Recently some social media posts have been questioning definitions of heroism and bravery by comparing two pictures, a US world class athlete and a US soldier; a seemingly reasonable comparison of heroes. So why do the posts acknowledge the bravery and heroism of the soldier but ridicule that of the athlete?
If I told you the soldier was in uniform and the athlete was a transgender woman would that make a difference? If I now mention the soldier is sat on a park bench and has clearly lost both legs below the knee and the transgender woman is a wealthy reality-TV star pictured on the front cover of Vanity Fair, would that make a difference? How does that detail affect your judgement of an individual's perceived heroism or bravery? Two different images worlds' apart, though perhaps in some ways they are closer than others like to think.
The soldier is a hero, he placed his own life on the line to save others, to make the world a better place and deserves the support, respect and gratitude of anyone who wants or expects freedom and democracy in the world. Soldiers fit our stereotypical image of bravery, of heroes, but does someone transitioning gender deserve to be judged adversely? Can't they be considered brave, maybe heroic sometimes?
Being a hero or respected for bravery isn't something people usually claim for themselves, it is more often a title or a label given to them by others; it can be a gift or a curse. Not only is every hero different but everyone's idea of a hero is too. A hero is someone to look up to, a beacon of courage, inspiration and hope.
Thankfully heroes aren't as rare as we might imagine, they live amongst us and have a habit of popping up when we need them. They may be police officers or fire and rescue, they crew ambulances, lifeboats, they are nurses, surgeons, soldiers, aid workers, frontline reporters, teachers, or just next-door neighbours, the list is endless and knows no barriers of race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. There are many kinds of bravery too, fighting a life threatening illness, coping with tragedy, standing up against the bully, violence, persecution, hate, prejudice or injustice.
Pictures can only tell us part of a story; the soldier knows the risk yet still puts himself in harms way for someone else. He may have lost his legs due to an illness, cruel incident or accident outside of combat, but he still remains a hero to us because we see the uniform and we picture his character, resolve and bravery. The uniform represents all our military heroes, it makes them visible.
Transgender is also a label given to people. It covers a broad spectrum of gender diverse individuals including those who just weren't gifted at birth with a body that matched their own gender identity. No-one chooses this, it is a card dealt pre-natal and how those cards play out is down to fate and circumstance, every individual's story is as different as life can be. The picture described above shows the protection, image and pampered lifestyle that money can buy, but for the majority that is just another dream to add to their list of dreams. The glamorous lifestyle image isn't representative of the struggle that most transgender people know so well, but the spotlight does present their existence, it makes them visible.
What if a soldier hero who suffers life changing injuries happens to be transgender, what then? It could happen, it may have already happened. There are so many pictures of wounded heroes but how can you tell from their photo that a person isn't transgender? You can't! Unlike in the UK, transgender people aren't allowed to serve openly in the US military. Being transgender is all about gender identity, not sexual identity, so when the right to serve was opened to American LGB personnel transgender people remained excluded. That doesn't mean to say they don't serve. They serve as I had to before the UK removed a similar ban, by hiding their true identity in fear of being dismissed from the service, of being prevented from defending their own country, their family and friends, people they don't even know; fighting for freedom and security whilst trading their own freedom for security. Deciding to live a true life comes from inevitable necessity not choice; it means facing up to a world that may disown you, the possibility of losing your job and respect. Is that a brave person? Without doubt! Though they would never agree.
To live without regret you have to be true to yourself, for someone transitioning gender that usually means they have to challenge the world, sometimes in doing so they may become someone else's hero.