Final Jeopardy Category: “Compassion”.
She became something of a household name, overnight. At 7 p.m. each weekday evening the nation tuned in, engaged by her disarming smile, and mesmerized by her lightning-quick buzzer thumb, her amazing breadth of knowledge. For 40 consecutive Jeopardy games, Amy Schneider torched the competition, breezing to win after win, amassing over $1.3 million in prize money.
When she lost, shockingly (even I knew, “What is Bangladesh?”!), she left behind much more than a place in the Jeopardy Hall of Fame as the second all-time winner behind only the incomparable Ken Jennings and as the show’s highest-earning woman. For many people, watching Amy Schneider play that trivia game is as much contact as they’ve ever had with a real trans person. Embodying that role with confidence and grace provided a bigger win for the nation than any spot in the Tournament of Champions ever could.
I’m sure I don’t have to imagine that some folks won’t agree with that, won’t agree that there’s any so-called “trans person” worthy of the commendation, “confidence and grace.” My guess is some even refused to watch, until she’d been defeated, changing the channel each evening with a condescending jeer. And for many others, there were just questions. A lot of questions.
“She?” “But… she looks like… a man.” “When did that start? And what does that mean… has she had… surgery?” “She said she has a ‘girlfriend.’ Does that make her gay? And what does that make the girlfriend?”
My phone rang one night, and my mother said, “Russ, what’s a… ‘trans person’”? Yep, lots of questions.
I do understand (the questions). I do not understand being trans. Of course neither do I understand being female or dyslexic or gay or black or mentally challenged or Asian or quadriplegic or brilliant or elderly or… well, any of the other many ways of being human in this world that are different from me. No, I do not understand.
I do know that a transperson named Parker (whose preferred pronouns are “they and them”) helped me one night, when they spoke to the Deacons at our church. “Some people think of gender as a line, like an arrow in both directions” they said. “On one end of the arrow is “Male,” and on the other end is “Female.” I understand gender as a kind of amorphous blob (as Parker was saying this, they circumscribed a big circle in the air with their finger) – and I think of myself as about… here (pointing to one rather indefinite spot on that indefinite blob of gender).
After a fascinating and respectful conversation, filled with all the questions a room full of curious Baptists could ask, questions we didn’t know even how to ask, we all went home. We might have left that night with even more questions, but we all went home with a lot more compassion, and a lot less judgment. That’s what human contact will do for you. Even if you’re only watching on TV.
Since that night with Parker, I’ve tried to add “trans” and “gender nonconforming,” “binary” and “non-binary,” and “cisgender” and “genderfluid” to my vocabulary, and I’ve done enough reading to have glimpsed the incredible sexual diversity that has been discovered, not just among us, but in the animal kingdom. Asexual animals, bisexual animals, transexual animals. Yes, sexual diversity among the animals.
No, I still don’t understand – but the more I try to understand, the more I come to accept that diversity is an undeniable part of our wild, amazing, wonderful world.
Citizens of such a complex world, especially people of faith, have a basic choice. We can condemn those who are different from us, “different” in any way, castigate those we don’t understand, label them and heap on them humiliation and shame, we can stereotype and blame and judge. People of faith can cling to narrow, literalistic readings of ancient scriptures, and proclaim only our difference to be righteous.
Or we can learn to live together. The truth is, we’re all different. I’m grateful to Amy Schneider for bringing some of that difference into our homes and showing us that we have nothing to fear.
As it turns out, the final answer isn’t, “What is Bangladesh?” but “What is compassion?” Failing to answer that question properly puts us all in jeopardy.
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He co-pastors Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte with hs wife, Rev. Amy Dean, a native of Clinton and also a graduate of CHS.)