What we deserve, and cultures of dissonance
As awareness of the marginalization of trans women has grown in cis queer communities there has developed a noticeable gap between the language and ideas of allyship and how those ideas are implemented (if at all). This seems to be a common learning curve when engaging one’s privileges over a marginalized group – before you are able to enact changes in yourself or your communities you will think, talk, and read about the issues. While this is an obvious important step, problems arise when the bulk of energy addressing oppression gets stuck in that thinking, talking, and reading phase. Actual change becomes incremental, despite what might seem like a great deal of awareness of the issues. For those who continue to experience those systems of oppression it creates a dissonance between what others say and what they do.
When that dissonance is reflected in the behaviour of entire communities, these communities become cultures of dissonance for those who are oppressed by the privileges of that community. This is most commonly experienced as lip service, hang-wringing, and fantasies of inclusion created by the privileged and assigned to the marginalized. In the case of queer trans women and desirability it is seen clearly in the gap between the numbers of people who talk about the importance of trans women having access to the same opportunities for sex, love, and desire that cis queers experience, without any real reflection of that in people’s dating habits, or who they see as desirable.
As one is immersed in cultures of dissonance distinct patterns of behaviour begin to emerge. Hang-wringing, for example, is the external expression by cis people of concern, dismay, or even anger about the plight of trans women, without any further analysis, action, or discussion. This is common in social media, where a news story about violence committed against trans women will be reposted again and again, despite the poster having no history of working for trans-inclusion, either individually or in organized movements. While this is a symptom of ‘slacktivism’ in general, and is by no means limited to the experience of trans women (see white social media responses to violence against people of colour), this adds to the culture of dissonance trans women are supposed to engage.
The lip service of desirability is the most common way the culture of dissonance for trans women is maintained. I have been told many times by friends, potential dates, and even lovers about what they think I deserve, a kind of idealized relationship or date, but it is almost always framed as part of a conversation about why they couldn’t provide those things themselves (from speaking with other trans women this seems to be a very common experience). These cis fantasies of trans inclusion work by allowing the teller to feel they are explicit in their support of trans inclusion while not doing any of the actual work to address the systems which both privilege their cis-ness and marginalize trans women. Combined with hand-wringing these illusions of structural support and inclusion create an extremely damaging psychological environment. Further, trans women may be afraid to criticize the support they do receive for fear of losing it altogether, even if it is ultimately insubstantial. The question of “Why don’t I see myself represented?” is drowned out by these assertions that we are, or at the very least should be. Telling a trans woman she deserves all of the things cis people can access (especially in regards to desirability and access to one’s sexuality) resolves the speaker from questioning their own role in supporting the systems which deny those very things. Prolonged exposure to this kind of disconnect between what you’re told and what people actually do strongly reinforces messages of exclusion. Being told you’re attractive or sexy or desirable by someone who does not actually believe those things (or who does not have any intention to act on them) may be more damaging than to not hear the compliment at all. It reduces trust, and makes substantial change even less likely.
As long as these gaps between intention and action exist the value of allies in movements will be shaky. While I experience cultures of dissonance as a queer trans woman, I still have the privileges of being white, among others, so I don’t remove myself from the need to have analysis of my actions as an ally or a friend. Our work as allies to others has to move beyond liking things on Facebook and telling people things we think they want to hear (or we want to believe). We need to demonstrably make space in our lives and communities, close those gaps, and act on the words we use – or be willing to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question of why we don’t.
EDITED TO ADD: This of course does not mean there aren’t already many wonderful cis people bridging those gaps in communities and personal relationships, but there is still so much work to be done. This is also not to suggest that we all aren’t a mix of successes and failures in our attempts to be an ally to people we hold structural privilege over. My goal is not to invoke guilt or defensiveness at having the system pointed out, it is to identify it so we can dismantle it together. I don’t want a list of the guilty, I want to see change.