When sitting in room 244 in Maryland Hall, I was presented with an interesting question that I had pondered before, but never in this light, why should I get to chose how someone else feels or acts? A representative from PFLAG, an organization that promote transgender education and acceptance, who was also a mother of a trans girl, presented this question to the crowd. Who are we to tell people how to act and dress, especially if it makes them happy? William Shakespeare explores this same question in his play, “Twelfth Night,” which is centered around a character who cross dresses to survive. In both real life and in “Twelfth Night,” people cross dress for their survival, and it is something we need to learn to not only accept, but truly understand.
In “Twelfth Night” the main character, Viola, after being shipwrecked and presumably orphaned, decides to cross dress as a man named Cessario in order to get a job to earn money and return home. She feels as though it is her only option and she fearlessly makes the decision to cross dress in order to survive. In today’s society, people cross dress for different, yet necessary, reasons and are ridiculed and cast out for doing what feels right to them. Viola’s situation is rather different than a modern day cross dresser. While she is still attracted to the same sex and it complicates her life, she goes through emotions she can’t explain as she gets tangled in this love triangle where a woman, Olivia, is in love with her facade as a man, and she is in love with a man she has become close with because he believe she is a man. That man, Duke Orsino, is in love with Olivia all the while. So many mixed, and confused emotions surround the trio and confuse the reader. While their feelings can be plotted out on a piece of paper, the feelings of transgender people are not as easy. Some know at as young as two that they were born “with the wrong parts” and that they were meant to be born as the opposite gender. Before attraction to another person ever begins, these children know something is not right; they feel different. If they are lucky, their parents will allow them to dress in whatever feels comfortable, but that doesn’t always happen.
Some children hide their feelings from their parents for many, many years, and others are very confused by how they feel. They often just do not understand themselves what they feel or who they are. Viola had the ease of choosing to be a man, and she chose so in hopes of it being a short term solution to her temporary problem. People who identify as transgender are not as lucky. People who are not trans and do not personally know a transgender often can not comprehend that being trans is not a choice that perverse people make to make their lives hard. They feel as though they were born into the wrong body and are trying to feel like they belong, just like the rest of us. In addition, cross dressing is not a short term option for them. This is their real life, and they are in constant search for a solution to their problem that they are uncomfortable in the skin they were born with. This is a life long battle they have to fight, on top of fighting the general public, who is still disgusted by their lifestyle. When Viola’s situation gets too twisted, she is almost faced with a death sentence. Her life has become very complicated very fast, and although she is not choosing death for herself, it seems to be the easiest solution. Trans people all too often feel the same way and take their own lives. They do chose death for themselves because it is easier than figuring out the tangled, fragile web that holds their life together. While Viola cross dresses to deceive her comrades and find work, trans people are not trying to deceive anyone, their goal is quite their opposite, it is to live as truthfully and honestly as they can.
While acceptance is not easy when we do not understand each other, it is never impossible. Through education and a deeper understanding of one another, we can begin to reduce the suicide rate among the transgender community. At the end of “Twelfth Night” is was simple for everyone to accept one another for who they were. The characters had no trouble seeing Cessario as Viola and accepted her as the same person she was before, only with different clothing. Shakespeare understood that it was no big deal that Viola did what she had to in order to survive. Today, transgender people cross dress and take hormone pills and even undergo serious surgery in order to survive. Life is hard enough without feeling ridiculed everyday and never knowing true acceptance from people who are the same as you underneath it all. Love can grow out of understanding, and understanding is born from education. We can get there if we all work together to reach our goals of acceptance.