I’m sitting in the back of a math classroom during a grade 10 class’s lesson. My formal timetabled days of school are over; I make a day visit to prepare for my AP exam the following day – calculus questions are opened in front of my desk.
Coldplay plays softly in the buds of my earphones. They’re learning about probability. God, I don’t miss those early days. I consider blasting Amsterdam to drone out their lesson and focus on my practice exam, but something tells me to do the opposite; I remove one earbud.
They are aware of me. She begins her lesson by attempting to explain what mutual exclusivity and draws a Venn diagram where the circles do not intersect. To further explain of course, she goes for the sex false dichotomy as an illustration: “Like, let’s take gender: either you’re male or you’re fe—well I suppose that’s not entirely true anymore.” Laughter. A child interjects – I can’t remember what she added, something about a sex change… she’s trying to correct her teacher’s false dichotomy. “Well, real men don’t do those transgender things,” my math teacher of three years says through a chuckle, as if she’s cracked the best joke of her stand up session.
I blank out, horrified. “That’s extremely transphobic” I itch to say. But I don’t.
“Anyway, we don’t want to rile up Miss Carbon sitting in the back there.” she chuckles again – another ill joke. “But you get what I mean,” she continued, “mutual exclusivity is about either one or the other, nothing can occur at the same time…”
She recognises something very important: that what she’s saying is not PC… that what she’s saying is the classic definition of not cool. And she knows, she knows that a person like me is bound to call her out on her speech. Don’t rile up Carbon — she’s trying to defuse the situation… trying to make fun of me being the sole person with enough soul to speak out.
And yet, that person they associate with me, that person that speaks out vehemently against hate speech is silent now — the one moment they were needed the most. In their place is I… the transgender kid whose feelings are unknowingly being attacked by this teacher – my kryptonite.
My brain quickly dissects why on multi-storey levels that her sentence is problematic: yes I’m going to be riled up, because what you said is not okay: it plays into the false truth of sex fundamentalism and you exhibit the patriarchal problematic perception regarding what “masculinity” should be – and that was just the tip of the iceberg. This is school so I guess it’s time to be schooled, even this adult teacher.
But I panicked and the dissection remained a thought. The moment has passed for an interjection; the moment will not return again… her false dichotomy, her ignorance still intact.
I can’t tell who she is trying to demean: those assigned male at birth should 1) not transition, i.e. transwomen, or 2) not be feminine, i.e. confusing gender identity and expression as the same because either option shows they are not “real men”; or that transmen aren’t “real men” – god, I don’t even think she thought that far.
The moment passed, the class moved on and there was nothing I could do.
My head bowed back down to the calculus, my earbud slipped back in, Low is blasting in my ears,droning out the probability lesson and my self-criticism.
Afternoon. Home. I make a sandwich in the kitchen whilst my mother and sister watch the Wendy Williams show. It just came to South African television; the episodes are as recent as possible.
“Who is that?” I hear from the kitchen. It’s my mother; no matter what we’re watching she always asks already answered questions.
My sister, who has the first born superiority complex always wields the remote; she presses pause, “It’s Bruce Jenner,” there’s laughter in her voice.
“He’s wearing nail polish?!” I don’t have to be there to see the confused burrowing of my mother’s eyebrows.
“Yeah, and it even looks like he got it manicured. Wendy was telling us earlier that he got his Adam’s apple shaved down.” My sister is bemused.
“Why?” My mother is confused.
“So it can be less pronounced, less noticeable. He’s basically one step away from transitioning fully into a woman. Getting rid of the Adam’s apple is one step in the male to female transitioning surgeries.”
“He’s so confused.”
The tears teeter on my eyelid. I don’t know whether Bruce is undergoing a transition (it’s none of our business anyway), but that doesn’t matter – they take his actions as if he is and taunt him for it. And as I stand there, peanut butter jar in hand, my tears prick because it’s not just them they’re teasing, it’s me. These vicious attacks in jest of Bruce Jenner are weapons against people like me, invalidating our existence, trivialising our coping mechanisms used to survive. For them, it’s an old M.A.N. wearing nail polish; to someone else in my position it is that one, desperately needed point to release – that one thing that you can do to be partially you.
The situation gets worse – “I don’t even know why he married Kris,” I overhear. Ah, the classic: conflating gender identity with sexual orientation – what did I expect from these people? Am I a fool to expect more from them?
It’s in moments like these where life thrusts forward a challenge for me to rise to that I weaken. I understand why it’s important to speak up and confront people with problematic views as it happens – I could write essays and twitter rants about the importance of countering transphobia on the microaggressions level, challenging people directly – but I don’t have it in me when it comes to acting on my words. I don’t have it in me. I don’t have the courage, the bravery, the fearlessness. Their hate and/or ignorant-fuelled words are like sword swings slashing down my confidence. It’s very real for me when these words enter my ears: my life stops, my breathing increases, my heart beats hard. A tear rolls down my cheek, peanut butter still in hand. I’m reduce to a muted diminished person whose only reaction is to cry… cry silently, leaving no evidence behind.
I am strong – well, I try to be. But there are some things I just can’t do. And I just can’t challenge the verbal transphobia that’s around me. I’ve become that person I criticise inside. I fail to act, every time.
But even so, can you forgive me?