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).
“Last week, Cincinnati Police LGBT Liaison Officer Angela Vance was publicly reprimanded by Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell for her inner-department newsletter that addressed the recent death of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn.
In the letter, Vance called her fellow officers to discuss the societal systems that influence transgender violence – specifically what can come from accepting vs. non-accepting religious groups. Of the 1,000 officers that receive this newsletter, four complained. This spurred Blackwell and Cranley to publicly apologize, admonishing Vance. Blackwell assured the public he will “review” Vance’s future writings before publication. Cranley speciously reframed Vance’s words as “the government telling people where to worship.” Whatever hints of support may be laced into these criticisms, there is a larger issue here: When even the slightest pressure is on, city officials aren’t up to the test.
Vance did her job, which is to educate her department about systems that impact LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people in Cincinnati. Vance goes above and beyond to support this city, and I am saddened that in turn, the city does not do the same for her. The emotion displayed in her newsletter is proof of how hard she works to draw attention to LGBTQ needs – a job she was asked to do. Now that she has people’s attention, the reaction further demonstrates the lack of LGBTQ cultural competency among city officials.
I was born and raised in Cincinnati. I am also a transgender person. Cincinnati is a very difficult and dangerous place for transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-heterosexual people to live. I founded an organization that serves transgender people, and even as a provider, I struggle to survive here. I met Vance when she was appointed as the LGBT liaison. Like any strong ally to the transgender community, she immediately reached out to collaborate. In the field, Vance and I meet youth whose stories mirror Leelah Alcorn’s every day. We don’t do this work because we are paid for it (which we aren’t). We do it because it is our passion, and passion can inspire as well as intimidate. Vance wrote her newsletter with a passion to inspire good deeds among her colleagues, and people got scared.
City officials have discussed transgender rights more in the last year than in all of Cincinnati’s history, but supporting transgender people also requires supporting those who speak up for us. It is not easy to discuss the transgender community when many people still oppose our right to live, let alone our right for civil inclusion. This is why we need people, especially those in power, to speak out. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a (person) is not where (they) stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where (they) stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Cranley and Blackwell know that the four offended officers represent a larger anti-LGBTQ population which can, and realistically might, stir controversy. And so, they chose to coddle the feelings of the privileged rather than acknowledge the violence that impacts transgender people every day.
To stop violence, we must discuss how it is manifested as well as what role we may play in its progression. Rather than discipline Vance for starting the conversation, we must urge the city to continue it. We must call for dialogue, education, and acceptance among police officers and city workers. City Hall and Cincinnati Police must work with LGBTQ people to combat oppression. Vance is doing her part to create change. It is time for city officials to follow suit.”
*Trigger Warning* This post discusses suicidal thoughts and suicide. Details are minimal, but I have placed a *TW* in front of a paragraph that may be especially triggering. Please take care of yourself. <3
The last time I saw Leelah, she was smiling. She was a kid who was easy to remember. Cincinnati Trans Community Group isn’t a huge program, but it’s big enough that sometimes I need a minute to remember names and faces. Strangely enough, the people I remember best are the ones who rarely attend. Something in their face burns into my memory; I can see how much they want to there, to meet someone like them… It is a feeling I know very well. So, when those rare-comers come to sit in my black plastic chairs, they get the bulk of my attention, even if the meeting is packed. When I was little, I learned a story that said, “When a shepherd of one hundred loses one, he will leave the ninety-nine to seek the sheep he has lost.” Similarly, a person can be separated from the community and to find us, they must brave the wilderness. I go to find them as I once wanted someone to find me. Leelah braved the wilderness, and that is how I met her.
While running group, I am either watching faces, or listening as I look down at a circle of shoes. Once Leelah wore sneakers, another time she had chunky heels. Her eyes were dark, nearly matching her hair which she swooshed to one side over her eyebrows. Usually I can see the sadness in someone’s eyes, even when they smile. Leelah smiled quite a lot. I could see her sadness and I saw what looked like hope each time we spoke, or as she spoke to other trans people in group. That is what I have chosen to carrying with me. It’s a gift from her. I could not anticipate the rest.
