With Halloween approaching we are reminded again of the the importance of calling out racist and otherwise oppressive costumes. I’d like to add another problematic costume to this list: Men in drag.
While I realize for some Halloween is an opportunity to dress in ways which they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, there is a deeper commentary on trans women in the presentation of some of the men who do it (and I specifically mean men who otherwise have no trans inclinations, and for whom this is not an expression of their gender). Trans women are inundated by cultural messaging that “men in dresses” are ridiculous and worthy of scorn (just watch any TV ad with that meme, or read last week’s edition of The Onion). When the point of a costume is “haha, look how ridiculous this dude looks as a woman” it reinforces transmisogynist attitudes and hate.
Isn’t transmisogyny so funny?
Again, while I realize this is complicated and not as clear as someone appropriating a culture for laughs, there is room for analysis here. If the drag costume is a punch line to a transphobic joke (overtly or implied), then it should be called out as such. And, of course, the deeper implication is straight-up misogyny – that femininity itself is worthy of scorn. As is often the case transmisogyny amplifies cultural attitudes towards women, and gives people a pass to make comments about women in general by mocking trans women specifically.
This Halloween, if you or your friend is considering dressing in drag for the laughs ask yourself (or your friend) why? Why is this funny? What is the point of the costume? If you’re not sure then maybe go as a zombie or a ghost, because otherwise you might be taking part in a spectrum of cultural hate which starts with “men in dresses” jokes and ends with dead trans women.
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.
As we’ve been reminded during the past few weeks, an easy dismissal of critiques of oppressive language and culture is to suggest the critic is choosing to ‘take offense.’ Whether it’s the apologists for a rape culture comedian or the defense of a cis actor for her transmisogyny, ‘offense’ is an easy label to erase otherwise genuine complaints. At its extreme it is that most noxious of well-poisoners, ‘Political Correctness,’ which through sheer volume and repetition has become an acceptable rhetorical tactic for many. It urges on those with similar privileges to sign onto the dismissal while it attempts to silence all others.
I find it incredibly frustrating arguing ideas with people who engage in cheap rhetorical tricks instead of having a discussion (which is why I generally steer clear of conversations with trans-eradicationist radical feminists and creationists, among others). It is frustrating, too, when those making critiques are portrayed as being too emotionally sensitive, with the implication they lack the self-will to rise above a few harmless words. Whether considered an innate condition (as with gender or race), or as an example of broken norms (as with queer or trans), the assertion of sensitivity is inevitably an extension of privileged positions.
I don’t ‘take offense’ like I experience emotional pain, and there is nothing about me being a trans woman that makes me more susceptible to it. Sure, I might feel a great deal of emotional pain if someone I am invested in acts in ways which are offensive to trans women, but that pain isn’t the content – it’s the betrayal which hurts. But ‘offense’ in and of itself? People will sometimes try to be clever and bring up the “sticks and stones” rhyme, and I agree with them completely. Names do not hurt me.
What I am doing, then, when I ‘take offense,’ is acknowledging your encroachment into territory which subjugates me and people like me to people like you. It is that simple. It is acknowledgement of your role in the system of oppression. It might not be intentional, or malicious, and you probably aren’t even aware of it, but your joke, your word, the lie you’ve been sold about my life, each one props up a system of oppression which has real world implications. When your actions or language assert that dominance I will speak up. And if you do engage in it intentionally, you don’t cause me harm – you don’t do anything to me except get on my radar. So, instead of being passive and sensitive, as the person calling out offense will always be painted, I am instead active in my response to my oppression. I am not taking offense – I am pushing back.
I returned home tonight after a weekend away to find a number of friends posting notices to their Facebook walls about the suicide of a local trans man. I didn’t know him myself, but many people I know did. They worked with him, and were friends with him. The pain and devastation of their loss is rippling through the city right now, and my heart is breaking for them, and for him.
That is not my story to tell, though. I didn’t lose a friend, a coworker, or a mentor. Still, it resonates deeply: Whenever I hear of another trans person committing suicide I feel the wind knocked out of me, like a punch to the solar plexus. It doesn’t matter if I knew them or had any connection to their lives, it still evokes in me such a deep, painful empathy, and such a tragic understanding that I feel sick. I imagine I have such a visceral response because, truthfully, I have many times thought of ending my life. I was perhaps eight or nine years old when I first gave it serious consideration, and it has been with me throughout my adult life. I would imagine most of us who carry the cultural weight of ‘trans’ have at some point thought about it; I would imagine a good many of us have considered it in some degree of detail.
