The Colors of Words

My boyfriend and I just had a two hour debate over something we agreed about completely. “Sure, you need to be careful about what judgments you make, and how you treat people based on those judgments,” he would say, “but its still fair and inevitable to make some judgments, especially based on things people really have choices about, like the slogans on their T-shirts.”

“Sure, we all come to conclusions about each other, and when those are based on real choices, not things people have no control over, that is somewhat justifiable,” I would respond, “but you still need to be careful when making judgments, especially when those judgments affect how you treat someone.”

On and on, in a circle of exhausting agreements that still felt like a dispute.

When we both finally tired of playing Ring Around the Rosie, we eventually found the source of the argument. It was in the word “judge.” Like so many words, it carries the load of a few different meanings, and we were thinking of distinct ones as we spoke. We were committing a classic sin of debate; failing to properly define our terms.

According to the conventional narrative of how debates play out, that was supposed to resolve the problem. We were supposed to mutually redefine our terms and laugh about the error. Oddly enough, though, that didn’t happen. Even knowing what the problem was, we both struggled to use the word “judge” in the sense that the other meant it. We were both using the word in a somewhat limited sense, and neither of us could easily expand our definition.

Grant’s father was a judge. He listened to cases, had the opportunity to see both sides of an argument, deliberated on all sides, and came back with a consequence that was reasonable and appropriate. Over and over, throughout his life, Grant heard of judgement being delivered in that manner. When people tell him not to judge, it feels like telling him not to think, not to be fair, not to care about justice, not to come to any conclusions about anything. It makes him feel vilified when he has to make a decision and doesn’t have all the facts at hand, or all the time in the world to investigate them.

To me, though, judgment means Judgment Day. It means how dare you think for yourself, be raised in a religion that isn’t ours, make a mistake, wear too much lipstick. It is when Moses strikes a rock to get water from it, instead of only speaking to it, and God says he will die in the desert without ever entering the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:2-12) It means seeing someone with spiky blue hair and concluding they worship the devil, whether they know it or not. Judgment lets one mistake, one action, one facet of your complex being define you, and it removes any qualms you have over punishing someone, harshly, for that small thing.

For both of us, our associations with the word judge were intimate, personal and deep, and in order to end the argument we had to get away from it entirely and find a new word, “assess.” Its all right to make qualified, well evidenced assessments about a person, provided you are also fair in how you treat them and willing to revise those assessments as you get to know them better.

I think all of us have words like that, where the associations we have, based on the context in which we learned them, color their meanings. The dictionary can solve some definitional problems, but not all of them. Sometimes its on us to recognize our linguistic biases, acknowledge the rights of others to have their own, and meet each other halfway.

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Open Letter to an Unnamed Comedian

Dear Comedian,

I will not name you because, number one, I saw you at a late open mic night and your name was lost in the swirling rotation of participants, and number two, the odds that you actually see this are slim, and if you do, you will recognize yourself from the joke.

The joke was about a trans woman. Now, I do have a sense of humor about my transness. I like to joke about it, and I like to hear other people joke about it. There’s really only one transgender joke I don’t like. It goes like this; you expressed sexual interest in a trans woman. Haha. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. The precise wording and context varies, but the joke itself never changes. Its funny because… I don’t know. Because transgender people are inherently gross? Because being in contact with them makes you gay and gay people are inherently gross? Its simultaneously homophobic AND transphobic. Hilarious!

Unfortunately, that joke also accounts for 99.9% of the transgender related humor out there, which is a shame. There are so many other jokes that could be told. I loved the one on Orange is the New Black where the only woman in the whole prison block who knew how female genitalia worked was the trans woman. I love this webcomic. I love the penultimate episode of Freaks and Geeks (which is about an intersex girl, but much of the episode could have easily been about a trans woman).

But I’m getting away from myself. You didn’t actually tell that joke, or perhaps you did, but put the first truly original spin on it that I can recall seeing. You told it about yourself. You described a beautiful woman on television who you were very attracted to, and then revealed to the audience that she was trans, and that you knew that at the time you were attracted to her.