In the trans community, suicide is a common part of the conversation. In fact, suicide has become such a normalized part of the trans narrative that many people, especially youth, consider it to be a probability for them. According to a 2014 study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the rate of suicide attempts within the U.S. non-trans population is 4.6%, whereas the rate within trans populations is a staggering 41%. And while most trans people don’t know this exact statistic, we know that suicide and trans identity are well acquainted. And in case you are thinking that maybe this trend is crowdsourced, keep in mind that my organization serves trans kids seeking help for suicidality who are as young as ten years old. These kids have never met another trans person in their life, but once they do meet us, they start to get better. Trans people do not struggle with suicidality because we are trans. It is because we are oppressed; we are exposed to negative things in our lives that make us doubt the safety of the world around us, and doubt ourselves.
It is not weak to want to end your life. The desire may even be understandable. At least, I understand it. I am not a spokesperson for all who have practiced self-harm or considered suicide, but I am one of those people. Sometimes I am nervous to admit it, but I am not ashamed. From recent event, one particular instance has been popping from my memory. When I was 16, I sat on a high story window ledge with concrete below. The details are mine to keep, but I will tell you that my dad came in to talk to me. He made me feel loved despite all the things I felt were “wrong” with me. He made me feel accepted, even when I felt like a freak. He left the room, I made it to the next day, and here I am now. When someone dies too soon, especially from suicide, I wonder why I made it when they didn’t. I’ve heard many people say that it is luck. The pills didn’t take. The phone rang. The sun came up. Maybe it was luck that my dad came in when he did, but one thing is certain; if I didn’t know people who make me feel like I deserve to live my life, I surely would have ended it a long time ago. I don’t consider myself dependent on others to survive in a literal sense, but I recognize that my mental and emotional wellness is linked with participating in a loving community. The need to belong is one of the most powerful forces we humans know. It drives us to seek out others for companionship, for affirmation, for recognition, and affection. I used to consider myself weak for needing other people and was fairly certain I could survive well enough without them. Being a radical trans activist who came out some years ago in a hellishly conservative Midwestern city with no visible trans community, one can come to understand the terrorizing impact of isolation very quickly. However, my battle with isolation didn’t start then. It has followed me from my early days as a gender non-conforming, disabled, just plain weird Indian kid. For many years, I thought being alone meant I was strong but I confused isolation with independence. Independence is a healthy state; being isolated is unhealthy or even dangerous. Isolation is not the action of one or even a handful of people, it is a systematic method of violence. Isolation may well have been my first enemy in life, and so it continues to be a primary objective in my work. It’s a violence that can strike anyone, and those who are shunned by society are easy targets. It has the power to rob us of our own sense of humanity and tear our souls apart. Such is the struggle of many trans people. Society tells us we do not belong. We are separated, singled out, and confined to where we cannot equality participate and many cannot meet even our most basic needs. In that rejection, we are told we are not worthy of love, or life. As a result, some of us take our own. Suicide is merely one of the many forms of violence trans people face and it is the result of trans oppression. In order to survive its impact, we as trans people need sources of strength. Without making the assumptive comparison that I know every reader here is going to make about a certain family, I grew up with a consistent source of love and, no matter how faint, the sensation of being loved. I was able to feel accepted on the most basic level which made me able to bear the rejection I find elsewhere. I can’t say I have borne it well, but I made it to adulthood. And as an adult, I was driven to fight that rejection, which turned into activism. My passion for activism gave me what I had been lacking; it wasn’t a will to survive, but a drive to make my survival mean something. That is why I am still here today.
