Dear Cis People Who Don’t Want to Have Sex with Me (A Trans Woman),
For those of you pursuing your goal of not having sex with me by not telling me you want to have sex with me, bravo! You are doing it absolutely right. Further, your lack of asking me on dates, not telling me you want to be in a relationship with me, and never complimenting me on how attracted you are to me or talking about our chemistry – all of these are great ways to not have sex with me. I support you 100% in these endeavours. For those of you who don’t want to have sex with me, yet nonetheless seem to find yourselves asking me out, dating me, and specifically telling me you want to have sex with me, well, that’s much less effective. It’s also kind of fucked up, cis privileged, and painfully self-involved.
I mean, sure, I understand sex is a complicated thing and we all have challenges with it, and I have so much compassion for folks dealing with that stuff. I’ve written extensively about mine. But if you find yourself in a dating situation with a trans woman (or anyone over whom you have structural privilege) you really need to navigate that carefully – actually, strike that. If you’re a cis person and you engage a trans woman into a dating experience but have a whole pile of stuff to work through with your desire for her (real or imagined), deal with that shit on your own time. Trans women are expected to educate cis people enough already, we certainly don’t need to be doing it in our own beds.
Because, you see, the core of cis privilege, and all structural privileges, really, is the forceful refocusing of any experience solely through the lens of the privileged person. Entering a relationship with someone who is systemically erased from most ideas of desirability and attractiveness gives you even more power, and being irresponsible with that power causes real damage to people who are already used to being shit on by people like you.
So, in conclusion, cis people who don’t want to have sex to me and who aren’t telling me they want to, thank you! I appreciate it. Nothing you’ve done will leave lasting body image issues, internalized transmisogyny, and all of that generalized self-hate that happens when individuals and cultures repeatedly tell you one thing but do another. To those cis people who don’t want to have sex with me but nonetheless feel the need to pretend they do, well, I’d suggest you have deep issues about trans women that you need to take accountability for and spend some time on your own sorting out (You might have issues about fatness, too. I am pretty fat. And while it’s good to challenge this stuff in yourself don’t make someone else’s body a laboratory for experimenting with your biases).
This message has been approved by me.
The Trans 100, a list of 100 significant trans people in the style of such lists as the OUT 100 or the Forbes 500, was released recently. Created by Jen Richards of We Happy Trans and Antonia D’orsay, Executive Director of This Is How, the list highlights 100 trans people in the USA, selected from 500 or so community nominations.
While I hold no animosity towards Jen or Antonia, and I do think everyone on this list is worthy of praise for their work, I believe the idea of highlighting small groups of individuals for specific praise is the worst kind of emulation of assimilationist LGB(t) activism. It shows an implicit belief in meritocracy, and erases the collective reality of most (all?) political accomplishments. Accepting this list as a useful reflection of trans lives and the political struggles of trans people without analysis or critique – especially by cis people – seems to me a grave error.
I’ve heard the list was created in response to there not being enough trans representation on the OUT 100, but honestly my response to that is, “Well, f*** the OUT 100.” If we want to free this world from the impact of hierarchal power structures we have to stop creating them. It really disturbed me to read Jen Richards in an interview explain the list’s creation as being at least partly inspired by the Forbes 500. This is perhaps where my politics diverge from those who see the Trans 100 as useful, as I do not see modeling any radical resistance on capitalism and its structures a worthwhile road to go down.
A collage of thumbnail portraits of Trans 100 list members.
A few months ago during a discussion of the list on Facebook one of the creators responded to my concerns by saying that she was glad people like me would keep her accountable. That scares me, and is a huge part of why I can never ever trust these structures. What, me, a white person on the internet in Canada keeping a white person on the internet in the US accountable – for what? That sounds like the worst recipe for unaccountability I can think of.
Politically, my activism is centred in radicalizing the experience of transness, focusing it in things like anti-capitalism and anti-poverty work. So, even if the idea was from trans people, this is a still a slick GLAAD-sponsored cocktail party, and feels entirely counter to that goal. When your activism involves going to parties with entities who work to erase you, I can’t but help but feel you’ve been duped. Even as a public relations exercise, these kinds of lists set up inevitable hierarchies. If we learn anything from the history LGB activism it is that creating a more-palatable version of your experience inevitably leads to people being thrown under the bus later on. We as trans people have experienced that again and again at the hands of the LGB community.
