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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tolerance. Or Intolerance? Transsexuals and Pronouns, Holiday Dinners and Family History

Dear Fred,

Hi, you had me over to your house for a holiday dinner. I'm really grateful.

We sat on the couch chatting. It's always a challenge to find an appropriate conversational topic during holiday dinners. There is so much pressure to be grateful and warm and cozy with people we sometimes see only on a major holiday and with whom we may have little in common.

Nervously scouting around for a conversational topic, I mentioned that my cousin blocked me on Facebook. "Louise" is a female to male transsexual. I think it's because I used feminine pronouns, eg "she" and "her." She wanted me to use "he" and "him."

When I mentioned this, your face immediately became angry, and you actually moved away from me on the couch. You said, "I'm offended." I think you called me intolerant. Conversation ended. Me, left alone, high and dry, in somebody else's house, at somebody else's party, on Thanksgiving.

I want to talk about why I choose not to use male pronouns for a transsexual. I want to talk about whether or not your assessment of me as offensive and intolerant is accurate. Strangely enough, as is so often the case, I want to travel back to a small, peasant village in Slovakia. So often in my attempt to explain, or understand, anything, I travel back to a small peasant village in Slovakia.


My grandmother lived in a cottage – hovel – home – built by hand by my grandfather. Her firstborn, Mary, died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. Her second child, my Uncle Joe, contracted something – perhaps meningitis. The doctor told my grandmother to give up on him. That she, a peasant, contacted a medical doctor is evidence of my grandmother's valuing of Joe. My parents just about never contacted a physician for me during my childhood in America. Their policy came close to killing me.

My grandmother refused to give up. Hope denied her by medical science, my grandmother prayed to St. Joseph, the father of Jesus and her son's patron. Uncle Joe recovered, and this was assessed as a miracle. A miracle with a price. Joe was deaf.

There's a folktale about a farmer who experiences what could be called "unfortunate" events, and who also experiences "fortunate" events. For example, at one point a wild horse breaks his son's leg. The neighbors say, "What bad luck!" but the old farmer withholds judgment. Later, government troops come to conscript the village's young men. The broken-legged son is not conscripted. The neighbors say, "What good luck!" but the farmer withholds judgment. And so it goes.

Such it was with Joe's deafness.

Slovakia, peasant, powerless, and poor, had sent the largest percentage of its population to America during the mass immigration of c. 1880-1929. Coal mining, steel smelting, petroleum: we took up the hardest jobs. My grandfather left Slovakia before my mother was born. He mined coal. My mother had never met her own father.

They put some flowers on an oxcart, and my little mother was plopped upon it, and driven to a train, and then a boat, and then America. It was traumatic for her.

It only got worse. My grandfather, in the nightmarish conditions in the mine, developed emphysema. He couldn't work.

Someone had to go out and work to feed the family. My grandmother and grandfather had four more children in America. Eight hungry mouths to feed.

Joe would not be the one sent out to work.

Primogeniture is one cause of immigration to America, and inspiration for fairy tales. Firstborn sons got everything. The youngest got a sooty spot by the fireplace, like Cinderella, and lots of housework, and fairy tales to fuel their survival. The hero of a fairy tale is often the youngest, exactly because the youngest had the least, and was often doomed to a life of poverty and an early grave. Youngest sons often immigrated to America.

Too, exactly because Joe was deaf, charitable, and industrious Americans had lifted him out of the poverty of his Depression-era immigrant family. He was sent to a special school for deaf children. He was learning a marketable trade. He would be set for life.

My mother's four siblings who had been born in America were too young to be hired out.

My mother, a very intelligent, gifted woman, who had been doing well in school, was forced to quit school. She was sent to raise other people's children, and clean their houses, thus earning a salary, money to be sent home. "Who's going to feed the big cow?" my grandmother asked my mother. My mother was "the big cow."

My mother learned Yiddish and Jewish cooking and became a live-in nanny. When I was growing up, we regularly ate Jewish foods in season, like matzah brei. This was a holdover from her being hired out. By the time she got to me, her last born, my mother had raised three sets of kids.

