David Biddle: New Perspectives on Old Failures to Communicate
Our national conversation about gender identity has been an ongoing miscommunication for decades. I grew up at a time when people would beat up guys (like me) who had long hair. Girls in that era had to fight our junior high administration to be able to wear jeans to school—and for a while their shorts were only permissible under skirts. Anyone who thinks all the issues that the LGBTQ community stands for now are somehow deviant, aberrant, or regressive isn’t listening very well and likely doesn’t know our collective cultural history. What seems new and hard to deal with today is often on the way to becoming normal and obvious tomorrow.
Right now, though, our failure to communicate adequately about gender has spawned more belligerence and hostility than usual. It’s obvious that many of our problems interacting with each other are a function of the confusing, chaotic cacophony we so fondly term “social media.” Opinions on the public stage of phone and laptop screens multiply exponentially after just a few simple “Likes” or snide comments. Myths and half-truths (on all sides) get exploited or attacked ad infinitum. We know as well that certain cynical exploitative political, radio, and TV commentators make a game out of twisting reality for their own ends.
Ultimately, though, America is made up of good people who generally mean well and are supportive of each other on many levels. That may sound naïve, but I know it’s true. And yet, when good people on all sides of any problem lose the ability to talk to each other in hopes of coming to terms with something, we’re in trouble. And when good people on all sides don’t even want to hear each other, we’re close to doomed.
Reading novels becomes at least a partial antidote to this form of useless hostility. Yes, it’s true that no book of fiction has ever solved a major social problem, but written stories have a way of functioning as escape valves for readers. Novels in particular help reduce the pressure created by various forms of political, social, and mainstream media hype. Reading stories is ultimately a conversation we have with characters, writers, and ourselves all at once. Usually, the best stories don’t offer definitive opinions, they simply point at questions and show how complicated life is.
Right now, with various states around the country passing punitive laws against transgender citizens of this country, the escape valve function of reading is essential for anyone who thinks they are more clued in about gender identity than others.
On the one hand it’s important to understand the obvious: For instance, what is it like for a rough and tumble girl to question whether she’s actually a guy? What’s it like to be a biological boy and want to wear dresses, high-heels, and makeup? What’s it like to experiment with how that feels, and to have people make fun of you or tell you you’re wrong or worse? And how do people deal with the pain of hiding these questions if those around them are somehow threatening?
But go further. Learn and understand that gender transformation touches dozens of people all at once: What is it like for parents and siblings and cousins and neighbors to learn to deal with big changes for someone they care about? How do people handle the feeling that they aren’t allowed to think of a person they love as that person anymore? What are the stakes in a family if you are confronted with feeling like you literally have to say goodbye to someone you’ve known all your life? How do you talk openly about gender transition issues if you aren’t comfortable with them or think someone is making a mistake? And what is the right mindset to have in order to protect and support people that others seem not to understand?
Note that these are questions, not judgements. Novels can (and often do) offer judgements of people and make moral statements. However, the best stories seek to encourage readers not just to ask questions but to want to learn more and, ideally, to come up with new perspectives and ideas that help them move forward in the world and make it possible to have meaningful discussions with all sorts of people.
New perspectives! When our normal way of dealing with life isn’t working, new perspectives may be the only solution, which, perhaps, is one of the reasons we call long-form stories novels.
About the Author...
A part-time professional freelance writer since he published his first article on appropriate technology education with RAIN: Journal in 1985, David Biddle has published work with the likes of Harvard Business Review, BioCycle, Huffington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, GetUnderground, Resource Recycling, BuzzWorm, Talking Writing, etc. He was also a contributing editor to InBusiness (the 2nd best sustainability publication of all-time) for over a decade. His coming-of-age summer vacation novel, Old Music for New People, was published by The Story Plant in December of 2021.