TDoR: Why This is Our Present and Why We Must Look Towards the Future
Today is Trans Day of Remembrance; what day could be more fitting for me to wake my sleeping blog and make a firey comeback.
Earlier today, I saw a post pop up in my Facebook feed from a local organization promoting Trans Awareness Week by advertising a blog post by social worker from a local hospital which houses a trans youth clinic. The clinic itself is, after a bumpy and I’m just be up front and say it, trans-exclusionary launch, overall doing good things for the trans community and I am always glad to hear happy clinic stories from trans youth who attend my programs. I am glad the clinic exists, but it is no secret that I oppose how the clinic functions. Mired in monolithic hospital bureaucracy and archaic versions “best practice,” the well-meaning providers do their best to provide affirming care. Working in a system that requires pathologization they tell me they aim for it to be as non-pathologizing as possible. So, when a blog like this crosses my path, I find it difficult to not comment on how in a movement with a growing number of non-trans (cisgender) allies, even well-intentioned work can still easily contribute to trans oppression. It is fair to say that this specific article is no different from what we see in Huffington Post, talking about trans kids and how we should care about them (good stuff), describing trans with the strict binary myth where boys like “girl stuff” and girls like “boy stuff (yeah, that is not good stuff), and then (with clearly good intentions) aligning the trans experience with inherent dysphoria, depression and suicide (No. Unacceptable). One of the primary reasons trans people experience violence and discrimination is because we are stigmatized as being mentally ill. Mental illness is considered a curse in our society, making those of use with it to be less than. Trans people are considered less than human for many reasons, and pathologization is a big one. If we continue to promote narratives of mental illness, even in the most loving ways, it is still oppressive. You can spank a child with love, but that child has still been hit.
As I mentioned above, but feel the need to mention again: Today is Trans Day of Remembrance. This day exists because trans people, specifically trans women and gender non-conforming people of color, are murdered and exposed to violence at dehumanizing rates. Violence comes in many forms: physical, emotional, psychological, institutional, cultural… Yes, being shot, beaten, raped, molested, this is violence. Do we consider it violence when a kid can’t go home because, though he never gets hit, he doesn’t feel safe or loved? Do we consider it violence when a person struggling with depression cannot find a trans accepting counselor, and so goes without? Is it violence when a child is raised by a family who psychologically mutilates them because they think that their trans identity is a curse from the devil? Is it violence when that child grows up maladjusted, homeless, and hurting? Is it violence to have no access to employment because of discrimination, forcing a person must make a life on the street through drugs and non-consensual sex work? Is it violence when addiction takes a life after years of trying to mask the pain of societal rejection and a never ending fight for resources that don’t exist? Is it violence when a trans person dies from a disease that could have been cured if they only could have accessed better healthcare? All of this is violence. All of it.
The trans community is powerful, with powerful leaders like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson to lead the way for us. The reason the trans community has not grown more established like the HRC and “Gay and Lesbian” groups is due to more than the discrimination we experienced in the “Gay Rights” movement. It is because as “progress” came and privilege arrived for many, trans people are still focusing on basic survival. We cannot organize a movement; gather to fight a war for ourselves if we are distracted by violence and the need to survive. In the last two years, I have told people that the reason I haven’t been blogging or touring, is because I’ve been busy building my non-profit, finishing grad school, and working to become a therapist for trans people. This is the truth, but only a small portion of it. The reason my presence has been sinking from blogging, community projects, making new programs, and visiting social scenes is because I have been struggling to make it. After nearly nine years of feeding both myself and a growing a one-person trans organization from the same tour-schedule paycheck, poverty and burn-out caught up with me. And as it did, a genetic medical issue sent me to the emergency room: my blood pressure dropped and, near death, I was rushed to surgery, but not before giving a nurse my business card for her trans niece. This was pre-Affordable Care Act and I have accrued large amounts of medical debt. I couldn’t afford to not work through my recovery period. My PTSD, inflamed by almost dying, went untreated because I could not find a therapist (or afford one) who was competent, or willing, to work with trans people. Within six months, a former member of the trans support group I run started aggressively stalking me, the continuation of what had already been a two year ordeal. I went months without reaching out for help because the only support organization for stalking, “Women Helping Women,” has a terrible reputation among trans and queer people and I could not cope with facing transphobia in the state I was in. The police, unfamiliar with trans needs, offer me a mix of supportive and scarring interactions; the courts, horrific and stale, continue to lead me through hoop after hoop, with wrong pronouns and problematic language stinging me with every step. Even if I was not trans this would be hard, but I found that being trans created more barriers than I ever expected. I was extremely fortunate to eventually find a survivor advocate who works with me even though it isn’t part of her job description because there is no one else who knows how. Over the last year, she has been working hard to try and find trans resources for me to cope with my depression, anxiety, and PTSD, but ironically, every referral she got was the same: “You have a trans client? The best resource is JAC Stringer.” I reached out to people in the community for support with minimal success, teaching me the lesson that if I want people to really pay attention to the violence I experience as a trans person, I have to be dead. And, I believe very strongly that if I were not a person with white colored skin and an education, I likely would be dead already. After all, I am 30 years old and the average life expectancy for trans person is between 23 and 30.