I want to be clear; I do not struggle with self-harm and suicide because I am trans, but the oppression I experience as a trans person has impacted my life and wellness significantly. Fortunately, it is no longer an everyday battle for me to stay alive. That is a privilege. I have seen threats of death, from both inside and outside of myself. I have learned the value of life, and the benefit of love and friendship. And while life holds many obstacles, it brings many opportunities too. The longer I live, the better I am able to comprehend life as a gift, and not a burden. It is possible to light the darkness, and keep it lit. If I had jumped, I would never have learned that. I wish I had said this revelation louder, and to more people. Maybe if I had, one person would still be here. But, one person’s death is not the problem; it is a symptom of society’s attempt at trans erasure. Our community does not need to “come out” – we are already here. We have always been here. Others will try to isolate us, tear us from each other and from our own sense of self. It is up to us to fight, to stay present, and if we can, survive. If we look at the practical elements of the lives of trans people, what happened to Leelah is not hard to comprehend. In the past week, I have brought the same statement to every news interview, meeting, and microphone: Leelah’s situation is not unique. I work with people like her every day; people, mostly youth, that are cast out from their families and communities; are rejected and refused, controlled and destroyed by the wasteland that is my beautiful Midwest. And it is more than geography. It is our inability to access resources, often because the resources do not exist. Those of us on the front lines of trans activism continue to struggle to meet our people’s needs; to combat the transphobia, the racism, the poverty that tries to smother us. Yes, there are trans people on TV, but I am too busy trying to keep the trans kids on the street alive to watch it. I hate the fact that I have to explain the death of a kid as a “reality of our community.” I resent the response of shock from those who I have been begging for help all these years. Each day cisgender straight and gay systems continue to appropriate trans experiences for their own agendas; they ignore trans voices and draw resources away from our community to pad their own. They only notice us when they find it in their best interest. They do not understand that their self-oriented good intentions are contributing to trans erasure. While these outsiders are gaining a sense of freedom in “unity,” I am feeling suffocated by their sudden demands. I know the high road is not to focus on how an ally got here or how long it took, but that they’ve arrived. I truly, honestly am glad to see them. I can’t wait for more to show up. The trans community is speaking, the rest are learning to listen. But while society has been taking its time to get here, I have been scanning the landscape, wondering if those lost people ever made it. I remember every trans voice that never called back, every kid that stopped showing up, every face that has disappeared into the wilderness. I carry them with me and I will always wonder if I could have done more. I know I have the right to feel angry at late-comers, but I am striving to process that hurt into forgiveness, and then friendship. We must do the best we can, as it is all we can do. I am grateful to anyone who is willing to join the trans movement. But even the best efforts can result in failure. I am grateful for what little support I was able to give Leelah. I have few joys comparable to what comes from seeing trans people truly connect with one another; seeing them smile. I saw Leelah smile. In the end, what I had to offer was simply not enough. It is not my fault, but I feel the guilt of this loss. I try to embrace these feelings because in this sorrow is the remembrance of all those we have lost. Each time one of us dies, I see the work I have not yet done. I know I cannot control this society, but I am angry at my failures to protect my people from it. I want to be the shield for the bullet, and I would take a bullet if it meant no one else ever would.
