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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

New Norms

This column was published September 30, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.

 

I suspect this column will turn out to be part book review, part envelope-pushing, with a healthy dose of sharing personal insight, which, when you think about it, is sort of the expectation of a free-wheeling opinion column.


You might even call it a norm.


Kate Brookes and I were TV news colleagues in Topeka. I knew her as Kate Epstein, fresh out of college. Witty, sarcastic, thoroughly east coast in a way that was new and refreshing to my Baloney on White with Miracle Whip, middle of the country sensibilities.


Kate’s life trajectory took her back home where she checked the societal expectation boxes — career success, marriage, twin boys. She wants what all parents want, for her children to be happy and healthy, but by the time her children are eight, she has come to realize one of them is transgender.


Her book about the experience (Transister: Raising Twins in a Gender-Bending World) began to sketch out a framework and firm up a foundation related to the way I think about gender identity in a way no other experience has.


Kate Brookes brings you into her family in a way that leaves you laughing, crying, worrying, coping, second-guessing and flying blind in a society and culture where the boundaries of gender identity remain ill-defined and too often driven by stigma and ignorance. That word, ‘ignorance,’ is not a pejorative. It simply means a lack of knowledge.

Maybe it was the parent in me, but her story made me vicariously protective of her transgender daughter. Here is a pre-adolescent child, struggling. Kids don’t know anything about social norms, expectations or culture. They only know how they feel and what they experience.


When their feelings tell them one thing and their environment seems not to legitimize those feelings, the child is left with questions about conformity, individuality and authenticity. It's hard to say who you are if you don’t know who you are.


As an admittedly privileged white heterosexual cisgender male, my personal experience with gender identity is limited. Because I was rowing my canoe down the mainstream like everyone around me, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. Our culture prefers black or white, boy or girl, smoking or non-smoking. Distinctions easy for all to recognize.


Truths I thought were self-evident are not. It is not that simple. Truths demand investigation. If all men are created equal, skin color should not matter. In sections of restaurants once roped off as non-smoking, carcinogens recognized no boundaries.


It took our culture a while to get there. We’re still working on it.


Then there’s the ‘there were no transgender kids around when I was growing up’ argument. Maybe not as many, but because our knowledge was limited, we lumped them into societal silos with labels that were inappropriate and inaccurate at best, offensive and demeaning at worst.


Are there more transgender kids today than a generation ago, two generations ago? Maybe, but maybe our environment has begun to shift such that there are clearly more children who feel more comfortable being more authentic.


She may not think of herself this way, but Kate Brookes is a pioneer, on the leading edge of one of the most contentious subjects of our time. Societies evolve when a critical mass of individuals begin to think deeper, harder and longer about things like gender identity.


Transister strikes me as one of those books that can put us on a path to tweaking our norms, to nuance what is currently considered mainstream. It seems like a book that will actually help bring about culture change.

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