminate gay men and the butchest lesbians are the most endangered among us should alert us to the fact that society cares less about what we do in private than it cares about a challenge to its longstanding gender assumptions."

There was a time when I accepted not hating people as enough and credited myself as a good ally for "having trans friends." Look how far I've come! However, our engagement needs more than love; it needs action. Trans people are some of the most visible and at-risk in our collective struggle, and we must actively work with trans people, not simply for them. Cisgender gay men need to stop wondering where the "T" is and realize that the "T" is all around us, organizing and working to make the community safer for all of us. The trans movement isn't the next movement. Look around you. The movement is happening now, whether we care to recognize it or not.

The movement is KOKUMO. The movement is Kate Bornstein. The movement is Monica Roberts. The movement is Julia Serano. The movement is We Happy Trans. The movement is Girls Like Us. The movement is the Trans Month of Action. The movement is being broadcast all around you, and it's spreading across America with the announcement of the Trans 100, celebrating the incredible diversity of the trans community. Trans people are here. Are we paying attention?

I thought of Megan this week when GLAAD announced that its name would no longer stand for "Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation," because the organization is dedicated not only to gays and lesbians but to bi and trans people. However, the "G" and the "L" will remain in the organization's name, and its board mostly consists of white, cis males -- much like HRC, our friendly neighborhood transphobes.

I don't discredit them for that. I know personally that we all have to start somewhere, and that we can't move forward without taking that first step. However, in giving up transphobia, we must do more than just mention trans folks. Trans people are worthy of full inclusion, and they must lead, speak, sign, march, walk and wheel next to us -- or in front of us. We must realize that their perspectives and issues are as worthy of championing as ours. We need to shut up and learn to listen. As GLAAD moves forward, I hope it continues to listen and push inclusion further. I hope we all do.

A month ago Janet Mock very politely called me out on Twitter for getting something wrong in an article I'd written on transphobia in The Observer, and I learned from her. I haven't always been great with callouts, but this time I was happy to get schooled by the best. My work isn't perfect. My work needs to be pushed, and it needs to push itself. I'm still learning -- and that includes learning to love myself, finally. Personally, I'm still figuring out what gender means to me. Like everything else in my life, it's a journey.

If I saw Megan today, I wouldn't just apologize to her. I would thank her. After all, she succeeded in at least one way: I never forgot her.

This blog post originally appeared on WBEZ.