I live in North Carolina, where Pat McCrory signed his name to legalize discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Now several states have their own versions of HB2. The immediate target appears to be the transgender population and more specifically, public restrooms. It’s ridiculous, but amazingly, it’s also real. Sure, I’m outraged, incredulous, saddened. But I’m also puzzled. I just don’t get it.
Whenever I just don’t get it, whatever “it” happens to be, I go back to basics: my education. In college, I majored in psychology, preparing to become a therapist. I was fascinated by the progression of thinking in developmental psych, by the ways the mind can go off course in abnormal psych, by the dialogue between the individual and society in social psych. But I was equally drawn to the English Department for reasons I couldn’t articulate.
I began with a course on British poets: Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth, Eliot. Then I moved on to a smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated topics — 19th Century American Writers, Medieval Plays, 20th Century American Poets, Greek Tragedies. I felt a strong internal pull, a compulsion to study literature. I was particularly drawn to the writings I found most incomprehensible.
I had fine professors who created classroom environments designed to build understanding from ignorance. Medieval plays made no sense whatsoever, until my teacher explained the lives of both the playwrights and the audience. Interpreting poetry felt awkward, even pretentious, until my professor invited us to react on a gut level – “Don’t overthink it; feel it.” Writing my assigned papers felt stilted, until I was advised that ideas were more important than perfect grammar and immaculate syntax; “Break the rules a little bit,” my professor smiled.
I began reading and writing differently – not only to understand material on an intellectual level, but also to experience learning on an emotional level. With each poem, each novel, each play, my learning and thinking changed. As I read Emily Dickinson’s poetry, I explored her inner world, vastly different from my own. I battled the sea, cold and hungry, clutching the sides of “The Open Boat,” as I wrote a paper on Stephen Crane. I forged my own pilgrimage into The Canterbury Tales, following Geoffrey Chaucer as his story wandered from beautiful, to bawdy, to funny, to arduous – mirroring the experience of The Middle Ages. To get it, I had to live it. Once I lived it, even for a moment, I understood it on a new level.
Years later, when I began working with psychotherapy patients, I discovered that my English courses were as useful as my psych courses. The psych theory helped structure my thinking; the English courses taught me to make sense of each patient’s unique voice. The words of every writer I studied, like the words of every client I treated, were the keys to their selves.
I wish Pat McCrory and his followers had shared my curriculum back in college. I wish they had felt my initial lack of empathy when I read Portrait of a Lady (Henry James); I was irritated by Isabel Archer’s self-destructive choices, until my professor spoke about her impossible dilemma, from a personal and societal perspective, and I found myself (to my adolescent horror) in tears in the middle of a lecture hall. I wish those against transgender rights had experienced my professor of Greek tragedies whose lectures were so compelling I’m amazed I remembered to breathe; in one lecture which I’ll always carry with me, he transformed a Greek Chorus from contrived and ridiculous, into the collective mind of Ancient Greece.
As Pat McCrory and too many others sign away the civil rights of their fellow citizens, I wonder if they ever made the effort to learn about the experience of being transgender. I don’t mean memorizing a definition in a dictionary, or engaging in a mutual admiration society with others who are equally uncomfortable with the transgender population. I mean talking to someone who identifies as transgender – asking questions, sharing concerns, open to learning. If Pat McCrory is truly worried about what a transgender person does in a bathroom, then just ask. I’m quite confident that the answer would be something like: “Use restroom; wash hands; leave.” If people are frightened of how the transgender population behaves in public restrooms, then they need the guidance of a teacher.
I was in graduate school before I realized that during college, the specific subjects I studied were a means to an end. While I loved my courses, the heart of my education wasn’t English or psychology. At core, I was learning to learn, learning to think, and I still am.
How I wish Pat McCrory and his supporters would join me.
Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay teens bullied in high school, and follows a family’s journey after the daughter comes out. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, includes a strong friendship between two men, one gay and one straight, as well as a lesbian couple (raising a son and daughter) who become role model parents to the main character. Amy’s blog has several posts in strong support of LGBTQ+. To learn more about Amy, visit her website and find links to her blog and to her novels on Amazon.