A new Twitter initiative says that “understanding starts with asking.”
In the past few years, the transgender community has reached unprecedented levels of prominence in the public sphere. Transparent isn’t just a critically acclaimed TV show—it’s become part of the cultural lexicon. A casual observer would likely recognize Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, possibly Chaz Bono, and maybe the Wachowski Sisters if you reminded them about the Matrix movies. And the Washington Post named the singular “they”—a gender-neutral pronoun—the word of the year.
At the same time, perhaps because there’s been so much exposure, transgendered individuals are encountering dangerous levels of misunderstanding and fear. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been baffled by the recent “bathroom wars” taking place in state legislatures across the country, or the fact that Congress called its first-ever forum on transgender violence. (The Guardian described a recent rash of killings as an “emerging pattern of travesty.”) What gives?
A few ad industry creatives formed a workshop to try and answer that question (disclosure: GOOD’s co-founder and creative director Casey Caplowe was part of that group). Ultimately, the group developed a new hashtag-based service on Twitter called #asktransfolks, which is banking on the fact that to get past this period of high-exposure and low-inclusion, what we all really need is a little more empathy and communication.
Tiq Milan, a freelance trans advocate and former GLAAD spokesperson, was part of that initial workshop. Explaining the initiative’s vision, Milan says that the mission “was to build a global platform that was launched to foster respect and empathy for trans people. We want to see trans people included and respected as human beings and just another member of society, instead of being criminalized and pathologized the way we are.”
Milan worked with nearly 20 trans and cisgender people (the term for those whose gender experience coincides with the sex they were assigned at birth) to find a way to help expand the trans conversation beyond one-sided headlines and into an actual conversation between real people. Through the hashtag #asktransfolks, people can submit questions on Twitter about this emerging population. So far, Milan and a handful of others have been providing video answers to various questions at the asktransfolks.com hub.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]This is not about who agrees with whose political views. This is simply saying ‘Are you willing to have the conversation and do you want understanding?’[/quote]
“Being transgender is complex, and I can understand people being confused and not understanding it,” says Milan. “But I think the questions are coming from people who genuinely want to be better allies to trans people, and just want to be a better person in general.”
Another member of the creative team behind #asktransfolks is Daniella Carter, a trans activist and spokesperson. Carter was raised in a conservative family and lived homeless from 14 to 18, which is why a large portion of her time is dedicated to advocating for homeless trans youth. She travels around giving talks about her life, which includes the violence she has experienced as a trans woman of color. She says that one of her primary endeavors when she got involved with asktransfolks was to make sure that all faces of the trans community were represented, and that the focus of questions wasn’t just about violence and victimization, because while that is still an inextricable part of the trans experience for many, it’s not the whole story.
“I made sure that we included all trans folks’ voices versus just focusing on the trauma,” explains Carter. “I know that when we propagate separatism, something that trans politics has done in many ways to the trans community, we’re not increasing inclusive spaces. So to me, I made sure in that process that we had all voices included and welcome at the table.”
Carter also emphasizes that this Twitter initiative does not serve any ideological agenda. While politics are important part of the trans community, they can also be divisive, and this endeavor is about education and inclusiveness. “I want everyone to know that this space is not a space that is about trans politics,” she says. “This is not about who agrees with whose political views. This is simply saying ‘Are you willing to have the conversation and do you want understanding?’ It’s a safe space for everyone to engage in. There’s no such thing as a wrong question at asktransfolks.com.”
We may be in the middle of an historic time for trans visibility, but another point of emphasis for Carter is making sure that simply being seen is not perceived as the end goal of the trans rights movement. That we are able to buy magazines with Cox or Jenner on the cover unfortunately does not mean we have achieved equality, but it does mean that conversations the trans community has been having with itself for years are finally spilling into the popular discourse. And that means cis people can start learning how to talk about trans rights as human rights and foster community among people from across the gender spectrum.
“This is the first step in terms of revolutionary visibility and awareness, because visibility is not inclusiveness,” Carter says. “Just because you are aware of social and systemic issues does not make you an ally. When you engage in the conversation about how to create safe spaces and affirm all identity, that is being part of a revolutionary movement that will potentially liberate not just millennials but so many people who have been inter-generationally oppressed because of their gender being policed.”
And just like in the learning process for anything else, there are going to be a lot of mistakes before the intersecting community of trans people and trans people of color and cisgender people and so on and so on learn how to thoughtfully engage with one another. But advocates like Milan, Carter, and the rest of the team behind #asktransfolks know that failing is a crucial stop along the path towards empathy and understanding.
“I think #asktransfolks gives everyone in many different communities a platform where they can engage in conversation in the privacy of their homes and not have to feel like ‘I have to have this conversation publicly before I’m considered an ally,’” explains Carter. “This is an online platform that everyone can engage in and say, “I’m a part of the conversation. So now I have a real connection, and now maybe I’ll go out there and start looking for folks who will not only share their stories but share their living experiences with me so I can be a better ally, a better family member, a better friend.”
Recent estimates put the number of transgender people in the United States at around 700,000, or .3 percent of the population—and if you’re one of those 700,000 individuals, you have the option to customize your gender on Facebook, and choose your preferred pronoun. If you consider yourself a respectful ally, or if you’re a member of the transgender community, you may feel like you’re already cool with everyone of those 700,000 people. But ask yourself: Have you ever had a question about something that you were too afraid to ask because you didn’t want to feel dumb?
I’m going to guess you have, beause you’re a human being, and as human beings, we all carry within us a deep fear of being embarrassed by what we don’t know. Personally, I think it comes from that recurring childhood dream—you know the one. The teacher calls on you and you don’t the answer and you’re also not wearing pants for some reason. We stay silent because we’d rather sit with what we don’t know than risk standing up in a room without our proverbial pants on.
But at this crucial moment in history, keeping quiet and choosing to stay uninvolved are two behaviors that we cannot afford to nurture any longer. There’s no excuse for it in a culture where we can connect with anyone all over the world any time of day. Besides, as Milan puts it: “You have to get it wrong in order to get it right. This gives people an opportunity to ask those questions, to get it right later.”