Is that offensive? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, its one thing to put someone else down for finding trans people attractive, and another thing to state it publicly about yourself. The latter suggests that there is something okay about it. At the very least you were okay enough with it to admit it to a room of strangers. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be funny or provocative if it wasn’t for the general knowledge that being attracted to trans people is stigmatized. The question is whether or not the joke reinforced that stigma. I wish you had gone on to criticize the stigma, to make some joke questioning why it is, exactly, that we treat attraction to trans people as something shocking and bizarre? Especially at a time when being gay is more acceptable, when many of your fellow comedians that night were themselves openly gay? You could have made us all laugh at the fact that we applaud Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres, yet still mock a heterosexual man for being attracted to an adult woman whose breasts and vagina were relatively recent additions to her anatomy.

I also wonder if it ever occurred to you that a trans person could have been in the audience? I wonder if, to you, transness is something that happens on TV and in bad jokes, not in real life. Would you have told your joke differently if you knew that someone sitting in front of you had personally dealt with the issue of dating while being transgender?

Here’s what dealing with it looked like (for me, not for everyone who is trans). First of all, it meant being prepared for the fact that some people won’t want to sleep with me, on the basis of my transness. That’s okay. Everybody has the right to say “no” to someone they aren’t attracted to, whatever that reason. You don’t have to say “yes” to someone who is fat, thin, tall, short, possessing of a hair color you don’t love, possessing a fashion sense you don’t love, etc. Second, it meant being willing to answer a lot of questions to potential partners that I wouldn’t be willing to answer otherwise. I knew there were some people who wouldn’t be interested and some people who would be interested and also come pre-educated, but that most people who were interested would have some questions. Questions about my surgical history and what I can and can’t do in bed aren’t for the knowledge of the general public, but someone who is considering sleeping with me does have a right to know what will happen. Third, it meant being willing to shut people down and get away fast if their questions were not polite in tone, or if in any way they began acting predatory and disrespectful.

If all of that sounds scary to you, it was. It was exactly as intimidating as it sounds. And in the end, it was worth it, because you might notice I was using past tense in the paragraph above. I found someone online who seemed nice, we wrote, I answered some awkward questions because he asked them politely and reasonably. We met in person, we clicked, and we celebrated our one year anniversary last week. As it happened, we celebrated at the open mic night where you, dear comedian, told your joke.

And this brings me back to why I’m not sure whether I’m okay with it. I recall that at first my boyfriend wasn’t sure what to do, but then he talked to another gay man he respected who shared a story about hooking up with a trans man and how it went well. That gave my boyfriend the extra bit of confidence he needed to meet me in person. So maybe, by admitting that you found a trans woman attractive you made someone else feel like, despite what society says, they weren’t weird for finding some transfolk hot (cause seriously, tons of us are really, really hot).

Still, the joke didn’t make me feel good. It still made me feel like you were mocking yourself, like in the end you were affirming that there was something weird about your reaction. I didn’t laugh at your joke. I laughed at every other part of your set, because you are a very funny man, but I didn’t laugh at that one. It felt like, in order to laugh at it, I would have to laugh at myself, not in a good and healthfully self-deprecating way, but in a way that affirmed that yes, I am a filthy, strange and unlovable thing. I wasn’t really in the mood to do that. It was my anniversary.

Empowerment

Around last spring, I made a decision that kindness was going to be one of the primary ways I evaluated new friends or potential partners. In the past it had been fairly low on the list, with features like cleverness, shared beliefs, or shared lifestyle ranking higher. I followed through on that decision: my primary social circle now is one of deeply kind and compassionate people, and I’ve never been happier.

Recently it’s occurred to me that I want to add a second criterion to my Must Haves list for an intimate relationship: empowering. Does this person, in the way they interact with others, habitually empower others? And more particularly, do they interact with me in ways that are empowering to me?