Here are three family stories that I cannot verify:

One. My grandfather, before he died, left a large sum of money, or land, to his three sons. His sons, not his daughters. This would be typical of peasant patterns. Males, important. Females, less so.

I don't know if this story is true, but my uncles certainly had bigger houses, in nicer neighborhoods, and more land than my mother.

In any case, my uncles might have had time to learn marketable skills in America. My mother devoted years she might have gone to school to supporting them when they were children. She did menial, manual work all her life. And she was the smartest of all of them, and the most talented. Perhaps the rumor was true, and she really was the love child of the village priest, who was in love with my grandmother, and not her coal miner "father." I don't know.

Story two. My mother regularly sent gifts to her family in Slovakia, often to people born after she left. I heard that our relatives there gave Uncle Joe, who made it back for a visit before my mother did, two Slovak peasant costumes, one for his daughter and one for me. Uncle Joe kept both. Again, I cannot verify this story.

Story three. My mother was very proud, but there were times in my childhood when there was nothing to feed us. I was often barefoot for want of shoes. I was often hungry.

At times, my mother went, hat-in-hand, to her economically better off brothers, and they humiliated her. She told me this. I don't know if it is true.

What I saw with my own eyes suggests to me that these stories could be true. My uncles were big, loud, sarcastic, unkind, and capable of being mean.

Uncle Joe flirted with Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't know if he ever became one, but he would harangue my mother, in his unique style of speech, a bit the speech of a deaf man, a bit the speech of an immigrant, mocking her beloved Catholic Church. So brutally insensitive and disrespectful. So typical of Jehovah's Witnesses. He was her older brother, and she took it.

I was abused as a kid. The abuse was obvious. I was bruised and unkempt and my parents said hideous things to me and about me in front of everyone. No one ever called the police. No one ever sat my mother down and had a talk with her. No one ever told a doctor or a priest or a social worker. No one ever comforted me or told me I had some value. They are guilt of this sin of omission.

People often ask me "Why?" I hate that question .It implies that I did something to deserve to be abused. Perhaps if I had been prettier, or nicer, my mom would not have abused me.

I don't know why my mother abused me. I do know that she was used up and worn out, and that her parents let her down by removing her from school and hiring her out. Of course, the ultimate villain here is poverty. But my uncles and my cousins benefitted from her pain. I suffered because of her pain. They saw my victimization, and they did nothing.

My cousin Louise was older than I. During one of the worst episodes of abuse, which everybody heard about, she was at least thirty. That's an adult. That's someone of age to be responsible. That's someone with access to a telephone, to a police department.

Louise did nothing. No one ever did anything. That's a sin of omission.


I got out. I moved on. My bruises healed. I learned to wash and engage in hygiene, and to eat healthy food, and to go to a doctor when I got sick. These were all things I had to learn.

One day when I was in my twenties I realized, "Hey. I was abused as a kid."

I started attending Twelve Step Meetings for survivors of child abuse. The other adults at those meetings had also been abused in ways that were obvious, and they were also betrayed by everyone who witnessed this and did nothing. "It takes a village to abuse a child."

At this very moment, right now, in fact, a kid is being abused, in a way that is totally obvious. More fortunate people are witnessing this, and are doing nothing.

At that moment, in my twenties, I thought, Hell, I've been betrayed by the entire world. I have justification for hating everyone. Every single person I meet. And so do all my friends, my brothers and sisters, in Twelve Step. We all have reason to hate everybody.

Problem. My religion stood in the way of that. Jesus is all about forgiveness and love and stuff.

And so I consciously decided to apply it. I remember the very day. I was in line in a frozen yogurt place in Berkeley, California, and I decided to smile at the cashier.

I did.

It was totally phony. I smiled because I claimed to be a Christian and I felt it was my duty to at least take a whack at it.

I've been smiling ever since.

It was only after I made that decision, that decision to smile, that I realized some things.

I realized, "I am hurt. No one knows." I got it, "In the same way that my pain is invisible to others, others' pain is invisible to me." I realized I am surrounded, at all times, by people dealing with invisible pain I know nothing about.

