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Episodes: It gets better, until it doesn't and you have to move away


Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 17 2016

7 min read



My home state, South Dakota, has seen a bill that forbids transgender people from using the bathrooms of the gender they identify with at public schools pass both houses of its Legislature. The only thing standing in the way of it becoming law is a potential governor's veto. (And while this isn't likely, I don't think, the state has seen various Republican governors strike down socially conservative laws in the past, mostly because they don't want to deal with the headache of defending them in court.)

It's an awful, bigoted bill, one that singles out some of the people who most need protection under the law for its exact opposite. The arguments I've heard in its favor mostly suggest that a sexual predator might use the guise of being transgender to lurk in women's restrooms (never men's, you'll note) and do horrible things to young girls.

And look, I agree we need to find ways to protect women from those who would sexually assault them, and protect children from those who would abuse them, but a.) the state's previous efforts to do either of these things are pretty weak tea, and b.) ostracizing an entire group of people just to do so seems ridiculously counterproductive. The law seems to be written by people who've never met a trans person and assume those who are transgender are just tricking people toward some nebulous end.

This bill is also the sort of thing that led to both myself and many of my best friends leaving the state.

This is a constant refrain in South Dakota at the moment — the so-called "brain drain" that sucks many of the most promising students out of the state toward brighter climes. Some of that is because there are better jobs out there for, say, engineers in neighboring states. But there's a common refrain from many others I know who've left the state and, like me, don't really plan to go back any time soon: the legislative efforts to demonize LGBT people are reprehensible enough to not want to be seen as somehow propping them up by continuing to stay.

It's a thing I think about often. At some point, my wife and I will have a child (or so we hope), and that child could very well be gay or trans or something non-cis-hetero. And if I'm raising that child, do I really want to be doing so in my home state? Or would I rather be somewhere where I don't constantly have to worry about not just other kids making fun of my kid, but the state government itself legally codifying a kind of subtle but unmistakable discrimination.

I, for the most part, think I'm part of the problem. Political polarization in the United States is driven as much by a failure of imagination as anything else. To put it another way, it's easy for us to place ourselves in echo chambers, thanks to the internet, yes, but also because we increasingly live in places that conform our worldview and only our worldview. We live in places and socialize with others that become self-reinforcing feedback loops, insisting to us that the country is mostly made up of people like us, and anybody who's not like us is somehow abhorrent. That cuts both ways, across both Democrat and Republican.

Some of my best friends are conservative. (I actually typed that before realizing what I was doing, but now I think it's amusing enough to leave.) There are a lot of places — particularly on economic issues but even something like abortion rights or gun control — where I disagree with the conservative argument, but I can mostly understand where it's coming from (or might have even held that viewpoint myself in the past). That doesn't extend to issues of civil rights. From the time I was a child, my understanding of Christianity was always that it was a religion set up to protect the weak from the powerful, and I've carried just enough of that fire-breathingness over into my less-orthodox days.

But, ultimately, I don't have the courage of my convictions. Yes, it would be very hard to work as a TV and film critic in South Dakota, but not impossible. And I've entertained in the past notions of a day when I might get out of online journalism and turn my attention toward other forms of writing, perhaps moving back to do so. I do love the state, and I do love its emptiness. But I can't be a part of whatever it's becoming, no matter how much I might like to flatter myself that my voice might make a difference.

And, because it's all, ultimately, about me, I finally realized why this is. I've jokingly described my gender in the past as "male-ish." I identify as a cisgender guy (and am all too happy to reap the privileges that rewards), but, as we're all learning together, gender isn't binary. And if there were some sort of Kinsey scale of gender, with 7 being ultra-masculine and 1 being ultra-feminine, I would probably land somewhere around a 5.5 or even a 5, depending on the day.

I like being a guy, and I'm comfortable being a guy, but most of the things I enjoy have traditionally been coded as feminine by society, and I almost always prefer hanging out with women, all things being equal. When I see, say, a beer commercial about what a drag having a wife is, because you can't hang out with the guys, I find that an utterly alien viewpoint. I have wonderful male friends, but stop hanging out with my wife to hang out with them? Have they ever met my wife? C'mon!

In Los Angeles, this is not particularly remarkable. But in South Dakota, when I was growing up, this marked me for lots and lots of bullying from other kids in my school, to the degree that I seriously contemplated suicide a couple of times. Boys weren't supposed to be interested in music and theater. They weren't supposed to spend all of their time watching TV and movies. They were supposed to be active and play sports and go hunting. And I could enjoy any one of those activities for a short time, but I could never let it become my thing, to the degree that it was for other people.

And that's fine. The world needs all types. But where I grew up required the gender binary to such a degree that I was mocked by other kids just for slight deviations from the norm. It got better as high school wore on and many of them graduated, but it's not like I suddenly forgot how it felt.

And this is someone speaking who was, ultimately, just another white straight guy, someone whom society is built to prop up. Whatever I went through, it's one one-thousandth as miserable as what anybody who even slightly deviates from that template — be they tomboyish girl or different race or gay teen — has to put up with. It was not a world I could continue to be a part of, and it's damn sure not a world I would wish upon any of my children.

So I'm not going back. I can't go back, no matter how much I miss it.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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