Steinberg: Playing catch-up with the world as it is
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One evening last summer. Dinner over, darkness settling upon suburbia, the citronella candles flickering. We’re sitting around the iron table on our deck with old friends from the city, a couple and their 19-year-old son.
The lad hunches over his phone, arranging to meet up with a buddy later, and refers to this friend as “them.” His mother explains that the friend exists in some zone between the genders and so rejects the prosaic “he” or “she,” instead going by the plural, “they.”
Just as I was smirking, thinking how strange this is, no doubt some practice bred in the superrich petri dish of The Latin School — the city kid’s alma mater — my older son pipes up that he, too, knows someone from Glenbrook North who goes by “they.” Now there’s two. Nearly a trend.
“What’s wrong with ‘it’?” I ask. “A perfectly good word.”
Harsh, yes, but I was viewing it from a grammarian’s point of view. I didn’t realize that the American Dialect Society picked “they” as a singular pronoun for the 2015 “Word of the Year.”
I share this catty remark to show that, as much as I’m all for marginalized groups being treated with respect, I’m not the Welcome Wagon for societal change and realize it’s an adjustment. Not everybody who flinches is a hardened hater. People tend to be guided by their own assumptions, even when those assumptions are false.
It’s a lot less work to cough up your own preconceptions rather than make an effort to understand a complicated issue. In this case: 0.3 percent of the population is transgender; how are they to be treated?
The answer used to be with shame, violence and drugs. That changed into something more humane, but rather than accept the change, school administrators and backwater elected officials fight it, conjuring up false issues like who gets to go to which bathroom. Rather than worry about the actual victims — transgender kids get ostracized and bullied — these officials create a new, notional victim, themselves (surprise, surprise) and fall gasping to the floor over theoretical harms as if they had actually occurred.
Seeing this sudden geyser of concern over the safety of kids, I find myself muttering, “Where’s this worry when we’re talking about guns?” Real kids get slaughtered, and we all gaze at our thumbs and wait for the shock to pass. But accommodate transgender people and suddenly safety is our guiding principle.
I’m surprised we’re having this conversation now. Maybe seeing the battle over gay marriage lost, the forces of sex panic revanchism retreat to transgender rights and dig their trenches there. Which is a shame, because as stupid as it was to argue about baking cakes in Kansas, agonizing over the potty — and the showers most kids skip anyway — is worse.
Transgender people didn’t show up last year. They were always here. Heck, Native American tribes, not groups known for their squishiness, had intersex men who dressed as women and tended the fires and baked. I don’t understand how the Cherokee could figure this out but we can’t.
Or at least haven’t, yet. But we will. The issue boils down to what people are comfortable with. And — news flash — that constantly changes. A transgender teen in the locker room shocks in the way a woman in the Army or a black in the swimming pool once did. Take a deep breath, count to 10, and it’ll be familiar.
When our older boy was a toddler, he discovered that a certain adult was a lawyer.
“He can’t be a lawyer!” our kid replied, indignant. “He’s a man!”
His mother was a lawyer, and infant logic had twisted that into the notion that meant being a woman was a requirement for a career in law, like passing the bar. He has since expanded his mind to enfold the world as it actually exists. It’s a shame we all can’t do that.