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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Neil Steinberg

Bullies imagine injury in order to inflict it

A gender neutral bathroom sign at a restaurant in North Carolina in 2016. (Getty Images)

Are there a lot of trans people? That depends on what you consider “a lot.”

A government survey found 1.4% of 13- to 17-year-olds identify as trans, compared to 0.5% of adults. That shift partially explains part of the perception that this is a new, growing phenomenon.

Living an ordinary suburban life on an ordinary suburban street, I personally know ... let’s see ... one, two, three, four trans young persons. I would call that a lot. They impact my life — beyond when I occasionally grope to recall their preferred pronoun — no more or less than any other acquaintance.

So why are trans folk such an enormous political issue in 2023 America? Three reasons:

First, for a person who spent their entire life grounded in binary gender identity, the trans presentation can be confusing, in a what-the-heck-am-I-looking-at? sense. I once glanced out the window and saw a neighbor’s adult child — I almost said “son,” old habits die hard — with a beard and breasts, pushing a baby carriage down the the street. It took a bit of pondering to sort that one out, eventually filing the image under, “Business, none of my.”

If you strip the process of malice, I don’t see anything wrong with allowing people this adjustment. It can take a trans individual a long time to work out their own particular gender identity — to understand who they themselves are — so it doesn’t seem fair to then demand that any random passerby immediately achieve a similar understanding.

Protesters gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2019 when justices heard arguments in the first case of LGBTQ rights since the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. (AP file)

To insist something that might have taken the person closest to the situation years to process be instinctually grasped by others is asking a lot. Here, liberals do themselves no service by, for instance, banishing Harry Potter because J.K. Rowling decided sniping at trans women is her new personal brand. That’s guilt by association. Arthur Conan Doyle spent his last years dabbling in spiritualism. He believed in fairies — the kind with wings, a la Tinkerbell, to avoid any misunderstanding. That doesn’t make Sherlock Holmes less great.

Second, there are legitimate questions, regarding fairness in women’s sports, and such, that even an open-minded non-hater will recognize as valid. Or would, if the fear-mongers weren’t using these issues as a fig leaf for their antipathy. Fairness doesn’t seem to be the real motivation of those getting most worked up. It’s kinda funny to see the very people who generally ignore the whole Title IX world suddenly indignant over high school girls swimming.

The bathroom issue is complicated. I know women who do not feel comfortable having a man, or even someone who once identified as male, in the next stall. And I remember certain situations, when the women’s bathrooms used to get overrun at Ravinia, when I raised an eyebrow upon seeing women trooping into the men’s john — though that was surprise, not actual concern.

In general, all those new laws, and debate, and sputtering Republican outrage are a solution in search of a problem. The people pretending to worry about any unease a woman might feel using the restroom are the same block who would happily send her on a multi-state odyssey to get an abortion, assuming they couldn’t stop her entirely. This isn’t about the comfort of women.

So what’s it about? That leads to the third factor, which is perfectly explained by the Roman stoic Seneca — there’s a meme bouncing around online about men thinking about the Roman Empire, and all I can say is, “What took you so long?”

In his Letter 47, “On master and slave,” which is basically a plea to treat servants more kindly, Seneca mentions trans servants, a reminder that none of this is new: “Another who serves the wine, must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years .. though he might have a soldier’s figure, he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots.”

But that’s a detour. In one sentence, at the very end of the letter, Seneca lays it out: “They are not unaware that this is true, but by finding fault they seize upon opportunities to do harm; they insist that they have received injuries, in order that they may inflict harm.”

Game, set, match. “They insist that they have received injuries, in order that they may inflict harm.” This dynamic drives American politics. Half the country are bullies searching for excuses to hurt anyone they can get away with hurting. Making them aware of this would be a good start; alas, self-awareness is not their strong suit.

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