«A love letter across the ocean to Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad»
«I don’t know if there is anyone yet who has mattered more for the transgifted in Norway than you», skriver professor Helga Varden.
(Kronikken publiseres på engelsk etter ønske fra Helga Varden.)
It is 7:04 a.m. and I’m sitting drinking my morning coffee and looking out on glorious Lake Michigan. I’m an early bird, so I’ve already been awake for a while, but when I woke this morning, I wanted to write a love letter to you, Esben Esther. To prepare, I watched your Transgifted Ted Talk. (This also means, of course, that I’ve already cried once today. Good tears.) Your talk is not only brilliant but an incredible, generous, loving gift both to the transgifted and to the rest of us. As are you. Hannah Arendt once said that when we act, others see us much more clearly than we do ourselves. We can think of our own selves—the I, the who I am—as a daimon or spirit sitting just behind our shoulders, just out of sight. Hence, others can see our spirits—who we are—clearly, but we cannot. (Arendt, Hannah (1958/1998). The Human Condition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (2nd ed)). And your daimon, Esben Esther, sparkles so brightly and loves so wisely, you create a space in which to learn, to feel, to think, and to be safely. Regardless of what happens next.
I don’t know if there is anyone yet who has mattered more for the transgifted in Norway than you. (How can we possibly thank you enough for that?! Impossible!) One thing about your Ted Talk that made me so happy is that other transgifted around the world now also can lean on you, on your knowledge, on your wisdom, and on your love. And by recording and publishing the talk, you also made it available to the rest of us. Thank you!
As I’m sure you don’t know—how could you?—I’m one of those Norwegian philosophers who live in the United States. (In fact, I even became a citizen here too not so long ago; very strange.) I live here with my endlessly loving wife, who loves me, like your wife loves you, as who I am. Full stop. This also means, however, as you know, that I know a good bit about oppression and also about belonging to, to use your phrase, an indigenous people, or, in Norwegian, “urfolk.” You and I probably agree that your people and mine belong to a family of indigenous peoples who live, among other things, in spaces outside dominant binaries (or often any binary). And we are born without a land of our own, indeed, without automatic belonging in our given families or communities.
Not so long ago, I shared a last walk, a last conversation, with a very dear friend and colleague—Bruce Rosenstock; a true ally, a genuine, loving friend. This past fall he became sick with cancer, and we both knew, at this point, that it could not be cured. We liked each other very much and, so, even as he was entering the last stages of his life, we walked and talked philosophy for hours and hours as if it were minutes. On our last walk, we talked about why he is a Hegelian at heart and I a Kantian. I suggested that perhaps Hegel appealed to him, a Jewish, cis, and straight man, because Hegel, the community philosopher incarnate, is particularly useful when thinking about the oppression of the Jewish people. In contrast, I belong to the LGBTQIA+ community and, so, I know that one cannot automatically trust that one’s given or inherited communities—whether family, local community, religious community, country, etc.—will welcome you. Indeed, your family or community may be the ones who kill you. Hence, my philosophical home, not by accident, is a Kantian one, as Kantian philosophy has at its core not the community but individual human dignity. With this hypothesis regarding our deepest philosophical choices—one I still carry with me—we parted ways for the last time (though we didn’t know it at the time). I want to share this hypothesis regarding our identities and our deep theoretical orientations with you. My friend would have loved that. And if he had heard your talk this morning with me, we would have smiled at each other when we saw that you, like I, place much emphasis on the Kantian idea of “dignity”. How about that? But I also would have liked to talk about how my friend and you both emphasized the importance of community.
In the last few years, when thinking about some of the most difficult and heartbreaking aspects of the philosophy of sex and love, I have found myself increasingly concerned with the question of method. I am convinced that to do better with regard to identity issues that track long, deep histories of dehumanizing oppression, we require a bottom-up methodology; if we want to speak to issues regarding any of the relevant isms, such as sexism, cisism, cissexism, heterosexism, racism, anti-semitism, classism, etc.—let alone related phobic behavior—then our starting point must always be the people who live these lives, who know them intimately. In our shared family of peoples, this is the multifaceted LGBTQIA+ community. Only they have the knowledge we all need to behave better and to have hope that we can become better human beings—individually and as cultures—around these issues. Similarly, they hold indispensable clues both insofar as we are trying to become better professionals—as academic philosophers and medical professionals, for example, etc.—and insofar as we strive to become better citizens, politicians, and public officials capable of making better, related laws and policies. This view of mine is, obviously, controversial—most people in academia, including philosophy, think the opposite—so it was professionally important for me to hear that you have concluded the same. You are, obviously—as a physician of 38 years, professor, and a world leader in all issues regarding the transgifted—one of my major sources of correction on topics as difficult as the one we share as professionals.
I see, from afar, that you also get treated quite badly at times, both professionally and publicly, because you live, write, think, or give talks about sex and love from a minority position. Indeed, you were just treated very badly once again by the Norwegian public health authorities. Endlessly sadly, instead of the public healthcare system in Norway learning from you, they have decided that they will “correct” and discipline you. In all likelihood, the wrongdoing against you will not be rectified also this time. Owning wrongdoing is one of the most difficult things for us human beings, especially when one gets something this important this wrong.
This latest event is, as I am sure you suspect, the event that made me sit down and write this love letter to you. In my life, I naturally need close by some very loving, good people—fortunately the gods and goddesses have sent me not only my wife but other incredible people who love, cherish, and support me as who I am. In addition, I try to learn from those who have gone before me. For example, I look to incredible women like Queen Kristina of Sweden, Katerina the Great, Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Anna J. Cooper, Hannah Arendt, and Simone de Beauvoir. They did the impossible and so made you and me possible; we both have enjoyed professional jobs we absolutely love, and we have held them as who we are. Incredibly difficult, but not impossible. To borrow from Anna J. Cooper, although much trouble has and does come our way, so have deep joys and enough hope to go on living with our heads “unbowed though bloody.” (Cooper, Anna J. (1998). The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, ed. C. Lemert and E. Bhan, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 237). I learn from these women; I find safe spaces to think about difficult issues with them in their works, and I feel my gratitude towards them. Today I am writing this love letter to you because not only are you like them to me, but you are still here so I can express it directly: You make a world of difference and I am so very grateful to you. I promise I will pay forward to the best of my ability. And I can’t wait to learn more from you once you are ready to give more talks to all of us who want to learn from you, again and again.