Visibility is Not Enough

Today is the Trans Day of Visibility, an international celebration started in 2009 by US activist, Rachel Crandall. It is also, obviously, a Talk About Being Trans day.

Now visibility is a good thing. For starters there are still many trans people out there living in fear. Being trans is not a comfortable life. It is no longer a death sentence, which frankly my family believed it was when I came out to them 20+ years ago, but it is by no means easy. So knowing that many people can and do lead successful and happy lives while openly trans can be very important to people still struggling with their identity.

Also today is an opportunity to showcase large numbers of trans people. Normally the only trans people who are widely visible are the ones approved of by the mainstream media. That means people who are young, white, able-bodied, good-looking, binary-identified and heteronormative. Today is a day for all sorts of trans people to be visible: those who are old, who are people of color, who are above average size, who are disabled, who have no hope of “passing” or have chosen not to, who are non-binary and genderqueer. They are part of our community too, and they deserve rights just as much as those who are lucky and hard-working enough to conform to the ideals that the mainstream media endorses.

But visibility it not enough. To demonstrate why, I want to talk a bit about a concept I use sometimes in LGBT awareness training. It is a thing called the Riddle Scale after it’s inventor, Dorothy Riddle. Back in the 1970s, Dr. Riddle was working for the American Psychological Association looking at attitudes towards gay and lesbian people. She needed a means of measuring how homophobic people were, and she came up with a scale of attitudes, each typified by a word. The system works just as well for attitudes to trans people (and indeed any other minority). The definitions of those words used in online sources tend to vary, but those in the Wikipedia entry are fair good. Here they are, in descending order of homophobia:

  • Repulsion: Homosexuality is seen as a crime against nature. Gays/lesbians are considered sick, crazy, immoral, sinful, wicked, etc. Anything is justified to change them: incarceration, hospitalization, behavior therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, etc.
  • Pity: Represents heterosexual chauvinism. Heterosexuality is considered more mature and certainly to be preferred. It is believed that any possibility of becoming straight should be reinforced, and those who seem to be born that way should be pitied as less fortunate (“the poor dears”).
  • Tolerance: Homosexuality is viewed as a phase of adolescent development that many people go through and most people grow out of. Thus, lesbians/gays are less mature than straights and should be treated with the protectiveness and indulgence one uses with children who are still maturing. It is believed that lesbians/gays should not be given positions of authority because they are still working through their adolescent behavior.
  • Acceptance: Still implies that there is something to accept; the existing climate of discrimination is ignored. Characterized by such statements as “You’re not lesbian to me, you’re a person!” or “What you do in bed is your own business.” or “That’s fine with me as long as you don’t flaunt it!”
  • Support: People at this level may be uncomfortable themselves, but they are aware of the homophobic climate and the irrational unfairness, and work to safeguard the rights of lesbians and gays.
  • Admiration: It is acknowledged that being lesbian/gay in our society takes strength. People at this level are willing to truly examine their homophobic attitudes, values, and behaviors.
  • Appreciation: The diversity of people is considered valuable and lesbians/gays are seen as a valid part of that diversity. People on this level are willing to combat homophobia in themselves and others.
  • Nurturance: Assumes that gay/lesbian people are indispensable in our society. People on this level view lesbians/gays with genuine affection and delight, and are willing to be their allies and advocates

The first thing to note about the Scale is that “tolerance” and “acceptance” — two words that cis straight people most often use to signal their support of LGBT people — are actually in the lower half of the Scale. As Stuart Milk is fond of saying, living in Florida means that he has to tolerate mosquitoes; but that doesn’t mean that he likes them. He doesn’t want straight people tolerating him in the same way that he tolerates mosquitoes.

The other thing I want you to consider is where visibility fits in the Scale.

Well we are not in a classroom here, so I’ll tell you. It is right at the start. Because you can’t even be repulsed by someone if you can’t see them. Mere visibility is so transphobic it doesn’t even make it onto the scale.

So why do we have a Trans Day of Visibility? Because for many years it was the best we could hope for.

Think about that.

2 thoughts on “Visibility is Not Enough

  1. Thanks for this post. Amazingly, I do not recall having seen The Riddle Scale before. Not so amazingly, “tolerance” is generally the level that is publicly promoted around here (U.S. Midwest) to be a Great Positive Step. Seeing that in context on the full scale is eye-opening. May I share this in my own blog, and/or can you recommend a particular site about this? Thanks, Cheryl.

    1. By all means share it, Gary.

      I don’t have a particular site to recommend. A Google search for “Riddle Scale” brings up a whole host of academic sites talking about it, and the occasional advocacy group.

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