Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
*Trigger Warning* This post discusses systematic violence and suicide. I have placed a *TW* a few sentences before text that could be especially triggering. Please take care of yourself. <3
A year ago, Leelah Alcorn died* as a result of trans oppression and violence. How she died and the words she left behind sparked shock and outrage among cisgender people around the globe. To trans people, who face trans discrimination every day, it was a familiar event in a string of losses that make up our people’s history. And as I see facebook events and news articles about Leelah appear, I think back to exactly six months to the day before Leelah’s death, when 28 year old Tiff Edwards, a young trans woman of color, was murdered.** Like the first vigil, on the anniversary of Tiff’s death those of us remembering her did so without visibility. Part of what made Leelah so well remembered, in addition to her whiteness and viral post-death statement, is that she asked the world to “fix society” to keep others from living, and dying, as she did. In the past year, as demand for trans resources continues to rise, the issue to be “fixed” is not the presence of trans oppression, it is the absence of trans liberation.
I have been working as a trans activist since the day I came out, which will be ten years next month. The majority of my work has centered on my, and Leelah’s, home town, Cincinnati, Ohio. Like Leelah, I came out into a dark void of isolation, fear and anger but unlike her, I was privileged in that I was older, 21,; I was not entirely rejected by my family or friends, and though I was poor, I was independent enough to fend for myself. I was fairly green as an activist, but I thought if I worked to fix what caused trans suffering, eventually I would stop suffering too. I hoped that if I made myself seen, other trans people would find me. This eventually lead me to found Heartland Trans Wellness Group, a Midwest focused organization that primarily addresses Cincinnati area trans community needs. People often ask me how I learned to do this work, to which I always respond, “I learned how to swim by trying not to drown.” And that is what activism among the oppressed is like. We are in the sea of oppression trying to save our community from drowning without drowning ourselves.
When working on behalf of your own community, a lot of activism doubles as a mode of survival. As organizers struggle to support ourselves, we become less and less able to provide for our communities. When a community lacks resources, it is difficult for new leaders to emerge. Here we see the vicious cycle of every oppressed movement. The trans movement does not appear to move slow or in spurts because we are disorganized. It is because we are distracted by the need to survive. Upon hearing this, many people say, “That’s where allies come in!” and I don’t entirely disagree, however at this point in the trans movement, allyship is primarily being used as a misnomer for representative. Few cis allies will purposefully usurp trans leadership, but when you look at how trans people are treated in media, human service, and the non-profit industrial complex, the result more than speaks for itself.
A local Cincinnati newspaper published an article asking if anyone has “fixed society” in the last year. Written by a cis ally, it presents an important discussion on progress and problems related to the trans movement. The article is long and thorough, covering national events and statistics as well as issues specific to Cincinnati. Of the eight people interviewed for the article, two of them are trans. 25% of an article that is 100% about trans people comes from the perspective of trans people. If anyone feels compelled to reiterate the “not enough trans activists” argument, that can be easily dispelled. Here we have two experienced trans service providers, one in medicine and the other in mental health, each of whose work is entirely dedicated to trans needs and work with trans people every day. Knowing them both personally, I can attest to their exceptional competency and expertise on Cincinnati’s trans community and yet in the 2,244 word article, only 70 of them are quotes from trans people – that is 3%. What’s more, the cis voices given the most space are in the same professions as the trans providers right down to their specialty population (Yokoyama and Conard both serve trans youth; Yokoyama also serves trans adults while running the city’s only trans service organization). It is also notable that both trans interviews are placed in the middle of the article, neither setting the initial tone for the piece, nor closing with the final thought. Both of those critical spots where given to a cisgender physician who in each quotation uses Leelah’s dead*** name, an action that to trans people is considered one of the most significant forms of psychological violence. The good intentions of the article are lost behind the veil of cis privilege, leaving an inarguable example of systematic trans erasure. If you search for articles addressing Leelah, including those written by LGBTQ media outlets, you will find a primary absence of trans interviews. When looking at coverage of Cincinnati’s political response, including the installation of a memorial sign and two about the city’s “conversion therapy ban,” none include trans voices or the voices of trans or queer youth. I also can’t help but point out the irony of Cincinnati city council member Chris Seelbach, a relative newcomer to trans allyship, who immediately took the media stage upon Leelah’s death, stating the importance of addressing transphobic language when he has avoided accountability for his own transphobia as recently as last Spring. I do believe a person can learn to be an ally regardless of their past behavior; however, it is not appropriate for a cis person brand new to trans allyship to claim a lead voice in Cincinnati’s trans movement. Seelbach is a prime example of a cis person who has been repeatedly called upon by trans people to back up, and yet is still found quoted in nearly every news address of Cincinnati’s trans movement.
So who should be the lead voice in discussing Leelah? We must look to the community most directly impacted by this tragedy, trans youth, but you will not find them in any of the the aforementioned articles either. Trans activist and young person Jason Hettesheimer offers critical perspective as he recalls a meeting he recently held with trans and queer high schoolers, *TW* “…They didn’t know their rights or how to find support. We could use the momentum from Leelah’s death to work on empowering trans kids but instead we spend it on impractical policies and vigils for someone who died a year ago.” Memorials and vigils serve many purposes, including being a healing space, demonstrating the need for change, and most importantly, motivating people to make that change happen. Hettesheimer says, “Instead of using dead trans youth as the face of trans youth activism, we could empower living trans youth to fight against the systems oppressing us.” His statement speaks volumes about communities experiencing epidemics of violence, torn between survival and remembrance. Despite the violence, there are countless trans organizers around the globe, but as the community and its needs increase, so does the pressure on trans organizers to fill the gaps left by cisgender run systems of healthcare, housing, education, and human service to name a few. And when unsupported activists burn out, we are finding fewer and fewer people to replace us. For six years Hettesheimer has been one of the most vocal trans youth in Cincinnati doing everything from creating youth groups, to lobbying for policy change, to teaching workshops. Now, he finds himself against a wall. “Adults like to tell me how smart and strong I am,” he says, “They love to invite me to events, but when I speak they don’t listen. I don’t want to work with people who only care about trans kids when we are dead.” Yesterday he posted an announcement on his Tumblr stating that due to ageism and a lack of action in Cincinnati, he will no longer participate in the city’s trans activist movement.
Hettesheimer is far from the first trans activist to step back as a last choice for self care. Over the years I watched activist after activist back up or burn out in minimal time from Cincinnati’s toxically conservative environment which, in one way or another, mirrors all cities including more “progressive” ones. I could never blame a person for leaving the movement, or more frequently the city, for the sake of self care, but I couldn’t avoid the heartbreak that came each time a glimmering hope of a comrade fizzled out. Speaking for myself, while my work in Cincinnati filled me with humbling gratitude and joyful purpose, over time my work drained me emotionally, physically, and financially. In the eight plus years I worked on Heartland Trans Wellness Group, over six of which I was the only full time organizer, I averaged a 50-60 hour week and never once received a paycheck or benefits. Because the organization had no funding, I took touring gigs and odd jobs alongside my activist work and paid Heartland’s bills with the same checks that paid my rent. I worked in consistent isolation, suspiciously monitored, and in a few cases harassed by colleagues and other members of the LGBT community. I was constantly stressed out by my inability to provide enough resources, haunted by the people I’d lost to violence, and the impeding doom of losing more.
