People, Identity….. and Mattresses, by Carole Howard

My husband and I once did volunteer work in Thailand with an organization whose mission was to promote sex education, mostly with an eye toward preventing AIDS. Their primary method was to train university students to make presentations to adolescents who would be encouraged to spread the word.

The organization had two principals, May and Jee. We worked primarily with May but saw Jee every day, interacted with her, hung out with her. She was uber-feminine in the way she dressed, spoke, and flirted. “Oh, that Jee,” we thought.

At some point during our two month stay, we figured out that Jee was transgender. Not surgically, but in every other way. “How interesting,” we thought.

What we never thought, not even for a second, was “I wonder which bathroom she goes to.” The question never occurred to us. Who cared? Jee was the same as she always was, but now with a different descriptive label. She was still a woman to us, but now a transgender woman. In other words, a woman.

It occurs to me that if you meet a person and get to know him/her with a “what you see is what you get” attitude, then a change of “label” later on doesn’t really change much at all. It’s when the label precedes the person that problems can arise – even though they shouldn’t.

For example, you meet Tom. He’s warm, funny, and smart. You get along well. Later on, you find out he’s gay. Or you find out he’s Jewish. Or you find out he’s black. Or you find out he’s a loyal member of the political party whose positions you detest.

The person hasn’t changed, though the “label” has. It’s a funny feeling for you. Cognitive dissonance. You like the picture, but maybe not the frame. Whatever your reaction, it’s surely different from what it would have been if you’d heard the label first, and then met the person. Then the person would be the label and nothing more. Then the bathroom issue might bother you. Then things could get much more complicated. “I like Tom, but…..”

If only people were the opposite of mattresses, whose labels you weren’t allowed to remove or else……

*     *     *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, which is set in one of the many countries (more than 50 …… so far) to which she’s travelled.


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