Due to a lot of factors, I’m simply not at my best right now. After Tiff’s death, I felt very helpless, and now I find those feelings returning with the loss of Leelah. When I am feeling powerless, it helps to create something, so this week I have created as many spaces and outlets for my trans community as I can. It wasn’t until I found myself weeping in the grocery aisle, lamenting that no brand of cookie could fill the holes death has left in my community that I fully realized how raw my soul has become. Later that night, I walked a room full of trans people; one after another, people sought me out for comfort. Each time, I am struck with a mix of gratitude and desperation. I am grateful for the chance to help, and I am desperate to be able to give it. In these people, I see myself. Their struggle is mine, and I want to help us all. I am overcome by the desire to better our lives, so much that sometimes it makes me weak. When I am with my people, listening to them and offering support, I am filled with the richness of life. Where I was empty, I am full; where I was broken, I am healed. As trans community of trans people, partners, and family members (chosen and blood), we are strong and whatever strength we are lacking, we can find in each other. And while I am here in Ohio, there is someone in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, and everywhere that trans people are fighting to save each other. And I am slowly finding that we are not alone. In the last week, I have witnessed a greater outpouring of support, encouragement, and activism than I have ever experienced as a trans organizer. After so many years of working for a cause that few to none were willing to acknowledge, I am unsure of how to react to the kindness I have been receiving. It is heartbreaking to me that this surge of attention came at the cost of a kid’s life. It disturbs me that the death of one white young woman is noticed more than the death of countless young women of color. But despite all of that, I am grateful to everyone who is taking action, be it by sending an email after we haven’t spoken for years, bringing me food, making yourself visible for the sake of supporting others, writing to the media, or planning/attending an event. I am grateful to my fellow trans people, locally and around the world, who work to fight injustice. Thank you for sharing your hearts; you are filling mine in this moment of grief.
I will remember Leelah for the rest of my life. I will remember Tiff. They are not the first to be lost and they will not be the last, but I am here to fight for them and for our community. I have been building a beacon for my people to see and I am calling to anyone who might hear me. I am waving the light I so desperately sought when I came out. This light is heavy; it burns my hands and sears my eyes, but I am waving it to you with dedication and desperation. Come find me. Wait for me. I am looking for you. Don’t jump.
RELATED FOLLOW UP POST: Fixing Society: Leelah Alcorn, Cis Allyship, and Trans Erasure
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 us at 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.
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.
Yesterday I found a quote in my Tumblr feed and was surprised to find that the person being quoted was me. You might be thinking, “oh cool, you’re like, famous… in that ‘I’m on tumblr’ sort of way…” And while I’m appreciative that something I have said has touched people, I’m not excited about it like I maybe could/should be. I’m not ashamed of the quote, but I’m not exactly proud of it either.
“We’re two boys, which makes us gay; and then we’re two female-bodied people, which makes us gay; and then we’re trans, which makes us, you know, a whole other side of gay. And so you have this whole trifecta of queerness working for us. So when someone drives by and screams “faggot” I’m just like “you have no fuckin’ IDEA!”
The quote is sourced from the video GenderQueer in the Midwest, which was filmed in early 2009 by Stewart Productions. Overall, the quote is fine. While I’ve never thought it was an exceptionally clever comment, the only concern I have is that the language isn’t what I would consider the best example inclusive, accessible language. The video is a nice little project, but it is definitely a portrait of a younger, less educated me. One of the downsides of being a published writer/speaker is that your past blunders are out in the universe, completely beyond your reach for correction or follow-up. I want to jump on this opportunity to clarify my language, and own that a lot of the terms/perspectives I express in this video are what I would now consider outdated and (at some points) kinda problematic. The language I used back then is drastically different from how I speak now. This video is an example of how a person can have the same goals and intentions, but learn to talk about them in very different ways.
