Musings on sharing stories, vulnerability, and listening.

[Content Note:  Gaslighting, Subtle Transphobia]

As a writer, I love stories.  I love telling them.  I love crafting them.  I love reading them.  I love listening to them.  I love learning about the people who are a part of those stories, how they were shaped by those stories, and how they shaped the stories in turn.

I also love to hear actual people’s stories.  I love hearing about their lived experiences.  If someone has an experience or personal anecdote that they’d love to share with me, I’m often happy to sit down and listen.

The thing is, just as with fictional stories, real people’s stories also involve painful moments.  Unlike fictional stories, that pain doesn’t cease to exist when I close the cover of a book.  The person who lived through that story lives beyond the written page or the campfire.  I think that’s something that’s important to remember when listening to stories of real people.

I was reminded of this a little over a week ago when I listened to a segment from the Drew Marshall Show called “LGBT’s and The Church,” which originally aired on March 23.  The segment is available for audio download (Note:  Above Content Notes definitely apply to the audio, as well as notes for subtle homophobia.) on the show’s site, and I highly recommend listening to the whole thing.  Both Lisa Salazar and Wendy Gritter are wonderful, engaging speakers.  I was particularly captivated by the first (roughly) thirty minutes of the hour-long segment.  In that part of the segment, Drew Marshall invited Ms. Salazar to share her story as a trans woman.

What bothered me about that part of the show, however, was the less than perfect job done of listening to her story and in caring for her comfort and safety while she told the story.  Sure, Mr. Marshall was not a total brute.  He respected Ms. Salazar’s gender identity and used the appropriate pronouns when addressing and speaking about her.  At one point later in the show, he even acknowledged that when he and his other two guests got talking, they were effectively talking about her and wanted to get her back involved in the conversation.

And yet, there were those little things — little things that can add up — that left me cringing. And angry.  I actually got angry listening to the segment, watching this man engage in little behaviors that I felt effectively trivialized the story that he had asked Ms. Salazar to share.

I want to emphasize that last point again.  Drew Marshall invited Lisa Salazar to share her story.  This isn’t even a case of a trans woman volunteering information about her life and her experiences, where a failure to really listen and engage with her story would be bad enough.  This is a case in which a trans woman was actively invited to join a discussion for the explicit purposes of sharing those experiences.  Asking someone to speak and then failing to listen well or honor their act of making themselves vulnerable enough to share strikes me as particularly egregious.

After I thought about it, I decided to send an email to Drew Marshall on April 3.  I’ve decided to also share that email here on my blog.  I do this not because I think that Drew Marshall needs to be publicly shamed, but because I actually think that the actions he took that I found problematic are all too common.  So I would take this time to invite anyone reading this to evaluate how well you listen to the stories of other people and how well you contribute to their sense of safety and comfort as they share.

Mr. Marshall,

My name is Jarred Harris. I am a thirty-eight year old gay man living in upstate New York, and I am writing you about the “LGBT’s & The Church” roundtable which aired on your show March 23. I found out about the roundtable through one of the participants, Wendy Gritter. I was unable to listen in when the show aired but have recently downloaded and listened to the full MP3 file that is now on your site.

There is much I could say about the show, but I want to focus on the first twenty-five or so minutes, in which Lisa Salazar shared her story at your behest, and some of the things that I found problematic with your handling of that part of the roundtable as facilitator.

First, let me say that I find it commendable that you would invite a trans woman to participate in your show. In a world where LGBT people in general and trans people in particular are often talked about rather than talked with in Christian venues, it is unfortunately remarkable that you would take that step. In many ways, I got the impression that you were sincerely interested both in hearing her story and having your listeners hear it as well. Having said that, there were a few things that you said and did that I found incongruent with and detrimental to that goal.

I would note that when you invited Ms. Salazar to share her story during the roundtable, you were inviting her to open up and make herself vulnerable to you, Wendy, Dr. Brice, and all your listeners. That is asking much any person, let alone a person who has suffered marginalization and othering throughout their life. I admire Ms. Salazar for courageously accepting that invitation on your show. It’s an act on her part that deserves the most respect and sensitivity in response. I would like to share a few instances where I felt you could have done better in that regard.

