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What Leelah and Charlotte mean to me

Sat 31 Jan 2015 In: Our Communities View at Wayback View at NDHA

WHAT LEELAH AND CHARLOTTE MEAN TO ME . . . . And to all of us. Late last year I wrote of the need for all adults to take a “village” approach in regard to significant failings within our community. I referred to our inability to include difference, in particular gender and sexual diversity in our societal narrative. Since I wrote that article there have been two tragic incidents which, despite one occurring on the other side of the world and the other in Auckland, share remarkable similarities. Beautiful 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn was struck and killed on an interstate highway near her home town in Ohio, USA. In Auckland, a no-less-beautiful 22-year-old woman, Charlotte Loh, also passed away. Both women shared similar stories and sadly their stories are not greatly dissimilar to my own and for a majority of others who like me, identify as transgender. Both had blogs offering insight into their lives and distress. Even more sadly, these two beautiful young women are but two of many who are killed, beaten or abused daily throughout the world simply for being themselves. Their stories have been difficult for me because their outcomes could so easily have been mine. Society has failed us all and it continues to do so. The only reason I and others survive is because our hope is we can through our own strength and determination make this world a better place. But it remains an ongoing bitter-sweet struggle. Earlier this month in my local shopping mall, what appeared to be a family group . . . a very young family group, approached me. There was a young man who I took to be still a teen, carrying a young baby in his arms. Alongside him were two young women of a similar age to him, one of whom I took to be his partner and the other a sibling of one or other of them. The woman closest to me recognised me as transgender and in a carelessly offensive manner, drew the young man's attention to my approach. Immediately after we passed the young man loudly spoke up with a "hello". It was spoken in a challenging tone and was clearly not intended as a genuine greeting, especially as it was uttered just after we passed each other. He continued to comment in an offensive manner but I ignored the group entirely and continued on my way. The incident has stayed with me and, as Panti Bliss might say, I hate myself for that. I hate myself because I don't want to be giving their combined voice and puerile behaviour any value at all. But it is this way for we who are “out there looking in”. Regardless how well I am mostly received, how accepted and valued people make me feel, there remains a constant need to watch over my shoulder. There is still a constant anticipation of just such moments as these and with that, an ongoing internalised discussion as to how I will deal with any and every such incident before it occurs in a way that does not leave me feeling I should just leap off a tall building. I can try to convince myself that the people who really know me love, care and value me. But that is a form of reality denial and I still carry within me, just below the thin veneer of confidence I may present, self-doubts, criticisms and invalidation. It is this denial that Leelah Alcorn and Charlotte Loh have awoken in me and which is challenging me just now. I began 2015 with a sense of purpose and a sense that I will 'own' this year. I felt on top of my world, at the summit of my own Everest if you will. But a puerile, pathetic and ignorant engagement with people I know not from Adam and who clearly do not know me, has set off a rock-fall of self-doubt, invalidation and intense self-analysis, which has grown into a small avalanche. The building stones of confidence and value inspired by friendships and positive interactions that lifted me to my Everest are turned to dust. It is not too traumatic . . . . . at least at this stage. I think I have arrested the avalanche, so do not fear I am about to fall into the abyss. But I hate myself for feeling this way. I hate that I have to re-constitute those blocks that have crumbled so I can climb back to my summit. For people who do not have to face these sorts of fears and doubt, it is simply not enough, to say "Don't worry, It is their problem not yours." Don't you see? 'They' do not have to deal with anything because your societal paradigm allows them not to. You do not hold them to account. Not until I, and people like me, find the energy and strength to pursue an outcome that has no guarantee of being realised, because we require your empathy which is already lacking. We who are so marginalised have to do everything to continue moving forward, still within your hostile paradigm. Meanwhile those who choose to remain ignorant continue to blissfully drag their knuckles through the sands of apathy. Those of you who do not support diversity in a visceral sense, are similarly failing us. Telling yourself you don’t care how I “choose” to live my life is not acceptance. It is begrudging tolerance and your knuckles should be chafing from the same sands of apathy as those who are openly bigoted. There is no fence upon which you can pretend to sit. If you do not support diversity, you are against it. Those of us who are marginalised have no choice if we wish to survive. We have to develop our own coping mechanisms in order to exist. There are too few adults capable of using an acceptable narrative we can turn to who can support and assist us in a visceral sense. The absurdity of this process I have found is I am often challenged and criticised (especially in my workplace) for the life-saving choices I do make. I have had to re-build my Everest far too many times to count. Yet none of us should ever have had to do so even once. But that is not our reality and I am only too conscious that one day I will find I no longer have the strength or indeed the inclination to do it all over again. But imagine if you will, how well-equipped by life experiences I am. I have a reasonably successful military career behind me, broad experiences overseas and at home, involvement with people and lifestyles from a broad array of nationalities and walks of life. These experiences have stayed with me and have taught me more than any schoolroom could hope, that for all our differences we as a species are so very much the same and it is those differences which make us remarkable and interesting, if we can just open our minds to accept that reality. It is not difficult to understand how prepared I am to cope more stoically with such bigotry and disenfranchisement society challenges me with on a daily basis. Imagine then, how our youth with their limited life experience and world view are so poorly-equipped to form the life-saving choices to enable them to cope with those same issues. Society sorely wants for training and education on the issue of sensitivity and diversity. It should be an inherent aspect of our daily lives in much the way communication, science and technology are. Diversity and sensitivity training should be managed in the workplace in the same way as workplace health and safety, productivity and efficiency. It should be an integral part of the education curriculum, included as an expanded sex education discussion and which needs must be mandatory in all New Zealand schools, regardless of religious construct. Media too: entertainment, news and otherwise needs to adopt an informed basis for any discussion on matters of diversity vice the speculative, often religiously inspired opinion that seems to prevail. Media can do so very much more toward improving the narrative and vocabulary associated with diversity. And every adult too needs must take accountability for their failures. The passing of Leelah and Charlotte, whether or not you deny the fact, represent yours and my failure to be responsible to and for our youth. The failure is rendered even greater when these particular youth were grievously failed by members of their own families and they could neither of them find a way to reach an adult capable of giving them value. And if you doubt the sincerity and integrity of my argument, the reason this narrative does not include more detail regarding the beautiful young Auckland woman is because the ridiculousness of societal constructs (in this case legislation) does not permit any such media discussion. Yet another construct to protect the paradigm, YOUR paradigm, while invalidating yet another young life. Invisible - in death as in life. Hell of a thing to impose on any young person don’t you think? - Shelley Te Waiariki Howard There is ALWAYS help out there, if you need someone to talk to. OUTLine is a confidential phone service for people in the lgbti community which can be reached on 0800 OUTLINE (6885463). After hours, the 24/7 Depression Helpline and its trained counsellors can be reached on 0800 111 757.  Shelley Te Waiariki Howard - 31st January 2015    

Credit: Shelley Te Waiariki Howard

First published: Saturday, 31st January 2015 - 8:06am

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