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The Trans 100

April 9, 2013

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.

Collage of thumbnail portraits of Trans 100 list members.
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.

Choose your victories: Trans rights legislation

March 21, 2013

Conservative Minster of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, possibly lost in thought while contemplating the rights of trans people.

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.

A visualization exercise

March 19, 2013

How power is distributed by cis privilege.

Image depicts a large bulldozer with the word 'CIS' emblazoned across the front scoop, and small stick figures holding a flag with the word 'TRANS' on it standing in front of the bulldozer.

(Image depicts a large bulldozer with the word ‘CIS’ emblazoned across the front scoop, and small stick figures holding a flag with the word ‘TRANS’ on it standing in front of the bulldozer.)

OK, so, Lana Wachowski…

October 26, 2012

Lana Wachowski, director of The Matrix films, recently got an award from US lobby group HRC (aka the Human Rights Campaign).

(Transcript of speech)

Some thoughts:

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.

Enforcing context, and the silencing of marginalized voices

October 23, 2012

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.

Men in Dresses: Transmisogyny and Halloween

October 11, 2012

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.

Transmisogyny in advertising
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.

What we deserve, and cultures of dissonance

August 16, 2012

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.