(originally published on www.airdriepride.ca - September 2018)
I believe that our individual stories are as unique and distinct as our fingerprints. As I continue to meet more and more people in our community, I have increasingly gained an appreciation of how diverse our human experiences are. I have been fortunate to hear so many extraordinary stories, all unique in their own way, as I have worked through my journey of personal self-discovery. Looking back now, I appreciate that it was the culmination of those uniquely individual stories that helped retrain my trust in authenticity and launched me towards living an authentic life.
Admittedly, when I’ve been asked about my own life experience and the steps I’ve made through gender transition, my first impulse has been to say that it was not particularly unique or exciting, and therefore not worth sharing. After all, the world wide web is full of people’s transition stories, and in comparison, mine often feels insignificant. I often think “just Google it” and you will learn all you need to know.
However, this past year in a Social Psychology class, my perspective shifted when I learned about a human behaviour called “subtyping.” Subtyping is an innate human response wherein a person believes that anyone who is nonconforming to societal norms is merely unusual. Or in other words, that this “unusual” or nonconforming person is the “only one” or one of the very few people like them in the world. Notably, this cognitive strategy of subtyping provides a convenient way for us to avoid challenging our ingrained beliefs, or stereotypes.
Despite this, as many of us have observed through our lifetime thus far, stereotypes do change over time. The root of any change occurs when our society experiences more and more exceptions to the perceived norm. Essentially, the more exposure that we have to a disconfirming person or group, the harder it becomes to hold on to or justify the initial negative or erroneous stereotype. We have seen this phenomenon throughout history amongst many human rights debates.
To use a more personal example, I want to share how my stereotypes about transgender people transformed when in 2013 I journeyed to Esprit, a Transgender conference in Port Angeles, WA. I travelled to the conference full of my own internalized Transphobia and stereotypes, all of which were metaphorical handcuffs constraining me from living my authentic life. I believed that all transgender people would have difficulty finding a family that loved them, that a transgender person would not be able to have a “normal” career and that if I ever chose to live my truth, I would have to sacrifice all that I thought was a “normal life.” Five years ago, this was my belief. This was my stereotype.
Throughout my week at Esprit, everything changed for me. I was incredibly fortunate to meet countless other transgender women who were all beautiful and novel in their own way. In many quiet conversations, I was incredibly lucky to be entrusted with the gift of their experiences, their journeys, their tragedies and triumphs. I very quickly realized that being transgender was not at all what I thought. These incredible women happily filled a variety of successful professional careers, had families and friends that loved them for who they are, and had attained a comfort and peace in themselves that I was desperately searching for. Over only a few days I had found people that understood me and very quickly my lifetime of internalized negative stereotypes about the transgender community were shattered creating space for new healthier and more accurate beliefs to form in their place.
Looking back now, after all I have been through, I appreciate that if I had shown up in Port Angeles and only met one other transgender woman, I would have subtyped and my beliefs would not have changed. If nobody I ended up meeting had been graciously willing to share so much of their story with me, my perspective would not have shifted, and I would still be stuck in those metaphorical handcuffs. I owe so much of the peace I have now to all of those women and their individual stories.
I don’t believe that it is anyone’s burden alone to change the negative stereotypes and beliefs that exist in our world. However, I do think it is important to be reminded that everyone’s story is powerful, worth telling and worth listening to. Although our stories might share a common thread, it is the culmination of the unique aspects from all of us that will provide the fuel to change perceptions and beliefs in our communities. When we all stand up together and be proud of the humans we are, it will become more difficult for anyone to be subtyped as a “one-off.” Our willingness to be open and vulnerable will continue to clear the path ahead, making it easier for all of those following in our footsteps.
Your story has power and is always worth sharing.