Some Problems are Obvious:
Disclaimer: The following narrative is based on actual events, however the names, locations and other identifying characteristics have been changed to protect those involved and to comply with the life-long commitment engendered in my previous line of work.
I was working in an industry far removed from higher education. It was a large global and very successful corporation with what I can only describe as long and closely held ties to various government entities. Employees where predominantly white and predominantly male. The ranks of upper managment until recently were all white men of middle age. A few years ago an African American male was hired as the VP of one of the business branches and shortly after that a Latino female was hired as head of (yes, you guessed it) human resources. The following event upon which my case study is built took place within an environment shrouded in "good old boy" mystery and "it's always been done this way" stoicism.
She was tall, blonde hair just past the slightly
curved in shoulders indicative of either poor posture or confidence or both. Her clothing was standard upper management business attire, slacks, blouse and conservative shoes. She walked with long strides, like she had somewhere to be. Given her role within the company it was likely that she did.
That was the first time I saw her.
It was also the last time that I saw her.
And it is where it all began.
Stares. Whispers. Hushed conversations in the hallways.
And it grew.
You see, the tall blonde with the long strides, she was born with XY chromosomes, making her a biological male. Christy used to be Christopher. She had transitioned later in life, she had been married and was a father.
I learned all of this without ever talking to her.
And it made me sad. But soon it would make me angry.
Those conversations, the ones in the hallways, at once hushed yet animated, quickly became wildly inappropriate.
People would cross the hallway to avoid talking to her directly. Instead they talked to each other about her. There were crude jokes, there was discussion about whether or not Christy still had a penis, and if she didn't if she had a "real" vagina. They discussed every aspect of her life, her body without ever once talking to her. Then there were those who were scathing in their comments, disgusted, whose hatred spilled out in a flurry of red-faced crass commentary or religious dogma.
I was furious, that despite being surrounded by well educated and generally decent people that I had to bear witness to this hostility. My company wasn't doing anything to stop it, there were no diversity teams, no inspirational training modules, not a single even half-hearted attempt to create an inclusive or event tolerant (I abhor that word, to tolerate is really just to continue hating, now you just do it quietly) enviroment. So I decided that I would.
I wasn't entirely certain of what to do or how to go about doing it. I only knew that I couldn't be a silent bystander. I had learned too much and I recognized the behavior that my colleagues displayed. Countless microagressions, those subtle things that reinforced the stereotype that a transgender woman could never be a real woman, that she would always be defined by the gender she was assigned at birth, that this transition was only a sign of sexual deviance. And more subtle yet is this, why would a man want to become a woman, when women are not equal to men? The problem seemed infinitely complex.
I saw a lack of empathy for transgender individuals and culture and I wondered if the hostility I witnessed was actually fear. Fear of what wasn't known or understood. Fear of what was different.
I also recognized the position of power that most people were perched on when they spoke, and I knew that they did not understand or appreciate their privileges, because it is often easier to see a disadvantage. I thought of Peggy McIntosh and her White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, (1990) questionnaire and imagined how it could be adapted to the transgender community. A quick google search led me to Joel Kushner's adaptation, Unpacking Non-Transgender/Non-Transexual Privilege, which I will share with you here reader, because I believe you will recognize its importance immediately:
Some Solutions are Small:
An idea was burning in my head. It wasn't a big change. But like all change it has to start somewhere. I was going to begin, literally at the beginning. By starting conversations. By getting people to talk openly. I was going to utilize the power of partial solutions.
I was going to capitalize on everything I had learned in my degree program. I would pull deeply from Culture, Power Equity and Influence, to inform my discussions. I would
explore the role of culture in our lives using Indiana Department of Education's adaption of Edward T. Hall's cultural iceberg model, in which he theorized that if a given society's culture was an iceberg than a large portion of that culture remained largely invisible--beneath the surface. The following presentation from Mandi Linder, highlights clearly why culture must be a part of this conversation:
I would also talk about intersectionality and power, because I believed it to be a concept most people wouldn't recognize and therefore not understand its implications. And for you reader, I point you in the direction of Kimberlé Crenshaw's 2015 Washington Post article, Intersectionality can't wait. Because it was Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality in 1989, in an effort to reduce the invisibility of populations who were discriminated against, not because of one characteristic alone, but because of two or more combined.