*TW* After Leelah’s death, Heartland experienced a huge spike in service requests from within the trans community. After the news broke, Jonah Yokoyama and I worked three days and nights to address trans community distress; Jonah was juggling a full time job on top of it. In addition to addressing the community’s and our own emotional upheaval, we fielded responses from the media and the cis community. The organization had been little more than a wallflower to the cis community, but cis shock and guilt quickly elevated it to being the most popular kid in school. But that popularity didn’t last, and when the dust settled promises of volunteers, donations, and fundraising never materialized. Some of these promises came from the very people who continue to block trans voices with their own. Heartland continues to strive to meet trans needs, and Yokoyama presents a positive picture of its growth, but what is not mentioned is that it is still an unfunded organization resting on the shoulders of a few trans community members, primarily Yokoyama, who continues to go under-recognized and unpaid for their work.
*TW* When we talk about “fixing” society, it is important to pay attention to where it is broken. The trans movement is not easily split into heroes and villains; there are complex systems of oppression at work here. When you think about trans community leadership, who comes to mind? How many people are celebrities versus those working on the ground every day? This lack of representation is not because trans leaders don’t exist and it is not accidental. It is a symptom of systematic trans erasure which is caused by the glass ceiling of cissexism and privilege. It keeps trans people trapped in the water, drowning, and society only looks down when one of our bodies floats to the top.
To be clear, I am not promoting the idea of a “trans only” movement where you have to be within the trans community (including partners and family members) to contribute. There are a lot of awesome, hardworking cis people contributing to the trans movement and the best, most credible folks are doing it quietly, not giving interviews and speeches. Whoever is involved in the work, the focus of the trans movement must always be on trans people and trans experiences, being told by trans voices – more specifically by the voices of those who are the most targeted such as trans people of color and trans youth. Yes, trans activists struggle, but like gentrification, the solution is not for cis people to take over or for LGB non-profits to adopt trans projects and siphon funding away from trans lead ones. It is to support the people and organizations who are already doing the work. Give us your money, collaborate with us on a grant and give us control of it, give us spaces to meet, educate yourself, and volunteer with a closed mouth and an open mind. This is what will help the trans activists of our movement and create ways for more trans community members, including partners and family, to take on leadership. It is common knowledge that there is strength in numbers, but strength is relative. I truly believe that any person that feels compassion for trans people is capable of valuable, important work. That said, capability does not equal competency. There is no exchange for a trans voice for a cis one. It is only through supporting and empowering trans communities that we can hope to combat our oppression.
If you are struggling, remember that it is a sign of strength to ask for help. Talk to the people you love. If you are in the Midwest, you can call Heartland Trans Wellness. You can send me an email to talk it out. OR 24/7 call Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK, or Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. If it is an emergency, call 911. You are not alone.
If you would like to help the efforts of Cincinnati’s trans community, you can donate to Heartland Trans Wellness Group, offer to volunteer, or share the link and encourage others. Thank you for the support.
*I chose news articles from smaller media outlets because they did not include text from suicide notes, mug shots, given names, or misgendering. **TransGriot is run by the well respected trans activist, Monica Roberts.
*** Common label used by trans people, especially youth, to describe the name given to them at birth (verses their chosen or true name).
I can appreciate that cis people are interested in supporting Bruce Jenner. I also can appreciate that the attention brought on by Bruce’s coming out brings further visibility to trans people. That said, as the media circus swirled over the weekend, so did my frustrations. Cisgender (cis) people have been doing pretty well with trans identity politics recently, but in the last couple days something went awry.
A cis ally is someone who has some level of knowledge about the trans community and proactively builds solidarity with trans people. We know that there is no right or wrong way to be trans but sometimes our community extends that philosophy to say there is no right or wrong way to be an ally. This surely comes from our people’s desperation for support and recognition. In other words, we take whatever we can get with an obligated gratitude. I rarely abide by this practice which has given me the reputation of being “mean” or “impatient.” (Perhaps those who call me “mean” have not seen me spend hours patiently educating offensive, but well intentioned cis people all with an impenetrable supportive smile.) Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for trans people to appreciate cis efforts for solidarity while also addressing problematic behavior. Supportive education is my general practice, focusing on strengths. I try to avoid value-loaded words like “right” and “wrong” and use strength based language like “a better word would be…” or “a more positive way is…” It’s also to be expected that education will look different depending on who is being taught. If you are brand new to trans stuff, then I’ll be very patient and gentle. If you’ve been working with trans topics for years, my method is going to be more direct saying, “I respect your ability to comprehend this at a higher level so let’s be polite, but real.” Then there are times when an issue is so large, it is necessary to address the cis community as a whole. Every situation requires careful strategy, and sometimes that strategy is simply saying, “No, you’re doing it wrong.”
To help our cis friends along, I have compiled a list of ten reminders for cis people when trans identities become a focal point in the news:
1) You do not have the right (or ability) to comment on or describe the significance of coming out as trans. It is not ok to offer your opinions on how trans people experience ourselves or what it is like to be trans. If you aren’t trans, you don’t know what it is like. You can be supportive without trying to speak for us.
2) Be prepared for trans people to challenge your self-titled allyship or the “trans ally” hashtag in your posts about a white famous person coming out when trans people (namely, trans women of color) are murdered every day and you never say a damn thing about it, with or without a hashtag. #youredoingitwrong
3) There is a difference between following the nice-person-politic internet herd and being an active participant in the trans movement. Trans people do not need cis validation of our joys or sorrows. We need solidarity and cis advocacy. Ask yourself, how often do you read about trans stuff when we are not in pop culture headlines? Are the only trans related posts you make about the death of a trans person? Are you tagging #translivesmatter about white trans people without acknowledging that it is an adaptation/appropriation of #blacklivesmatter? Solidarity requires more than a mouse click or a hashtag; it requires consistent buy-in, socially just education, and speaking out in real life. You do not get extra ally points for every trans post you reblog on tumblr.
4) If you only talk about the trans community when the news is about a white trans person, you are embodying one of the most damaging and pervasive oppressions trans people experience: racism.
5) If you hear yourself say, “The race of a trans person doesn’t matter because trans oppression has nothing to do with race,” just stop because you’re doing everything wrong.
