Caiden Fratangelo was telling me that, even though the LGBT community won a huge victory in May 2014, there was still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to end the discrimination the demographic faces.
“Gay marriage has passed in Pennsylvania (this article was written prior to the Supreme Courts decision to legalize same sex marriage throughout the US),” he told me as we sat at a Harrisburg coffee shop. “But you can come in and get fired on Monday for being gay. It’s kind of crazy.”
The 22-year-old has been working for Equality Pennsylvania, , to raise awareness of a bill that would place the LGBT community in a protected class, and doing so among the people he feels can do most to help protect the LGBT community from discrimination: state legislators.
“I was invited out and saw my (representative) and other legislators who I went up to and dropped off some information,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, my name is Caiden. I think you should pass this. It’s very important; it protects me. I’m a person.’
“I can really tell it really helps to put a face to the name.”
There’s a disconnect that Caiden can sense, probably because, in no small way, it’s something he’s lived with everyday of his life:
“I think people can live in a bubble,” he observed.
I’d be the first person to admit it: It’s astoundingly easy to go through your day to day life and not see the ways in which privilege affects just about every interaction we might have. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, since doing so would require us to question just about everything most of us have been told our entire lives. Of course, what it is each of us is brought up to understand depends exactly on just how much privilege someone is born into.
The dichotomy between these abstract ideas and the reality of circumstances can be all the more damning for those who don’t have such privilege.
“You can be anything you want, even president,” for instance, was told to my entire elementary school class, despite the fact that, up until that point, the only real-life role models to hold that station were white men. Even though I didn’t grow up in the most diverse of areas, there was still a gorge between that notion and the reality of at least half the class.
The odd thing is privilege is something that’s exceptionally easy to both enjoy and take for granted at exactly the same time. As a result, it’s easy to get wrapped up in celebrating milestones, like Pennsylvania’s legal recognition of gay marriage last May, as though some giant battle had been won without realizing how marginalized the group remains.
My conversation with Caiden was filled with little details and new information that even I, as a self-proclaimed ally of the LGBT movement, was unaware of because they still remain largely undiscussed by many people who are privileged enough not to encounter that particular discrimination in our day to day lives.
Caiden, who works for Habitat for Humanity, spends his time volunteering for Equality Pennsylvania, an advocacy group representing the state’s lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender (LGBT) community.
While politics have long since been a passion of his, this particular issue is of personal importance to him: Caiden is transgender, having been assigned the gender of female at birth and, while studying political science at Chatham University, an all-girls college in Pittsburgh, he underwent surgery to socially align with his identity.
As he went through the transitioning process at school, there was an obvious tension as Caiden was the only male in any of his classes. He said he navigated this, again, by being as open as possible.
Still, there are even divides even within the LGBT community between those who are transgender and those who are cisgender, which simply means their gender identity conforms to their biological gender.
“I can’t tell you how many times I go to LGBT events and people are like, ‘Oh my god. You’re trans. I didn’t think you were trans. You fooled me’,” Fratangelo said. “It’s that kind of compliment I always get recognizing my passing privilege. I pass with cis people; I blend in.”
There was something about Caiden using the word “fooled” that stuck with me for a moment. At its root, it seemed to speak to fear of the unknown and, in a larger sense, a lack of understanding between the cis and transgender people even within a community that shares a broader social identity.
This lack of understanding, when outwardly expressed by people’s behavior, can often times feel dehumanizing. Questions like, “What’s your birth name?” or “So, how do you have sex?” can seem to approach the transgender identity as though it’s a “science experience,” Caiden explained.
As the discussion moved towards the topic of passing privilege, Caiden shared a story about another way the ability to pass convincingly could be just as isolating. It’s also a great example of how transgender issues can help illustrate some of the other underlying social constructs that inform the world around us.
“Listen, There was a transgender man of color, who was assigned female at birth. Though he spent his life identifying as male, he outwardly appeared female and, as such, was treated as one. When he finally transitioned to outwardly express his identity, he noticed something new that had never happened to him before: On the sidewalks at night, people who were approaching him from the opposite direction were now crossing the street, afraid of the black man walking in their direction.”
He was just about getting to his point about basic humanity when he turned the situation around on me.
“What was your reaction when you got this assignment?” he said.
There was certainly a slight bit of trepidation regarding how removed I felt from the transgender experience, however much I supported the LGBT community. I told him how my first action was to reach out to friends and make sure I was prepared to discuss the issue using the correct language and that nothing about the article came off as sensationalized.
The irony of the situation is that the answer to what I perceived as complicated uncertainties are astoundingly simple and, frankly, something a few of us might want to carry along to some of our other social interactions, even those who share our cultural identity: Respect a person’s basic humanity.
“In any dialogue, the most important thing is mutual respect,” Caiden said. “If someone asks a question and the other person doesn’t feel like answering that, then it’s dropped and it’s moved on.
“Allies make mistakes; allies don’t always know and that’s fine. It’s fine to make mistakes,” he said.
Because of this appreciation of and focus on the individual, Caiden was adamant about pointing out the fact that his experiences don’t speak for the LGBT community, but that’s a good thing.
“This is my story and it represents me and my narrative, but it’s not the community as a whole,” he said. “I think that’s my favorite part about the LGBT community, that every story is different. There’s a different narrative for every person and you can’t fit it into a box.
“I feel like a lot of people try to do that. If you look a way, dress a way, act a away, you’re this and it’s not true. Or you could be both things, or no things. I love that you can’t fit inside a box because you’re not meant to be fit inside a box.”