Monday, January 31, 2011

The Green-Haired Man and a Lesson on Appearance

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.

I have had many lessons in my life on the utter meaningless of physical appearance as a way to gauge anything at all about a person, but one in particular continues to stand out, and it is the one I think about whenever I catch myself making an assumption based on how someone looks.

Many years ago, before I transitioned and when I was far more deeply entrenched in U.S. mainstream culture than I even realized, I was walking out of a dry cleaner's in my neighborhood. I live in an extremely diverse neighborhood, and there is no one who is really “out of place” here, no matter what that person looks like. 

However, on this particular day, as I stepped outside, I saw a young straight couple, probably in their early twenties, walking by with a toddler struggling to keep up. The woman appeared “normal” in the context of mainstream sensibilities. The young man, however, was “different” - he was dressed in black leather, with knee-high leather boots, a black jacket, several chains hanging from various parts of his clothes, a variety of piercings, and a neon-green Mohawk that rose about a foot in the air.

Now this young man's appearance was not particularly unusual for my neighborhood, and it didn't surprise me or necessarily stand out to me. But what happened next is what I try to keep in mind, even to this day.


The toddler started to fuss. He started to cry and scream, “I want to go home.” And the first thought that flashed through my mind was that the green-haired young man, simply because of the way he looked, was going to get angry with the child for fussing, and that something unpleasant was about to happen.

And something unpleasant did happen - I had to face the fact that I was a complete asshole. 

Because what the green-haired young man proceeded to do was squat down so that he could be at eye level with the child. And then, in a very calm and tender voice that a rational and thoughtful adult would use with a distraught child, he said, “What's wrong? Are you scared? Why do you want to go home? It's going to be okay.”

And with his focused attention and gentle manner, he soothed and reassured the child, and then the three of them started on their way again. And I was left behind to deal with prejudices that I didn't even realize were there.

All my life, I have tried to be cognizant of my own assumptions. I have tried to monitor them and to make sure that they don't cloud my judgment. And while this particular incident was not the first or the last time that I have failed in my goal not to assume, it will always stay with me, and I will always use it as a teaching tool for myself.

I would later transition, and my entire brain structure would literally change with regard to perceptions based on physical appearance (I truly believe that my brain restructured itself with regard to how I see people's gender after spending time in the trans community). But I still catch myself making other types of assumptions.

And this is why I think that any law or policy based on physical appearance is a trans issue. This is why I think that any type of profiling - for jobs, airplane flights, arrests, and stops on the street - is a trans issue. The racist profiling law in Arizona is as much a trans issue as any public accommodations law or “bathroom bill” is.

Profiling laws and policies are the worst - but not the only - examples of this problem. The absence of laws that protect gay, lesbian, and trans people from equality in employment or public accommodations are also problematic. The absence of these laws can restrict trans people from appropriate public restrooms based on appearance only. This absence can prevent someone from being considered for a job because he or she “looks gay” or does not match the cultural stereotypes set up for a particular gender.

Any time a person's movements or actions are suspect or restricted, or that person's rights are denied, because of physical appearance, it is a trans issue, it is a racial issue, it is a religious issue, it is a disability issue, it is an age issue, it is a gender issue, it is a sexual orientation issue, it is a human rights issue. We are all affected, and we are all put at risk, when it happens to anyone. 

We can work toward changing this by monitoring our own assumptions based on appearance. And we can continue by fighting against any laws or policies based on appearance, and fighting for any laws or policies that protect against such judgments. 

It's not easy, and it's not perfect, but it's a start.