One of the first things that I noted is that, if I were to assume that this segment of your show is representative of how you handle things, I would conclude that you tend to be the kind of person who likes to use humor to lighten the mood and keep things from getting “too heavy.” Unfortunately, I felt that such attempts in this case were inappropriate and troubling. To give one example, when Ms. Salazar shared the concept of gender dysphoria and talked about how it is exactly like being “depressed about one’s gender [that is, the one assigned at birth],” you made a joke about “being depressed with the male gender in general.” While I’m sure that you intended it to be a mood lightener, I will note that it came across to at least me as trivializing the very real and painful experience of being at odds with their assigned gender that Ms. Salazar and many trans people experience. I also felt it was a way to escape from actively engaging with those painful experiences she had, experiences you had invited her to share.

Another example of humor I found inappropriate was when she was talking about meeting her wife and the fact that she wasn’t attracted to men, you joked that she “wasn’t following the rules.” Again, this struck me as again making light of very real experiences she was having and the trouble she was having making sense of them. I was also troubled by this because as I understand it, many trans people actually do experience trouble with “rules” — particularly gatekeepers in the medical and psychological community — that insist trans people have to act and feel in certain ways. (As trans author Julia Serano put it in “Whipping Girl,” cis or non-trans women are allowed more varied ways of being women than trans women are.) So, I found your jest about Ms. Salazar not following the rules especially discomforting, as it potentially trivialized a very real problem faced by trans people. I’m aware you may not have been aware of that particular problem, but I would like to suggest that your unawareness of such an issue is all the more reason to refrain from joking when someone like Ms. Salazar is sharing her experiences.

One of the other things that bothered me was the couple of times when you played devil’s advocate (asking Ms. Salazar to address arguments others may make). While I certainly understand why exploring those arguments may have been necessary for the rest of the roundtable discussion, I found it troubling that you chose to do so during the part of the segment in which you asked Ms. Salazar to share her story. (There was no sense to me that the conversation had shifted out of “sharing time” into “debate time.”) Again, inviting someone to share their story and then asking them to spend their sharing time to answer arguments that a hypothetical person — or a real person, for that matter — might ask them, inadvertently privileges those arguments and their need for a response over the experiences of the person in question.

The last thing I want to bring up is the time or two when you interrupted her to ask her to talk about something in particular — the most notable example being when you asked her to talk about meeting her wife. I suspect that this was motivated by the twin concerns of time constraints and the fact that you felt that what you asked her was important for your listeners to hear. With regard to the first concern, I am completely sympathetic, though I would encourage you to find a different way to manage that issue rather than guide the story someone else is telling about themselves. I find the second concern completely problematic, however. If you invite someone to share their story, I feel it is vital that you allow that person to share their story in their own way, as they see fit. To do otherwise is to dictate to the other person what aspects of their own experiences actually matter.

As I draw this email to a close, I would like to point out again that inviting a trans person — or any other LGBT person or any person at all — to share their story, you are asking them to make themselves vulnerable to you and anyone else around them. I bring this up because one of the things that I found most troubling — and this is part of the reason I’ve chosen to write this email — is that I feel you asked Ms. Salazar to be extra vulnerable when you asked her to share what the most hurtful thing that was ever said to her, something that cut her deep in her soul. You asked this after potentially trivializing things she already chose to share with you — such as her experience of gender dysphoria that I mentioned earlier. I would encourage you to consider how you receive and respond to someone’s experiences in the future before asking them to share something that’s potentially even more painful for them to share.

Again, I commend you for being — as far as I know — one of the few people who have invited a trans person onto your show to share their experiences, and overall I think you treated Ms. Salazar with a fair bit of respect. However, I would encourage you to also consider how small things that you say or do during that time of sharing may run counter to the sharing process and hurt people in the process, even unintentionally.

Jarred Harris

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