It is a tragic camaraderie, this relationship with the destruction of ourselves and others like us. It makes me sad, and angry, and so contemptuous of cultures which coerce beautiful people to end themselves. I want to scream and demand something, I don’t even know what, but it all feels like swords against an ocean. I usually don’t like big emotional gestures, but nonetheless: Trans people, we need each other. This world crushes us sometimes, but sharing that experience eases off the pressure some. We can afford at least that for one another. Cis people, we need you. We’re small, we don’t have the numbers to make this world a place we can exist in, let alone thrive in. We need you to help make this a better place for us, so then maybe we won’t lose so many.
To those of you who I knew and are gone, I miss you.
To those of you who I didn’t know and are gone, I am sorry I can never get to know you.
To those of us who are still here, let’s do what we can to make this an easier place to stay.
Much love to you, Kyle.
Recently, while discussing trauma, a friend told me to think of it as a tuning fork. Once a note of trauma is struck it inevitably resonates with old things, and can bring them forward in overwhelming and terrifying ways. There is a point where the sound of the fork and the sound of instrument are indistinguishable. So it goes with the memory of the physical and the actual of the physical: The emotional context of yesterday overlays today.
The other day I realized Toronto’s Pride festival and parade was imminent. I had known it was coming, out there at the periphery of my attention, but like most painful things I kept it at a distance. The inevitability of it arriving within a few days, however, brought to focus even my wandering, elusive mind. I could feel all sorts of tuning forks tapping their tines and touching me; my body responding in kind, with muscles tightening and emotions convulsing. Still, in that moment of being aware of those tuning forks tapping I could step back and merely experience, not submit. Instead of lashing out in fear I could only think “Why is this happening?”
As the moment retreated and I reasserted myself in the present I kept thinking “Why?” Pride is an event, like Michfest, from which long ago I lost any personal connection. I still consider inclusion in all events a right for trans women, and I will take part in those fights, but for me Pride is like an abusive lover I let back in too many times. Eventually that part of you is just gone, and so despite all of the gestures and invitations I can’t imagine going to a Pride event. It is not that the issues I consider every day of my life as a queer trans woman are any different during Pride week, but they are certainly amplified. During Pride week those tuning forks are like a screaming tinnitus in my ears, keeping me frantic, awake, and fragile. The lies of desirability and lip service to inclusion seem especially hollow in a week when most cis queers are getting laid at their whim. It’s not just sex, though, it’s the years I spent below their radar, hearing all of the repulsive things they thought about trans people once “they” were out of the room. And all those years since then, above their radar, with their conspicuous absence from the group of people who would be proud to tell their community that they were fucking (or dating, or loving) people like me.
(Also, violence. Cis queer physical violence on trans people exists, despite its almost complete erasure from any queer narrative. And no, it’s nothing I feel like talking about here.)
So I feel like my presence at a Pride event would be part of a garish theatre of inclusion which simply isn’t true. Me at Pride isn’t about my experience, it is to show cis queers that they are better than straight people, even if none of them would ever consider going home with me. It is the essence of being a token, and makes me feel like a traitor to the trans women who don’t even get the limited access I do1.
I spend the other 51 weeks of the year trying to build community and attempting different models of living with one another, and doing it with people whom I admire and love regardless of if they are cis. During Pride Week, though, I have to tune them all out – because Pride makes me feel things about my place in community that, if unrestrained, might push me away from it for good.
EDITED TO ADD: Although I am writing with a trans woman-specific voice here, similar sentiments have been expressed to me by queers living in a diversity of bodies which routinely fail to be granted acceptance by queer culture: bodies with disabilities, bodies with skin that isn’t white, fat bodies, neurodiverse brains, or simply bodies with too little money in their pockets, and all of the intersections of these experiences.
1This is my own experience, and I do not begrudge any trans woman who chooses to engage Pride. I support them 100%, and I hope we see a day when every queer trans woman will feel welcomed and included at queer events.
This is another in an ongoing series of articles I’ve been writing on dating as a marginalized queer. While the previous two articles were intended to provide frameworks for discussion, this piece is intentionally personal. It came about while working on a piece for Catharsis: Trans Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, and thinking about Sable’s incredible “Cotton Ceiling Experiences” post from a few months back. As such, I feel I should include a trigger warning: I will be discussing my history of abuse in this post. Please take care.
What follows is the most difficult thing I have ever written publicly.
I don’t like sex. It makes me sad and ashamed, and I am rarely present in the way that most people seem to be. It’s full of ghosts and monsters, and while I think I’ve learned how to avoid having it without even thinking, the weight of those four words – I don’t like sex – have an indelible and ongoing impact on my life.
This is not to say I am asexual, or that I don’t experience desire or want sexual relationships, but somewhere along the way the sex act itself got broken. Though this aversion is for a number of reasons – childhood and adult abusers, religious and familial shame, cultural vilification of my body – it is transmisogyny which frames my dysfunction. It feels inevitable this would be the case, as being a trans woman my experience of the world is almost completely dominated by cissexism, and the central message of cissexism to trans women is simple and clear: You are not desirable, you are not sexual (except in the narrative of cis fantasies). You are less than.
