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Today is Saturday, November 24, 2007


Lesbian Confronts Transgender Bias

I learned a lesson last week. In the process of working on a story about an art gallery, I needed to interview an artist. I'd been told ahead of time this person was perhaps transgender. Can you guess where I'm going? No? A shame. I was hoping you could tell me.

Anyway, when we met my gaydar bleeped "lesbian." But I've been writing about LGBT matters just long enough to know that appearance isn't everything, so early in the interview I asked how the artist identified, and was told transgender was correct.

Although this person dislikes pronouns, I asked which was preferred, since I was afraid without them the story would sound as stilted as this column has so far. He answered he prefers "he." There, I got a pronoun in three times in a five-word sentence. I'm making up for lost verbiage. He was glad I'd asked, and I was too. Now I could proceed without difficulty.

Yeah, right! Over the next 40 minutes I found myself writing "she" in my notebook, referring to him as "her" when someone else passed through, and generally blowing it enough to be stripped of my LGBT status on the spot. No wonder he doesn't like pronouns. He didn't feel the need to tell me my slips were showing, and we got through an otherwise good interview. But now I know the interview was constructive in another way ? it brought home to me that this gender business is as slippery as a buttered eel.

At first glance, I would seem to be the sort of person with an iron grip on this stuff. I'm a lesbian and a journalist, someone with a personal and professional interest in keeping abreast of LGBT culture. I (mostly) know what words like transgender, transsexual and intersex mean. A good friend of mine is MTF, and I never think of her as anything but a "her."

So why in this interview did my brain and tongue part company? Why, after being told this person considered himself male, could I not just flick a switch that activated all the right pronouns and suppressed the wrong ones? And where can I find such a switch? Home Depot?

To be fair to myself, it's not as though, when he said he was male, I actively responded, "The hell you are." On a conscious level I'm perfectly happy ? and believe in the need ? to identify people as they identify themselves. But on some other level, things went awry. I think my boo-booarama was partly due to the strain of directing the interview. I needed quotes, and whether they came from a man, woman or ghost was secondary.

I suspect the basic issue, though, is that I was on gender autopilot. I saw female, so I couldn't completely shake the notion that he was a she. Though I did manage to use mostly male pronouns, distaff ones seeped through too, proving the traditional concepts of gender are for me more firmly entrenched than I realized.

It's a safe bet that these gender "rules" took root in me in childhood, along with the also egregious idea that pants with peace signs look good. Most of us are on gender autopilot, I imagine. From a person like myself who thought she knew better, to the utterly uninformed individual who believes "transgender" is a highway in Newfoundland.

I have new sympathy for the bulk of Americans whom LGBT advocacy groups will seek to educate on gender over the coming years. And I have sympathy for yours truly, who is remedial-class bound. But mainly I feel for the trans-folk who have to wait for all the rest of us to catch up.

Leslie Robinson lives in Seattle. E-mail her at [email protected].

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