Empathy is at the core of justice. Without an ability to place oneself in another’s situation, it would be hard for us to criminalize many activities that we now do. Pyramid schemes, for example. The create the appearance of opportunity and the appearance of voluntary participation in the enterprise in pursuit of opportunity. But the opportunity is not, in fact, present. A justice without empathy would lead us to tolerate pyramid schemes (far more than we do). It is this exact sort of justice without empathy, without the ability of the men responsible for enforcing law and creating justice to imagine themselves in the situation of the victim, that is responsible for millennia of rape going unpunished and often unrecognized. Indeed it is only as women have taken a greater and greater role in enforcing law and creating justice that these rapes become cognizable by a system of justice, punishable by a system of laws.
Empathy is both necessary and good.
Understanding, however, is not necessary and it is too often not even good.
As a transsexual woman, I do not need to be understood by you. I do not want to be understood by you. And many years ago it became clear to me that the efforts of cis people to understand the trans* aspects of my experience have been harmful, not helpful.
The single most important and relevant example is etiology: how did you come to know that you are trans?
There are narratives that I can articulate. I can speak of a moment which still has importance to me in looking back on my childhood. As a second grader during school recess I was playing 4-square, a game a bit like tennis with no net and a 10″ diameter soft red ball batted back and forth between participants using hands instead of rackets. Some other second graders asked if they could play next. This wasn’t uncommon, usually there was a line to let a new participant in as soon as a current player was judged “out”, though there hadn’t yet been one for this game on this day. One of the people with whom I was playing jeered at the newcomers saying that they wouldn’t be allowed to play because they were girls. I found myself confused, wondering why they let me play.
And it’s hard to articulate this fully, because it’s not as if I wasn’t fully aware at age 7 that people considered me a boy, but I nonetheless felt certain, deeply, viscerally certain, that if there was something about girls that made them unfit play partners, then surely I must be an unfit play partner as well. I protested. I was shouted down. I left the game. The sexists recruited another boy and went back to 4-square.
Now do you understand how I knew I was trans? No?
The truth is no matter what characteristics I list or narratives I tell, nothing will ever fully explain transness. I’m sure that there are some men out there who at a young age similarly felt more closely identified with girls experiencing misogyny than some boys perpetuating it. And yet, Ta Da! They still grew up to understand themselves as men.
You can’t binary this in any If (x) => Trans way.
There is no percent of the time that one violates gender norms that makes one transgender or transsexual or nonbinary. You can’t math this.
None of the individual characteristics are decisive. You can’t plot this.
Even the gestalt is not decisive. You can’t compare me to archetypal transness and Jung your way to understanding.
And yet cis people will continue to ask, but how do I know what this is? How do I know what real, authentic trans* experience is? How do I know who is the really real trans* person and who is just velveteen and sawdust?
The person who feels as if they are trying to help and yet insists on understanding is ultimately asserting an entitlement to the most inexplicably personal details of trans* lives as a condition of trans* equality. Yet how can it be equal unless public respect for your rights was equally conditional on an equivalent invasion?
Nevertheless, when we’re asked over and over, we try desperately to provide you with understanding. We try over and over. And, being human, eventually each of us will settle on a formulation that seems to work for that individual – no more intimacy of disclosure than we can stand, no less information than is necessary to get you cis* folks to stop asking questions.
But the truth is that none of us fully understand the etiology of trans* identity and there is no way to articulate the boundaries of trans* experience except to say that it is the sum of all the experiences of all the trans* people that have ever lived without including any of the experiences of any of the cis people who have ever lived.
But how do we know which experiences those are? cis people will persist, unaware just exactly how much they sound like three year old children. Which brings us full circle.
One terrible result of this endless circle is that trans* people must live unjustified lives. We can’t ever point to the mole on our backs, the one near the bottom of the left kidney that every trans* person has and say, There! That mole there! That’s what makes me trans*. There is no mole. There is no universal signifier. We cannot prove to you that you have used the wrong pronoun, the wrong name. We cannot prove to you that we deserve medical care or education. We cannot prove to you that when we enter the public restroom, we really are there to do the normal things one does in a public restroom, like cry one’s eyes out in place where our harassers can’t see how badly they’ve gotten to us.
And yet cis people will nonetheless insist on justification. Here enters the trapped in the wrong body trope. I can tell you how ill at ease I’ve felt with my body, but what I’ve experienced has never been as simple as something that could be fixed with a brain swap with an AFAB trans person. This is the explanation that the cis community insisted upon hearing before allowing trans* persons access to certain medical care, certain document changes. This explanation was the price of uncertain dignity.
Has it helped? Have cis questions stopped?
No. Of course not. And because some of us had slightly less pressing dysphoria or slightly higher expectations for cis behavior, now the secret is out and people know that many of us who parroted the appropriate lines never experienced the cis-approved narrative. You had an answer to your great questions, How do you identify trans* people? How do you define trans* experience?
For this great and complex problem, cis people had their answer, clear, simple, and wrong.
And maybe a brain swapping transplant in infancy would have prevented me from ever experiencing anything that could be called trans*, but I’ve seen things now. Too many things. I have looked at your stereotypes and your roles. I’ve looked at your identities, your art, your lives. I’ve looked from a point of view that is so far outside your world that even your most alien imaginariums hold no reproductions of what I’ve seen.
You do not understand me. You will not understand me. And I need you to stop trying.
Instead of seeking to understand me as a precursor to supporting trans* advocacy or gender liberation or simply choosing not to freak out at the idea of sharing an office with me, try what I do when I consider abortion rights. I ask myself not, “Do I understand what it feels like to ask a doctor for an abortion?” but simply, “If I were asking for an abortion, how many politicians would I want in the room with me?”
You don’t have to try to understand what I feel as an individual who has experienced violence and abuse in gender segregated bathrooms long before she came to understand herself as trans*, who came out as trans* and had security guards set on her whenever she used a bathroom in Pioneer Place mall, who scared herself silly going into the Men’s bathroom at Powell’s City of Books with two cis women friends in order to vandalize the place with pro-queer stickers printed up by the Lesbian Avengers just before the November 1996 USA elections. The experiences I’ve had in those spaces have been too numerous, too complex, too destabilizing, too affirming, and just too damn weird for them to ever be understood by anyone, even myself.
Instead, just ask, “If I were trying to use a public restroom, how many politicians would I want debating my right to open the door?”
The creation of justice doesn’t require your understanding. It only requires your empathy. To insist on understanding would be to withhold justice indefinitely.