Since coming out, I have made it a regular priority to stay up on language and identity politics of the trans* community in order to be as representative and “politically correct” in my work as possible. Doesn’t mean I always have gotten it right. 2009 wasn’t that long ago, but so many things have changed our community in that very short time. With the growth of things like tumblr and heightened media visibility, I think we fool ourselves into thinking that trans* educational resources are easily accessible, and that they have always been easily accessible. My early years out as a trans person were poignantly defined by significant struggles to find information, both for myself and for other people. My situation then was similar to how I live now; I was in the Midwest and wasn’t around a lot of trans* people regularly. The difference was in the greater trans* community environment; what it was talking about and how easy it was to hear what was being said. My learning disabilities make me a weak reader, so I’ve never successfully capitalized on what seems to be an isolated queer’s best ticket to education: books. There weren’t really any major online media sources to spew all the new words and opinions in the trans* community like we have now in tumblr and twitter, and there certainly wasn’t much visibility for voices similar to mine who challenged the binary, gender normalcy, and oppressive systems. I knew that the systems presented to me were problematic, but I hadn’t found the language to talk about it yet. So, I used the old terms I was given, like “female bodied,” all the while knowing there had to be a better option out there. And I wasn’t alone, this is how most of us spoke back then, and a lot of us were frustrated about it. The years around 2008-2010 brought a lot of changes for the trans* community’s language and more new words started to appear including transmasculine/transfeminine and a wider use of genderqueer. Within a few months of that video being filmed, I had a whole new vocabulary to use different words to describe myself and others. Guess we should have waited a little longer to immortalize me on youtube…
One of the biggest obstacles I run into as an educator and as an organizer is language differences. It is hard to unite a community that can’t even agree what to call ourselves. Most of us are never taught what to say all at once, and even then we may not be satisfied with the lesson plan. No joke, every year or two the trans* community rejects a term or phrase used to describe ourselves, and replaces it with a new one. And as confusing as it may be, this is a necessary process. Because we, the trans* community, are always changing, our language must continue to change too. Since language is subjective, I don’t think I have the right to say that there are certain “bad” or “wrong” words in our community. However, I do strongly feel that some concepts are more useful or inclusive than others, and that a couple words may be better off retired. A lot of our language is based on “old” ideas rooted in gender normalcy and oppression, like the idea that there are only two genders, that being trans* is a mental illness, or the requirements for how we label our bodies and experiences based on a dominant narrative. Language is used to represent the realities of our community, describe our identities, and communicate our needs. If the language is too outdated to accurately describe us, both conceptually and contextually, it becomes useless or even harmful. Doesn’t mean we have to give up on any “old” words if we like them, but in order for things to change, we must be brave enough to learn new things.
What is especially interesting is that while the language I use in the video may seem outdated to me, for many people in the trans* community, this is still the most common language. Forget 2009. Today, in 2012, I hear terms like “female bodied” or “bio male” more frequently than anything else. Many trans* people I meet don’t think of bodies and sex as socially constructed; they don’t know (or believe) that that gender identity is a spectrum and not a binary; and they never thought that they could or should expand their gender expression outside of gender norms. This is the TRANS* people I meet; don’t even try to guess about the non-trans* folks. This is an understandably frustrating reality for folks who are working hard to support and change our community. An unfortunate result of this is that there is a lot of judgment and aggression surrounding whether or not people use the “right” language. I am a little surprised that the most criticism my quote seems to have gotten is a comment about transmisogyny. I am grateful it hasn’t gotten worse because, yikes, those Tumblr attacks are vicious! (Honestly, part of the purpose of this post is to hopefully circumvent any such thing from happening.) And while I understand the motivation and passion behind strictly calling people out for using the “wrong” language, I think we could adopt some better methods to promote education and accountability. What we see is people trying to promote uphold a safe space in the community and teach people how to speak using inclusive language. What we don’t see is the educational privilege that is being thrown around, and the impact it has on our people when it lands. Maybe this is my Midwestern baggage showing, but no one ever sat me down and told me the right things to say, or explained why it was right to say them. I had to figure it out on my own. This seems to be the majority of people’s experiences, and yet we continue to hold ourselves to unrealistic and unforgiving high standards. The commonly forgotten reality is that our community’s masses are not in San Francisco vegan co-ops or liberal arts college classrooms where talking about misogyny, privilege, and appropriation is the norm. They are hanging out at the local bar, or the hippie coffee shop, or on the massive 50,000 student campus in the middle of nowhere using whatever words they can get their hands on to describe the confusing, often painful experience that is being different, and being trans*.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about language or correct people when they say something problematic or outdated. If I was saying that, I’d be out of a job. What I am saying is that we must look at language, and its uses, with a broader lens. If you come out and you don’t know what to type into google, the only words you may find are on an outdated geocities website; maybe the only trans* people you know are 40 years your senior so you use whatever words they use. Those “old” concepts will become yours because they are all you have. Maybe going to queer conferences isn’t your thing; maybe you never looked up what gender neutral pronouns were because you didn’t even know they existed. This doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t make you stupid. It just means you are under-educated due to a lack of resources. I will boldly state that being under-educated or generally isolated is not an excuse for problematic language or a free pass to say whatever you want because it “is not your fault” because you “didn’t know any better.” That is not living responsibly. What I am saying is that the isolation and lack of education our people experience en masse is one of many reasons why language discrepancies occur and why the words we wish would die out continue to survive. Is it reasonable to punish a child for using a swear word when they had no idea what it meant? And if we punish before asking, how do we know what the child was actually trying to say? If we can figure out where a person is coming from, the better we will be at meeting them where they are and it is only by meeting someone where they are, that we can ever hope to bring them to where we would all like to be going.
