I recently started thinking about 2 moments. The moment when Abigail Thorn, back in her egg days, in an amazing video breaking down the mechanics of transphobia, talked about being unable to be an expert on the subject of transphobia, on account of her thinking herself cisgender at the time.
[…] without [other trans creators] experience this discussion is incomplete, and I am actually incapable of being an expert on it.
Abigail Thorn in Transphobia: An Analysis
The second moment that came into my head was when she came out as trans.
So now I’m gonna do an exploratory journey into the concept of “an expert”, and how it interacts with subjects like “the lived experience of a minority group”, in this particular case, the experience of being trans.
To start things off we need a definition of the subject we’re gonna be discussing. A base of shared understanding that, if I deviate from it I need to point that out, but that most people should be able to at least use as an anchor to what we’re actually talking about, and the dictionary seems like a good place to start.
(This is the only noun definition at the time of writing)
ex·pert | \ˈek-ˌspərt\: one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject
Merriam-Webster dictionary, (2021-05-23)
I’m gonna ignore the “the special skill” part of the definition. Since there’s no skill involved in “existing as a trans person”, it’s just something you either do, or you don’t. There’s no tangible metric to rank “how well do you trans” to actually have a cutoff when someone is “doing it well enough” to be considered an expert. Since the concept of skill doesn’t make sense, we’re gonna ignore the skill part of the definition.
This leaves us with a revised idea of what “an expert” is, that we’re gonna try to apply to the experience of being trans: “knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject”. This leaves us with another word “mastery” which, going through the same dictionary, ended up with this as the relevant definition of master: “to gain a thorough understanding of”.
And I can accept this. To be an expert on a non-skill subject is to have a thorough understanding of the subject, with a lot of knowledge.
So was egg Abigail right, then? Are cis (or at least people who think themselves cis) people incapable of being experts on the experiences of trans people? Broadly speaking, I’d say yes. It’s about lived experience, and while not a skill, it does share the requirement of participation to actually start to understand things on a thorough level. Someone can read and write all the sheet music they want, but if they’ve never sat down to actually played the piano, they’re not an expert pianist.
So I agree with Abigail, then? Yes, I do, but there’s a reason I’m writing this blog post. Because the way language was used to express this, kinda implies that “if only you were trans, Abigail, you’d be a subject matter expert”. That’s how I interpreted it. I realized that was how I interpreted it when I re-watched that video after Abigail came out, and started giggling at her going “Oh, you’re trans now, do you automatically feel like an expert now then?”.
And … in a sense, she is an expert now. She’s an expert on her own trans experience. She knows more than anyone what she’s going through. But this is not what we think of when we say “expert on trans experiences”, is it? What that implies is the general “expert on everyone’s trans experiences”. Trans people are a diverse bunch, things are affecting many people in different ways. We often have in-fighting and disagreements. We have people trying to gatekeep who is and isn’t trans by different requirements, requirements for dysphoria, etc. We have those who oppose them. There are complexities and nuances within, and just like it’s practically impossible for a cis person to be an expert on any of it, it’s practically impossible for a trans person to be an expert on all of it. And it worries me that I am expected to be an expert on all of it, that anyone is.
Hello, my name is Linn, and I’m an expert on being Linn. I’m not an expert on who you are, or who my friends are. If you’re reading my blog… Well first off scary, having people read your thoughts is scary! But second, don’t read just mine, I’m not an expert on all trans experiences. I’m only an expert on my own, and I may know a little bit more than your average person about others, because I have a better framework to relating to the experiences of other trans people, but I cannot be an expert on them. We need a diverse group of voices to be in the discussion.
I’m not on Twitter very much, but I heard that at least a few years ago, and maybe still ongoing, were there this thing where people commented “Listen to [minority X]”, and then I saw on youtube, someone breaking this down to “Which one of [minority X]? People of [minority X] are diverse and many have conflicting opinions!”
And … Here’s my answer to that question: Listen to enough of [minority X] to get a grasp of the diversity. If you just cherry-pick a few trans people that already agree with what you think, and then use that to go “trans people think this!”, you’re actually just saying “I think this about trans people, and here are the people from the very diverse group that agrees with me”.
I think “expert” is a poor word to use, because it mostly means “deep knowledge”, but people often think “broad knowledge”. I have a very deep understanding of my own lived experience, but it’s not that broad. I don’t understand how it is to grow up trans in a very religious household. I don’t know many of the lived experiences of other trans people. Not to mention where this all intersects with other minorities, like racism, and abelism.