There is no 'transgender question.' There are only people

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD

We have a nasty habit of treating our fellow human beings as issues, cardboard cut-outs that represent ideas rather than the complex individuals they are.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions of transgender people — and, really, the entire LGBTQ spectrum.

In certain corners of the internet, you'll find all manner of degrading rhetoric and misinformation about trans people. And even advocates for LGBTQ rights tend to speak in broad, sweeping generalities.

A lot of the discussion around a crop of legislation in Pennsylvania and elsewhere that ban even the discussion of sexuality and gender describe this legislation as fodder in the ongoing "culture war" or splits the debate into two sides arguing over the "transgender question."

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Let's be clear: There aren't two sides, and there isn't a transgender question.

There are only people.

People like Whispering Wind Bear Spirit, who was profiled by The York Dispatch's courts reporter Aimee Ambrose last month.

A photo of Whispering Wind Bear Spirit as they ride in a car.

At the time of Bear's tragic death in May 2021, in the middle of what prosecutors described as a drug-related robbery, there was a lot of speculation and political posturing around the killing and who Bear was.

One of the reasons The York Dispatch chose to embark on a deep-dive into Bear's story was the question of whether Bear's killing may have been motivated by anti-LGBTQ sentiment. After months of in-depth reporting, we found no evidence of that.

What we did find was a complex and poignant story of a person trying to figure out their place in the world. Friends of Bear's recounted their journey from a young age.

"I feel like I'm a boy stuck in a female's body," Bear told half-sister Jessica Slager one day after karate practice when they were both teens.

Bear later used the description "two-spirit." That's an Indigenous umbrella term often used to describe someone who encompasses both male and female genders simultaneously.

At various points in their life, Bear outwardly appeared more feminine or more masculine. Recent photos showed Bear in a Carhartt jacket and work boots, wearing a full beard.

Whispering Wind Bear Spirit shows off a beard they grew in a message to Jessica Slager in November 2020.

Based on Bear's own words, we decided the most accurate pronouns to use were "they," although Bear's friends said Bear didn't care much what pronouns you used.

That's because Bear's journey wasn't simply about gender identity.

Bear learned to cope with hearing loss after a childhood bout with meningitis. Bear's father was estranged and Bear endured physical trauma from a prior relationship.

Bear was also a fiercely loyal friend who cracked jokes, loved nature and traveled across the country looking for a place to call home. They worked on a farm and appeared in a reality TV show pilot.

Our culture has a habit of turning people like Whispering Wind Bear Spirit into props. Simply existing becomes a political act when a certain segment of the population denies the very existence of LGBTQ people.

Bear, however, was more than their gender.

"I'm just Bear," they told friends.

In the best of all possible worlds, we hope Bear's story can inspire greater empathy for the people behind the politics because the struggle for LGBTQ rights is ultimately the struggle for human rights.