6) Don’t assume trans people are interested in talking to you about trans news or want to hear how brave and magical you think we are. There are ways to honor the trans movement without tokenism and it is cis people’s responsibility to learn how. If you feel the need to bring up an issue, consider whether it is appropriate. “Hey, I heard about that person’s death…” is not appropriate conversation for crossing paths at the doughnut shop. A better statement is, “I appreciate the work you are doing.” Trans people are not responsible for providing unconditional edu-tainment for cis people; We have more important things to do like live our lives, fight oppression, and try to survive past the age of 30. If you blame, shame, or judge a trans person because they chose not to educate you or you felt offended by their response, you’re doing your “allyship” wrong. The first, most important step in allyship is taking a step back.
7) It is not ok to send/post sensationalized trans related articles to a trans person to demonstrate your solidarity. Doing this can not only be a trigger and/or out someone; the article could realistically be about the death or injury of someone we know and your well intentioned “sharing” can create devastating results. Furthermore, do not interpret a trans person’s internet silence as not knowing about or ignoring a news story. Believe me, we know, and probably knew before you did. We may not post about it because the news language may conflict with our values; we could be too angry to speak; we may be grieving. We are likely not posting as part of our self-care and we are often processing the event offline with other trans people. If you are concerned for a friend, a better option is to check in privately and offer support (note that support does not include interview questions – see #6).
8) Do not connect every event about a living trans person to a trans person who has died. It can be meaningful to hear a cis person say, “I care about trans rights.” It may be less meaningful to hear, “I care about trans rights because “person X” died.” When someone says that to me all I can think is, “Well, a lot of people died before that person… and thanks for only caring if we are dead.” Then, inevitably, the trans person becomes responsible for comforting the cis person in their sadness over our oppression. If you want to talk about trans rights, recognize that we are more than headstones and news stories. We live and breathe and some of us have to work hard to ensure we continue doing that. Focus your conversations on our fight, not our deaths.
9) Do not make jokes about us. Do not make jokes about our bodies, our names, our appearances, or our identities. To not claim that it is “all in good fun” and defend transphobic humor by saying you “make fun of everyone.” There is a difference between stating a celebrity is “dramatic” and making a food product represent a trans person’s disembodied genitals. This kind of humor is rooted in the same transphobic oppression that causes us to be murdered. Recognize that your humor is a form of violence, and when you do, educate your peers (or your customers) on why you are changing your behavior. If you apologize for a cruel joke, but do nothing to stop the room from laughing, you’re doing your apology wrong.
10) Listen to trans people. I repeat: Listen to trans people. Many trans people need every ounce of our time and energy to focus on our survival and the survival of our people. If one of us makes an effort to educate you, be grateful that we are offering our precious resources. Be thankful that a trans person trusts you enough to share our feelings. Trans people face harassment and oppression countless times every day. You may only be corrected by a trans person once or twice in your life. Recognize the rarity of what you are receiving; we would not address something if we did not feel it was important. Lean into it and use it to grow. A call out is not an attack; it is a sign of respect and a desire for solidarity. Listen to trans people and respond with humility and gratitude.
No one likes to be told they’re wrong, even as a clever running gag to break up the heaviness of a pretty serious series of call outs. Call outs are hard. You might feel hurt; compare that how much it hurts us to experience the oppression you accidentally embodied. You might think we are being mean; to us, your behavior is beyond mean – it is cruel and exhausting. Is it not fair and just for a trans person to draw attention to behavior that promotes our oppression so it can be corrected? Is it fair for cis people to insult and belittle us for standing up for ourselves? This is not about you; it is about the impact your words and actions have. The most important thing to remember is that intent is irrelevant. When I am teaching classes, I describe privilege like dancing. If you are busting a move with a friend and then accidentally hit them in the face, you friend has a right to be displeased because they just got hurt. They may tell you, “Hey, don’t dance like that because you hurt me.” You can get mad; you thought the move was going to be awesome and you didn’t mean to hit them… You could get embarrassed and run away, leaving your friend alone in their injury. You could ignore it; it’s not your fault they got in the way. Or you can say, “I’m sorry. It was an accident, but that doesn’t stop you from being injured. I’ll rework my dance so it doesn’t hit you or anyone else in the face.” We all make mistakes; no one can do everything right (including us magical trans people). But once you receive feedback on your mistakes, even if it hurts, you can work to do better. It’s time to do better. We have come far enough in this movement that it is fair to expect cis allies to get it right and to take responsibility when you don’t. Until that becomes a reality, expect that sometimes you’re going to be reminded when you’re doing it wrong. Use it, because then you’ll start to do it right.
I received an “Ask” on my Tumblr page discussing drag as transmisogynistic. Below was my response and since I get a lot of questions about this, I felt it would be useful to cross-post it here.
“There are views that drag is transmisogynistic, yes. I understand why some folks have come to find drag as a weapon against trans people and I feel the reason for this is two fold: abuses from more privileged groups and a lack of historical context. I respect each person’s right to have their own opinions and have no wish to challenge or invalidate anyone. I think that when discussing whether drag is transmisogynistic or not, is important to remember a few things.
History: Historically, “drag” is very significant in the history of communities that, today, we would call trans and gender non-conforming queers. Genderbending is a global theatrical practice, but for sake of time I’ll speak about it in the USA. In the late 19th century until the early-mid 20th cent. “drag” was called female and male impersonation. The sway of theatrical cross-dressing to impersonation came with vaudeville and it included singing and dancing as well as genderbending. M/F Impersonation was seen as a both a way to worship gender as well as a way to play with it and it’s norms. In addition to being fun, the purpose was to make us all question about what truly is a man or a woman and do bodies and cultural expectations really mean as much as we think? Also, drag, as a craft, was the first venue for gender non-conforming people to create lives as their true selves. In the 1920s, for the first time ever people in the USA (as a colonized country) where able to bend gender and dress as they wanted, be who they wanted, and not be arrested or institutionalized. Granted, when the post-war puritanism took hold this was all taken away, but it did happen and it impacted millions of people. The development of the trans community came from two branches: hetero supported transsexualism (started around the 1940s) and queer community gender transgression (started at the beginning of time). Both are valid; both are real; both are equally important. Drag is a part of queer gender transgression and trans people would not have this community as we know it without the power we sized through drag. Drag has played, and continues to play, a very important role in both queer and trans visibility, community building, safer space creation, and artistic craft. To forget this, is to forget our elders who brought us here today.
Drag is a diverse, artistic craft: RuPaul’s Drag Race is not an all encompassing representation of drag; farthest thing from it. Drag is not only DMAB people in feminine expressions for performance (drag queens); It is also DMAB folks dressing in masculine expressions (drag kings); Trans people doing theater, or doing drag as other genders; gender performance art that uses gender to communicate messages (like what I do); uses of hyper femininity and hyper masculinity (such as burlesque and boylesque); and heterosexual people challenging gender norms. Drag is about the conversation of gender and it is queer. It is the ONLY artistic craft we can, without argument, claim as exclusively belonging to the queer and trans community. Even if a hetero person wants to do drag, they have to come into our space to do it; they have to be an ally. We use drag as a form of artistic expression, merrymaking, activism, and beauty to discuss how we are different from hetero people and how there are more similarities than the heteronormative system of power would ever want to admit. There is a disappearing understanding in white gay culture especially of the deep connection between gender and sexuality. Many years ago, our community understood the fluidity between maleness and femaleness and how that impacted our lives as queer people; that is where drag came from. It was a way for us to reflect our realities for our own eyes, out of reach of the hetero cis world that would rather see us dead. There were no gay tv shows, no trans people on magazines. There were drag stages. That was all we had. When I was coming out, it was all I had.
