Guest Post by Elise Johnston: Smart People, Silly Questions, and Knowing What We Cannot See

Most blind people who have spent any time dealing with medical professionals have learned to expect some very bizarre questions. Experienced practitioners can sometimes seem disconcertingly ill-informed as soon as disability is involved. Trained as we are to place vision at the centre of the human experience, it’s not all that surprising that even the experts think blind people can’t, say, live a normal life, or experience romantic attraction, or independently express their own identity.

Elise Johnston, a prodigiously talented trans writer who has been blind from an early age, has graciously agreed to share her own experience with the “smart people, silly questions” phenomenon. I hope her story will make you laugh and, more importantly, get you thinking about how and why medical professionals–the ones authorized to make life-changing decisions for us–assume that people without sight are people without understanding.


“So,” the psychiatrist asks you, in a delicate, hushed voice, “as a blind person, how can you be transgender?”

Pause. Breathe. Collect thoughts. Ignore impulse to scream like tea kettle.

You know how you’re sitting on this couch, petting the psychiatrist’s snuffling Boston terrier and telling your heart, “No, it’s not a good idea to jump out of mouth. That won’t bode well for getting the letter of recommendation for gender affirmation surgery. That’s the reason for being here, remember?” You know about this, right?

And you know weird questions might be coming because this dude just gives off that vibe. Also, you’re blind, and blindness makes smart people say stupid things.

But compared to able-bodied cisgender dudes with the power to make or break the lives of desperate patients, what the hell do you really know, right? Right?

“Wait,” says Meagan, reading the first draft of this blog post, “I doubt all of my readers know this gender jargon.”

Fine. I’ll explain.

[Trigger warning: special rainbow snowflake words and concepts follow. Hang on to your pearls.]

Gender

First of all, take the equipment out of the picture. That’s biological sex, not gender.

Okay, so find some new parents and watch how they treat their baby. Blue balloons or pink? Barbies or trucks? Ballet or soccer practice? “She’ll break hearts” or “he’ll go places?” That’s gender. Sure, there are beautiful exceptions to the binary, but that’s the general pattern, the pattern of gender as we know it.

Lest there be lingering confusion, gender is not about who you’re attracted to (or not attracted to), and has no specific relationship to sexual orientation. So forget about sex. That’s what I’ve done most of my life. Which leads us nicely to…

Dysphoria

Imagine you step in a rain puddle and soak your socks. And you’re not allowed to change your socks for the rest of your life. And every time you go somewhere, you step in a new puddle and soak your socks again.

Now imagine that your sock is your body and the puddle is your family, friends, teachers, employers, neighbours, everybody. They’re always drenching you in cold wetness. They can do this by calling you a name that doesn’t fit or using a pronoun that doesn’t fit.

If you don’t have an imagination—let’s face it, so many of us don’t—ask everyone in your life to use the opposite pronouns when talking about you and call you a name that’s not traditionally associated with your gender. Feels weird, right?

This weirdness is called misgendering, and the feeling of constant intense discomfort is called dysphoria.

Transgender vs. Cisgender

Everybody is assigned a gender based on whether they have a penis or a vagina when they’re born. “Let’s just forget about the huge number of people who have neither or a mixture of both,” says the doctor.

If what the doctor says agrees with you on the fundamental existential level, then hurray! You’re cisgender. You can go about your life discovering other interesting challenges to occupy you until death, like deciding how best to troll Meagan’s blog.

If the doctor’s assignment feels entirely, devastatingly mismatched, if you live with permanent feelings of depression and wet-sock misery, then you might be transgender, and wish to pursue transitioning.

Transitioning

This is when a transgender person explores a gender other than the one they were arbitrarily assigned. They might try on their siblings’ clothes, prompting disgust and anger and plenty of parental panic. If they have facial hair, they might burn it off with lasers or electricity. They might pursue gender affirmation surgery to help with dysphoric feelings, and get to deal with gatekeepers like our fine psychiatrist friend.

They may also take estrogen or testosterone. These can cause breast development or lower the pitch of the voice, among other marvelous things. Think puberty.

Back to My Story…

I presented the psychiatrist and his dog with my favourite transformation metaphor, with much solemn throat-clearing:

“When I was a young caterpillar, I despaired of my fuzziness, especially when said fuzziness appeared on my face. I longed to grow breasts—I mean wings—and take to the sky as the butterfly I felt like on my rainbow insides. Life was a tipsy wheelbarrow, full of loneliness and despair, tossed about on a stormy sea, sailing downhill toward Suicide Lake.”

It’s the same story I’ve told my parents, my friends, my therapist, that other psychiatrist, the GP who prescribes my hormones.