I make no excuses for myself or the language I use in this video. I am also trying very hard to not punish myself for it either. This video is a portrait of me at a different time when I was still clamoring for the knowledge that others already had, but I couldn’t figure out how to get for myself. I changed the way I speak not because it was easy or convenient, but because I knew the words I was using weren’t enough. I pushed myself to find as much information as I could, where ever I could. I recognize my education to be a privilege I have been afforded. I also know that the knowledge I have obtained it is a right I fought hell and high water to get (and keep). And despite the fact that I did fight for it, I don’t think I have done anything more than what we all should be able to do. Language is so powerful that learning just one word can change you forever. We all deserve the chance to understand ourselves better. Language is a tool. It can be a crutch we cling to for security or a cage that suffocates us; it can be used to punish us, and it can be used to empower us so that we may live the lives we never thought were possible. An old, rusted tool will break when you try to use it; maybe it will injure you; or it might even destroy whatever it is you are trying to build. But language is not like any other tool or object; language is alive and we have to feed it in order to keep it active and useful. And like any living thing, we cannot control it entirely, but we can guide it with the most positivity possible. Language has no body or shape. It exists only in us. Therefore, we are responsible for it. I ask forgiveness for all my past and inevitable future fuck ups that may or may not be immortalized by the internet. I must own the language I use, including apologizing for what was or wasn’t said. I promise to continue to learn without fear, and I will strive to teach without judgement. If we call can do this, we will easily learn all we need in order to improve our community, and our own lives too.
I’ve never been very dedicated to school. As a non-traditional learner with typical ‘atypical’ learning (dis)abilities, I was never very adept at the “learning environment” as it was presented to me. I entered grad school with two primary motivations: hope and desperation. I was hoping to become better; to become more skilled and learn the things I hadn’t been able to teach myself. I was desperate for more; I wanted to do more to help my community. I wanted more authority over the systems that ruled over me. I wanted more power, and power comes from getting that paper.
I really don’t like my university; And not just because it is an exemplary representation of the corporate college industrial complex; its sick sports obsession; its gross financial incompetence; or its staunch conservatism. I don’t like it because I’ve got a grudge. It was there I first put faith in my ability to change a system, and was first truly let down. I was used to being rejected by the learning process, but this was the first place I actively decided I would do something – not wanted to it or hoped to; I decided I would change it, no matter what. Contrary to the stories I flung at administrators, I didn’t work for change out of school spirit. My activism was aimed more at thwarting the institution’s dynamic, rather than supporting it. The institution pushed back, and hard, until I ended up spending all my time doing activism, not studying. The school was a system I was trapped inside and making resources felt like the only way out. Activism was my education, the classes were auxiliary. When I look back, I’m still amazed I graduated; only took me 6 straight years… And when I was done, I prepared my activist projects for new leaders and I got the hell out. I don’t think I thought I would ever come back, but here I am.