Language: By the mid-late 1960s and 1970s the trans movement was starting to take visible shape. By the 80s, the word “transgender” was slowly gaining more recognition and at its creation “transgender” included not just trans folks as we know them today (women, men, and non-binary folks) but also drag performers, gender non-conforming cis people (butch lesbians for example), and anyone else who transgressed gender. Drag performers, who were trans women and cis men or trans men and cis women, where considered linguistically interchangeable because, at the time, gender was defined by expression, not identity. Back then, it was impossible to draw a line between drag performers and trans people as a group – it could only be done by individuals (a good cultural example of this is Candy, who associated with Andy Warhol). The line did exist, and could be considered to exist as early as the 1950s, but it was squiggly, dashed, and in some points invisible; in some communities it is still like this today. It was not until the mid-2000s (after 2006) that transgender truly became focused on gender identity over gender expression. In addition to this, we MUST remember that trans is not a universal term. There are many folks, particularly in communities of color where gender and sexuality are not as cut apart as in white cultures, where trans is not used. There are masses of people (countless) who from an external view would be called trans (in particular, would be called trans women) but they call themselves drag queens. Many of these people live as women every day, take estrogen and have gender affirming surgeries; they are women, but they never call themselves trans. To rigidly consider drag as transmisogynistic is to erase the identities of people who are a part of our community. This issue of erasure causes significant obstacles in accessing resources, in particular for poor trans women of color who do not use the language doctors and government offices want to hear when asking for resources. We must also remember the role classism plays here. Many trans women, whether they self identity as that or not, make a living from being drag performers. Performing drag does not make a person any less trans or any less of themselves; we are no different from other trans people… except we may be more theatrically talented… :P Anyway, it is critical that we continue to unpack the word “trans” and recognize that the definition and the experience is not the same for everyone.
Systems of Oppression: The connection of drag to transmisogyny primarily comes from, no surprise here, cissexist systems that refuse the realness of trans people, most visibly trans women. The “men in dresses” issue is very old, but the connection between drag and trans women is relatively new. Trans identities where not generally visible to society until the 60s, and not even by much then. During that time, and as transgender branched from transsexual, drag performers and now identified trans folks visibly populated the same spaces. This proximity lead oppressors (straight and gay) to use drag as a method of attack on trans women, and to a lesser degree trans men (there where no words for non-binary back then). Oppression has also been promoted by cis-gay communities and cis drag performers. A sticking point that is often mentioned is the use of the T-word which we see unapologetically used in drag spaces more than nearly anywhere else (it bothers me too). The reason for this (note I say reason, not excuse) comes from two sources.
1- As I mentioned, trans historically belongs to both what we consider modern trans people AND drag performers which meant that at one time the t-word was owned by both. (When looking at the use of the t-word in porn-exploitation, it is likely that cis people got the t-word from trans people themselves and then began to fetishize it.) This is why so many drag performers, in particular queens, hold on to the t-word with their teeth and aggressively think they can use it/claim it. One would think that people would recognize that language evolves… one would hope folks would understand that what was “ok” 20-40 years ago is not necessarily “ok” today, but unfortunately some people have not figured that out yet…much to our chagrin. Which leads me to the 2nd primary reason oppression can be found buried within drag culture…
2 – Basic cissexist privilege; Most drag performers feel a deep connection to their drag characters and they were/are unable/unwilling to understand how someone, often who was/is a fellow performer, may be different from them. Essentially, “I’m wearing the same outfit as you and I’m not a woman which means you can’t be one either. So, I’m gonna say whatever I want and invalidate you – but it’s all in good funnnneeeehhhhhh-barf…” Male privilege rears it head in horrific, twisted ways in drag communities, which many find ironic considering that the people expressing this male privilege are men expressing as women – and some folks are actually trans women and trans men. There are many layers of privilege, sexism, racism, (all the isms) in drag culture; to those of us within that culture, it is a never-ending fight and conversation about how we can do right by our people through drag. In order for us to continue this important, historical craft as a method of empowerment, we have to push it to grow in social justice.
One other system of oppression that helped develop concerns of drag = transmisogyny is the heteronormative gender binary. A significant root for the vilification of drag as a weapon upon trans people is from transsexual separatists. Transsexual separatists do not want any form of gender non-conformity present in the community; they feel that if the identities of others do not perfectly align with their own, their personal identities are invalidated. They also feel that any non-binary or genderbending identity or expression will destroy their own legitimacy in the eyes of greater society. When I came out, this was usually manifested in the phrase, “You’re fucking it up for the rest of us.” Many transsexual separatists took an active role in demonizing drag as a threat to trans women and even carried it as far as demonizing any trans woman who where queer or visible trans activist, including people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The saddest part about this is that many of the people they targeted where trans women themselves, albeit ones who were poor, queer, and people of color who either where no able or did not wish to “transition” in the way power systems saw as legitimate. Sound familiar to anyone? Cause it should.
Again, I feel it is up to the individual to decide their feelings and opinions. I readily agree that there are parts of the drag community that are transmisogynistic and that many cis views of drag and trans women are often transmisogynistic. That doesn’t mean that drag as a cultural practice, or a historical experience, is by default transmisogynistic. And through I have directly experienced a lot of transphobia and cissexism in the drag community (and I mean A LOT), I still speak from my own place of privilege as a DFAB person. The history of trans misogyny has had less of an impact on my experience than it has on my friends who are trans women. All of that said, I still think it is very important that as our community gets younger, we continue to look back at our history. It is critical for us all to understand where we came from, which includes the importance of drag in a historical context as well as a modern craft. Different strokes for different folks, but we are all within the same community.”
For anyone who is curious; yes, I do have two workshop lectures on this subject so that is why this post is so thorough and organized. lol”
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.
Six years ago today I started taking T. In my moments of reflection on this date, certain things stand out to me. The anxiety leading up to the day, the sleepless night before, driving to the doctor in my best friend’s beat up car… the face of the nurse when she refused my care… crying in the empty waiting room. I was 22. Four months before that I had called the doctor, introducing myself through a thorough history of trans pathologization and why I deserved transitional health care without a gender identity disorder diagnosis or mandated therapy. After sitting through the typical barrage of trans questions asking how I “knew,” when did I know, and why, if I really wans trans, I wasn’t what they expected, I got my script for T. I setup my appointment to get my first shot on the morning of Sept 4th. When the T came in the mail, I left the box unopened, sitting on my dresser, waiting… It was like a creature there to save me, or to destroy me, or both. It was the egg of my body’s phoenix.