Except, then came the curveball, the weird question to end all weird questions. Here it is again, just for effect:

“So, as a blind person, how can you be transgender?” he asked. “Like if you can’t see women, how can you possibly know that you want to be one?”

Oh dear, I thought, I have just boarded the elevator of wrongness, and this elevator music is a symphony of shit. Let’s break it down:

This PhD thinks blind people can’t grasp gender like a sighted person can.

This credentialed, respected, supposedly woke expert thinks one must see woman to know woman.

Anyway, because I have access to someone else’s blog, and words are free, here’s what I told the psychiatrist. Maybe you might identify with some of it, especially if, like me, you don’t tend to base your idea of gender on how people look, invalidating the lives of blind people everywhere.

Firstly, in my world at least, gender isn’t biological. It’s not a matter of body, it’s a matter of brain. Or maybe it’s my gut? Or my heart? My bones?

I’ve been convinced for as long as I can remember that I am a woman, making one of the assumed premises of the psychiatrist’s question invalid: I don’t want to be a woman; I am a woman. What I want is an exterior that matches my interior, and I don’t need sight to be sure of that.

Secondly, my experience of gender is one of relationships, how people treat and mistreat me. Whether I’m included or excluded in activities and spaces – am I invited to the stag or stagette? It’s about my assumed preferences on beverages (wine or beer?), books (YA romances or SF alien porn?), movies (action or chick flicks). It’s about whether I’m expected to feel one way or the other about comedy, music, personal hygiene, hobbies. It’s about the instrument I’m assigned in band class (baritone, because flutes are girly), the birthday presents I receive, the clothes I’m expected to wear. It’s not all about the clothes, though god, it really is all about the clothes.

I do, of course, have dysphoria about my body. Else I wouldn’t be sitting on this couch talking to this psychiatrist, hoping he can unlock the doors of his mind and accept the idea that people without sight are not people without experience.

I am indeed fortunate that my dysphoria isn’t triggered by seeing other women, but it is triggered by lots of other things, like hearing about periods, hugging them and feeling a chest that isn’t flat as a pancake, bumping into hips that aren’t cursed by narrowness, and knowing that those lucky bitches do not have to contend with the cursed crotch bulge.

So yes, on some level, my dysphoria is triggered by intellectual knowledge and not by visual reminders, but unlike certain cisgender dudes with doctorates, I actually use all of my senses around people, and even, on occasion, my brain. In fact, for me, one of the most dysphoric things in my life is my voice.

The Point of it All

The point, thanks for asking, is that whether we’re blind or sighted, our senses of self are bound up in our gender. I’m not sure about everyone else, but I don’t need functional eyeballs to tell me when there’s something out of whack with my sense of self.

But I’m just an anxious, blind transgender lady with two post-secondary degrees and a shit ton of lived experience.

What do I know?

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Pleasing The Unpleasable: Say Goodbye To The Middle Ground

If you’ve spent a lot of time on social media—particularly Twitter and Facebook—you might have noticed a diversity spectrum. At one end, (let’s call it right, for giggles) we have people who are passionately opposed to diversity. At the far left, we have people who are equally passionate about encouraging diversity. There’s a whole lot of middle ground, but the opposite ends are usually warring with each other, and those in the centre are subjected to the excesses of both sides.

I’m not sure where exactly I’d place myself on this spectrum—though certainly more left than right—but I think it’s difficult to self-assess these things. It’s nearly impossible to examine my own behavior with an objective lens and decide where I belong. Even diverse and oppressed populations find ourselves unsure of where we stand, especially when we get caught in the intense crossfire. Objectivity itself is disturbingly scarce, in an age when we put less and less stock in fairytales, harmful superstitions (adopt the black cats, guys, pretty please!) and even extremist ideologies. There are a few publications that conduct ethical, verifiable research intended to challenge our cherished, long-held beliefs about the world. They are too few, though, and in a world of black-and-white thinking and instinctive loyalty to one’s beliefs, their voices are not nearly loud enough.