Further supporting my discussions would be my learning obtained from The Demographics of Higher Education, where I found the value of using data and numbers to understand a population and support change. I would research intersex birth conditions and their prevalence within the population, I would research the percentage of the population globally who could
be considered trangender, as well as
rates of violence and discrimination that is disproportionately directed against them. I would discuss the alarming suicide rates, (see figure right). And I would loop back to culture and equity, privilege and power to bring understanding to the data and then I would highlight anti-bullying initiatives because so many of these suicide attempts and deaths could be prevented if our culture could learn to accept that which is different, without having to go through untold years of rejection and oppression.
To discuss the anti-bullying initiatives and protective legislature I would draw from my Education Law, Policy and Finance course, where I learned that while the law is a powerful thing, it is also an imperfect thing filled with subjectivity, interpretation and endless shades of gray.
I would bring to the conversations how things are changing, how people are recognizing that bullying (a.k.a., professional adult environments call this workplace harrassment) in all of its forms is unacceptable, so much so that the White House has been championing this forward momentum for change, with organizations such as Act to Change (click logo above to explore). Moreover, that protections exist within our body of law, specifically Title IIV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals and groups from acts of discrimination in public accommodations, facilities and public education and through creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Council that protects workers from being discriminated against due to any protected characteristic (2016). I would also make it a point to highlight current events, which have changed in the last year or so since this occurrence, so I will share the latest with you reader:
Practical Applications of Aforementioned Solution:
I didn't put together any presentations, workshops or conferences. I had neither the resources nor the permission. I did what I could with what I had and became one voice among many. I armed myself with research (I read and researched every night for weeks) and remained unflinchingly tenacious in my pursuit of social justice.
I spoke with everyone. Maitenence workers, IT professionals, cafeteria staff, every level of management within multiple departments. I spoke with Training staff and visiting armed forces personnel from staff sargents to the lieutenant. Each conversation was tailored to the individual. I let the discussions happen naturally and whatever subject arose I would steer it towards social justice, I would steer it towards transgender rights and human rights.
I spoke everywhere. The literal water cooler, the lunchroom, hallways, parking lots, and at the desks of colleagues. And after a few days, a curious thing began to happen.
People kept coming by my desk. Lots of them. Sometimes they would come in ones or twos, but I began to wind up with groups of people leaning up against the wall, or resting their elbows on the elevated desktop, or taking up space on top of the filing cabinet. Often it was the same people. They were curious. They asked questions.
Equally as curious was that the conversations always started off topic. Art. History. Life. But invariably they would steer the conversation towards the transgender community. And while I am sure they were curious about the nitty gritty details of transition and surgery, they kept their questions to the more relevant needs, the more immediate needs. The culture of the transgender community and ultimately acceptance into our own non-transgender culture, the dominant culture. We spoke of the struggles of coming to recongition. We spoke of gender in general and the disparities that exist between men and women which served to magnify the issue of any man who wanted to be a woman or any woman who wanted to be a man. We spoke of the loss of family, children, friends experienced by so many. We spoke of the job loss, or the inability to get a job.
And yes, invariably the staunch resisters brought up the bathroom debate. A debate that with arched eyebrow I would quickly squash into more productive territory.
It was an imperfect system. I didn't have all of the answers. I still don't.
But what I had was an overwhelming need to liberate, to set free, to make change no matter how small. I still have that need. It has been a common theme throughout my M.Ed. program as you will see reader if you view the Body of Work page listed in the left hand menu at the top of this page! And most of my changes you may notice, are like this one, small things with big heart. And that trumps big things with no heart any day.
I never thought for a minute that I would move mountains. But I would be the grain of sand that would eventually split them apart.
Because if there is anything I have learned in my M.Ed. program it is that there no requirement that to achieve great things that one must always go to extremes. Indeed that often it is slow steady steps and unwavering conviction and determination that will prevail. Because that is what real change takes. Confronting adversity. Balancing competing priorities. Challenging the status quo. It takes long days, sleepless nights and copious amounts of caffeine. It takes self-reflection, accountability and a willingness to step out of what is familiar and comfortable.
And I cannot tell you today whether or not I made the world a little brighter for Christy, but I like to think that my little grain of sand changed the shape of the landscape, and maybe even made a few more little grains in the process.