NPR reporter Margot Adler does softer feature stories for the network and is one of their best reporters, thoughtfully examining various aspects of political and social life. From various things she has spoken about in the past, I figure she is roughly my age which is perhaps why I find many of her takes on issues resonating with me.
In a recent report she described her experience during a recent visit to a college where it struck her forcefully how rapidly views on gender identify have changed in recent years and how she, like many of us in the older generation, has to learn to keep up with the changes, especially with the nature of civil rights struggles. (You can listen to the audio below or read the transcript here.
I went to one of the smartest people I know in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Carl Siciliano. He is the executive director of the Ali Forney Center for LBGT homeless youth. Of the nine homeless young people who have been murdered in New York since he ran the center, seven of them, he says, were transgender. They experience more violence at home, at school, and on the streets.
So, he says to me, these college students you saw identifying with transgender people, the most marginalized group in our society, how different is that from you, when you were in college, identifying with the most marginalized and joining the black Civil Rights movement? He brought me up short. I had to think long and hard.
Within my own lifetime, I have gone from unthinkingly viewing gender identity in purely binary terms that were identical with biological sex to now seeing it as occupying a multidimensional and even continuous spectrum; from thinking that male and female gender identity were fixed at birth to now seeing it as more fluid and transient. It has helped that I now personally know half a dozen people who are in various stages of gender transition and identity.
Like Adler, I too have to fight the tendency to view the major political issues of my own youth as the important ones and the ones that came later as not so important. We have to avoid the temptation to rank-order injustices, and instead take a more all-encompassing view that the right to be treated equally and with dignity should not depend on the size of the community that is affected nor how recently the issue has entered the public’s consciousness.
Older people like me will undoubtedly have trouble dealing with gender identities that do not fit into the older binary categories that we grew up with and will stumble over the nuances from time to time. But a clear-eyed focus that all people must be treated with dignity and their rights respected should be possible for anyone.