Now, the righthand side of the spectrum is a very real threat. These are the people—usually powerful majorities, but not always—dismissing diverse authors because they’re not “good” writers. They look down on women in comedy because, I kid you not,women aren’t funny. They despise disabled people because we are a drain on the system, robbing them of hard-earned pennies and indirectly taking food from their children’s mouths. (They conveniently refuse to educate themselves; many of us aren’t on benefits at all.) They’re usually the ones promising same-sex couples they’re bound for hell, calling black people thugs, and branding indigenous populations lazy drunks. Their claims sometimes stem from personal, unfortunate experience; even so, their attitudes are obviously detrimental to society. I think many of us can agree with that, at the very least. But …

It would be a mistake to consider the far left pure, just, and incorruptible. The Social Justice Warriors (as the right so affectionately calls them) are genuinely trying to fight the good fight as they see it. Overtaken by their intense fervor, though, they seem to neglect those in the centre of things. They are fighting for what they perceive as justice, but many of them are unwilling to entertain the idea of grey areas, full stop. They don’t appear to acknowledge (or care) that the tactics they so despise from the far right are often the ones they adopt themselves. Take it from someone who is left but not all the way left: more often than not, it’s safer to avoid getting involved, because you’ll feel ineffectual and exhausted in short order. It’s gotten so bad that more than once, I’ve taken a “mental health break” from social media, or at least from controversy. While I have been guilty of this overenthusiastic dog piling, (and may be again), I recognize that it’s largely ineffective and stressful for everyone involved.

If you examine the far left’s strategies more closely, you’ll begin to spot the multitude of contradictions:
• They hate to see diverse populations silenced by the right, but are constantly telling everyone to #SitTheFuckDown, including fellow diverse individuals.
• They occasionally consider evangelism deplorable, yet they preach every bit as loudly and proudly as the religious right. (I personally have no issue with preaching on either side, but it’s still glaring hypocrisy.)
• They accuse the right of being too exclusive, yet will ignore anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. (Try entering a conversation about race or disability if you’re white and/or able-bodied, even when you support the cause and honestly want to know how you can help.)
• They are forever telling majorities, (especially straight, able-bodied white men) to shut up, then accusing them of failing to do enough for the cause. (Either you want them involved or you don’t. Pick one.)
• They criticize majority artists for failing to include diverse characters in their books and movies (which they should, really), but then turn around and berate them for cultural appropriation. This is a very real and very important concept, but it is ill-defined and confusing. (This can be a powerful source of anxiety for writers who want to do the right thing but feel as though they can’t win either way.)

There are numerous voices for marginalized groups who either encourage majorities to get involved, (This book is an excellent example) or at the very least encourage them to boost the voices of diverse populations. These instructions are relatively easy to follow, and they allow white, straight, able-bodied, Cis-gendered males to take part without routinely saying the wrong thing or supporting the wrong people. Others, however, are simply unpleasable: they want you as an ally, but only if you say what they tell you to, when they tell you to. They want you to help, but then dismiss all your efforts because they’re insufficient. They refuse to guide your attempts, then spit on you for making a mistake.

This is not to say that all allies are perfect little angels just waiting to be told what to do, of course not. Many people who want to be allies have suspect motives, condescending perspectives, and narrow minds. Take, for example, the plethora of articles about how “inspirational” people with disabilities are. The gooey rhetoric of the able-bodied can be dangerous as well as irritating, trust me. In my experience at least, you’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar: if you calmly and kindly explain why this inspiration porn is not okay, people are generally willing to listen and take note. There will always be those who think they know best, but quite a few people out there are all too willing to learn, so long as we can tell them how best to do so. We can’t blame everybody for stumbling a bit along the way; none of us is immune to a stumble here and there. We need to be more compassionate, we really do.

Sadder still, the unpleasable, comparatively rare though they are, often drive people away from the message they’re trying to send. The medium is the message, so if you convey important ideas via abusive rants on Facebook or angry tweet storms on Twitter, your words will be lost in the mayhem. If you barge into a stranger’s Twitter mentions or Facebook posts specifically to deliver personal attacks and invective, don’t expect them to absorb your message with delight and say “Yes! I shall change immediately.” I recognize the need for anger, and passion, and even temporary preference for justice over mercy. There are many on the far right who do grievous social and even physical harm, and that’s something worth fighting against. So, yes: be angry. Be passionate and stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves. Be unafraid to express what you think is right; after all, I’ve been doing that here for over a year now. Be dedicated in the wish to educate and advocate. I’ll be right behind you.

Take care, though, that you do not push away the very people whom you claim to represent. If I, a disabled person, am bombarded by a barrage of social justice warriors because I dare to have a slightly more moderate opinion than they do, I’ll be tempted to abandon their cause altogether. The quickest way to divide people is to pit them against each other, and forming a “diversity club” is one effective way to do it. Silencing fellow diverse people because they don’t follow your exact specifications is going to damage your credibility and distort your message.

Those who silence others do not represent me. Those who gang up on vulnerable people are not my peers. Those who refuse to accept and guide allies do not help my cause. Those who shame, degrade, and dismiss other diverse populations for the sake of their own agendas are not my friends. The unpleasable are not my allies. If your only goal is to shut everyone up so your own voice is the only one that matters, then go your way. Don’t expect me to follow you.