This is not to say I don’t take part in sexual relationships, either. Though not with any consistency, I have dated in cis queer communities as a trans woman for over a decade. I have seen changes in that time (the growth of the No More Apologies movement being a high point), but the baseline I started with was being the only trans woman in the room, and definitely the only trans woman any cis person I knew had dated. As such my queer sexuality developed with a sense of being peripheral and freakish. Those early queer cis lovers had much to work out about their own transmisogyny, too, and their internalized shame about fucking a trans woman often manifested as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Still, I pursued (and still do pursue) sexual relationships and experiences, for the limited comfort it does give, and for the sense of not being so apart from the experience of others, especially in communities where sexuality is the dominant cultural currency. There was a time I’d phrase that as “wanting to feel normal,” and truth be told that’s probably what the voice in my head still says.
Reconciling these individual experiences of abuse with a larger system designed to erase my sexuality has been challenging. It was easier to think of my abusers as data points describing a system than for what they did to me. As long as I could keep focus on the system of transmisogyny and its impact on groups of people I could put off dealing with its impact on me. And as we’ve seen with the ongoing backlash against trans women who speak out about sexuality, there has been no lack of systemic transmisogyny on which to focus.
It’s never that simple, though: Trauma will find its way out no matter how hard you attempt to stifle it. For me that has meant self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, and food, and being extremely self-sabotaging in those sexual relationships I did stumble into. Frustrated with those patterns I have started giving it some space, and have begun to give it words.
Which brings me to the conundrum of healing as a sexual abuse survivor in communities which still maintain to varying degrees the dominance of being cis, and the privilege of not being a trans woman. It is fantastic that No More Apologies is happening in different cities, but it is happening because of a need, not to celebrate an oppression which is behind us. My sexuality still feels peripheral, and even among the people I love I can see clear differences between my life as a trans woman and their lives as not. The popular queer narrative doesn’t fit my life, the one which boasts of their many partners and easy access, and every time someone talks about their sexuality with that presumption I just feel pushed further away.
So I don’t like sex. I really wish I did, and I hope I might eventually, but I don’t know how to navigate a world which so often regards me with contempt in a body which simultaneously craves touch and recoils from it. I feel like my sexuality was taken from me by a few shitty people and one really shitty, malicious system of oppression, and that makes me so angry and so sad. I don’t know what the answers are to any of it, but I think maybe moving forward involves looking back, and fixing the things we’ve done wrong. And maybe fixing those things begins with telling our truths, as painful as they may be.
Poet Adrienne Rich died yesterday. When I heard the news I felt nausea, and then told myself that I could not mourn a voice who took part in the violent vilification and erasure of trans women that was Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire. Raymond’s book legitimized systemic transmisogyny for the feminists who wanted to hate us; Empire made that hatred academic, and elevated the voices of those who engaged in it to mantra. As Adrienne Rich was one of those voices, I could not mourn her.
Janice Raymond cited Rich in the acknowledgments section of her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire, writing “Adrienne Rich has been a very special friend and critic. She has read the manuscript through all its stages and provided resources, creative criticism, and constant encouragement.” In the chapter “Sappho by Surgery” of The Transsexual Empire, Raymond cites a conversation with Rich in which Rich described trans women as “men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration.”
From her Wikipedia page.
Not mourning isn’t the same as celebrating or diminishing her death, however. I feel nothing positive in her death, no smug dismissal of her. What I feel is sadness. The sadness I feel when I hear of any human being dying. But also the sadness that someone otherwise so talented and insightful could hold the position that who I am is not valid or real, and worthy of such scorn and derision. The belief that I am delusional and an assault on women’s space merely by my presence. Even if someone contributed 95% of their work to positive, affirming efforts, that last 5% is still pretty much impossible to shake if you’re the one in the sights.
Still, as I thought on it further, I realized I am mourning Adrienne Rich. It is a sickly, melancholy mourning. Like the passing of a relative who inexplicably hated you, their disapproval sealed by death. If someone came to me with a document or transcription of a conversation or pretty much anything showing that she explicitly disavowed her transmisogyny I wouldn’t feel like I lost the argument, I would be glad. I get to have precious few women in Feminism I can embrace fully, without the expectation for the other shoe to drop. But I can’t look up to someone who thought I shouldn’t exist – you have no idea how much I wish I could – and that makes me sad about Adrienne Rich.
(I seem to have inadvertently named my post quite similarly to this excellent piece by Rafe Posey. Consider mine another complicated mourning.)