I realized, "Others let me down and hurt me in ways they don't even realize … by extension, I've let others down and hurt them in ways that I don't even realize. It's not just that everyone around me is guilty. I'm guilty, too."

I realized that I'm not the world's judge, jury, and executioner. I mean, I easily enough could be, but I despise people like that. The people who go around blowing other people up, always thinking that they are righteous to do so.

I don't want to be that person. I don't want to be the world's judge. I don't want to be the world's jury. I don't want to be the world's executioner.

I want to be the person who smiles at the cashier in a frozen yogurt place.

I realized, "I need people. I want people. I enjoy people. People give me something I don't get from any other source, not from the woods, or dogs, or birds, though I love all three.

Even flawed people give me something I need, want, and enjoy."

My smile, my letting go of my righteous anger and judgment, allows into my life all the good I get from people. My righteous anger serves as a bulletproof wall that does not let that good stuff in.

Dagnabbit! Jesus was correct again. It really is better not to judge. It really is better to love. It really is better to smile at the yogurt cashier.


So, it's 2013. Someone I haven't heard from in decades, my cousin Louise, contacts me via Facebook. Wants to be friends.

I think what I always think about everyone to whom I am related: "I would be justified in hating you, possibly in reporting you to the police, certainly in rejecting you. Just seeing your face and name on my Facebook wall, and confronting the attendant memories, will, without doubt, cause me winces of pain.

But here's the thing. Under Jesus' tutelage, I have decided to smile at the yogurt cashier I might otherwise indict and execute with a righteous-anger-ignited suicide bomb."

So I decided to accept my cousin's Facebook friend request.

I decided to place her sins of remission on the back burner.

I resolved to seek and find what is best in her.

I resolved to decide that what is best in her is primary, and that her sins of omission re: me are secondary.

I resolved to be patient and to hope.

To me, the process I describe above is what tolerance is really all about.

I did that with Louise. We were Facebook friends for a while. Then the kerfuffle over pronouns, then the unfriending and blocking.

That, to me, is what intolerance is all about. A quickness to judge. A quickness to condemn. A refusal to see what is best in another person. An insistence that the one thing you don't like about another person is PROOF that that person is beyond the pale and worthy of shunning. An insistence that you are the victim. That your sense of victimization is primary. That whatever pain you felt is the most important thing. And using that pain as permission to nuke another human being.

I wish we could have talked about the issue at hand without shunning hanging over anybody's head.

In fact, I'd love to debate this with you now. Is it correct, is it kind, is it moral, is it socially imperative, to use female pronouns when referring to a male to female transsexual?

My answer, for me, is no. This is why.

I would never do anything to stand in the way of anyone who wants gender reassignment surgery. It's not my business. I do not support any discrimination against people who seek or who have had gender reassignment surgery.

I choose to use "he / his / him" for persons with an X and a Y chromosome, because those strike me as the accurate words to use.

I choose to use "she / hers / her" for persons with two X chromosomes, because those strike me as the accurate words to use.

Some insist that anyone who does fall into line, and refer to xx persons as "he," is a homophobe, a bully, a hater, an enemy, beyond the pale, to be lectured, to be demonized, to be shunned.

It's that approach that bugs me. It's a Politically Correct litmus test. If someone uses the pronoun "she" for a male to female transsexual, one is tolerant and cool and hip and worthy. If one does not, one is intolerant and beyond the pale.

Any such litmus test designed to assign worth to human beings is part of a process I have to reject.

I think it is of vital importance to use accurate vocabulary. I know that accurate vocabulary can hurt people's feelings. I don't think that the pressure not to hurt others' feelings should dissuade us from using accurate vocabulary. I think something bigger is involved. I think the urge to control vocabulary use through demonization and shunning is a totalitarian impulse.

I don't have a problem with the pronoun you use. I would never try to force you to use a word you felt uncomfortable with. I would never call you names for using a pronoun different from the one I use. I wouldn't demonize or shun you.

I would never do that for the reasons outlined above. I have chosen to smile at the yogurt cashier.

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