When I talk about empowering others, I mean helping people to feel stronger, more capable, more worthy and able to be in charge of their own life. A person can be very kind and very, very disempowering: every “white knight” or “white savior” story is the story of someone kindly taking care of someone else in a way that reinforces that person’s dependence on the knight/savior.

Even the notion of empowerment can be a trap, because empowerment by definition has to come largely from within. Once you start thinking of empowerment as something you give them, you’re back in dependency territory. A lot of empowering others, then, is mostly in avoiding disempowering behaviors, although I think there are also ways one can be concretely empowering.

Empowerment has a lot of methods and a lot of facets. It can be simply telling someone, “I believe in you; you’ve got this.” It can be listening to someone talk through their thoughts until they’ve found their own solution. It can be assuring someone that you will love and be there for them no matter what decision they make.

To feel empowered in a relationship, I need my partners to believe these things, and demonstrate the beliefs through action:

– I am fully capable of deciding what is best for myself and my life.

– I am fully capable of learning and growing in areas where I am weak, flawed, or underdeveloped.

– The values and priorities I have set for myself are valid, and are more relevant to my decisions than any values or priorities any other person might wish to impose on me.

– Mistakes I make are not signs of fundamental character failings in me, but of habits and traits that I have not yet learned to overcome. They do not indicate that I need someone else to take charge of my life or my growth; they just indicate that I’m a person who has weak spots like any other person.

The essence of empowerment is respecting that the other person has the right and the ability to make decisions about their own life; to determine and pursue their own values; to live and star in their own story. While many of us would agree with these things on principle, we’re quick to draw the conclusion that we know better than the other person in THIS situation; that we have perfectly clear insight into what they need here, and if only we could just show them they’d be so much happier! Empowerment, on the other hand, persistently sets the other person up as the #1 expert on their life, their needs, and their feelings. They are the captain, you are first mate or crew member (when it comes to their problems and their life, of course. You get to be the captain of your own ship!)

It is possible to give advice and guidance in an empowering way, but it is tricky. First and foremost, the advice has to be welcome. Just jumping in with, “Well, here’s what I think/here’s what you should do” when the other person hasn’t asked for your opinion is a way of centering your own perspective, and carries the implication that the other person NEEDS your help whether they want it or not. Prefacing any kind of advice or input with “May I give you some advice?/Would you like to hear my thoughts?” reinforces to both of you that the other person is in charge here. My therapist, who I basically pay to help me figure my life out, makes a habit of asking, “Would you like feedback?” before sharing her advice and perspective.

Second, empowering advice honors the other person’s values and priorities, even when they differ from yours. For example, the importance of blood family and maintaining those ties is different for different people. Some will walk away from a family that consistently treats them badly, some will work hard to stay connected. Empowering advice honors the values of the person making the decision, even if the advice-giver would make a different choice based on their different values. (If your values are so different from the other’s that you have a hard time imagining why they’d make the choices they do, or if you believe their values to be objectively wrong, then you are not well-positioned to give them empowering advice. Better to stick to being the sympathetic, “I’m sorry this is so hard” voice.)

Third, empowering advice frames itself clearly as one option, which the other person gets to take or reject according to their best judgement. Advice that frames itself as, “I have solved your problem, this is what you need to do” is not empowering; it presumes that you know better than they do in this situation. Advice that comes with an unspoken “If you reject my advice, I’ll be hurt” is both disempowering and manipulative. Advice is a gift you give someone, and attaching emotional baggage to it is unfair.

This whole notion of empowerment is still something I’m rambling my way through, and figuring out as I think and write about it. Questions I’m still exploring (and may write about in future) include:

– What are some modes of conflict that are either empowering or disempowering?

– How much diversity is there in what empowers different people? (This might be one for Lane and I to talk through together, since our needs and preferences in intimate relationship power dynamics are very different.)

– If a relationship has had a strong dependency component, when and how do you move it toward a more mutually empowering dynamic?

I’d welcome thoughts on any of these as I continue to think this through.