The personal is always political

A best friend of mine recently came out as trans. I’ve known several trans people in my life but she is definitely the closest.

It wasn’t my first reaction but as the news sat with me I was taken back to a recent trip to Colorado Springs. We were passing through on our way from the Great Sand Dunes (beautiful) and stopped for a day hike at the Garden of the Gods (also beautiful). It was soon after the Obama Administration directed all public schools to allow transgender access to restrooms and order that will almost certainly be applied unevenly across the 13,506 school districts in the united states.

I was on my way out of the extremely crowded bathroom when one of the men waiting in line remarked on the female custodial staff cleaning the place. The man next to him said she must be trans because she’s in the men’s room. The cleaning woman said “hey, that’s offensive,” but not for the reason I was hoping. The men then made a joke about sexual assault that really wasn’t worth remembering because the thing is, it wasn’t a joke, it was a belief statement.

The joke, and all jokes like it, are premised on the idea that there’s One Way to be a human assigned by the sex you’re born with. Anybody who claims to deviate from that One Way is either making it up, or a predator. The only way to make a joke like that is to actually believe it.

To me, this is a good example of why people are always wrong when they say they want to keep personal issues out of politics. The personal is always political. We live in a society that has more or less operated on a regime of segregating people for more than a hundred years. As Shannon Keating writes in Buzzfeed, we, white cis men, have gotten really good at coming up with reasons to isolate others from any space we deem within our sphere.

Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms.

Before that it was workplaces and public libraries segregating women into their own realm so as not to be too distracting to the men trying to do “serious” reading. It was “protecting” women from “the threat of dirt and disease.” Since WWII it has been a range of different takes on the same themes: Women (and I’m going to specify white women) have weaker bodies that need to be protected from unsubstantiated threats in public restrooms. These so-called threats are always based on perceptions of weakness or danger among a marginalized population.

Those perceptions come from an unwillingness to understand the humanity of these individuals. They persist because we allow them to.

A large part of why I left my last job was because derogatory comments about trans people were allowed in the workplace. When I complained, nothing changed. My team, 10 white men, one woman, and one person of color, was told to “keep it classy,” and I fear if the message had been anything other than that, more people would have complained about politically correctness taking over the workplace.

It’s not politically correct to think that Anchorman is an unacceptable standard for workplace decorum in the 21st Century. It’s not politically correct to ask that your public places be welcoming to all. It’s not politically correct to say that if anybody hired to work for your company should be comfortable doing that work without repressing their humanity. It’s not politically correct to say that my friend is the same wonderful person I’ve always known. It’s not politically correct to say she should have the same freedom we all have to use the bathroom in peace. It’s not politically correct to insist we treat her with the dignity and respect with which she was afforded before she came out. It’s simply correct.

I’m extremely happy for my friend despite being certain she and her family will encounter people like those deplorable humans in the Garden of the Gods bathroom. I’m happy she has committed to fully expressing and performing herself. She has invested the time and emotional energy to deeply understand her humanity, her gender, and her identity.

It gives me hope, in a world with seemingly little of it sometimes, that she was able to find the resources she has to begin transitioning and performing her whole person. Hope that my generation will raise our children to appreciate the diversity in their world in ways that affirm the dignity of those who currently face real discrimination and persistent threats from all corners of life.