I have considered myself retired from this space for some time, and after this post I will go back to that level of inactivity. But the events of the past few days have made me decide to write publicly again. After all, this blog was about trans women, feminism, and glam rock. This is an edit of a Facebook post I made.
As a trans woman who has lived for some time in queer and feminist communities I have often been reminded that there is no one monolithic feminism. It’s an easy thing to be aware of when some factions of feminism actively work towards your erasure, like TERFs do to trans women, but much harder to notice and make sense of when you’re aligned in many ways yet disagree on specific issues, or analysis of those issues–especially when we might not even realize we have those disagreements until they arise. We don’t work from a central text, and we don’t share a universal analysis. Myself, I think this is an important and integral part of feminism being dynamic and responsive. When feminism has been a monoculture it has tended towards essentialism and proscriptiveness, driving many women, especially those on the margins—trans women, sex workers, women of colour—away from it as a collective endeavour. So it seems the price to pay for an inclusive, intersectional feminism is at times disagreement.
Which does and doesn’t bring us to David Bowie. Please don’t go over the many arguments we’ve seen about Bowie over the past few days, and I won’t engage comments about him—because this isn’t about Bowie, it’s about how we disagreed about him as feminists. I am not including the typical cultural noise of deniers and apologists, but rather people who identify themselves as feminists, and who share a pretty general set of social justice principles. People who agreed that Bowie’s actions were not OK, if not in the analysis of the rest. AKA me, you, and the kinds of feminists who make up our communities. In those communities there was a lot of anger, pain, defensiveness, shame, and fear on all sides. There were a lot of absolutes.
Having been around as long as I have in feminism I feel like I know the counter-arguments that will come up (I may even feel a bit of guilt for popularizing some of them), and I want to make clear this is not a tone argument. I’m not even saying “Let’s all get along!” because I think disagreement is important to us. But I do think we need to consider the ways we disagree with one another, and I think that starts from re-evaluating the place compassion and empathy has in our politics. I’m certainly not saying this to shame or make anyone defensive for their positions, posts, or comments. Even if you think this post is bullshit please know it’s done in good faith.
The heartbreaking thing for me has been observing how much fear people have over expressing disagreement—and honestly, I’m a little afraid of writing this myself, but after decades of trans woman precarity in queer scenes I’ve picked up a bit of a thick skin for further marginalization. I think that’s a failure that we all need to consider, and I hope it’s something we can remedy, because I honestly think it will erode our movements from within otherwise. I don’t know what the answers are, but I think we should try to find them.
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.
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.
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.