Monday, August 30, 2010

"Equal to" Does Not Mean "Equal"


Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

The little bio that appears with my photo on this blog says, "In his ideal world, no one wold be equal to anyone else - every would just be equal." For people who might be confused, I offer this explanation:

In my mind, “equal to” is the language that marginalized populations use in order to argue our worth. If I’m “equal to” you, that means that you set the standard and I claw my way up until I get there.

There is always a group that sets the standard in any given situation, and there are always the “outsiders” who argue their equality to that group.

For example, the trans community, of which I am a member, argues that we are “equal to” non-trans people (or cisgender people, if you prefer).

This means, of course, that non-trans people set the standard for what and how a person should be, and trans people maintain that we can and do rise to that level and, therefore, we should be given rights equal to those who are the bearers of that standard. It is never the other way around.

I have always lived in the United States, so my perspective stems from that experience. But in my entire life (and it has been long), I have never heard any of the following arguments:
  • Non-trans people are equal to trans people.
  • Men are equal to women.
  • Straight people are equal to gay and lesbian people.
  • White people are equal to people of color.
Why have I not heard these (or similar) arguments? Because, in each case, it is not the latter groups that set the standard. It is not the latter groups that others aspire to be “equal to” – because the latter groups are not the groups in power.

The people in power in any given situation are the people who hold the standard to which the rest of us must argue our equality. Of course, because they are in power, they are also the ones who ultimately decide on that equality. We all know why and how that might be problematic.

In my ideal world, the “equal to” argument would not only be unnecessary – it would have no meaning at all. If there were no mainstream, “acceptable” standard, if there were no better way to be and lesser way to be, if we were all considered equal from the moment we were born, then the concept of “equal to” would be foreign to us.

In fact, the concept of “equal” itself would be foreign. It would be a given. It would simply be understood.

That’s not the case, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon. So I, as well as others, will continue to use “equal to” language in order to argue for our rights.

But next time we are in a position to use the “equal to” argument, maybe we should try a different approach.

Instead of saying, “I’m equal to you and I deserve equal rights (equal treatment, freedom from discrimination) because of that,” what if we said, “Of course you’re equal to me, so doesn’t it make sense that we should have the same rights?”

It might not make any difference overall, but it’s a more empowering argument. And maybe some of the more astute listeners would pick up on it and eventually start to see things in a different – and equal – light.