Back in the very early ’90s, Usenet was a popular way to communicate on the Internet. And, it being the early ’90s, the Internet wasn’t in people’s homes, let alone in our hands wherever we went. The Internet was primarily used in academia. And so, in September at the start of every academic year, there’d be a fresh influx of people new to this Internet and Usenet thing, and it’d take them a while to learn what it was all about. There’d be lots of question, people learning the ropes and the rules and the etiquette. And then eventually, they’d get the hang of it (or, they’d log off and put this weird “Internet” thing back in its box to gather dust).
But then in September 1993, something different happened: AOL began sending everyone (and I mean, everyone) free AOL signup CDs. The number of people using the Internet started to climb as never before, and it wasn’t just in annual bursts each Autumn. Rather, now there was a continual stream of new people on the Internet, and therefore there was a never-ending supply of people not knowing the rules, or how things worked. That yearly cycle of “people not knowing stuff” each September now became an every-day, never-ending phenomenon.
Thus began “The Eternal September“.
There are, perhaps, interesting parallels with transgender people. While it’s never been true (to my knowledge at least) that our comings-out and realisations came in yearly cycles, there is of course a continuous supply of newly-realised, freshly-out trans people.
Now, trans stuff aside: if you or I were to suddenly develop an interest in, oh, I don’t know, bird-watching for example, we’d probably recognise that (a) there’s lots to know about bird-watching, and (b) we’re not the first people to ever get into bird-watching, and (c) there are lots of other bird-watchers already who know an awful lot more about bird-watching than we do. And thus, although we might enthuse to people at large about our new-found interest for this area, we’d no doubt recognise our own limitations, and hold back on proclaiming ourselves experts in our favourite new subject.
But this humility, this ability to recognise one’s own limitations of expertise, often seems missing among trans people – or at least, the more vocal ones (and yes, there’s some confirmation bias at work here). A person who, having reached adulthood, then realises they’re trans, might (apparently) easily mistake this realisation of their own trans-ness for a wider understanding of trans issues – without recognising that they’ve only just started to see one tiny piece of the puzzle, from one individual viewpoint. And thus, unknowingly encumbered by this misunderstanding, they overestimate their own expertise in all matters transgender.
Why might it be that this problem affects trans people, but not bird-watchers (for example)? I can see two main reasons. Firstly, activism fatigue: speaking out, being an activist, being visible, continually working against a never-ending onslaught of transphobia in all its forms, can be exhausting. It is the nature, therefore, of exhausting work that those who have been doing it for a while – those who might be most experienced in the field – take a step back, drop out. And when that happens, they tend to become invisible, unavailable for other would-be activists to learn from. The second reason I see is that some trans people choose to go even more invisible than that: they go “stealth”. They shed the label “trans”, preferring instead to be re-assimilated into the binary cis world, blending back into the throng from which they had previously stepped forth. So again, this is another way that we lose experience and knowledge from our collective pool.
Generally, for most individuals that is, this is probably not a huge problem, as our individual spheres of influence are not large. But what happens in the case of the more high-profile, the celebrity transitioner? Firstly, the celebrity’s sphere of influence is that much larger, so the potential for damage done by poorly-chosen words or ill-considered opinions is that much greater. (But note that they are allowed to just be plain wrong and have bad opinions – that’s a separate problem entirely). But also, the celebrity might well see publicity, the act of broadcasting their message to an audience, as a goal of merit in and of itself: TV or radio appearances, newspaper columns, online articles, might all attract a fee. Or at least more publicity, which is the next best thing. And dare we dream (gasp) of awards ceremonies?
So there’s gold in them thar opinions, however ill-formed they are.
Eventually, after enough foot-in-mouth incidents, enough of a backlash, the celebrity transitioner might start, like their non-celebrity counterparts, to learn more about the subject matter; to understand the wider context; and to gain a more thorough appreciation of their own (lack of) expertise in the field. And maybe, what they say starts to become more considered, more balanced. Less hurtful, and more helpful.
By that point though the fickle public has moved on to listen to a different, newer celebrity. Or one might cynically suggest that the media outlets sense that the celebrity’s mellowing opinions don’t sell as well as they used to, precisely because they’re more considered. And they move on.
But never fear, there’s always a fresh supply of the recently-enlightened-trans: those who’ve seen the light, and are ready to spread the good word – however little of the book they’ve actually read.
Welcome to the Eternal September of the transgender world.
Image by “Know1one1”, CC by-sa 3.0 via wikimedia commons.
And no, it’s nothing to do with the concept of the Eternal September, but it’s a nice view, isn’t it?