Rejecting Conformity and Building Pride as a Transgender Architect
I believe we can start by rejecting conformity. I think all of us have felt the pain of being singled out or ridiculed for being different at some time in our lives. Some of us have been harmed and abused because of who we are. I implore you not to reject this pain, but to use it to build empathy and connection with people who are suffering unjustly.
Against sameness and monotony, I assert that difference is good, that difference builds resilience, and that difference makes life possible. We need our differences to exist so that we can all survive.
I say this as a transgender person. Accepting my difference makes me possible, with all my qualities as an architect, parent, citizen and historian. I think I have used those qualities for good, to help others and in small ways to make the world a better place. Without acceptance of my identity, I would not have been able to make these contributions.
Pride is sometimes criticized as being a celebration of “identity politics.” But as George Chauncey wrote in the New York Times on June 2, 2020,
"Identity-based movements don’t just emerge out of thin air; people typically organize around an identity because the state and society have insisted that the identity disqualifies them from full legal and cultural citizenship."
In other words, people are compelled to assert pride in their identity when others have exploited that identity to deny them their rights as equals. However, expressing pride in my own qualities, characteristics and identity does not mean that I don’t value what makes others unique, too.
As a transgender person, I belong to an historically oppressed group, and I remained in the closet for decades because of my fear of rejection and harm, until my own thoughts of suicide made me open the door. Until recently, people who are different like me have been officially defined as mentally ill, deviant, criminal, worthless and expendable. I know that these thoughts are still out there.
In the U.S., we are facing ongoing attempts to deny transgender and non-binary people rights that are needed for our full participation in society. Across the country, activists are attempting to pass legislation denying me the right to define myself as myself, or to keep people like me from being full members of their schools and communities, because of outdated stereotypes and a fear of difference. I also know that many people are pushing back against this effort with thoughtful understanding and love.
Trans people like me often have their behaviors and choices policed by their parents, schools and communities. These efforts to enforce conformity cause only harm. According to the Trevor Project, trans children who are supported by their parents are 40% less likely to attempt suicide than those who face rejection at home.[i] Rejection, bias and bullying are all savage attacks on a person’s mental wellbeing and are sufficient to explain this difference. Factors found to cause adult trans people to be more likely to attempt suicide include discrimination, being a victim of violence, experiencing family rejection and lack of access to gender-affirming medical care.
There are tangible costs to inequality and bias, and people who are discriminated against for multiple aspects of their identity suffer the most. In San Francisco, where I work, 49 percent of those without homes are people of color, while 46 percent of our homeless youth are LGBTQIA+. In the last month alone, while the country has risen up to protest the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we have also seen three Black trans people killed: Tony McDade, killed by the police in Tallahassee, Dominique Rem’mie Fells in Philadelphia, and Riah Milton in Ohio. During the same time, the violent beating of Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman, by a group of 20 men in Minneapolis was filmed and shared on social media. These attacks are not rare. In a typical year, more than 30 trans women, mostly Black or Latinx, are murdered in the U.S., while harassment and assault are common for all trans people. According to the FBI, hate crimes against transgender people increased 41 percent between 2018 and 2019. Difference should not invite cruelty and violence.
Why do we value conformity so much when some use it to justify such harm? “Common sense” notions based on the ideas that brought us violent colonialism, the oppression of women, racial discrimination and ecological peril should be thrown away, or at least considered suspect. Every idea we have needs to be interrogated. Does it encourage fairness? Does it encourage empathy? Does it promote mutual respect, and does it at least conform to the Golden Rule? If we truly were to treat others as we wish to be treated, I think we could make a very different world.
Designers know the power of difference. We work every day to create positive change, not just to make things the same. We know that there are problems that need to be addressed and we accept that change must happen. We strive to make changes for good. We need to continue to broaden our focus, building teams across difference, addressing inequalities we have not previously considered. Because I have my difference, I try to be sensitive to the differences of other people, and I have little need for simplicity and conformity. I value other people’s voices and opinions as well as my own, and I try to listen and work together with others to find consensus solutions that bring more good to the world than any of us could have achieved on our own.
I like multiplicity in design—wholes made of disparate parts. I like design that cares about its users. I also appreciate designs that are strikingly different, blunt, or even confusing. If the moments of frustration or surprise lead a person to think more broadly and deeply about their environment, it means that they can perceive the world in a new way. Every time a person incorporates something new into their understanding it builds the muscles that enable them to embrace the world as it is, in all its wonder, and encourages them to change it for the better.
For Pride this year, we must commit to making changes that build justice and equality in all aspects of our lives—for ourselves and for the future. Won’t you join me?