I watched the nurse’s face as she spoke awkwardly, “Actually, the doctor said we aren’t going to do this today…”
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the breaking stress from the build up, maybe it was crushing disappointment, maybe it was my exhaustion after a night awake crying and writing… I broke down and cried right in front of her. As soon as I could speak I said, “I want to talk to my doctor.”
“She isn’t here….”
“Where is she? This appointment has been set for a month. Why didn’t anyone tell me this was going to happen? Get my doctor on the phone.” I said, “I want to talk to my doctor.”
I paced the grey nurse’s break room, clutching the plastic hospital phone. My exhausted despair had given way to my primary defense mechanism: anger. I was ready to fight. “You’re my doctor.” I said, “You’re supposed to help me. I told you I wasn’t going to do therapy. I don’t need therapy because I’m trans. I know who I am and I’m not going to pay some uneducated “professional” $200 an hour to tell me why I’m not normal.”
The doctor’s voice was diffident and anxious. I still remember the sound of her voice as she tried to placate me, saying how GID therapy was for the good of trans people and that she was trying to help me. “I don’t want help if it means giving up what I know is right for me.” I said, “I can’t walk around fighting a system that I’m feeding into. I can’t do it and it isn’t fair for you to ask me to do it. This isn’t fair.” I’ll never forget the insulted shock I felt as I heard the doctor say, “Well, maybe you can just not tell anyone…” I gathered myself and said, “What kind of health care is this? You want me to be forced into therapy I don’t need, and now you’re telling my to lie about it – to lie to all my friends, my family, and the people I work to help… I don’t think you understand what you are doing here.”
“I’m trying to keep you safe…”
“Safe? You do know I have this T in my hand right now and I could just go out into the parking lot and shoot up, with no guarantee I’m doing it safely or properly. I’m here, in a doctor’s office, looking for support and education on how to care for myself properly and you are turning me away. I want you to know that if I end up at risk, it is because of you and your inability to rise above the outdated notions you were taught that trans people are mentally unfit. I can respect your professional boundaries, but I can’t respect any institution that would rather put a person at risk than bend to the idea that it might be wrong.”
Obviously, since I am writing this post six years later, I got my shot that day. With the support of friends, and a little help from some bodybuilding websites, I took my first shot. Like most people in the trans* community, I learned as I went and took what I could get. I was privileged to have had access to T in the first place; to have been able to save up money from my shit job to afford it; to have access to a computer where I could get reliable medical information; to have a community of friends who were there for me when I felt like I had no one else. With all that happened, I was pretty lucky. I consider myself lucky to have had it better than a lot of our people, especially those who are affected by racism, poverty, globalization… the list goes on.
I was looking through my pictures to find the quintessential pre/post photos that I (and almost every trans* person) loves to put in their blogs. Instead, I found one of my absolute favorite pictures of me ever. It is from when I was 17, on a high school photography club trip to Red River Gorge hiking the Natural Bridge trail. My disability made it so I couldn’t take the trail as fast as everyone else, it made me feel weak. I didn’t have a lot of friends and I was afraid of socializing with the other kids cause they tended to tease me, so I hung in the back of the group near my teacher, Mr. Ferguson. I remember walking the steep trail, looking up at the trees, and just feeling the energy of the forest. I remember feeling very alone, but it is hard to feel too along when you are in the woods. I sat in a shady spot near the top of the bridge; I changed my roll of film and got out the same lunch I eat every time I travel: PB&J sandwich and an apple. I watched the other kids goofing off and talking a few yards from me; I felt invisible, but in a mix of positive and negative ways. The leaves were changing. I enjoyed the silence and the view. Mr. Ferguson’s voice broke my thoughts, “Hey, Alice,” he gestured with his wide, closed palm arm wave, “Come over here. I’ll take your picture.”
Two weeks ago, I walked that trail again. I looked up at the trees and felt the energy of the forest. I still took it slow, climbing the rocks and roots behind the others, but I had some fast moving company: a 17 year old I’ve had the pleasure working with for a couple years now. He goes to the same high school I did, and is in a lot of the same clubs, but unlike my high school self, he is out as trans*. I didn’t even know what trans* was when I was that age. I see a lot of myself when I see him, but he’s much more impressive. He was much more animated on the trail that I was 12 years ago; he was excited to be with trans* community, racing up the path with other transboys, climbing on everything in sight (much to my anxiety’s displeasure). I hung back and enjoyed the walk and the views. I get so over-saturated with work now days… or really, I’ve been so over-saturated with work ever since I came out. When I came out, I took to trans* activism and never looked back. Sometimes that meant I didn’t stop to look around either. If I can take a lesson from the me of 6 years ago, it is to use the same care and attention to my process as I did back then. I used to write a lot more; do more photography; I used to dance more. Looking back, though I was afraid and anxious about making the right or wrong move for myself or my life, I did a lot to keep in touch with who I was and what I was feeling. I’m not one for making resolutions based on some event or special date, but I do like to make clear decisions surrounding change. It is important to keep myself in touch with what progress I need to make. When I was 17, I was afraid of most of the world. When I was 22, I was angry with most of it. I don’t know how much progress I’ve made since 22, lol, but I hope it is at least some. At 29, I am hopeful that I am continuing to improve myself, and to know myself. And I am grateful that I have the ability to live as I do, and work as I do, so that the folks that come after me might not be so anxious, or so angry. So, here’s to the continual fight for trans* liberation and the gift of slowing down to see the journey there.
You all may know me to be a little on the… aggressive side when it comes to calling media and celebrities out on transphobic ignorance. Recently, I’ve been trying to go the more relaxed route, not because I didn’t crave to throw fits about every slur, but since the gigantic influx of transphobic actions in mainstream, I was getting exhausted. But exhaustion aside, once again I’m saying “I’ve had enough.” What broke the camel’s back this time? Last week on Access Hollywood, former N’Sync star Lance Bass (who does look strikingly similar to a fish) pulled out the “T word,” the growing nomenclature for tranny, and this episode of ignorance says more about transphobia than one word can handle.
(starts at 2:20 minutes – UPDATE the video on the site may be taken down)
What’s so different about Lance Bass from Kelly Osborne or Neil Patrick Harris using the word? Nothing. It’s all the same, and though this event is very similar to Neil Patrick Harris’ usage, I find it much more insulting. In addition to the use of the word, those involved also found it necessary to mock our entire community’s plight against our oppressors. Comedian Billy Eichner, whose talent seems to be primarily based on yelling, comments on how tranny isn’t in fashion anymore, and I would give him props for that, but his statement of “really, really gay” being the replacement kinda ruined it. It is a fascinating scene really, watching three adults giggle like ten year olds who accidentally used a dirty word. And, like any ten year olds, their solution to their misbehavior was to laugh at it and blame someone else for their inability to say it. “Oops! we’ve made a mistake, those people don’t like that word, but who understands those trannies, anyway?!” Thanks, TV personalities, good save. Obviously, your public image is all that matters here, not the fact that you are a oppressive idiots with bad hair (WTF is with hair gel city you’re building over there?). Oh, and PS: Lance, I wouldn’t suggest you attempt to rock purple velvet, you’re not glam enough for it.
