An Introduction to Other

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days about privilege and responsibility. My own, especially, but also other people’s. Because I work in sports journalism, I’ve been closely following the conversation around “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” the story on Grantland about a transgender woman who designed a new golf putter. The piece has sparked debate and meaningful, necessary dialogue.  

As a gay female sportswriter, I often find myself considering the privilege possessed by my straight white male peers, who occasionally communicate as if unaware of their advantages. But the dialogue around Dr. V also has me recognizing all the privileges I possess. Most relevant right now: I cover sports for ESPN, which means my work gets seen by a sizeable audience.

That wasn’t always the case. Let’s back up 12 years, to my time playing basketball for the University of Colorado. I wrote a recurring online diary about my experience called “The Fagan Files” for the school’s website. Most of my entries were amateur and pedestrian, offending only the English language. But then in January 2002, we played a tournament at the University of California, and our team bus traveled daily through the heart of Berkeley. From my seat on the bus, I would look out the window at the people, the shops, the atmosphere, and on one of these trips I noticed someone who appeared more traditionally masculine -- tall, muscular, hairy -- but who was wearing a dress. For reasons that are hard to understand now, I made a joke about this in the next edition of my blog, writing something like, “Driving to practice, we saw a man, I think it was a man, wearing a dress. Berkeley is a wacky and crazy place.”

Soon after my column posted, our program received a complaint from a transgender woman who believed my description had been reckless and hurtful: Why was I using language that perpetuated a belief that to be trans* is to be “crazy” somehow? I recognize now that my choice of adjectives was all about me: I had spotted someone who was living outside my then-narrow definition of what was socially acceptable, and it made me uncomfortable. But upon being told of this complaint, I instinctively went to a place of defensiveness. I dug in my heels, reassuring myself I was in the right and saying things like, “Oh, lighten up -- it’s just a silly little blog.” Nor do I remember anyone encouraging me to think any differently; I was simply informed of the complaint.

Still, the incident gnawed at me, the knowledge that my words had caused someone pain. And although writing those words had cost me nothing, they carried a price for that woman. The difference in how we experienced those words came from the difference in how we experienced life. (The irony, of course, is that I was about to begin the gut-wrenching process of working through my sexual identity, which I write about here and in my upcoming memoir.)

There was something else, too. In the next few weeks, I started to recognize that a wide chasm can often exist between intention and interpretation. I had not written that blog post with malice, but my words had been interpreted as if I had. And it’s not like I can sit in the home of each person who reads my words and explain my intent. It was a valuable lesson to learn -- that the goal of all writing should be to make the space between intent and interpretation as narrow as possible.

Before that day in 2002, I had never before considered the experience of transgender people. And when informed of the complaint against me, I did not immediately walk to the library and pore over all the information I could to learn about the trans* community. I did internalize the interaction, however, filing it away somewhere safe. As the years passed, and I became more comfortable in my own skin, I started educating myself on LGBT issues. I’m sure I made mistakes along the way. In fact, I’m still making mistakes. Until a couple of months ago, I was using the word “transgendered,” having no concept of how it offended people. Even more recently, I learned what the asterisk after trans* stands for: an acknowledgement (when people choose to use it) of all the identities on the gender identity spectrum.

There is nothing wrong with possessing privilege. A person need not feel defensive about it, or deny the existence of it, if someone else points it out -- although somehow that still seems to be a common knee-jerk reaction. The problem comes only when those who possess a privilege refuse to see the advantage they hold, and in turn do not educate themselves about what life is like for those without that advantage.

To me, much of this comes down to the old phrase, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” When you possess a privilege, you also have a responsibility to understand how that privilege plays out on a daily basis. Otherwise, you’re just trampling through society, “inadvertently” knocking people over, using words and phrases that you may not find offensive but that land like gut punches to other people. It’s not complicated: just work to understand what privilege you possess, so you don’t wield it clumsily.

Also, privilege does not need defending. The status and power given to whites, and men, and heterosexuals, and even us mainstream journalists -- it is not going away. So defending those privileges is not noble or even necessary. It is pointless. You are, in essence, stockpiling air, keeping it from those who just want to breathe easier.

Nobody wakes up one morning and understands the experiences of everyone who is “other.The goal is to keep our minds open and be willing to listen -- to realize that even when we think we get it, sometimes something happens that makes it clear we have so much more to learn.

And in those moments, the only wrong move is digging in your heels.