Beloved friends, first let me tell you that I am safe in my own home, and that I am hoping this stalking case will continue to improve. Next, I want you to know I tell you these things not to scare you or to upset you; I certainly do not tell you so that I might hear more guilt inducing pleas of “Why didn’t you tell me?” I expose myself here to show that even the trans people you may think are the strongest, are fighting to survive every day. We are all in this together and we must keep working to make all forms of trans violence a thing of the past, not a crippling reality of the present. So many times, I have said to myself, “How the hell can I support my people when I can barely support myself? How can I meet your needs when I am struggling to care for my own?” And the accompanying guilt of cutting programs, cutting work hours, delaying projects all of which I know will be felt by the trans community all because I had no choice but to take care of myself. This is why the trans community looks as it does: because when you are in the front lines, you get shot. It takes time for the medic of self-care to reach you and in the time you are healing, there is one less person fighting.
As more non-trans (cisgender) folks join the movement who are not partners, who are not parents- the non-trans people who are outside the trans community, I am happy, I am excited, and I am skeptical. It is still hard for me to believe that those who ignored us for so long can turn the page and suddenly care at all, let alone care enough to do the work. It is hard to accept the embrace of those who once told me “we don’t want you here.” It is hard to understand how people can offer to help you, but when you need them most, they still turn away as if nothing has changed. Last week, Cincinnati HRC held a press conference to celebrate that the National HRC has awarded the city a 100% score for being, I donno, good to LGBTQ people – I don’t know how their sticker system works. This was awarded because the city, thanks to the work of a specific trans woman, now includes trans health care for city employees. This is indeed a great accomplishment, but to acknowledge it Cincinnati HRC did not invite any trans organizations to the press conference, or contact any trans leaders to ask for feedback, statements, or even just to attend. I found out about the press conference via a lucky connection; told them I was coming, but a week later when I arrived at the location it was empty. I later found out that the event had been moved but no one bothered to call me. I tried to reach out to the HRC, but still I have gotten no reply, no apology. But on the bright side, Cincinnati now has a 100% HRC score. Cincinnati, which does not have an LGBTQ Center, or an LGBTQ health clinic, or an LGBTQ inclusive adult shelter, or a trans inclusive anything… Cincinnati, where our LGBTQ population is riddled with black tar heroin, Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS, survival sex work, racism, poverty, homelessness, – but we have a 100% with the HRC. And I am considered “inflexible” and even “hostile” when I hesitate to work with these people. But, I am still willing to try… Tonight, instead of standing beside my community in mourning and reflection over the countless lives lost to trans-centered violence, I accepted an invite to speak to several hundred social workers at the NASW conference. The state chapter is giving me an award, but I continue to ask myself why. How much does the NASW, or your average social worker, know about trans needs? When I seek help for trans people, I find them to know very little. When I seek help for myself, I find them to know even less. And yet, here I am, a trans person, presented with an opportunity to thank them for recognizing me, a white skinned, educated person, on behalf of the work I do to address their offensive and insulting lack of service to my people. I know I should be grateful that they are finally paying attention, at least a little bit. I should not chastise those who are late to the game because at least they showed up. I know these people are trying, but how can I forgive them? Honestly, I don’t know if I ever fully will, but I am willing to welcome those who want to help, not just because we need it, but because I want it. I want help from any good person willing to give it and I am grateful. As for the ceremony, I am using the opportunity to change minds and shake hearts to the point of bursting. The way I see it, as long as I am alive, I will be fighting – and yes, I mean to use the word FIGHT with all the aggression and power behind it. I will fight on the streets; I will fight in the schools; I will fight in faith places; I will fight at the powwow; I will fight in the hospital room; I will fight from my sickbed; I will fight until the breath has left me… Make no mistake; this is not because I am a hero. It is not because I am strong, or inspiring, or special. It is because I do not have a choice. None of us trans people do, no matter how many hurdles we may jump or how easy our life may feel, when one of us is oppressed, we are all oppressed. If one of us is murdered, a piece of us all is dead.
Earlier this year, a young woman named Tiffany Edwards was murdered just a few miles from where I grew up. She was a trans woman of color, young and aspiring to lead a creative life of self-expression. When she was murdered, I found part of my grief was selfishly oriented towards me. I felt guilty that this woman, who had contacted our organization a couple times, had so few resources. I felt that her death was proof of how little I have done, and can do, to help our people. I know this was grief talking. I try very hard to remind myself that the work of countless activists like me matters. Racism and poverty are a form of transphobia. Transphobia is a form of violence. Violence is with us every day, but it is my hope that someday it won’t be like this. It is my hope that someday, as soon as possible, trans people, specifically the young women who come after Tiffany, will have a better life. We have to work to support ourselves, and each other, as trans people. I believe that non-trans people will, and must be, a part of our movement. And in that belief, I am hopeful that they will educate themselves against the outdated narratives and exclusionary practices that they have been used to. The people who come after us will have, must have a better life. Recently, my adopted kid (now 19) started T, and while it wasn’t a perfect or oppression free scenario, it was exponentially easier and safer for him than it was for me. I told him, “This is why I do what I do. It’s for you, so you don’t have to grow up to be like me.” Every time I see him with his friends, or hear him speak about his passions and dreams, I am reminded that there is more to come. And so today, as you think about Tiffany and the countless lives lost, look towards the future. We must never forget those we have lost, we must fight for those with us today, and we must build a better future.