Now, all you Lance fans out there may be thinking, “Hey, he apologized! It’s all ok now!” And I appreciate all six of you pointing that out, but it is not all ok. The apology is good to have, but before we accept the apology we have to analyze the mistake, otherwise we can’t learn from it. I think the most interesting, and important, part of this case of transphobia is the exemplary performance of oppressors trying to deal with ignorance. When you watch the clip, listen to the language being used: trans* folks are just “they,” not the transgender community. Why? Well it is because they didn’t even KNOW what else to call us. Hi there, cookie-cutter TV personality lady, did you really just ask “What’s the new word?” It is “A Transgender Person” and Lance, I can see why you all missed the “memo,” the word has only been around for about THIRTY YEARS or in the case of the word Transsexual almost ONE HUNDRED years. But you know, it takes time to learn. it’s not like you’re a member of the “LGBT” community or anything. Oh, wait, you are. I guess you always thought that T stood for Tranny. You do “love a good o’l tranny.”
The exploding use of tranny in mainstream isn’t a coincidence. It is happening because trans* visibility is getting higher, and (consciously or not) non-trans* society is starting to panic. The use of slurs and other public forms of oppression (like political wedge issues) is society trying to deal with our communities’ push for rights and recognition. Pop culture is politics dripping down into the mainstream masses, and that is why it is so dangerous. In the big picture, I guess we should be somewhat excited about it. The growing visibility of tranny is a result of our trans* communities’ sucessful visibility; we’ve gone from being mostly invisible to the hot-topic butt of jokes, and we have been for a couple years now. So, under this idea, all this transphobia on TV could be seen as a ‘growing pain’ for the trans* communities’ arduous climb up the cliff of civil rights. If television had been prominent in the early 20th century, we can be sure that racial slurs would have been all over it. And even though direct, verbal prejudice was lower in TV and movies before and during the civil rights movement, racism itself was very prevalent and it hasn’t gone away yet. It is just lessening over time as society lazily gets its act together. What has to happen for media to move into a less-oppressive space? First, people start to use the slurs because it is topical; “Haha! I get the joke! I feel cool because I know who I’m oppressing!” (That is what oppressors think, right?) Then the accountability starts. All three celebrities (Harris, Osborne, and Bass) have issued public apologies for using the word tranny, and even go as far as to advocate others not to use it. When it comes to public accountability, an education-promoting apology is about as good as it gets. But, and you know there has to be a but, these apologies don’t really make me feel better – they usually just irritate me more. Can we take a look at Lance Bass’ apology? It is full of gender essentialism and stereotypes, including the widely recognized un-PC term transvestite and the wrong body myth. Then, he talks about how it was really ok that he said tranny because he knows trans* people – yeah, rationalization and excuses for why the mistake is ok are awesome elements in any apology. He also pretends to be smart by discussing how people of color and gay people debate about using the n-word and f-word (respectively). It’s “just words,” no big deal, why can’t he use it? Um, for starters, you’re not fucking trans*, Lance. Your gay card of doesn’t get you in. Despite his claimed “education” from GLAAD, this guy clearly has no clue about the trans* community or our struggles. Many people say I’m being too critical and I should be grateful for a well-meant apology. GLAAD was all too happy to bend over for Neil Patrick Harris’ “heartening” TWO LINE twitter apology, acting like sycophants to fame… Some queers go into activism saying “beggars can’t be choosers.” Well, I’m not begging for my rights, I’m fighting for them. I refuse to take less than what a human being deserves, and we deserve the best. And though these apologies aren’t the best, they are extremely important. Without them Billy No-Talent-Comedian would never of mentioned that tranny wasn’t ok and, despite the insulting follow up, it was acknowledged to be offensive. That is a big first step for society – the awareness that there is another voice. Of course, some celebrities make zero attempts to be accountable, and unless we keep fighting, that is going to continue to happen for a very long time. Society isn’t going to change on its own, we have to chisel our way in through activist feedback and forced accountability.
I’ve said it once if I’ve said it a million times, that mainstream media, needs to shut the fuck up on trans* issues, but maybe I should rethink that. Maybe I should sit back and enjoy the squirming celebrity mistakes and think of society’s failures as a tool for our revolution. The downside is that while we are waiting for society to get it’s act together, how many people will be misinformed, adding to the mass of oppression and miseducation? And how many trans* folks have to be injured by these oppressions before it enough is enough? The saying goes “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” In that, societal rights and recognition for the future’s trans* people are the omelet, today’s trans* people are the eggs. But I refuse to be broken. The future’s just going to have to learn to make civil rights tofu scrambles.
Recently I was asked a question on Tumblr about gender performance theory which stirred an intense awakening of old memories and forgotten aggressions from my early days of coming out. When I came out, I didn’t know anyone gay, queer, or trans* and my only feasible connection to people like me was my campus’ Women’s Studies department. Like many people, my initial coming out was a frustrating, painful, and isolating experience. I desperately wanted answers to why I was the way I was and I thought Women’s Studies would have them. Turns out it didn’t, but it had something else: Judith Butler’s Gender Performance Theory and a dedicated hoard of faculty, students, books, and films telling me that it was my choice to be trans, and it was my fault.
I am a proud feminist. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of love for Women’s Studies. All in all, the department served as significant safe space for me and I am grateful. But the good things about Women’s Studies don’t block out the problematic elements ingrained into the origins of gender theory that are continued to be taught today. No, we wouldn’t have Queer Theory if it hadn’t been for the charges of Women’s Studies pushing it into legitimacy, but we wouldn’t have a lot of inner community transphobia either. Know all those sayings about how trans people mutilate themselves and are trying to steal people’s spaces? Yeah, women’s studies theorists wrote that shit too, or have we forgotten second wave feminism and Janice Raymond? Women’s Studies is awesome for a lot of reasons, Gender Performance Theory is not one of them. “Choice” is not always a choice. There have been many points in my life where I have been told I could fix “it” if I made different choices – it was just a matter of wanting it. I could be happy, if I wanted to. I could be healthy if I believed I could. I could do well in school, if I tried harder. If I wanted to, I could be feminine and pretty, and when I came out I was additionally told I could be masculine and tough if I worked at it. If I really wanted to, I could pass as a guy and no one would harass me. If I wanted to, I could stop being trans and just be a lesbian, or better yet be straight. If I wanted to, I could be everything I’m supposed to be, agree with everyone, and fit in just fine. Seems like people assume that I’m a weird, stupid, crazy, trans, queer, genderfucked, failure on purpose. But what does that have to do with Judith Butler? Nothing really, except to point out that this idea that we can and should control and change certain integral elements of our bodies and identities is the center of every “-ism” I know.
