While I was in Portland last weekend, I spent some time at an art exhibition at Portland State University. Called To Survive on This Shore, this photography project interviewed older transgender adults from around the country, seeking to counter the stereotype that being transgender is a new trend by highlighting the diverse experiences of transgender people in the later decades of their lives. Interviewees included priests and sex workers, single parents and nuclear families, out activists and stealth blue-collar workers, and a wide variety of experiences with transness, from those whose families always knew and treated them as the gender they knew they were, to people who lost family or faced severe discrimination in healthcare and their workplaces for being trans.  

This exhibition was an inspiring and intimate glimpse into the lives of older trans people that are so rarely talked about, and as a trans person myself, it was a reminder of the elders that came before me and how they helped shape the community I am part of today. And while I loved the exhibition, when I was there something happened that I can only describe as an innocent but still harmful microaggression against transgender people, and particularly the trans people in the studio at the time. Two women entered the exhibit, and upon skimming the details of a few people who were interviewed and photographed, loudly began discussing how a trans woman that had been interviewed was right for identifying as a transgender woman, while a trans male interviewee was problematic because he told the interviewers he simply identified as a man. I clearly remember one of the women saying loud enough for anyone in the exhibit to hear that “transgender women aren’t women, they’re transgender women,” before leaving the exhibit without reading any other interviews. Besides just being disruptive to the contemplative environment, this woman (hopefully unknowingly) shared rhetoric that is commonly used to dismiss the experiences of trans people, particularly in the context of denying trans women any claim to the concept of womanhood (for more information about why this line of thinking about gender is harmful, check out this article from Vox), and she did so in a space that was designed to increase visibility and acceptance of transgender people.  

After I got over the feeling of discomfort when I heard these women, I began thinking about how they could come to this conclusion, as well as how they decided that it was a suitable setting to share this opinion. And ultimately, I think it comes down to a lack of awareness of transgender people and their authentic experiences, needs, and hardships. I don’t think this woman had set out to invalidate trans people; she just didn’t realize how trans people are often excluded using this language because she had not heard any trans people share this experience. And because she didn’t realize the message she was sharing has been historically and presently used to gatekeep and misgender trans people, she likely didn’t realize it would be problematic to say these things where they could be heard in a space that was meant to be inclusive.  

So, in the spirit of increasing visibility of transgender experiences and needs, and in light of the upcoming International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31st, I want to encourage readers to seek out ways to raise their own awareness of trans people and their unique community. And this could be anything, from spending more time with the trans friends or family you already have in your life, to consuming a variety of trans focused media. This might mean watching documentaries, like Disclosure on Netflix or The Trans List on HBO, listening to podcasts that humanize the trans experience, like One from the Vaults or Gender Reveal, or reading one of the books from this list focused on humanizing trans people and demystifying the trans experience. However you do it, creating more visibility and acceptance of trans people will help create a safer, more inclusive world.