Microaggressions: A prologue
I learned a word the other day: “Microaggression.” It changed my life a little bit.
“Microaggression,” according to one definition, “is a non-physical form of aggression involving demeaning implications and other subtle insults.” But that doesn’t really cover it. Originally applied to racial oppression, the concept of microaggression describes all those little ignorant comments and bigoted assumptions that oppressed people have to deal with throughout each day.
A microaggression might be a straight person asking a gay man why he hasn’t at least tried to be heterosexual. A microaggression might be an Asian kid getting mocked with “ching-chong” noises (or, for that matter, a Chinese President.) A microaggression might be a woman who is expressing anger being asked if she is on her period, or an autistic person having to hear the word “retarded” used casually. Many more examples of microaggressions can be found here.
Taken separately, each microaggression may seem like ‘no big deal,’ and other people often tell us not to make such a fuss over them. But taken together, microaggressions can really wear you down. Because they come from every quarter, they are difficult to fight off. Responding to a single person’s ignorance does little to combat potential microaggressions which may come from every other person on the planet.
Dealing with microaggression is a bit like standing in a hail storm. Though each individual pellet of ice may sting, no single one on its own can do real damage. But together, they can punch through car wind shields and strip the bark off trees.
Each microaggression impacts the self-worth of an oppressed person, makes them feel invisible, makes them feel uncared for, makes them feel hopeless that anything will ever change. Over time, it all adds up.
To help illustrate the way microaggressions work, I offer you this dramatized “day in the life” of a young urban trans guy—specifically, me. All of the incidents described herein have actually happened, though not all in the same day. I have compressed time somewhat in order to quickly give you a sense of the impact that microaggressions can have, when in reality these incidents may have occurred over many months. Think of it as being like a time-lapse video—it shows a process exactly as it occurs, except for its being very accelerated.
A Day In The Life Of An Angry Transsexual
I wake up, shower, dress, and have some coffee and a piece of toast by way of breakfast. Before heading out the door, I find time to check my email. I have a google alert set up for the term “transgender,” which is probably bad for my mental health, but hey, I write a column. I have to be informed. The top ten new news results for “transgender” include two stories about a celebrity cheating on his girlfriend with a “shemale,” a blurb about a Thai airline that has decided to hire “ladyboys,” and a screed from a Christian news site about how terrible it is that so many companies have decided to cover “sex change operations” for their employees. The rest of the results have nothing to do with trans people, really, but pertain to “LGBT” issues and have chosen to spell out the acronym, thus resulting in another story about mainstream cis gay politics landing in my inbox.
On a dating site, I see that some douche has sent me a message asking if I am “a would-be man who enjoys getting fucked in the ass like a true queer male.” I hit delete and block. Sorry now that I logged in, I shut down my computer and head out the door.
I am already in a bad mood. On the bus, I listen to music on headphones to try to shut out all other humans. I try not to think about the fact that I am completely surrounded by cis people. I try to comfort myself that some of the other passengers may in fact be trans and are just blending in, like me.
Then, as we draw near the Castro, it happens: a woman who is visibly transgender gets on the bus. I watch helplessly as other passengers stare boldly and snicker at her. This has happened on multiple other occasions and I never know what to do. If actual physical violence erupts, I have some vague idea that I will intervene. So far, thankfully, it never has.
When I finally arrive at work, I change clothes in a separate room, while the other guys all just get dressed by their lockers.
At lunch break, one of my coworkers talks about his roommates. “You live with two girls?” someone asks. “Sort of,” he replies. “One of them is like a transgender. It’s like her boyfriend or something.”
Somebody else starts laughing, “Oh that’s nasty. Oh that’s wrong. Does he wear a wig and everything?”
I am speechless, baffled by what is going on around me. Everyone here knows that I am trans. Do they think of me that way too? Or am I one of the ‘good ones?’ Do they just forget that I’m transgender? Or are trans men OK in their book, and only trans women repulsive? I mentally circle this last, most likely explanation in red. But that still doesn’t really explain why they think they can talk that way in front of me. Whatever the reason, I am ashamed to say, they keep right on thinking that, because I cannot find my voice to say anything.
After lunch, some heavy lifting needs to be done. My co-workers’ eyes slide right over me when looking for somebody to do the job. Even though I am bigger than many of the guys in the shop, a weird kind of biological sexism prevails when there are certain kinds of work to be done, as if my body, even after two years of testosterone, cannot possibly be equal to tasks that would be easy for a cis male. I guess they do remember I’m trans after all.
By the time four o’clock rolls around I am more than ready to get out of there. I head over to my favorite café hang-out and engage some friends of mine in conversation. One of them starts giggling about the “trannies” at a certain sex club. By the time I get done explaining why they should never, ever use that word, I fear that I have alienated a friend. I start to feel guilty. Then I wonder why my friends don’t worry more about alienating me by saying ignorant bullshit.
Time to head to my evening class, which is on “Transgender Identities And Communities,” and which I generally enjoy. In the course of the class, a gay cis boy expresses his astonishment that one of the interviewees in a film we watched was trans: “I mean, he was like, hot!” I grit my teeth and wonder if he genuinely thinks that a) there are no trans people in the room and b) that any who might be here will find his shock at our capacity to be attractive flattering.
Finally home again, I check my email one more time before going to sleep. There is a comment to approve on my blog.
“I really like some of what you say,” says the commenter, who identifies himself as a cis male. “But do you really have to be so angry?”
So there you have it, folks. This has been an exercise in explaining why so many of us trans people are, as you put it, ‘so angry.’ We spend our lives in an oppressive society. Even when we are not directly interacting with its institutions, like the medical establishment, the justice system, or the educational system, we cannot escape the negativity, contempt, and just plain ignorance of everyone around us. Day after day, it gets a little old.
And there is absolutely no getting away from it. Any time we walk out the door, open a book, turn on the television, pick up a newspaper, or speak to another human being, we risk encountering microaggressions. I often get so fed up that I fantasize about moving into a log cabin in the mountains away from everybody else and never having to see another soul again. But I couldn’t do it. Just like anyone else, I need interaction with my fellow human beings.
To put what you have just read further into perspective, consider that this transgender “day in the life” is one of a white, middle class, able-bodied, neurotypical male living in America in a liberal urban area. I have privilege on just about every axis and am marginalized only for my transgender status, my queer sexuality, my youth, and my sporadic mental illnesses. A day in the life written by a trans woman of color living in Oakland, or by a genderqueer person in the Midwest, would look very different. I am very aware that I am among the most privileged of all the transgender people on the planet. The fact that even I suffer so much duress from the attitudes of a cissupremacist society should be very telling.
Since so many trans people have it so much worse than I do, I invite anyone who feels like sharing their experience to submit their own ‘day in the life’ to me, or just tell me in brief about your encounters with microaggression and transphobia, and I will then repost it on this blog. Write email@example.com to share. You may give your name and link or choose to be anonymous.