Did the Butler intend for gender performance theory to be oppressive? Of course not. “Gender as performance” was one of the women’s empowerment movement’s moves to legitimize gender difference and subversiveness, primarily referencing expression but at the time, gender expression and gender identity were thought to be the same thing. Under this theory, there is no personalized element of gender and that is the main fallacy; It denies is the most human element of gender: identity – the personal. Gender Identity is expressed through visible cues and we figure out what feels right based on our identity and work from that. If our decisions about presentation (or “performance”) are based out of some internal drive to express ourselves, is it really a choice? My femme exists as an embodiment of what I feel, to show the femme I have on the inside. I didn’t choose to be feminine, but I do technically choose to allow myself to express femme. I could force myself to not be feminine, but if I am given the choice to either be myself or to be someone I’m not, I don’t think I actually have a choice. I didn’t come this far to live as someone else. If I was going to do that, I never would have transitioned in the first place.
Gender identity and gender expression are linked to one another, not as a point of causation, but as a series of interactions. The clothes don’t make the human. Sometimes I feel the most masculine when I appear to be the most feminine. I can wear a dress and make it masculine simply by being a male person who is wearing it. I can still be masculine, it is just a different kind of masculinity that, perhaps includes some femininity or is just genderqueered. Or I can make myself more feminine by wearing a dress, and my femininity can be masculine or it can be genderqueered. It’s all about how we conceptualize it, and we must conceptualize it via rejecting cultural definitions of gender. I’m like a broken record, always saying that gender is the key to societal recognition. If you are outside a heteronormative construct of gender expectations you can not be recognized by society as anything but “other” without challenging gendered society itself. I think thatButlerintended this same idea in the original argument of gender performativity – people wanted to challenge gendered society and reject definition by presentation. The problem is that they took the theory too far, enabling it to delegitimize every form of gender expression and identity. A perfect example of this is Femme-phobia. Gender performativity states that if you are feminine, you are choosing to perform it, and according to some branches of feminism, being feminine is supporting the patriarchy that sexualizes women as beauty objects. So femmes are choosing to support the patriarchy. There is no option for someone to like being feminine for the sake of enjoying femininity. This is essentially saying that femininity is bad and that a woman can not be feminine for her own pleasure without being a sell out. It is arguments like these that lead me to believe gender performance theorists were down right delusional. How is that feminist? And speaking of feminism, as I mentioned before, gender performance theories are at the root of second wave feminism’s rampant transphobia. If we are performing gender, then we are choosing to violate our bodies and minds, and taking the rest of society down with us. We are impostors, perverts, and invaders transitioning out of weakness or selfishness, or both.
I can already picture people getting upset about what I’m saying; I’m being too harsh on gender theories and I need to take them contextually. I don’t think I should have to apply context to any theory that does not apply context to me. If every Women’s Studies classroom was teaching Gender Performance Theory through a critical lens, discussing the complexities of social gender presentation and personal gender identity and expression, then I would have nothing to say about it. But that is not the case, so here I am writing this post. It is not that I don’t see some value in Butler’s original ideas. I think that ‘performance’ can be used to reference gender presentation, but only in certain circumstances. One could say the difference between performing gender presentation and expressing gender identity through presentation is the genuineness of it. A lot of culturally gendered practices and expressions (such as make up, or “macho-ness”) are acts of cultural coercion and therefore ingenuine. I perform gender very consciously sometimes: When I am on the road in the inner Midwest, I almost exclusively try to pass myself off as female because it is safer to be a punked out, possibly lesbian woman than a flamingly queer guy. I will raise my eye brows, raise my voice, smile a lot, and do whatever else we stereotype to be “female” behavior.” It is an act and I use femininity as a tool. On stage, I use visible gender performance in ways that correlate closely to Butler’s Gender Performance Theory. I use gendered elements such as clothing, movement styles, and expressions that are culturally coded as masculine or feminine in order to create a conversation about gender. The cultural binary framework for what is masculine and what is feminine enables me to raise and lower gendered elements, combine them, or erase them. I think this might be how Butler really intended us to think about Gender Trouble and everyone just interpreted it wrong, but I could be just trying to be supportive of a history that I want to support me…
Gender performance isn’t all bull, there are elements to be analyzed, but it can not be done without oppressing gender variant communities unless it is supplemented by the recognition of gender identity and personal gender expression. I think that a lot of people intend to think of gender performance in this way, but because of privilege, they don’t realize that by simply stating ‘gender is performed’ they are being problematic. Let’s be real, if there was a “How to exercise non-trans privilege 101” gender performance theory would be in chapter one. Gender Theory has a lot of updating to do because as it is now it is actively promoting the oppressions it originally set out to demolish. We must destroy the idea that there is one way to be feminine or masculine, and instill the knowledge that there are ways to be both or neither. Once that happens, if it ever does, then performance will really be seen as what is deliberate and chosen, like on a stage, and expression is what is understood and personal, and that the two are not the same. Then, and only then, can we be certain that all the future’s baby genderqueers will go searching for a safe space, searching for answers, and actually find them.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have high standards. A cupcake shop recently opened up in my city, and I finally got to stop by. I took a bite and got a wash of disappointment from the flavorless, cake-mix mound in my hands. I knew it seemed silly to be so upset over a cupcake, but if I’m going to spend $2.50 on a cupcake, it better be a fucking awesome cupcake. If I’m going to spend time, energy, and money on something, it better be worth it. Same goes with life, if someone is going to try to give something to me, I’ll only take it if it is worth taking; if I’m going to live my life, I’m going to make it worth living.
Trans* gets dressed up a lot now days, from Chaz Bono to TV characters, the public is becoming more and more interested in our community, one way or another. And as conversations about trans* identities grow, what isn’t being said is one of the most important issues we face; the fact that around the world trans* and gender variant people are considered to be mentally ill. We are told we have Gender Identity Disorders (GID), a disempowering system that promotes the continual stigmitization of mental health variance and the pathologization of difference. The result is a continual lack of access, safety, education, and inclusion on a global scale. After 30 years a growing outcry from trans* and non -trans* communities have pushed medical and social organizations to slowly, but surely, denounce GID. Last month the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) relaxed the Standards of Care for trans patients in an attempt to minimize pathologization and increase access; a significant change but not a solution. In 2012, the global psychiatric community plans to maintain trans* people’s place in the list of mental health conditions through a revised version of GID called Gender Dysphoria (or Gender Incongruence -see also GD in Children) and an even more problematic version of Transvestic Disorder. WPATH quotes these changes as “a step in the right direction” but to me, and for many others, a step in the right direction is not enough movement. At this point, we are beyond taking steps. We are ready for a jump. I know what you’re thinking – we can’t just jump in unprepared, and I agree. The truth is that we are prepared. We have been working internationally to create policies to medicalize care and provide regulation, accessibility, and safety for a new age of trans* health.
