Is it “locker room talk” if it happens in the bar after the game? I’m seriously asking, because sometimes, the conversation gets more candid in the allegedly public setting of the local watering hole. You know, the place you go to after your beer league hockey game, where conversations are frequently interrupted by shouts of “come on Andersen, that was a clean shot from the point! How did you miss that, even if you were screened, and it was deflected at least once on the way in?” Okay, maybe you’re not a Leafs fan, or a hockey player, or someone who shouts at what they see on TV. Fair enough.
I’m asking because I had an awkward moment after a recent hockey game, when I heard some of the guys in my league criticizing the notion that there are more than two genders. I politely tried to explain that gender and sex are different things, and was curtly dismissed. My leftist instincts made me want to angrily shame them for making gender identity issues a point of concern on any level (if you sincerely care about someone else’s gender identity, that’s your problem). My testosterone made me want to question the gender identity of one of the guys, because I saw him flinch when he tried to charge the net with a Maurice Richard glare, only to back off immediately when he saw me respond in kind. Obviously, neither response would have done any good for anyone.
Instead of reacting with self-righteous fury, I listened.
This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in a discussion on social issues in a locker room similar setting. I play hockey with a lot of older (and predominantly white, straight, cisgendered) men, and you can only talk about the Jays/Leafs/Argos/Raptors for so long. The conversations are nothing you’d see in Plato’s dialogues, but they’re enlightening nonetheless. They’re also not nearly as perverse as some current political leaders would have you believe, because we’re adult men, and not posturing fourteen-year-olds. At the very least, it’s a good way to get the opinion of “the man on the Clapham omnibus.”
That said, it was somewhat surprising to hear some of the guys at my table snickering about things like the very concept of putting a label on identifying with your birth gender. One of their kids is apparently taking gender studies in university, and they were clearly bemused by everything from the idea that there are more than two genders, to the idea that gender studies is a thing. Admittedly, as a cisgendered heterosexual whose main response to so-called ‘men’s rights activists’ and their ilk essentially boils down to “grow a pair, you sniveling cretins,” I don’t have a dog in the gender identity fight. Getting too invested in the subject beyond a basic respect for one’s right to freedom of thought (and by extension, identity) would be disingenuous. Still, hearing a group of educated, intelligent, mostly-decent people ridiculing something so important to many people was weird.
One thing that stood out in the conversation was a sincere lack of malice or hostility. There’s an aphorism known as Hanlon’s Razor, which states that one should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity or ignorance. Part of what threw me off about the conversation is the fact that most of the players in that beer league are educated professionals, and there’s little room to shrug off their comments with any notion that “they don’t know better.” But there was no malice, and if you’ve never identified with anything other than your birth gender, how could you know what it’s like to be transgendered or intersex? How can you be expected to know better when you truly can’t know better? They weren’t hateful in any way, shape or form; they were just struggling to wrap their heads around some terminology. There was no hatred, and considering how many people I’ve seen express the desire to assault trans people for incredibly stupid reasons, I certainly wasn’t about to get enraged over “I don’t think there are more than two genders.”
Another thing that stood out was the generation gap between myself and the other players. That particular league is for players over the age of forty-five, and I’m only allowed to play because older goalies are in short supply. The things they were saying, while not sincerely malevolent, would have been extremely difficult to defend if uttered by anyone younger than thirty. Hell, jokes about transgendered people are still common today, and while such jokes aren’t well-received anymore, the fact that some people still think “that woman used to have a penis” is funny is… well, not funny. But for a long time, it was an easy joke, and people don’t stop finding something funny just because you chew them out for laughing. If anything, that just makes them laugh harder.
There’s an important lesson about tact buried in the debate about gender issues and the generation gap. The fact of the matter is that no one stops being a bigot simply because someone calls them a bigot. Sure, telling someone off feels rewarding, but if they walk away with nothing new aside from the opinion that the person who told them off is a jerk, who benefits? People who are sincerely trying to understand an issue and struggling with the details don’t deserve to be scorned. If someone sincerely tries to do something, fails, and gets ridiculed for their failure, do you really think they’re going to try again?
The point is that without sympathy, there is no progress. You can be sympathetic to the person who looks at their reflection and thinks “this isn’t me.” You can be sympathetic to the guy who sincerely holds no hatred towards a trans person, but hears how much gender reassignment surgery costs, and doesn’t think it should come out of his paycheque. Personally, I think the former person deserves much more sympathy, but do the somewhat misguided financial concerns of the man on the Clapham omnibus make him a bigot? People are complicated, and while people in our profession regularly see the worst that humanity has to offer, we should be willing to give others a modicum of credit.
As for gender issues in the locker room, I should iterate that the conservative guy who organizes a summer pick-up group I play with has kicked people out for being transphobic or homophobic. Most people don’t want to be angry or hateful, and if someone says something that seems difficult to reconcile with your personal values, at least give them a second to explain themselves. The guys trying to wrap their heads around gender identity issues are lawyers and engineers. These are not stupid people by any stretch, and even when they’re wrong (and who isn’t, from time to time), verbally tearing them a new one won’t correct them. It’ll just make them wrong, and you a person who prioritizes personal indignation over progress.
Change takes time, and people don’t change their minds because you angrily insist they do so. There’s a vast gulf between the person who thinks trans people should be assaulted and the person who screws up personal pronouns. Sincere malevolence is actually quite rare.
Or at least I hope it is.