So, again, before anyone accuses me of attacking the list members: The content of this list is admirable. Every one of those trans people sound like they’re phenomenal and have contributed immensely to the lives of other trans people. I think Jen and Antonia did this with good intentions, but the structure and the existence of the list is worthy of criticism. It might just be “a list on the internet of trans people,” but it reflects the culture of inequality it was created in, and thus does its part to prop up that system and way of thinking. If we want change we must push back at these systems, not embrace them.
Canadian Parliament passed a transgender rights bill yesterday that is being hailed in many media outlets as a victory for trans people and progress for a nation, as a handful of Conservative Members of Parliament voted in favour. “18 Tories voted in support of bill” reads the CBC by-line, as if the passing of this bill had anything to do with the austerity measures and the war on the poor that the Conservative Party of Canada has been engaged in for its entire existence. While it might make for a warm and hopeful story to imagine Conservatives voting for trans rights, I again fail to celebrate the theatre of electoral politics granting me rights which I already have, and which I don’t need the state to declare. If any of the Conservatives or Liberals who voted for this bill truly concerned themselves with the lives of trans people they would take measures to eradicate poverty for all people. Trans women are especially impacted by poverty at rates absurdly high compared to those experienced by cis people, even more so when the trans woman is racialized. So while this bill might make things marginally better for some trans people (the sort of discrimination it addresses by its nature benefits those already with class and race privilege much more than those without it), it will only make it better within the system in which it has been enacted. That system is at its core about oppression and inequality, so any gestures it makes towards equality should be viewed with caution and an awareness of the history of capitalism.
The 2012 documentary What I LOVE about being QUEER, by director Vivek Shraya, focused the camera on members of Toronto’s queer community and asked them to describe the things they love about being queer. While the diversity of answers and participants was at times inspirational and at times heartwarming, the project suffered fatally from the exclusion of queer trans women. While the erasure of trans women as women – and especially as queer women – is not a new phenomenon, in this instance it has stung a bit more than usual, as many of the participants in the film are friends or acquaintances of mine.
Although a handful of those friends have expressed their concerns with WILABQ, responses to criticism of the film have been for the most part disappointing: defending the exclusion as an oversight (the erasure of an entire group of queer people who have a history of being excluded is far from an oversight, it is a system of oppression), as being due to the director not having any trans women friends (which makes me wonder why he felt qualified to make a movie about the diversity of queer people in the first place), or as having been addressed by the accompanying book (it wasn’t1). I’ve heard cis people criticizing individual trans women for calling out issues with the film, and I’ve heard many of them argue that the director was a good guy, the last person to be accused of being transphobic (a classic derail, similarly seen in “He’s not racist!” and other acts of silencing). Truthfully, I don’t particularly care if Vivek Shraya is a transmisogynist or not. I am sure he’s a lovely guy. What I do care about is that, regardless of intent, he has made a transmisogynist film which purports to represent the diversity of queerness while maintaining the systemic oppression of a group of people. And he’s being celebrated for it.
As I’ve been following responses to WILABQ and the limited discussion there has been about it, I keep coming back to the idea of cisness itself, and how we as queers keep justifying it when it erases trans women. It seems to me that arguing the details of specific instances of cis privilege doesn’t take us far2. There will be another cis director fucking it up and another queer project ignoring the stories of those on the margins, followed by more denials and more hand-wringing.
When I think about cisness (apart from the many ways it is enacted) it is as a placeholder word for our discussions about gender and being trans or not being trans. It doesn’t actually have any meaning, even for those who self-apply it. It might be self-applied eagerly, even, with genuine desire by the self-applicant to have it mean something in tangible ways, but ultimately it is an empty gesture. Although we have lists to uncheck cis privilege, and a chorus of trans voices describing their lives in response to that privilege, cisness itself remains elusive. As with many pervasive systems of privilege it is often only clear when it comes into contact with the thing it is privileged over in extreme and violent ways. The rest of the time it is so subtle as to be imperceptable, so much so that having an active response to being cis while living in the world which normalizes it must seem like an exercise in the abstract, like punching at the air for ghosts. This is why the slow suffocation of those under this system is so difficult for the rest of us to grasp, and why the erasure of trans women is so commonplace and so egregious.
I sometimes wonder if the difficulty in actively engaging the world as cis comes from its newness (an idea which, while attractive, still leaves an unfair burden on trans people). It has entered queer culture as a popular concept only recently, and it is still contested by many queer people. As a culture we do not yet have a body of thought on what being cis might entail, or how to engage that. So we’re left with either cis as a passive state (not being trans), or cis as a series of acts (explicit transphobia), neither of which addresses the impact of cis privilege in a useful and consistent way. The only consistent measure we have of cisness is in the ways it impacts the lives of those it is privileged over, and as such the only real experts we currently have on it are those subjugated by it. This leads to the frustrating experience as a trans person of having a good portion of one’s activism be spent helping cis people discover the narrative of being cis and how that impacts others. We’re often holding one cis hand while being beaten by another.
