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For Those Who Have Hearts to Know Us

by Chris Paige


As executive director of Transfaith, I decided not to post anything about "Five Questions for Transgender Chaplain Cameron Partridge" by Lauren Markoe when it was first published by the Religious News Service.

Partridge is a great colleague and role model, so my concerns had nothing to do with his responses to the questions, even in edited form.

At issue was the way that the opening paragraph, written by Markoe, referred to Partridge as "she" or "her," not just once but six times. I read this as a sensationalist attempt to play with the readers emotions, setting up an artificial moment of "shock" as the reader's expectations are interrupted--but in the process another transgender person was being intentionally misgendered.

To be clear, Markoe only called Partridge "she" in reference to his pre-transition experiences, such as graduating from "all-female Bryn Mawr College" where his peers presumably understood him to be female. However, the person being referenced now identifies with male pronouns and needs to be identified consistently according to those preferences. Period.

Misgendering people of transgender experience is a common and hurtful occurrence. Within a few days of the RNS article being published, we heard the news that Diamond Williams of Philadelphia, PA, had been brutally dismembered. Dehumanized in life by her murderer, she was further assaulted in death as descriptions of her as a "male prostitute" were published in several media outlets (responses from GLAAD, Diamond Williams Vigil).

At the vigil for Diamond Williams, Gloria Casarez, Director for the Office of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia, said,

When people are misidentified in the press, its hurtful. Hurtful to the people who knew and loved them and it dishonors their life. It also hinders investigations at the earliest point and contributes to these cases being unsolved. ... We need to respect people in life and especially in death and that very much extends to a person’s gender identity and expression.

This disrespectful reframing of our stories happens all of the time. Sometimes in public. Sometimes in private. Sometimes among strangers. Sometimes by friends and colleagues who claim to care about us.

One male colleague who does not typically disclose his transgender medical history in casual company told me about his experience disclosing to his pastor. The pastor had expressed absolute confidence that there were no transgender people in the congregation. My colleague decided to take the pastor aside in an effort to educate and sensitize him. Soon after the conversation, my colleague learned that instead of respecting the sharing of his sensitive medical history, the pastor had been telling several other congregants that "[name withheld] was really a girl."

It may be a "fact" that each of these people was assigned a gender at birth that didn't match their adult self-understanding -- but when we elevate and highlight that birth history over and against their current identification, the more profound "truth" of someone's on-going and emerging story is usually obscured.

Naomi Zeveloff, reflecting on the Jewish Forward's podcast about her series of articles on transgender Jews says,

One question that I've been told is really inappropriate to ask is "What was your old name?" Or in a more insensitive way, "What was your real name? Or your given name?" To talk to somebody about their past and it's a past that is part of their history, but that they have left behind and they identify with a particular name and with a particular gender. To dwell on how their lives were before they transitioned is a very sensitive thing. To make the strong stance of this person was a woman and now they are a man, this person was a man and now they are a woman. Many, many trans people never... if you are a woman who transitioned to being a man, you never necessarily identified as a woman in the first place.

Ironically, in Partridge's interview, he actually sketches out some of these dynamics of transgender story-telling -- not just about misgendering but about fitting into a certain pre-defined narrative.

I agree with these critiques that “before-after” narratives can have a way of boxing people in. Plenty of trans people don’t medically transition, and those who do transition do so in various ways — they may or may not identify as simply male or female. So “before-after” questions can sometime feel invasive for that reason — because they may unwittingly carry assumptions about how binary or not binary our identities may be.

Markoe must have spent extensive time editing this section of the interview, but still didn't "get it." One Facebook commenter, Géo McLarney, wrote,

[Partridge has] said [he is] often put off by the 'before-after' focus of portrayals of transgender people" ( ... but we're going to do it anyway).

To the credit of RNS, they eventually adjusted the interview's introduction at Partridge's request -- though not until after it had been in distribution for 4 days. Outlets like the Washington Post posted the revision, but still have the original posted as well. Outlets like Sojourners have not made the adjustment at all.

The "Editor's Note" about the correction states that the change was made due to Partridge's objection, but it includes no public apology for the error. Both Marcoe and Partridge declined to comment for this article.

In each encounter, we have the opportunity to treat one another with dignity and respect--opening our hearts to listen and honor someone else's most authentic self when it is shared with us.  Transgender stories are beginning to be seen and heard. Unfortunately, it is still too rare for hearts to be open enough to hear our individual stories and personal truth, beyond stereotypes and preconceived expectations.

Certainly, each individual is empowered to tell their own story in their own way -- and bearing witness to someone else's transformation is a sacred gift. Yet, with that gift comes great responsibility. Some basic standards apply:

  • Inquire about preferred pronouns and use them exclusively.
  • Use the present tense, rather than emphasizing birth history or medical transition, when sharing a story. Inquiring about someone's given name when it is no longer in use is also intrusive.
  • Medical history is private information. Do not disclose someone's gender history without their consent.
  • When in error, apologize and help others to understand where you went wrong.

It's not that we require perfection in every moment. Honest mistakes happen and learning curves are certainly in motion. Yet, it needs to be clear what is at stake in these moments -- including dignity, respect, self-determination, to name a few. Journalists (and clergy) have professional obligations to get it right.

If it makes you uncomfortable to let people's stories unfold without expectation, then we might do well to listen again to Partridge's witness as an Episcopal priest,

...most of all I appreciate what’s called “Anglican comprehensiveness,” which often calls us to embody ambiguity. Sometimes that causes us discomfort, even conflict, but it’s at the heart of who we are as Anglicans. I love that.

Read the full (revised) article at Religion News Service: "Five Questions for Transgender Chaplain Cameron Partridge" by Lauren Markoe

Note: Comment threads on sites such as this can be notoriously nasty. If you feel moved, consider adding a kind word, a link back to Transfaith, or another random act of kindness.


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