This is about more than health care; This is an issue about quality of life; about respect, justice, and humanity. It is about the fact that trans* people are not allowed to be ourselves without the consent of someone else. We recognize ‘my body, my choice’ in terms of reproductive rights, but it is not only there that the phrase is relevant. I know that members of the medical and psychological community mean well, but just as good intentions don’t make a delicious cupcake, they also are not capable of keeping me safe or labeling me sane. I have many mental health conditions, my trans identity is not one of them. I have high standards, and I refuse to be treated less than because my identity is not considered “normal.” If society gives me something that I’m not satisfied with, I have the right to ask for my (metaphorical) money back. Today, October 22nd, is an international day of action to Stop Trans* Pathologization. If you have never talked about trans* pathologization before, start today. Tell your friends, your partner(s), your family; ask your physicians if they support accessible health care for trans* people, educate yourself and others on the need for change. This shackle on the trans* community influences us all. Stand up with us.
History is being made today for the lesbian, gay, bi, and respective non-heterosexual communities. The US Military policy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) officially has been repealed. Everyone is celebrating, and I’m celebrating too, but I have to admit I’m more jaded than joyful. Today as the LGB military is coming out, trans* military is being left out.
As an activist rooted in the anti-war/anti-military movement, even I recognize the significance of the USA’s largest employer (the federal government) removing a grossly discriminatory policy that theoretically places sexually queer people on equal footing with non-queer people. That’s a big deal. And I think it is an even bigger deal that this momentously important event for the “LGBT” community completely leaves off the T. One would like to believe that if high schools can create gender identity and expression inclusive policies then congress can too, but apparently not. An early Department of Defense report on DADT, referenced by several blogs and articles, stated: “Transgender and transsexual individuals are not permitted to join the Military Services. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has no effect on these policies.” After media attention the report was removed from the government’s website. According to the US Military, trans* people are “unfit to serve” primarily (categorically) because of our good friend, Gender Identity Disorder. As mentally ill people, trans* communities are not medically fit to serve.
A common thought about DADT, or now in this case with trans* people in the military, is that the “military problem” isn’t really a problem because it is better if our people don’t join up – it’s better to protect our precious queers. I can’t help but think this sometimes… or most of the time… but I force myself to remember that there are people out there who actually like the military (like a pre-teen Midwest GenderQueer who associated fighter pilots with a desirable yet (continually) unobtainable masculinity – thank you Top Gun). My freshman year of college, I met a guy who was determined to have a military career; he said it was his calling. He was also gay. This was years before I came out but even a “straight girl” could see how problematic the situation was. I remember asking him why he wanted a job where he would have to hide who he was his entire life. He looked very sad, yet very determined and said “It’s not ideal, but I can do it.” Now he doesn’t have to, but no such luck if it were me.
Revisiting the “military problem,” in my experience people think that it is easy to fix: If you don’t like the military, then don’t join. This is the number one pillar upholding the classist, global mirage that choosing to join the military is always a choice. Speaking strictly for America, our economic system promotes dependency and servitude towards positions in power. We tell our people to succeed, but don’t enable them to do it. With jobs disappearing and public funds being non-existent, we’re left with a mass population of the under-educated, unsupported, and unemployed. Our trans* community is especially vulnerable because, like other oppressed groups, we are more likely to be poor, unemployed/underemployed, and more likely to lack personal and/or societal support and resources. In other words, we are a population in need and in comes the secure, sturdy military to solve all our problems. I have personally known several young trans* folks who can’t pay for groceries let alone for college; who may struggle to get a job because they are gender non-conforming; sometimes they are trying to escape an unaccepting home; maybe they are desperate to get money to physically transition… They are people willing to give up everything to get a better life, and that’s exactly what they do by joining up. It was not a choice for them. They felt they had no other options, and perhaps they didn’t. Being trans* in the military has it’s own unique issues that no one talks about. A fascinating 2008 study by Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) showed that all military branches have trans* people, the Army being highest at 38%. The survey also showed that 40% of trans*military personnel stated they were unhappy with their lives. If you’re trans* in the military you live in fear of being outed (resulting in losing your job, your home, and/or friends and chosen family). You can’t transition in any form, medical or otherwise, and rigidly sexist uniform codes forbid expressing your actual gender (you can even be court-martialed for “cross-dressing”). If you’ve taken hormones or had surgery before enlisting but don’t report it (which you wouldn’t because it would keep you from being admitted) you will be discharged when it was inevitably found in your records. The military has no protections against harassment over gender expression or perceived gender identity and if you went to complain to a higher up (that is, if it wasn’t the higher up who was harassing you) their solution is to tell you that “if you aren’t trans, you have nothing to worry about.” You also can not confide in religious or medical personnel because, as military employees, they are not required to practice confidentiality on the subject. Quiet the opposite; they may be required to report it.
I also believe that repealing DADT won’t change much for your average LGB (or perceived to be LGB) military employee. It’s against military law to harass, beat, and rape people, but it still happens; and like everywhere in society, it is extremely under-reported and often left without any reprisal. Rules changing doesn’t mean that people change, and people are who you see every day. Just like any place of business (and it is a business) without an aggressive campaign of combined education and no-tolerance policies the military will never be a safe place for anyone, “gay” or not. We must continue to address the military industrial complex for what it is, as an institutional system of oppression that preys upon our poor, our young, our disenfranchised, and our communities of color. It is a presence that manipulates the global society in order to serve a small percentage, and that is the top 1% of the US elite.
What bothers me more than the issues within the military is the greater “LGB” community’s reaction, or lack their of, to the exclusion of trans* communities. I’m so glad today is here so I won’t be invited to another “Yay DADT! All Our Problems are Over!” facebook event; after months of it I’m fed up. Yes, we should be celebrating, but its downright lousy to rub it in trans* people’s faces saying “we don’t have to worry anymore” and “problem solved.” If you’re going to go that far you might as well just call today what it is, yet another “We Forgot You, Again” day, or “We Matter More” day. And yes, I do have to remind people that our problems are not over. I’m not a downer, I’m an activist. I’m not bitter, I’m fucking furious. The LGB community knows what it’s like to be ignored, passed over, discriminated against, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of taking their rights and privileges for granted. The LGB community makes strides with the help of the trans* community, the trans* community is booted out, and what should be our joy becomes a part of our pain. But in of every disappointment there is room for action. It holds me together when people do speak out and recognize that we are not done yet. We must continue to work, continue to fight, and never be satisfied until we all are equal.
I’ve heard today described as “the light at the end of the tunnel.” If this is your truth, I celebrate joyously for you. And as you reach that light at the end of the tunnel, I hope you remember that some of us have been left behind and we are still working in the dark.