So as long as cis remains an elusive idea, and as long as queer community ignores it as something not imperative to the pursuit of equality and solidarity, discussing the specifics of Vivek Shraya or What I LOVE about being QUEER feels a bit beyond the point. Until there is a commitment to live in ongiong, active awareness of being cis (perhaps modelled on other useful privilege awareness strategies, and being driven by cis people), and to spend the community resources to develop an ongoing understanding of what that reality actually is, we will just be having more conversations about how this thing or that thing happened and shrugging our shoulders on how to prevent it from happening again.
1Vivek’s foreword to the book edition made passing reference to not having had time to include “all gender presentations and politics,” which is a pretty profound misunderstanding and belittling of the experience of being a trans woman.
2Although trans men often benefit from queer cis privilege, it is still an imbalanced power relationship, and entirely contingent on cis culture granting those benefits. Trans men can still be agents of cis privilege over trans women – and sadly in my experience many have been – but the power they are wielding is still the power of cisness. It is in cis privilege that the oppression of trans women originates, and this is where my focus lies.
Lana Wachowski, director of The Matrix films, recently got an award from US lobby group HRC (aka the Human Rights Campaign).
1. Her speech was lovely and all, but I can’t help but be a bit cynical about the HRC giving her an award when the HRC’s history is throwing trans people under the bus to make cis LGB rights legislation more palatable to politicians.
2. She’s a rich, white person getting an award for “visibility” from other rich, white people. When you also consider that the HRC, like many LGBT organizations, has little to no leadership by trans women of colour, and that trans women of colour are the predominant target for anti-trans violence, thus probably needing the support of groups like the HRC to ensure they have legal rights, etc… well… you can follow this to its whitewashed conclusion.
3. Cloud Atlas. Yellowface. In 2012. C’mon, there’s no pass on this. We can’t rah rah someone’s story of facing their oppressions if they’re using their considerable privilege to enforce someone else’s oppressions. Lana, wtf?
4. White lady with dreadlocks. Ummn, do we have to travel back in time to 2001 to have this conversation again?
None of this is to say she’s a bad person, or that her speech wasn’t moving, or isn’t deserving of the positive support and commentary I’ve seen all over the web the past few days, but white folks, hey, let’s be aware of this. We can’t just shake the Etch-a-Sketch clean when we want to have a feel-good moment.
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and my personal experience with it. I’d even started a piece on BDD for this blog, but ultimately scrapped it. I found myself unable to write about how this serious and debilitating issue impacts my life, not because I was uncomfortable with the subject, but rather because of the thousand caveats and disclaimers that writing about a trans life for a mostly cis audience requires. It seemed to me highly improbable that my experience as a person with a body who has BDD would not be overwhelmed by cissexual contextualizing of me as a trans person with a trans body who has GID.
Cis-dominated cultures by nature seek to make the experience of trans women monolithic, while also making one’s transness their singular defining characteristic. This allows the validity of trans women as women to be challenged, and ultimately erased: As long as the ‘trans’ part of ‘trans woman’ is amplified and focused on, the ‘woman’ part is easily dismissed or forgotten. This usually manifests as cis fascination with transness as the root and cause of all experiences for trans women. I rarely engage in discussions of issues such as childhood sexual abuse with cis therapists and others, because in my experience they will then contextualize my transness in relation to having been abused (which erases the validity of my gender – I am not a woman, I am a traumatized man). Similarly, discussions of sexual harassment against trans women can easily be dismissed by cis people as being issues of transphobic harassment, and something significantly different from the real sexual harassment cis women face, regardless of whether the harasser knew the woman was trans or not.
This unchallenged cisnormative thinking has a profound impact on the ability of trans women (and trans people in general) to receive important health services cis people might take for granted. I’ve talked with many trans folks about their experiences with therapy and inevitably the discussion comes around to cis therapists and whether or not they ‘get it.’ The desire to discuss relevant issues becomes secondary to wondering whether or not the counselor will fixate on the client being trans. In many cases, and after many negative experiences, trans people give up ever discussing some issues in a typical therapeutic context, at least with a cis therapist.
As I write this piece I am aware of how my energies as a trans woman are being subverted to address issues of cisnormativity instead of discussing issues important to me, personally. That is how systems erase individuals, and how marginalized voices are silenced.