When I was very young, I remember my grandfather once telling me that the way to understand people I don’t understand is to actually interact with them. At that age, I remember him having me introduce myself to random strangers at the mall in Santa Monica, California. It didn’t really matter to him who the person was; he wanted me to approach and meet every person I could.
Now, today, that probably wouldn’t be the greatest approach when dealing with a kid because of how our society has changed to where people practically fear any stranger, but back in that day, it worked. And I learned a lot from it.
That approach carried me through most of my life, and I’m glad for it, but at the same time I understand that not everyone had that kind of upbringing. I was lucky to grow up in a diverse community where there were people from all walks of life. I wasn’t lucky to be born into poverty, but part of me thinks that there were some advantages to that situation, and one of those was the ability to exist with numerous groups of people who gravitated towards the lower end of the economic ladder. Having lived in both sides of the economic spectrum, I would like to think I’ve picked up some of the positive qualities of both. I probably also picked up some of the negative ones, too, but what is a life that doesn’t involve some bit of reflective wondering in hopes of living life to its fullest?
Growing up poor, I lived with those who were always on the edge of despair, if not deeply in the middle of it. Serving in the Army, I was exposed to all sorts of different races and ethnicities, not as separates but as comrades and allies. After the service, I traveled the country, living in numerous communities for months at a time and then moving on to find another. The people I met, and the stories they had to tell and share, filled my memories for the wonder that each and every one of them revealed. After my wanderings, I ended up back in San Francisco (kind of where I ran out of money and had to actually find a “real” job), and I was exposed to all sorts of new experiences.
I should probably mention one of the important aspects of my character, and that’s that people tend to share a lot of information about themselves to me. Partly because I’m receptive, partly because I’m easy to talk to, and mostly because I care about what people have to share with me. A friend once told me that I should have been a counselor or a psychiatrist because of how good I was with people, but I never went that direction because I always felt I was getting something great out of every encounter and taking money for it would have felt wrong.
So at some point I went back to school to get another degree. And this time around, it was different. Before, I went to West Point where my approach was a career in the Army. This time, I wanted to learn about things I missed the first time around. I didn’t even care what it was I was studying. I just wanted to know more abut things I didn’t know.
What kind of things did I learn? Well, aside from rote memorization of school material, I started to learn a lot more about the people who existed around me. I discovered there were people from all sorts of different walks of life. I befriended guys who were paying their way through school by waiting tables but intended to be investment bankers when they graduated, women who wanted to help people by becoming social workers yet funded their education by tying up men and spanking them in dark, air-conditioned lofts above laundromats, nervous English-Second-Language students who signed up for debate because they knew they were destined to be criminal attorneys, and so many others who were all individuals, each with his or her wonderful, personal story that was both unique and important.
One of those unique individuals I came across was someone I’ll refer to as Bobbi who was the person who lived next door to me in a really run-down, flea-infested flat I was living in when I first went back to school. Bobbi was one of those shy types of people who avoided others but always smiled when you said hi, even if the response was nothing more than somewhat of a grunt or nod of the head in recognition. What I found most interesting about Bobbi was that I could never tell what gender Bobbi was. On the surface, Bobbi appeared to be a man that was slowly turning into a female. The hair was blond and frilly, kind of later Farah Fawcett-like, but the mannerisms were quite often both male and female, almost as if they were still fighting their way towards the surface. I remember the apartment clerk once remarked: “She’s in that transition stage where she’s still trying to determine which way she’s going to go.” Future conversations with this clerk indicated that he thought the confusion wasn’t necessarily Bobbi’s but a struggle with how Bobbi wanted to be perceived by those around her (months later, Bobbi said she preferred the pronoun “she” and I’ve never given it another thought).
A few years later, I was working for a church that had a transgender member (for identification, I’ll call her Chris) who was having a very difficult time with those around her. She was very much in the same stage that Bobbi had been, but the struggle was much deeper as this person was scared to make changes because of how she perceived others might not accept her in that capacity. Unlike Bobbi, she quite often returned to her male “self” in the circles of others because of how she felt they might think about her. Years after I parted ways with that organization, I heard from a member of that group that someone had attacked Chris as she was walking home from the church, and she was seriously beaten, to the point that she has never actually recovered.
I’ve known a few more over the years, but to be honest, I don’t think of them as transgendered people I’ve known, but as people I’ve known that just so happened to be transgendered. And I think that’s where the problem stems for so many others who see people who are different as some kind of affront or challenge to them for reasons that make little sense when you spend any time thinking about it.
This is probably why I think being a writer is important. If I was a filmmaker, I think I would want to touch on these subjects as well because what I’ve started to learn is that not a whole lot of people have the life experiences that I’ve had. Instead, they’ve had more sheltered lives that create all sorts of barriers to thinking differently than anything they’ve personally experienced. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are things I’m still struggling with, simply because I’m not perfect, nor have I had every type of experience one can have to tackle so many of these issues. But I would like to think that having some of the experiences I’ve had, at least I’m willing to explore new ideas and opportunities.
And that’s what I fear for those close-minded individuals out there who see the world through a closed prism. And it’s probably why a common individual can have such hateful thoughts and still think he or she is a good person. I wish there was a way to expose everyone to a world of experiences so that they could reach that understanding that hating a person for being different is equal to hating one’s self for not being open enough to want to learn more about one’s fellow people. Because once you live with the people you might hate, chances are pretty good you’re going to be forever changed by the experience.