This winter, I attended an open house for the campus’ brand new LGBTQ Center. It was surreal for me to walk into the (exact) space that six years ago, I ignited the (long smoldering) fight to get. I came to the event feeling happy about the space being built, but still angry about my own blood in the bricks. But when I walked in the door, all I felt was nervous relief; a mix of retreating anxiety and seething frustrations. The small program started and I listened to the administrators ramble about how great their work was for this space. I wondered if they were really as delusional as they seemed. Looking them in the face, they didn’t remember me as the frustrated student activist in front of their desk. I was just another student they “helped.” I felt even more disconnected from the institution, and just as jaded about the administration. I listened to the last speaker with low expectations. There was a lot of disappointment in our joint past. Years ago, she was both a hurdle and a step in my work to get a queer center. I felt like she could never see past her desk, though perhaps not from a lack of trying. She always loved to compliment the faculty and staff, forgetting to mention the reason they were all there: the students. In my years as an organizer, it was a huge point of contention between us. I respected her for listening to my complaints; I judged her for not acting on them. When she stood in front of the room, I was shocked to see, through the folds of her papers, the names of student organizations. After all these years, she thanked the students first – in fact it was the only thing she talked about. You could tell she was a little out of her element, but her intention was clear. She was the only speaker that day who mentioned students in any context that was not a direct compliment to themselves. She made a point to show the students had done the work, and I made a point to thank her for that. In the after-program crowd, a dean walked past me. I recognized him as one of the many talking heads I had met as an undergrad; another face behind a desk, saying he wanted to help, but mostly powerless to do anything about it. As he came by me, he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “Good to see you again.” he said, “I glad you were hear for this.” I have to admit it. I was shocked. I smiled and shook his hand, but I doubt he knew why I was so glad to do it. I was grateful that someone cared enough to remember me. Sometimes we have to be reminded that administrators are people too. I guess I should know that, considering I was one for a short time. And if working in a college environment (as an activist and again as a professional) taught me anything, it was that administrators are not all suits behind desks; there are ones who really care about the students. Being in front of the desk showed me the red tape; being behind the desk made me feel it. An administrator can be a wrench in the gears, yes, but the machine is the real problem. “Higher Education” “Student Life” is a machine; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That day, it worked, in more ways than one.
All of this didn’t sell me on the institution. Call me a judgey mcjudgerface if you like, but it takes more than a couple warm fuzzies to win me over – though it is a good start. And though I wasn’t feeling any strong sense of kinship with the admins, I did sense was a bond with the students. I watched them sitting on the floor, smiling, happy to have their own space; a place where they could feel safe and be themselves. They have a LGBTQ center. It isn’t perfect, and I know I’ll soon decide it still isn’t good enough, but it is there – it exists. When I was in undergrad, that was just about all I wanted… Standing there, seeing the reality that I had only dreamed about, it reminded me of how I used to feel: that passion I felt, and the desperation; how tirelessly I worked, how much it hurt every time I was kicked down, and how much stronger I felt every time I got back up. I was filled by a humbling sense that I played a small part in something bigger. It reminded me of how important campus activism can be, how many people it can reach, and how many lives it can change. It may seem like an organizing “small fish,” but when the pond is a puddle, a small fish is pretty damn big.
I was just very pleasantly surprised by a fellow human being. This evening I was very suddenly tossed into a resources search for a local community member in need. I called the local YWCA hotline, but honestly was not expecting much. I started to describe what I was looking for and dropped the word “transgender.” The operator gave a long pause, “Can you say all that again?” I repeated my statement, a little slower this time. She paused again and, to my amazement, she was able to give me an answer, instead of another question.
I could hear the operator flipping through pages of her referral manual. She said to herself, “I’m just not findin’ what I’m looking for. Seems like there should be something for that ’cause everybody deserves help, no matter what they’re like.”
Her language was all wrong, but her warmth and willingness to help was everything that is right about humanity. I am so grateful for the moments when we, the trans* community, are reminded that we are not alone.
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.